2019 Acura RDX First Drive – Turn Up the Volume

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2019 Acura RDX

In the fiercely competitive compact crossover segment, a game arguably invented by Lexus, a company has to have a killer app in order to stand out. The XC60 trades upon a platform of safety, thanks to the goodwill built by the Volvo brand. BMW has – rightly or wrongly – its rep for being the Ultimate Driving Machine to lure customers into an X3.

But Acura? Most would struggle to finger a standout attribute of their current offering in that segment, the RDX. This is not to say it is a bad machine – it outsells two of its closest rivals – but the company knows change has to be made, and consequently plans to turn up the volume … in more ways than one.

In recent years, Acura seemed like a company wandering in message as the calendar flipped into this decade. The took-forever-in-gestation NSX screams performance, while the RLX big sedan does the exact opposite and could easily be built by another brand. If execs at the company have their way, this RDX serves as a signpost on its road back to being known as a sporty marque, one where all models have some hint of its halo car – a machine that “sets the table” for the rest of the brand.

2019 Acura RDX

The current RDX has enjoyed healthy sales in recent years, easily cresting 50,000 units in two of the past three years. That beats the BMW X3 and is a hair ahead of the Mercedes-Benz GLC, neither of which would be considered slow sellers. For 2019, Acura is touting the RDX as a clean-sheet design. The new corporate mug that’s shown up on other models resulted from a mid-cycle refresh, not a comprehensive overhaul. Acura is quick to tout the 2019 RDX as the latter.

Four trims will be listed in the RDX catalog for 2019, starting with a $37,300 entry-level model that’s totally not named “base.” A Technology package adds parking sensors and nav along with a few other goodies and a $3,000 bill. A tasty looking A-Spec trim arrives for 2019, hikes the sticker to $43,500, and is largely an appearance package in the vein of popular M-Sport and S-Line packages. Bold colors, bigger exhaust tip finishers, bigger wheels, and black chrome window trim are telltale A-Spec flourishes.

2019 Acura RDX

Topping the range is an Advance trim which endows the RDX with a heads up display and a price tag just north of 45 grand. Every RDX gets the AcuraWatch suite of safety gear, a system whose virtual eyes hide behind that new Texas-sized belt buckle of a grille badge. Want all-wheel traction? Add $2,000 to the figures mentioned above.

All RDXs bin the old V6 in favor of a 2.0-liter turbocharged inline-four making 272 horsepower and 280 lb-ft of torque. Twist comes on early, as it often does in boosted engines, but peak power is not delivered until 6,500 rpm, just a couple hundred revs shy of the redline. Most compact crossover drivers will not wring out an engine on their way to the mall or soccer practice.

On long downhill stretches of British Columbia’s excellent Sea-to-Sky highway with the cruise set at 60 mph, the RDX’s 10-speed automatic brakes the engine to 4,500 rpm if left to its own devices on downhill curves.

2019 Acura RDX

Four driving modes confront the driver by way of a prominently placed Dynamic Mode knob mounted loud and proud dead center of the RDX’s dashboard, in the visage of the halo car NSX. This is what Acura’s product department meant when they said their sports car was “setting the table.” Turns out it had nothing to do with knives and forks.

Choices of Snow, Comfort, Sport, and Sport+ are found if one chooses to twirl the conspicuously located Dynamic Mode controller. In a bid to return to its sporty roots (remember the Integra Type R?), the RDX development team – many of whom would probably buy a Type R if given the chance – made sure a marked difference could be felt between the four modes.

Gassing the RDX out of corners on BC’s Route 99, one could actively feel the SH-AWD system deploy a form of torque vectoring to alter power delivery to the outside rear wheel, giving the illusion the RDX was “tucking” in its tire and making the whole car feel shorter than it actually is. That personality emerges in Sport+ mode, naturally, with the other two modes feeling progressively less sharp. Driving advice? Put the thing in Sport +  and leave it there unless the weather turns foul. Then stick it in Snow.

2019 Acura RDX

In a nod to buyers who were once young kids with a love for sporty cars but no money with which to buy them, gauges in the A-Spec trim remind this author of the ones found in the RSX coupe 15 years ago. The A-Spec is also available with natty black suede-type inserts in blazing red seats, a configuration which immediately turned my crank. (My affinity for bold and obnoxious styling treatments knows no bounds.) Plain black is available on the A-Spec as well.

Shutting the traction control off, Acura invited us to toss its shiny new RDX down a slalom set up on loose gravel. The company programmed the all-wheel drive system to provide up to 70 percent of the engine’s power to the rear wheels and up to 100 percent of that power in a left-right fashion. Nailing the throttle on the pebbly surface while negotiating a sharp left turn kicked the rear end out as if the RDX was rear-drive. Such a setup does imbue the RDX with a sportier feel than its front-drive competitors.

2019 Acura RDX

For reasons that elude anthropologists and psychologists around the world, most gearheads prefer a rear-drive experience while claiming front-wheel drive is for the feeble. This may not be an entirely accurate assessment of the enthusiast community, but if these rear-drive shenanigans is what an Acura feels like as it returns to its sporty roots after being lost in the wilderness for a decade, then that’s alright with me.

The RDX cockpit also got a thorough rethink and is now dominated by that Dynamic Mode knob mentioned earlier. It’s a bold move putting that control so prominently on the center console, taking up abundant real estate and flanked by an airbag light and controls for the engine’s start/stop system. It certainly advertises the RDX’s sporty intentions, although I did find myself reaching for it occasionally when I wanted to turn up the stereo.

2019 Acura RDX

Turning up the stereo is an activity you will want to do often, at least if you’re in an A-Spec or Advance trim RDX with Acura’s new ELS Studio Premium audio system. The 710-watt system utilizes 16 discrete sound channels and 16 speakers, including four ceiling-mounted speakers, to create a natural and omnidirectional high-fidelity listening experience.

Steely Dan’s Babylon Sisters, a song from the Gaucho album that is rumored to have taken two weeks to mix, sounds phenomenal as the speaker just ooze effortless sound. Horns in the song appear from astern, providing a very convincing “on stage” experience. The quintet of roof speakers make a huge difference. Directly stepping into another machine lacking this system is like eating at McDonald’s immediately following a meal at Ruth’s Chris. The ELS studio system is that good and it is absolutely worth stepping up to the A-Spec or Advance to get it.

2019 Acura RDX

That’s one way, then, in which the new RDX turns up the volume. Given the upward march of its sales numbers even in the twilight of last year’s model, these wholesale improvements will likely lure in more customers and turn up the volume of RDXs being sold, too.

Another way in which Acura might turn up the volume? By stuffing a turbocharged V6 under the hood and calling it the Type S. That’s a very real possibility, not just for the RDX but also for Acura’s other pillar models like the MDX and TLX.

Not that I’ll be able to hear the engine note, of course. It’ll be drowned out by Steely Dan played through the ELS Studio system. I’ll just turn the volume up a little more…

2019 Acura RDX

[Images: © 2018 Matthew Guy/The Truth About Cars]