Acura has lots of nicknames for its new $30,000 RDX crossover, none of which are its actual initials.
On one hand, it's the "TSX SUV," meaning they think it has the agility of that award-winning sedan. Then it's the "DINK SUV" - sized and sported up perfectly for couples with dual incomes, no kids. In my favorite one, it's the "urban running back," which reminds me of drunk Redskin John Riggins telling Supreme Court Justice O'Connor to "lighten up, Sandy baby," which still makes me laugh, but doesn't tell you much about the car.
All this seems to prove our perennial point that cars, like people, need real names to telegraph their intent. But it also helps to pin down the new segment of vehicles to which the RDX belongs. In the auto industry's painfully dull lingo it's an "entry luxury crossover." What the RDX offers up to the rest of the world - and what has those DINKS and TSX fans enthused - is the driving position and flexibility of a sport-ute, but performance closer to that of a sports sedan in a compact shape.
Add a layer of refinement, a spiffy interior and Acura's first turbocharged engine, and the RDX is ready to take on all challengers. Right now, the only direct competitor to the RDX is the BMW X3, a vehicle that fails to tingle any of my pleasure centers due to its rather Bulgarian grade of interior plastics. But Acura marketing types say this segment will blow up 500 percent in the next five years with Audi Q5s and Benz MLKs and the like - and they're betting the RDX is exactly what citified shoppers want right now.
Turbo grunt, our whine
The RDX is the first vehicle to be spun from a new global platform and the first vehicle from Honda's upscale brand to offer a turbocharged engine. While Toyota has gone to V-6 power in its RAV4 crossover, Acura says the turbo is more fitting with the RDX's mission.
Part of the "TSX SUV" equation, in fact, comes from the engine, a reworked version of that from the TSX with a new variable-flow turbocharged strapped on to produce strong power and the most torque of any of the brand's vehicles, including the RL sedan. The turbo 2.3-liter four-cylinder whistles out 240 horsepower and 260 pound-feet of torque, tuned for the low-end response and blissfully without much turbo lag at all.
The engine's character defines the RDX, more so than its body style. It gives the crossover an energetic feel - sometimes even nervous, since strong turbo impulses kick in even if you're just winding around San Francisco looking for a parking space required to pull down an iced grande latte. Where a V-6 would be quieter and more flexible, the RDX's turbo four wants to run, and often that means it's straining with more power than can be used.
The sole gearbox is a paddle-shifted five-speed automatic - and together with the occasionally frenetic four, it helps deliver 19 mpg city, 24 highway.
Super, thanks for asking
It's not the first Acura with all-wheel drive, but the RDX gets its own version of the Super Handling All-Wheel Drive technology that was introduced with the '05 RL. The SH-AWD system moves power from front to rear, sending power to the outside rear wheel to sharpen up its cornering and steering response. The RDX can shift up to 70 percent of its power to the rear wheels if the need arises - say, on a slushy uphill run.
The AWD setup works in concert with a typical Honda front MacPherson suspension and multi-link rear, to which they've paid more attention in damping and noise control. The ride isn't as harsh as the X3's seems to feel, despite the big 18-inch tires that come standard. But it is pretty taut, and anyone used to the plush response of a big American-style ute might be turned off by the RDX's disdain for lots of ride motions.
The RDX's strong brakes are anti-lock controlled and quick to bite. Add in steering control that's quick and light and this more intense, pay-attention-please driving experience is one of the least SUV-like driving experiences you'll have with anything in this body shape.
And of course, the anti-lock brakes are just the opening safety card. The RDX girds drivers from the world with side and curtain airbags too, enough inflatables to supply any bachelor party I've ever been to, except one.
Having driven a lot of compact utes in the past few months, I've decided the tech-addicted RDX cabin is one of the best out there, though you'll need a good sit-down with the owner's manual to figure out some of the major and minor buttons and features.
Once you're familiar with it in print, you can slide into the power captain's chair and speak in Shatnerian tones if you want. You're in complete command from here. The RDX's "urban loft environment" (no snickers please) lacks the bare wood we'd have in mind from that description, but there's enough aluminum here to make the RDX prey for avid recyclers. The steering wheel wears a metallic trim piece that looks like some sort of medieval weapon; even the air vents have carefully applied em-dashes of the stuff. Black leather is the order of the day. If safety mavens would have allowed it, I have little doubt the RDX's seats would have been Le Corbusier knockoffs.
Instead, they're merely comfortable, well-tailored pieces. And they're prime real estate inside. Make sure you grab one of those comfy chairs up front when riding along, because the rear bench doesn't offer enough knee room for supersized adults. The market economy is better served, anyway, by flipping down the 60/40 split seats and filling the cargo area with IKEA stuff, Pottery Barn stuff, or maybe all the copper wiring you can hunt down on the sort of urban adventures these designers probably didn't have in mind.
Bless them, they did have hunting in mind - hunting for parking, which is why Acura endows the RDX with all those buttons to be fiddled with when bored. They control the dual-zone climate control, a seven-speaker stereo with a six-disc changer, the XM hardware, and lest you not have enough diversions, there's an input jack for your iPod. An optional Technology package adds a rear camera, voice-activated navigation system, a ten-speaker DVD-Audio system, Bluetooth connectivity, and tire-pressure monitors. Accessories available at dealers will include 19-inch wheels, body kits, and parking back-up sensors. Before you know it, you'll have spent upwards of $37,000 if you're not judicious.
Once you've settled the switches and buttons in a pleasing way - perfect air temperature, destination logged in the navigation system (Acura's is one of the best out there), shifter paddled into submission - the RDX is eager to show off its other talents. Occasionally it's too eager, grabbing your hand and pulling you along while a more relaxed pace would do.
But there's plenty to like in the RDX, first and foremost its size. There's just not much rational explanation for the explosion of full-size luxury SUVs. Capitalism? Yay! All for it. Oversized utes that just don't fit city life? Gah! For most of the missions we can imagine, the RDX fits - and fits better than the BMW.
2007 Acura RDX
Base price: $30,000-$37,000 (est.)
Engine: Turbocharged 2.3-liter in-line four, 240 hp/260 lb-ft
Transmission: Five-speed automatic, all-wheel drive
Length x width x height: 180.7 x 73.6 x 65.2 inches
Wheelbase: 104.3 inches
Curb weight: 3968-3982 lb
Fuel economy (EPA city/hwy): 19/24 mpg
Safety equipment: Dual front, side and curtain airbags; anti-lock brakes, traction and stability control
Major standard equipment: AM/FM/XM/six-disc CD changer with MP3 input; power moonroof; 60/40 split/fold second-row seat; heated front and leather seats; dual-zone climate control; power driver seat
Warranty: Four years/50,000 miles