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  • By John R. Quain

2019 Acura RDX: More than Just a Pretty Interface

Historically, luxury compact crossovers have gotten a bad rap, probably because the sine qua non of the category was initially the Lexus RX, a quieter, gentler crossover. But times and tastes have changed, as evidenced by the all new 2019 Acura RDX, which brings improved performance and more refined technology to the category. (Oh, and at a reasonable price.)

The 2019 Acura RDX design is more muscular, without becoming muscle-bound, than the previous generation. And the automaker has brought some impressive driving sophistication, like a torque vectoring all-wheel-drive system, to improve grip. It then buffed the whole package up with a new in-dash interface it calls True Touchpad and added a rather impressive new ELS Studio sound system.

The Tech:

The in-dash systems of yore for Acura were festooned with more buttons than an Airbus Dreamliner--confusing and confounding. But after many iterations, Acura may have hit the right combination with the True Touchpad in the RDX.

Rather than using a touch screen that drivers have to stretch to reach, Acura has put a touch pad in the center armrest, nicely nestled under the driver's right hand. So you never have to tap on the 10.2-inch display. You simply use the pad, which has a one-to-one mapping with the screen. So it behaves like a tablet; no need to direct a cursor. If you tap on the top left of the touch pad, icons on the top left of the screen respond. Physical buttons (like those above some laptop touch pads) take you home or back in case you get disoriented. There's also a second, right-side area of the screen that corresponds to a second, ridge-separated, right-side touch pad.

The idea is that the True Touchpad takes your eyes off the road for less time. All you have to glance at is the screen. And in general, I found the system quick to respond, toggling between the built-in nav and music functions, for example. But there are quirks, such as the fact that you have to you have to flick up to navigate down a menu list. Swiping speed also counts, especially when you're trying to switch screens. If you prefer, the Acura system supports Apple's CarPlay uber app; Google's Android Auto is promised for later this year.

Does it take some practice to get comfortable with the True Touchpad? Absolutely, but Acura seems to have struck the right balance of buttons and touch controls here.

Much appreciated is a new head-up display in the RDX. It's bigger and customizable so it can display everything from navigation instructions to phone numbers, even radio stations. There's also an improved natural language voice recognition system you can command to do things like, "Take me to the nearest Taco Bell." However, it's cloud based, meaning the car needs a cellular connection to talk to it (something that's not always available in the country I discovered).

Acura also has spiffed up its musical performance. The premium ELS Studio 3D sound system is an understated gem. It is powered by a 710-watt amp, driving a total of 16 speakers, including 4 overhead speakers to blanket you in sound (hence the 3D moniker). But the real reason it can play everything from jazz to rock with aplomb is that the system was tuned by Grammy Award–winning producer and engineer Elliot Scheiner. Scheiner was behind many iconic recordings including work from the Foo Fighters, Van Morrison, and Steely Dan.

I couldn't help but play a few high-res tracks from Steely Dan in the RDX, and the result was scintillating. The system provides a clarity and precision lacking in most home systems. Side benefit: I later had a chance to chat with Scheiner about his original mix downs.

Driving Impressions:

The new Acura RDX uses a turbocharged 2.0-liter inline-four cyclinder engine to power you along. The crossover is available in front- and all-wheel-drive configurations. I only drove the all-wheel version, which employs the torque vectoring so that it can switch power not only front to back but also side to side. I thought it definitely improved the handling, but the feature, which Acura calls Super Handling All-Wheel Drive (SH-AWD), tacks an additional $2,000 onto the price of the sport UTE.

Hopping into the car you'll find the default driving mode is "Sport" for the RDX. (Other driving modes are Comfort, for cruising and lighter steering, Sport +, and Snow, for slippery surfaces.) And to a large measure the crossover delivers on the sport theme, thanks to a 10-speed automatic transmission. The RDX definitely was quicker to downshift when passing than in the past, and it was good enough off the mark (it's been timed to do 0 to 60 mph at about 5.7 seconds). The handling was surprisingly peppy and astute for a little UTE. The new RDX had none of shifting lag I've experienced jumping on the accelerator in the Lexus. It also exhibited considerably less body roll than the Mercedes-Benz GLC.

Acura now includes its AcuraWatch advanced driver assistance package as standard on the RDX--and that is a very good thing. It includes low-speed follow, lane keeping assist, emergency braking, and blindspot warning. The lane keeping was gentle but definitely let me know when I was too close the right white line. Adaptive cruise control with automatic braking worked well except that when you come to a full stop, you have to flick the toggle in the steering wheel to resume adaptive cruise. That's annoying when you're in stop-and-go traffic and are only sitting still for a second or two. Most cars will automatically pick up and follow the car ahead again if you're stopped for less than 6 seconds.

The Bottom Line:

With a starting price of about $38,300 for a front-wheel-drive base model and roughly $48,400 for a top-of-the-line Advance SH-AWD model, the 2019 Acura RDX delivers an excellent value in this category ahead of models from Lexus, Volvo, and Mercedes. If you're shopping in this crossover category, you must include the RDX on your list.

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