Payne: Lexus NX vs. Acura RDX X-off

Henry Payne
The Detroit News

If Pei Wei started making its $10 Mongolian beef as tasty as P.F. Chang’s $17 version, why would anyone go to the upscale eatery? Service, presentation, interior design, perhaps. But you’re rolling your eyes because it ain’t gonna happen. Cars are a different story.

Thanks to digital technology and engine downsizing, the “democratization of autos” is here.

Take the $27,000 Hyundai Elantra that I just drove. It has the same rear seat space as the $45,000 Acura RDX and $50,000 Lexus NX in my driveway. Same seat/mirror auto memory. Same heated rear seats. Same Apple Car Play/Android Auto connectivity. Actually, the RDX and NX don’t have the latter two. See what I mean?

How does luxury stand apart? Service, presentation, interior design.

The NX and RDX have the service thing down cold. As Japanese automakers in the compact crossover space, they long ago made their name with bulletproof reliability and fawning dealer service. Lexus set the standard with salesman who would sell you a car, then come home and shovel your driveway. Acura ain’t so shabby either.

But presentation has been a challenge. Unlike BMW and Mercedes, which only do upscale, Acura and Lexus are under the same corporate umbrella as Honda and Toyota, respectively. Similarly, P.F. Chang’s and Pei Wei are owned by the same company and compete at different price points.

The face of the Lexus NX brings to mind the Darth Vader Edition of a Star Wars Starfighter.

Acutely aware that it hasn’t done enough to distinguish its luxury and mainstream menus, Lexus has gone over the top in presentation. It’s as if an upscale eatery went out and hired architect Frank Gehry to design its exterior. Lexus SUVs boast an edgy, look-at-me design. Sports Illustrated supermodel Hailey Clausen is their spokeswoman. The NX’s intimidating face won’t be mistaken for Hailey. It looks like the Darth Vader Edition of a “Star Wars” Starfighter. Love it or hate, the new look of Lexus has gotten noticed.

An octogenarian friend recently bought a new Lexus RX (Not to be confused with Acura’s RDX. These alphanumeric badges make me crazy.) and loves the dramatic design.

Me: Even that Darth Vader grille?

She: I actually rarely see the front of my car since I park it nose first into my garage. But the sides I really like.

There you have it. Different. No one will mistake an NX for a Mercedes, much less a Toyota RAV-4.

Acura’s not there yet. I’ve always liked the RDX’s simple pentagon grille and 10-LED headlight ensemble up front — nicely balanced by lower fog lights openings. But those lower openings are just decoration — a stuck-on plastic mesh, unlike the Acura NSX supercar where every scoop is purposeful. The RDX shares the cool, “jewel-eye” headlights with the NSX — a brand signature ... except they are now being shared by the Honda Accord as it seeks to compete in the dog-eat-dog midsize sedan class. So much for exclusive luxury.

I kept narrowing my eyes and imagining the RDX with a new wardrobe inspired by the Acura Precision concept car shown at the 2016 Detroit Auto Show. It’s a radical departure from the current Acura-Honda language. The concept car has a grille that thinks outside the beak, the much-maligned, chrome bottle-opener that disappears on the concept in favor of a more luxurious, mesh grille.

Interestingly, the concept’s sharp, multi-surface body styling is very similar to the sci-fi Lexus NX.

As for drivetrains, Acura and Lexus follow their corporate siblings. Acura uses the Honda Accord’s V-6 engine. Lexus shares Toyota’s mixed menu of gas engines and hybrid electrics. My AWD 300h tester had the latter. Though in the Michigan winter, you wouldn’t know it.

The Acura RDX shares the cool “Jewel Eye” headlights with the NSX supercar.

Below 32 degrees, the batteries shivered and went into hibernation. Where the Lexus will glide away on battery in the warmer months, it immediately calls on the gas engine in colder temps. Turn the key, on comes the four-cylinder. Fuel economy? Just 24 mpg. Or about the same as a 2.0-liter, turbocharged, four-banger option for $5,000 less. Either way, the Lexus was a hair better than the Acura’s 23 mpg.

Though none could match a 27 mpg Honda CR-V. Oh. So we’re back to justifying that $10K hole in your wallet and whether it’s worth it. Will interior design tip the scales?

Acura’s two-shelf navigation/audio system is a welcome departure from the German-popularized pop-up screens that dominate the luxury sector, including Lexus and Hyundai. By contrast, the Acura’s system — already gone in Honda’s Civic and Pilot — adopts the German pop-up screen for navigation, but without cluttering the console. The knob is elevated on the console, freeing up welcome space for cup holders, seat-heater buttons and a drawer where you throw your phone, change and receipts — all that stuff you horde in a car.

Separate from the navi-screen comes a lower audio touchscreen complete with volume knob instead of the Honda sliders that are causing an epidemic of console shootings. Complicated, but much more workable than Lexus’ remote touchpad controller which manages a twofer: It clutters the console and distracts the driver.

Happily, both RDX and NX center consoles can be ignored thanks to excellent, steering wheel-mounted audio controls. For example, push the audio button to bark address instructions in the Lexus and you avoid entering it with the touch pad. Steering wheels have become as complicated as F1 yokes. And that’s good because it keeps your hands on the wheel and your eyes on the road.

Still, the console complications cast further doubt on luxury’s premium. Add the cost of stabbing the Lexus touch pad with an ice pick in a fit of rage and the cost really skyrockets.

The questions continue round back. Buy a handsome Ford Escape SUV — 10 grand cheaper than an RDX — and you can kick open the trunk and lay the rear seats flat. Not the Acura or Lexus.

Service, presentation, interior design.

My Pei Wei vs. PF Chang’s test isn’t as clear cut as it should be. Lexus throws in one more factor — handling — to makes its case. If the NX’s Euro-like console is a mistake, then its German-inspired handling is not. The NX is X-tra stable. The RDX? Not so much. Were it not for all-wheel drive in SUVs, I would recommend a lower-center-gravity hatchback if handling matters to you. NX and RDX AWD in Michigan: Don’t leave home without it.

Except, um, the mainstream Honda and Toyota brands have it, too.

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Email him at hpayne@detroitnews.com. Follow him on Twitter @HenryEPayne.

2016 Lexus NX

Vehicle type: Front-engine, front- and all-wheel drive, five-passenger SUV

Price: $35,905 base ($50,505 300h AWD hybrid as tested)

Powerplant: 2.5 liter 4-cylinder with electric motor/nickel metal-hydride battery assist

Power: 194 horsepower (combined hybrid system)

Transmission: Electronically controlled continuously variable transmission

Performance: 0-60 mph, 9.1 seconds (manufacturer); top speed, 112 mph

Weight: 4,180 pounds

Fuel economy: EPA 33 mpg city/30 mpg highway/32 combined (AWD as tested)

Report card

Highs: Radical styling; tight handling

Lows: Radical styling; hybrid system not as efficient in cold

Overall:★★★

2016 Acura RDX

Vehicle type: Front-engine, front- and all-wheel drive, five-passenger SUV

Price: $36,310 base ($45,400 AWD with tech packages as tested)

Powerplant: 3.5-liter V-6

Power: 279 horsepower, 252 pound-feet of torque

Transmission: Six-speed automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, 6.2 seconds (Car & Driver); top speed, 135 mph

Weight: 3,936 pounds

Fuel economy: EPA 19 mpg city/28 mpg highway/22 combined

Report card

Highs: Luxury’s bargain buy; roomy console

Lows: Tack-on front vents; one engine choice

Overall:★★★

Grading scale

Excellent ★★★★Good ★★★Fair ★★Poor ★