a little rough around the edges

October 5th, 2006

UPDATE: Click here to download a short clip taken during the my drive…

Original post [08.28.06]: Acura recently decided to drop the RSX from their U.S. lineup, feeling it was too unrefined and raucous to be sold next to cars like the RL and MDX. So it surprised me today that I was relieved to return the keys to the RDX because it felt – well – unrefined.

Let me back up by saying this was a car I expected to love. On paper it has one of the world’s most advanced all wheel drive systems, a suspension based on the new Civic’s (a good thing) and loads of torque without resorting to a heavy V6. It has the industry’s best nav system with real time traffic data. It was benchmarked against BMW’s X3. I was sure I’d love it.

But I didn’t, and neither did the potential buyer I accompanied. And here’s why…

When you clamber aboard the interior seems harder to decipher than is usual for Honda and overstyled. As in the new 5 series, surfaces that might have one or two elements have two to three times that. You see it in the door panel, in the dash face, in the steering wheel. You see it in the counterintuitive operation of the door locks. There’s a busy-ness that’s visually noisy – things are always calling attention to themselves that need not be – the tweeter pods for example.

What you don’t see is very good materials – there’s a cheapness to certain interior materials – the lower door panels and the interior door pulls for example – that come as a surprise if you’ve driven a TSX or TL - or even a RSX.

On the road, it’s the noise that disappoints most. Anything over 60 to 65 brings a lot of wind rush. I haven’t put an RDX in a wind tunnel but I began to wonder if Acura’s engineers bothered to either. It’s not just unacceptable for an Acura or for a $30-40K car, it’s simply unacceptable at highway speeds. (When you look under an X3 you see a relatively smooth belly. When you look under an RDX it’s reminiscent of the child’s game “Operation”, everything hanging exposed, snagging the wind).

In corners the steering was heavy yet fairly numb, when going straight it was a bit slow to respond. The car’s quite neutral under power but prone to understeer off it (and how many people do you know that power rather than coast through corners?) The wheel also seems too sensitive to how much torque is being sent to the wheels – it’s as though the system is too stingy about sending torque to the rears. And all the while the wheel’s thinness and unforgiving texture grated – the stitching on the leather feels sharp against the fingers as you try to wrestle the car through a turn. And the fuel economy? I averaged less than 18 when trying to stay out of the boost on a largely highway loop.

Now for the good: the ride is a great blend of compliance and control, and the power delivery is brilliant. Really truly brilliant. It launches progressively (something VW could learn from) and when the boost arrives it feels more like the engine coming on cam. (Only the fizzing sound under boost, some surging and hissing as you feather the throttle and the blasted fuel economy remind you that its a turbo – that and of course the boost gauge). The stereo shames some aftermarket competition systems I’ve heard and the cargo room with the rear seats folded forward is surprisingly good, especially given the bulk of the SH AWD system.

I fully expected the RDX to tear an X3 to shreds but in the end it comes down to this: the X3 is based on the last 3 series, the RDX is based on the current Civic. Which would you rather start with if asked to make a small, nimble SUV?

If the RSX wasn’t Acura enough then the RDX certainly isn’t either.

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