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2021 Acura RDX Test Drive Review
A compact luxury crossover SUV, the popular 2021 Acura RDX blends size, utility, quality, safety, technology, performance, and value in an appealing overall package.
When Acura last redesigned the RDX for the 2019 model year, the company began a transformation that is now accelerating with the debut of the all-new 2021 TLX sedan and soon-to-arrive 2022 MDX SUV. Adopting the company’s latest exterior styling and interior design philosophies, as well as the completely rethought True Touch Interface infotainment system, the third-generation RDX confirmed Acura’s intent to return to the performance ethos that guided the brand during its early years. Now, according to Acura, the RDX is the bestselling model in its segment and one of the bestselling luxury vehicles in America. It is deserving of this stature.
Look and Feel
Especially when fitted with the optional A-Spec Package, the 2021 Acura RDX is a good looking SUV. Without going overboard on blacked-out trim or traditional performance design cues, the RDX A-Spec’s styling changes are subtle yet effective, conveying sportiness without overpromising in the outright acceleration and handling departments.
Better yet, Acura doesn’t try to make the RDX look like a boulder-basher—because it isn’t one. You won’t find oversized skid plates, bulging fender flares, or other off-roading frippery on this SUV because, like almost every other crossover, it’s meant for daily driving and road-tripping, not rock-hopping.
The RDX A-Spec resides in the middle of the trim-level hierarchy. Base prices for the RDX start at $38,200. To this, you can add a Technology Package that raises the window sticker to $41,100. The A-Spec Package builds on this, bringing the MSRP to $44,100. The Advance Package adds all of the extras, coming in at $46,000. Acura’s Super Handling All-Wheel Drive (SH-AWD) system runs another two grand. Equipped with extra-cost Platinum White paint, our RDX A-Spec SH-AWD came to $47,625, including a mandatory $1,025 destination charge.
With the A-Spec Package, the RDX’s interior adds front sport seats with simulated suede inserts and special piping, a sport steering wheel, a black headliner, dark brushed aluminum trim, sport pedals, red exposed stitching, red nighttime illumination, red ambient cabin lighting, and unique gauges. You can get the seats in black or red, though a light gray sure would be nice as an alternative.
As is true of the RDX A-Spec’s exterior, the interior delivers a sporty look and feel. From the quality materials and the thick-rimmed steering wheel to the form-over-function approach to some of the controls, the RDX doesn’t have a typical compact crossover SUV cabin.
If there’s anything to complain about, aside from the True Touchpad Interface (TTI) infotainment system (as we’ll cover below), it’s the gauge cluster. Instead of the clear white-on-black markings, you’ll find in other examples of the RDX, the A-Spec employs red markings on a brushed silver background, and they are quite hard to read, except at night.
All 2021 Acura RDX models get a turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine making 272 horsepower at 6,500 rpm and 280 pound-feet of torque from 1,600 rpm to 4,500 rpm, so the A-Spec Package doesn’t provide anything extra in the way of performance.
A 10-speed automatic transmission with paddle shifters and front-wheel drive is standard unless you get the torque-vectoring SH-AWD system, which represents money well spent even if you don’t live where snow is commonplace. The SH-AWD system can deliver up to 70% of total engine output to the RDX’s rear wheels and then put 100% of that share to either of the rear wheels. The result is a noticeable improvement in handling that makes the RDX genuinely fun to drive.
Using the silver knob that dominates the middle of the dashboard, drivers can use the Integrated Dynamics System to choose between Snow, Comfort, Sport, and Sport+ driving modes. They calibrate powertrain character and response, steering effort level and response, and in RDXs with the Advance Package, the adaptive-damping suspension firmness. Even the engine note changes, the RDX sounding more aggressive in Sport and Sport+ modes.
A-Spec models sit on exclusive Shark Gray 20-inch alloy wheels wearing larger and lower-profile 255/45 performance all-season tires. If there is a handling benefit to this version of the RDX, you can chalk it up to the slightly more aggressive rubber.
It sure would be nice if Acura offered the Advance Package’s adaptive dampers on the A-Spec, which suffers a hint too much body motion when you’re whipping it down a favorite back road. After all, few roads are perfectly smooth, so added help dealing with the humps, dips, heaves, and holes the A-Spec encounters on its journey would undoubtedly come in handy.
Additionally, it would be nice if, when placed in Sport or Sport+ mode, the 10-speed automatic transmission matched revs when the driver is working the paddle shifters. A summer performance tire option would be swell, too.
Nevertheless, as it stands, the RDX A-Spec is rewarding to drive thanks to the turbo engine's broad torque curve, predictable handling characteristics, SH-AWD, precise and communicative steering, and fade-resistant brakes that are easy to modulate. And when you switch to Sport+ mode, the RDX exhibits more eager and aggressive behavior in addition to a delightful (if artificial) engine sound.
Acura is preparing new Type S performance variants of the TLX sedan and MDX SUV. The RDX SUV also deserves the Type S treatment.
Form and Function
Though priced and positioned as a compact SUV, the Acura RDX is anything but. It offers remarkable passenger and cargo space in a tidy package, and, in part because of this packaging, it is an extraordinary value.
Better yet, the front seats are mighty comfortable—an Acura hallmark. With A-Spec trim, they offer 12-way power adjustment, are heated and ventilated, and do an excellent job of holding you in place when ripping around corners and curves. If you want a heated steering wheel, you’ll need the Advance Package.
As is often the case with SUVs, the Acura RDX’s need to maximize utility compromises rear-seat comfort. When you fold the rear seatbacks down, they rest on the back seat’s bottom cushion. Therefore, the lower and flatter the rear cushion is, the lower and flatter the resulting cargo floor is. In the RDX, this low and flat cushion results in a lack of rear passenger leg support. In combination with too much rear seatback recline angle, you wind up slouching in an uncomfortable and unsupported manner.
Storage space could be better, too. There is a huge tray under the dramatic center console panel containing the TTI and transmission controls, but it’s not easily accessible while driving. If Acura redesigned its infotainment system, it could add more storage forward of the cupholders.
By the official numbers, cargo volume fails to impress, but the trunk is quite accommodating. It measures 29.5 cubic feet behind the rear seat, and Acura provides a deep storage well to the left of the load floor, perfect for carrying jugs of milk, bottles of wine, or other items you’d rather didn’t roll around. Lift the cargo floor, and you’ll find three separate storage compartments that are quite useful for organizing the things you regularly carry with you, such as grocery shopping bags.
Fold the rear seats, and the RDX accommodates 58.9 cubic feet of cargo, which is competitive but not class-leading. Still, the resulting area certainly looks large enough to handle most tasks. And there could be some room for interpretation of that modest measurement.
You see, Acura also quotes a maximum value of 79.8 cubic feet, which it says is the number best used for comparison purposes with other compact SUVs. However, Acura bases this volume on moving the front seats all of the way forward and packing cargo on the floor behind them. Nobody loads an SUV that way, so ignore that figure unless you can confirm that companies like Audi, BMW, Cadillac, Infiniti, Lexus, Lincoln, Mercedes-Benz, and Volvo are basing their cargo measurements on the same methodology.
When Acura last redesigned the RDX, it introduced its True Touchpad Interface infotainment system. It does not use a touchscreen. Instead, drivers use a touch-sensing pad on the center console. Think of the touchpad on your laptop computer, and you’ll get the idea.
With the TTI, Acura tried to learn a lesson from Lexus, which also tried and, in some models, still uses, the same approach. At first, Lexus provided a physical mouse-type controller with haptic feedback. Then it transitioned to a touchpad that worked exactly like the one on a laptop. Now it’s phasing that out in favor of touchscreen control.
The trouble with the Lexus system was that the driver always needed to look at the screen to establish where the cursor was and then move it via fingertip to perform whatever command the driver wished to execute. It was, and is, terribly distracting.
Acura decided that its touchpad would mirror the screen. In other words, if the driver touches the lower left part of the pad, the action corresponds to the lower-left portion of the screen, placing control right where the driver intends. Once you retrain your brain to expect this behavior from a touchpad, this is a better solution than the Lexus approach. But, especially if you regularly use a computer touchpad, this process of rewiring yourself is a lengthy one.
Also, TTI still doesn’t eliminate distraction because it remains easy to input a command mistakenly, and you must always confirm that your fingertip movement on the pad results in the desired action on the screen. Also, if your front passenger isn’t familiar with how TTI works, that adds an extra layer of unnecessary distraction.
Anyone who can afford to buy an Acura RDX likely owns a smartphone. They know how to swipe, scroll, pinch, spread, and tap on a glass display. At this point, there is no reason to rewrite this particular user-experience rulebook, even if TTI does represent an improvement over the Lexus approach.
Generally speaking, the ways to limit driver distraction are to:
· Separate the stereo and climate controls from the display using physical knobs and buttons
· Offer smartphone projection in the form of Apple CarPlay and Android Auto
· integrate home voice assistant technology including Amazon Alexa and Google Home
· Develop faultless integrated voice-recognition technology that responds to natural voice commands as widely variable as “close the front windows” and “turn on the seat heaters” to “change temperature to 72” and “I want to listen to reggae music” (yes, there are some of us out there)
Acura gets many of these things right. Plus, it offers Key by Amazon In-Car Delivery, which means you can have packages placed inside your RDX (if you’re comfortable with that sort of thing.) After a week of driving this Acura, we were also finally getting used to the TTI and remembering right off the bat that it works differently than both a Lexus and a MacBook Pro touchpad.
But it still isn’t ideal.
Ending this section on a high note, the A-Spec includes the same 16-speaker Acura/ELS Studio 3D premium audio system that comes with Advance trim, and it sounds terrific.
Acura equips every 2021 RDX with AcuraWatch, a collection of safety features that includes all of the now-common features, such as adaptive cruise control, lane-keep assist, lane-departure warning, forward-collision warning and automatic emergency braking, but not a blind-spot warning system and rear cross-traffic alert. For those, you’ll need to upgrade to the Technology Package at a minimum. That’s a shame because the RDX lease special is the base trim, and studies show that blind-spot warning is one of the most useful and effective modern safety technologies.
The RDX’s version of AcuraWatch is not as comprehensive as the package the automaker installs in the new TLX sedan. It lacks pedestrian detection, traffic-sign recognition, and Traffic Jam Assist, each of which is standard for the new TLX.
Nevertheless, in terms of their operational sophistication, the RDX’s AcuraWatch systems are smoother, more accurate, and more refined than what the company offers in the outgoing third-generation MDX. As a result, you’re more likely to use them than to shut them off.
Should a collision occur, know that the Acura RDX does a great job of protecting its occupants. The SUV earned a 2020 calendar-year “Top Safety Pick+” rating from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), and it gets a five-star overall rating from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). Note, however, that the SUV earns four-star frontal-impact and four-star rollover resistance crash-test ratings from the NHTSA.
With the 2021 Acura RDX, you get more for less. Depending on the competitive analysis, that could be related to size, equipment, power, or performance. Sometimes, it’s all four.
Mix in the RDX’s deftly penned design, quality interior materials, standard and available technologies, and high safety ratings, and it’s hard to go wrong with this Acura unless you want some of the customer pampering that comes with the purchase of a new Genesis or Lincoln.
Just keep in mind that you’ll need to get used to how the TTI works, and if you’re a serious driving enthusiast, you’ll want to hang tight to see if Acura will create an RDX Type S any time soon.
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