Some vehicles are doomed from the start. Take the Acura RDX: a not-inexpensive CUV with aesthetically challenging looks nestling amongst Honda’s “Huh?” brand. The RDX seems carefully designed to appeal to the few, the proud, the pistonheads. You know: enthusiasts who absolutely must have a willing engine, a chassis that’s a suitable dance partner and the elevated driving position of SUV—all at a price that’s significantly higher than more sensible (if dull) alternatives made by brands whose street cred didn’t die with the Integra. You see how that doesn’t work?
The RDX shares design cues with every other Acura, done in bizarro-land supersized fashion. Like Toyota’s not-a-RX Venza, Acura’s not-a-CR-V tries hard avoid the whole chubby, tall station wagon thing. And fails. The RDX’s front is this awkward beastette’s best viewing angle, especially when compared to the hideous snow shovel prow blighting its brand brethren. At the other end, the RDX’s unnecessarily projecting rear bumper gives the Nissan Quest a run for its money in the “Saggy Bottom of the Year” award. It’s the sort of ugly that makes Subaru owners stand just a little taller.
The RDX’s interior sports strangely rubbery leather on most of the interior surfaces, with shiny faux-metal (or faux-shiny metal, hard to tell which) sprinkled about. A disgustingly plastic steering wheel that looks like it was lifted straight off a Honda Accord (but wasn’t) does the CUV’s upmarket aspirations no favors. Compared to standard brands, it’s a cut above. Compared to luxury marques, it’s the cruelest cut of all. The rear seats and cargo space are small for one so large. The trunk’s odd shape puts the “ewww” in “utility.”
As for luxury features, Acura abides by a strict don’t ask, don’t give policy. The technology package gets you the sort of stuff other luxury players have done for years, and there are no features to set it apart from any other maker. The voice recognition is a nice trick, especially since trying to find the right button to change anything will drive you insane. And like all Acuras, the RDX has impeccable safety ratings.
The RDX’s raison d’être—at least for those “in the know”—lies under the CUV’s hood. Honda put a turbocharged 2.3-liter four-banger therein. It’s everything you ever wanted to drive . . . in any other chassis. Push the RDX’s go-pedal and the mill sings like a fine Italian tenor, gracefully swooping its way through the rev range. Tip-in and acceleration are tightly regulated and perfectly balanced. You don’t feel like you’re driving a two-ton vehicle; the car feels a lot faster than it is.
The RDX sits on a bespoke unitized body; so it’s not so big, it’s just tall (that’s all). With independent McPhersons up front and a multi-link out back, the RDX handles like a Honda sedan through the corners. Relatively small 18″ wheels help the ride quality; the all-season shoes do not. Net: a bit of a rough ride around town. Net net: there’s a disconnect between luxury interior and pavement crashing, but Acura probably reckons the RDX’s sprightliness and handling prowess justify the compromise.
So explain this glaring omission from the sports-sedan-on-stilts gestalt: a manual transmission. The RDX’s gearbox does a fine job of picking its shift points, so you won’t miss rowing the boat too much—unless you’re one of those few people who knows how to drive a manual transmission. The RDX’s automatic can be manually shifted, but it’s joyless and quickly abandoned. In compensation, the RDX’s shift knob fits in your hand perfectly, as if reassuring pistonheads that it’s not that bad. But it is.
But wait! There’s less! I mean, more. All that power and weight yields punishing gas mileage. While the RDX is EPA rated at 17/22 mpg, user-reported mileage is far lower, and does not improve much after break-in. Not that I blame the users; I’d probably drive the RDX like I stole it too. Otherwise, what’s the point? And why not? Gas is (comparatively) cheap right now, and I like warm summers.
Back in October, Acura dealers couldn’t give the RDX away; you could buy a brand new example with all the trimmings for about $30K. And no one is buying now, either. Economic uncertainty, the prospect of skyrocketing energy costs, and a lack of overall value conspire heavily against this heavyweight.
Few cars leave me with such mixed feelings. The RDX’s engine and handling are the best you’re going to get short of the best you can get from the SUV set, but the brand’s invisibility, the CUV’s lack of practicality and efficiency, and the depreciation all steer you in a different direction. ANY different direction.
What I want is the RDX’s engine and AWD system in a 3,200lb car, not a 4,000lb tank. God only knows why Honda refuses to give us a properly turbocharged Integra replacement and hands us this instead. Wrong answer.