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Payne: Acura reboots with X-cellent RDX ute

Henry Payne
The Detroit News


Three years ago, Honda got sick of criticism that its cars had gone soft.

So its product team rebooted the brand with the sensational Civic compact sedan. Benchmarked to the Audi A3, for goodness sake, Civic carved its own segment benchmark with best-in-class everything. Not content with that high bar, the Hoosier-built hottie then went about spawning whiz kids like the Sport, Si and Type-R that sent speed junkies running — nay, sprinting — to dealerships to get their fixes.

New for the 2019 model year -- and on sale in June, 2018 -- the Acura RDX is the compact SUV class leader in horsepower, AWD, interior space, cargo room. It is also  the first ute in its segment with a 10-speed tranny.


But wait, there’s more. So no one missed the message, Honda invested in Formula One, IndyCar racing and Pirelli World Challenge to taunt its competitors on-track as well as on-road. When the new Honda Accord arrived last year, it was no longer enough to be best in mainstream sedans, the fast-back four-door’s content rivaled luxury sedans.

Jeez, we get it, Honda. You’re back. Now get ready for the Great Awakening, Part II: Acura Gets Ticked.

Like Honda, the Acura brand had lost its way in the last decade as it strayed from its fun Integra and Type-S roots. It grew ponderous. Sprouted a chrome beak that looked like it should be opening bottles rather than gracing the front of a premium vehicle. Weird.

Acura listened, put designer and F1 fanboy Jon Ikeda at the helm, and got serious.

This being the Age of Ute, Acura chose to re-introduce itself with a compact SUV. Motorhead that I am, I might have preferred the ILX sedan (Civic’s luxury sibling), but utes are where it’s at these days.

With its stylish RDX, Acura has dropped the mic.

Benchmarked to class valedictorian BMW X3, RDX lays down some impressive class bests of its own. Best-in-class horsepower (not including niche players like Porsche Macan, Jaguar F-Pace, Alfa Stelvio). Best front passenger room. Best rear passenger room. Best cargo room. Best console room.

(Pause while I take a drink of water)

Best head-up display. First-in-class 10-speed transmission. Best torque-vectoring, twin-clutch-pack, off-road-shredding all-wheel drive (not shy, Honda calls this system Super Handling All-Wheel Drive. Or SH-AWD, for short).

Dude, Acura is back.

You knew it was coming. And not just because Roger Penske’s Acura prototype racers ran the competition outta town at Mid-Ohio raceway this month (yeah, Acura is doing the racing thing just like Honda). Acura methodically laid the groundwork for its RDX resurgence with the halo Acura NSX supercar, Precision Design Concept (2016 Detroit auto show) and Precision Interior Concept (2016 LA Auto Show).

Don’t believe in trickle-down? Acura concept innovations are all over the RDX from the “diamond pentagon grille” outside to the sci-fi “trigger” transmission inside. But the real tell is when you get behind the wheel.

This ute’s got NSX soul.

Barreling over the roller-coaster roads of Whistler, British Columbia ski country, the RDX’s only peers are the BMW and premium-wannabe Mazda CX-5. The latter’s buzzy, 187-horse drivetrain can’t play in the luxury class, so Bimmer 'n’ RDX walk away when the road straightens out. Credit, too, the Acura’s buttery 10-speed tranny and NSX-inspired Sport Plus mode.

Push the  trigger tranny’s center button and the little ute quivers with anticipation. The steering tightens. The exhaust rasps. Floor me now!

This eagerness is especially noticeable in the A-Spec model I tested. Like cheek paint on Tom Brady, A-Spec’s black trim means it’s game-ready. It also telegraphs a future Type-S model, the earth-pawing Acura equivalent to Honda’s insane, track-ready Type-R. Don’t expect a garish Type-R rear wing — but count on a new turbo V-6 for the S to hunt down the X3’s M-performance variant.

While Acura has followed the Civic playbook, the premium class is a different animal. Here, brand rules.

BMW, Audi, Mercedes and Volvo have earned their status with decades of consistent product. In turn, customers save for decades so they can afford, say, the coveted BMW kidneys.

Having matched (and exceeded) the competition in performance, Acura will have to consistently execute its signature jewel-eye headlights, grille and dragon’s tail-lights to stir the same passion in buyers.

Until that happens, Acura has other cards to play. Like value.

Acura takes top honors in the Kelley Blue Book Cost of Ownership Awards in a premium class where customers often pay through the nose for maintenance. A loaded $48,000 RDX Advance trim is $8,000 cheaper than equivalent BMW X3 or Audi Q5. At just $38,000, the base model gets a $4,000 jump on the competition with standard — standard! — panoramic sun-roof, 19-inch wheels, 10-speed tranny and a suite of safety systems including adaptive cruise and auto braking. It’s like Fleming’s merged with Cracker Barrel and served you filet mignon with a complimentary soup, salad and two sides.

RDX also aims to play with the big boys with its own, unique infotainment system. This is the price of entry in luxe and it’s Acura’s biggest gamble.

BMW debuted its iDrive, remote screen controller and perfected it only after years of struggle. Cadillac and Lexus have not been so successful, their unique CUE and touchpad systems causing customers to run from their cars screaming.

Acura’s Precision Touch system won’t cause any emotional breakdowns (I think Lexus' touchpad phobia is actually a thing) but it requires patience. To keep the driver’s attention to the road, the screen is high on the dash and operated with a remote touchpad. I found it cumbersome, my finger hopping with the vehicle in motion. In an age when automakers are trying to be an extension of smartphones (Alexa, smartphone connectivity, etc.) I prefer the phone’s tried-and-true touchscreen.

Indeed, with its unique touchpad approach, Acura loses Android Auto capability — which Honda Corp. pioneered in its vehicles — because it’s still in development for touchpads (Acura says its coming, and Apple CarPlay is available now).

It’s a reminder that every luxury-maker has its quirks. BMW’s monostable shifter vexes many buyers. The over-engineered Audi Q5 console leaves no room for cubby storage. Cadillac still hasn’t perfected CUE. And so on.

Touchpad aside, RDX ergonomics are excellent. Screen icons can be personalized like a smartphone and voice commands are direct (Example: Take me to the nearest Starbucks). The trigger tyranny opens up a cavern of sub-console space for purse/tablet/Kleenex/whatever storage.

Made right down the road in East Liberty, Ohio, the RDX is the total package, pushing Acura to the head of the class. And the tail. Check out the thoughtful, deep, three-cubby storage under the rear cargo hold. It’s right above the A-Spec’s massive twin tailpipes.

Yup. Acura is back.

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne. Catch “Car Radio with Henry Payne” from noon-2 p.m. Saturdays on 910 AM Superstation.

2019 Acura RDX

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

Price: $38,325 base ($46,495 A-Spec trim and $48,395 Advance trim as tested)

Powerplant: 2.0-liter, turbocharged inline-4 cylinder

Power: 272 horsepower, 280 pound-feet torque 

Transmission: 10-speed automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, NA; towing, 1,500 pounds

Weight: 4,015 pounds (AWD A-Spec as tested)

Fuel economy: EPA fuel economy: 21 city/27 highway/23 combined (AWD A-Spec)

Report card

Highs: Spacious, comfortable utility; a ute that's fun to drive

Lows: MPG trails competitors; inconsistent touchpad controller 

Overall: 4 stars