The Good: Price, sporty handling, Zagat restaurant ratings
The Bad: Bare bones rear seat area; traffic alert system less than useful
The Bottom Line: A worthy new rival to the BMW X3 and Lexus RX 350
Which would you rather have, a BMW or Lexus—or a knockoff with similar performance and more features for a lot less money? It's a question posed very forcefully by the new Acura RDX, a small, speedy sport utility vehicle that comes loaded with features at a relatively low price.
Like other high-end crossover vehicles, the RDX combines sporty, car-like handling with the all-wheel drive and cargo capacity of an SUV. It also gets relatively good gas mileage, especially compared to a full-size SUV. I got 18.9 mpg in 395 miles of mixed highway and local driving.
The RDX has numerous rivals, including the top-selling Lexus RX 350 luxury SUV, but it is most closely targeted at the new BMW X3. The new RDX and BMW—which has been redesigned for the 2007 model year and dubbed the X3 3.0si—are almost exactly the same length, height, width, and weight, though the BMW has slightly greater ground clearance and cargo capacity. The folks at Acura, which is a unit of Honda (HMC), figure that if you test-drive the two models, you'll go with the RDX because it offers more value for your dollar.
One of the Acura's main selling points is its long list of standard features. Basically, there's no optional equipment to buy. The base RDX (this is a base model?) starts at just $33,665 yet comes standard with leather seats, heated front seats and outside mirrors, 18-in. alloy wheels, and full power accessories (seats, windows, mirrors, and doors). The seven-speaker sound system is MP3-compatible and includes a six-CD changer and XM Satellite Radio, and steering-wheel-mounted controls.
The only alternative to the base model is an upgraded high-tech version of the RDX that starts at $37,165 and adds surround sound to the audio system, a fancy navigation system with real-time traffic information, and a rear camera to show you what's behind the vehicle when you're backing up.
The new BMW X3, by contrast, starts at $38,695. It has a bigger engine than the previous X3, a freshened-up exterior, and an improved interior that includes a new dashboard with standard wood trim. You can also get an automatic transmission at no extra cost. But, as usual with German models, adding options causes the price to mount alarmingly. For instance, a sport package that adds 19-in. alloy wheels, sports suspension, seats, and more, goes for $3,150. A navigation system costs $1,800, Dakota leather upholstery for $1,400, Xenon adaptive headlights $800, and premium sound system for $675.
In the real world, the BMW costs about three grand more than the Acura, according to the Power Information Network, which figures the average selling price of the RDX is $36,248 right now, vs. $39,402 for the BMW. Like BusinessWeek.com, J.D. Power & Associates is a division of McGraw-Hill (MHP).
The RDX is off to a strong start. U.S. sales hit 1,701 in October, the model's second month on the market. BMW's new X3 is just hitting the showrooms, so U.S. sales were only 1,249 units in October. However, the old X3 was struggling. Total U.S. X3 sales (of both the new and old models) fell 6.2% to 25,149 units in the first 10 months of this year, after having fallen 11% in 2005. (Sales of both the BMW and the Acura trail the popular Lexus RX 350 by a wide margin. RX 350 sales totaled 87,517 through October, including the 400h, the hybrid version of the vehicle, off 1.6 % from last year.)
Behind the Wheel
I haven't driven the BMW X3 3.0si yet, so I can't make a direct comparison. But on paper, the Acura shapes up well. The RDX has a turbo-charged four-cylinder engine that generates 240 hp and 260 lbs. of torque, and redlines at 6,800 rpm—stats that rival many sports cars. The 260-hp inline six-cylinder engine in the BMW X3 3.0si (35 more horses than were in the previous X3) is only slightly more powerful.
The RDX's steering-wheel-mounted paddle shifters add to the driving fun, though Acura's shifting system isn't as tight and responsive as BMW's Steptronic automatic transmission.
The RDX is also quite quick: Road and Track figures it can jump from 0 to 60 in just 6.3 seconds. In theory, that's significantly faster than the BMW, which the company says will accelerate from 0 to 60 in 6.9 seconds with a manual transmission and 7.1 seconds with an automatic. However, BMW's performance estimates tend to be very conservative. According to my stopwatch, for instance, the company's new 335i Coupe is quicker than the company's official estimates (see BusinessWeek.com, 10/17/06, "BMW's Super Coupe").
I also found the RDX very inconsistent. I was only able to get my 0-to-60 time down to the 6.5-second range twice. In a dozen additional trials, my time soared to 7.5 seconds or more. I got my fastest times by putting the automatic transmission in manual mode and doing the shifting myself, using the paddle shifters. When I let the transmission do the shifting on its own, my time sometimes rose to more than 8 seconds.
The problem, as far as I could tell, was turbo lag. Sometimes, when I punched the gas, the RDX would accelerate with almost no hesitation. But more often than not, there was a noticeable lag before the car took off. Sometimes there was also a lag when I shifted from first to second gear, sometimes there wasn't.
The RDX handles extremely well for an SUV. It has the same chassis as the new Honda CR-V, and it feels very tight. The steering is light and car-like; you never have to wrestle with this vehicle but you still get a fair amount of feedback about road conditions. The suspension is harder than in standard-issue SUVs, but there are no big jolts on bumpy back roads.
The RDX's interior is nice, but far from luxurious. The instruments are attractive with distinctive Honda blue highlights and cadmium red needles. The dash, as in many Hondas, is in an appealing textured material that looks like carbon fiber. Leather upholstery is standard. There's a huge storage bin in the center console, big enough to hold a small portable computer or briefcase.
However Acura skimped a little on RDX's rear seat area. The rear seat bottoms fold out of the way on hinges, allowing the seat backs to fold down to create a flat hauling space in back. But the back seats aren't adjustable and there's no pass-through between them to accommodate skis and other long objects. There also are no rear seat climate or audio controls, and head- and legroom in the back is tight (though probably no tighter than in the BMW).
I had to consult the 155-page manual that comes with RDX's navigation system quite a bit to get the hang of it. But that's partly because it's laden with handy features. For instance, you can call up a list of all the restaurants near you based on their Zagat ratings. And it's one of the first nav systems to provide real-time traffic information.
However, I found the traffic alert system less than useful. It's part of the XM Satellite Radio system and, in theory, works in 30 major U.S. metropolitan areas, warning you of accidents, construction zones, traffic jams, and bad weather on the road ahead. It's supposed to show you the traffic flow on your route in real time, with roads with heavy traffic highlighted in red, moderate traffic in orange, and light traffic in green.
I tested the system by driving into New York City from Pennsylvania the evening of Halloween, and almost none of the stuff above happened. The system provided a list of accidents, construction zones, and other problems ahead, but the red, orange, and green lines never appeared on the map.
They require sensors under the road, and apparently they weren't working or there are none on the major arteries into Manhattan. There's no way of knowing. In my case, most of the roads were highlighted in blue, which the manual helpfully explains either means that "the under-road sensors indicate free traffic flow" or "the road has no sensors and traffic conditions are unknown (they could be congested)."
"Could be congested," indeed! What I really needed was for the nav system's disembodied voice to shout: "Turn back, imbecile! All roads into Manhattan are clogged with revelers in weird costumes driving into the city to party." Or, alternatively: "If you insist on continuing your trip, the Lincoln Tunnel is slightly less clogged than the George Washington Bridge, so take the tunnel. But beware that Manhattan streets are now full of pedestrians and traffic is jammed. It will take forever to get across town and parking lots are charging a premium."
Some day, onboard traffic alert systems may be able to give you that kind of advice. For now, based on my experience, they're about as helpful as tuning the radio to the traffic channel.
Buy It or Bag It?
The RDX is an ideal car for young couples who are planning to start a family but aren't yet ready to join the minivan set. It looks cool and handles well, yet still has enough passenger and cargo space to accommodate one or two young kids. But it doesn't have the third row of seats you need for heavy-duty carpooling. And it isn't rugged enough for genuine off-roading, though the standard full-time all-wheel drive should make it capable enough in snow and muck for weekend ski trips.
If sportiness isn't a priority, there are numerous small to midsize SUVs on the market that cost far less than the RDX. But if you're in the market for a genuinely sporty SUV, the RDX is an excellent alternative to the new BMW X3, as well as to luxury SUVs such as Toyota's (TM) Lexus RX 350 and Nissan's (NSANY) Infiniti FX 35, which cost an average of four or five grand more.
In short, it's a very nice little vehicle—but I wouldn't buy one without checking out the new BMW first.