For more than three decades, Honda’s upscale Acura brand has chased the German premium nameplates, trying to produce vehicles that ably combine panache and luxury.
It’s gotten close a couple of times, notably with its introductory Legend sedan and the original NSX sports car, only to fall back into a premium purgatory floating between Buick and Lexus.
Massive improvements have put the 2020 Acura RDX back in the race. That’s why the third-generation RDX is now Acura’s best-seller and accounts for 40 percent of the brand’s sales volume.
Introduced a year ago, the redesign made improvements, including an Acura-exclusive platform that has a stiffer body and chassis. The crossover is no longer a rebadged version of a Honda, Acura’s corporate parent. The interior underwent upgrades in both design and materials, giving the all-wheel-drive RDX a real luxury feel.
A recent road trip through California’s Central Coast wine country to the San Francisco Bay Area proved that the new RDX had surpassed Asian competitors such as the Lexus NX and Infiniti QX50. Improved handling and suspension allow the RDX to finally approach the German luxury compact crossover trio: the BMW X3, Mercedes-Benz GLC and Audi Q5. Deciding between the models comes down to a pricing decision – the Acura is a touch less expensive – and personal taste. Buyers won’t go wrong with any choice among those four crossovers.
IT STARTS WITH THE POWER
The RDX starts with its powertrain. Acura equips the crossover with a new direct-injected and turbocharged 2-liter, four-cylinder engine. It mates the motor to an exceptionally smooth, new 10-speed automatic transmission. Gear changes are almost imperceptible. It avoids the acceleration lag that plagues some of its rivals, even the 2020 Mercedes-Benz GLC.
The Acura engine produces up to 272 horsepower and 280 pound-feet of torque. The numbers beat the standard engines on the German competitors. The turbocharged powertrain also produces V6-like performance. But there’s a cost. One knock on the RDX is its fuel economy. The EPA rates the 2020 Acura RDX at 21 mpg in city driving, 27 on the highway and 23 combined. The comparable all-wheel-drive versions of its German rivals all do better. The BMW is significantly better at 24 mpg in combined city and highway driving.
Acura’s so-called Super Handling All-Wheel Drive system and its use of torque vectoring provide the driving dynamics that allow the RDX to rival the Germans. The all-wheel-drive system is rear-biased. It sends 70 percent of the power to the rear wheels in normal driving conditions. Moreover, all of the axle torque can go to either the left or rear wheels when cornering or in conditions that need more traction on one side of the vehicle.
The system shines when driving through the curvy, hilly roads that make up large sections of California’s wine country. The agility comes from giving power to the outside wheels on a turn while also braking those on the inside. It’s nifty engineering. Others have similar systems, but they typically limit it to their most expensive models.
Although still cluttered, a problem with Acuras and Hondas, the interior is quiet and comfortable. Noise intrusion was a problem in previous RDX generations. That’s finally solved.
While the RDX shines in most areas, there’s still room for improvement. In the higher trim levels, Acura packs the interior with high-quality and soft-touch materials. But there’s still too many seams and surfaces that at times abut and clash. The RDX lacks the simplified elegance of the 2020 Mercedes-Benz GLC or the organized cockpit of the Audi Q5.
Acura also has forsaken a touch screen for its new True Touchpad Interface that uses a touchpad in the center console to the right of the driver. It is mapped so that when the operator touches the lower left corner or upper right corner of the pad, there is a corresponding connection on the dash-mounted screen. The theory is that the driver can operate the information and entertainment system primarily through touch or voice. That reduces the need to take eyes off the road. That should be less distracting. And perhaps after thousands of miles of practice it is. But it is a complicated system to learn and use. It also ignores current consumer preferences.
An ever-growing number of drivers want to plug their phone into the car, call up Apple Carplay or Android Auto and go from there. There’s a good reason. The phone-linked system is more intuitive than anything automakers have yet designed. It follows the same rubric people use all day long. And since they know it so well, connecting the systems to a high-resolution touch screen on the dash probably is more straightforward and less distracting in the long run. The RDX allows for Apple Carplay and Android Auto, but controls run through the touchpad.
Americans love compact crossovers. Mass market versions such as the Toyota RAV4, the Honda CR-V and the Nissan Rogue are the best-selling vehicles after pickup trucks. The luxury slice of this segment is smaller but just as competitive. With its new RDX, Acura has moved into the top tier in the luxury segment and needs to be on any shopper’s consideration list.