SAN FRANCISCO (SNS) – When the next major trend in
automotives arises, the Acura RDX might be the vehicle leading the
way, while other automakers can only follow. A preliminary drive
of the new RDX reinforces the company’s optimism for having
combined the attributes of a sports sedan and a compact
sport-utility vehicle into a stylish design bristling with
Honda started its upscale Acura branch 20 years ago.
The midsize MDX has been Acura’s only SUV, complementing the entry
level RSX sports coupe, TSX compact sports sedan, superb TL, and
luxurious RL. The RDX, which first enthralled onlookers as a concept
vehicle at the 2002 North American International Auto Show in Detroit,
hits showrooms in August.
By then, summer vacations may not have helped heal
the large SUV market, which has been stunted by $3 gasoline prices,
causing buyers to switch to smaller crossover car-based SUVs. Compact
crossover SUVs are virtually certain to zoom right past large SUVs
this calendar year.
Honda’s market research predicts the premium
crossover segment will expand five times – 500 percent – in the next
five years, and tenfold beyond its current size in the next 10 years.
Manager of product planning William Walton said it’s
part of a trend of "neo-urbanism," which includes people migrating
back from the suburbs to the cities for cultural and entertainment
reasons, and with space at a premium in new condos and lofts, and also
in parking openings. The ensuing dilemma is that traditional SUV
buyers give up sportiness, while sports sedans lack utility and
foul-weather capabilities of SUVs.
The RDX offers the solution of combining the best
attributes of both, having borrowed and refined the best features from
the rest of the Acura fleet. For example: The platform and engine from
the hot-performing RSX coupe and TSX sports sedan is jolted to 240
horsepower and 260 foot-pounds of torque by an ingenious variable-flow
The RL’s revolutionary SH-AWD system is adapted for
the RDX. Inside, the RDX has utility roots of the larger MDX, and
offers the latest version of the unique Panasonic ELS DVD-surround
audio system from the TL, which has been my choice as the best audio
system ever placed in a vehicle.
The RDX audio is better, with added speakers in the
rear doors making a total of 10, dispersing the 410 watts through six
channels, in professional sound-engineer Elliot Scheiner’s newest try.
Crank up the power on the DVD-surround version of "Money for Nothing"
by Dire Straits, and you feel as though Mark Knopfler might be sitting
on the dashboard, playing his guitar.
Such a feature can make any trip fly by, and the RDX
can do some flying on its own accord, if you can pardon the
expression. The whole package is built under Honda’s ultra-safety
guidelines to attain best-in-class crash-test ratings. Built entirely
at the Marysville, Ohio, assembly plant and the nearby engine
facility, the RDX will be priced at about $32,000 base, and up to
$37,000 if you add all the Technical Package goodies.
The RDX is more agile than most
SUVs, whether zipping through traffic in downtown San Francisco,
or carving precise arcs around the hilly switchbacks going north
of the Golden Gate Bridge along the coast and then inland to wine
country. It definitely lives up to the planned image of a
sports-sedan in SUV form, and it is obviously not built as a
three-row-seater, or a tow vehicle, although it will tow up to
The assets of being light but still safe are mostly
felt in agility and power, but decent fuel-efficiency, with EPA
estimates of 19 city, 24 highway, and the ability to meet Level II
ultra-low emission standards, are other advantages. The only
disadvantage is if a tradition-minded buyer still clings to the idea
that the number of cylinders is more important than the performance.
U.S. buyers traditionally insist on a V8 or V6
engine, but Honda solves that with a 4-cylinder that uses technology
and sophistication to out-perform V6es. Vice president of corporate
planning Dan Bonawitz noted a major shift currently going on, with V6
sales remaining fairly constant, but a large decrease in V8 sales
accompanied by a large increase in 4s.
Most likely, most V8 buyers downsized to V6es, and
about as many V6 buyers downsized to 4s.
Still, if it seems like a magic trick to make a 4
that offers best-in-class acceleration and fuel economy, the magician
is chief engineer Koichi Fujimori. The $50,000 Acura RL has plenty of
torque with its 3.5-liter V6, but the RDX’s 260 foot-pounds tops the
RL output with a 2.3-liter 4-cylinder. This engine is the latest
version of Honda’s "K Series" of 4-cylinders. Koichi Fujimori laughed
and denied that the "K" was for his first name.
Through an interpreter, Fujimori gave evidence of
Honda’s "unfair" advantage. During an innovative and creative career,
Fujimori has worked 20 years on Honda’s superb 4s, such as the
over-achieving Civic, Prelude, Accord, S2000, RSX and TSX. And he’s
far from finished.
"My goal is to make the K-Series 4 replace the V6,"
Fujimori said. "The 2.0-liter 4 in the RSX [and TSX, and the new Civic
Si] is very good, and conventional thinking is to increase
displacement for more power. But we asked if that was the proper
evolution path. We have a lot of cars with bigger V6 engines, but our
goal is to replace them with smaller 4s that can maintain the same
That makes him my idol. My favorite
engines always have been small-displacement over-achievers. Our
family’s 1994 Honda Prelude has a 7,500-RPM redline, and I
remember how impressed I was at the first S2000 with its redline
RPM limit of 9,000.
The new Civic Si has
an 8,000 redline.
Such capabilities got their start from Honda’s
Formula 1 racing technology, but the main reason they work so well on
production cars is Fujimori, who presides over "500 to 1,000" other
engineers, he said.
"Among engine engineers, others say I’m an oddball,"
said Fujimori, which prompted a chuckle from the Japanese interpreter.
"We have what we call our ‘MM Concept,’ which means ‘Man Maximum,
Mechanism Minimum.’ "
Typically, an engineer seeking power would try to
improve his engine, then bolt on a turbocharger. Fujimori knows that
his engines are so fine, so extremely sophisticated, that it might be
a better idea to refine the already excellent Mitsubishi turbocharger.
Turbos capture exhaust flow, and channel it to spin a compressor,
which spins faster and faster until it has the force to blow a more
forceful air-fuel charge back into the engine intake.
Step on the gas abruptly in a turbo engine, and
there might be a lag, because at low speeds, less exhaust flow spins
the turbo more slowly, so the arrival of engine power must wait for
the turbo to "spool up" to adequate spin rate.
As the first production
turbocharged engine Honda has made for the U.S., the RDX uses an
ingenious variable airflow system to keep the turbo spinning
faster, even at low engine speed. Airflow to the turbo is
channeled through a smaller path at low RPMs, and being squeezed
through a smaller opening causes the flow’s speed to increase, so
the turbo spins faster, thus maintaining "spooled up" pressure
even at lower engine RPMs, and virtually eliminating turbo lag.
Honda engines have used variable valve-timing
technology for superior performance for about the same 20 years that
Fujimori has worked for the company. But coordinating the innovative
variable turbo with the latest i-VTEC 4 is a feat that should be
credited to Fujimori’s fine hand.
A five-speed automatic works well, and can be
manually shifted by steering wheel paddles. Those little thumb
switches are showing up more and more, but the RDX has a unique
feature. In "S" sport setting, you shift manually, but you can be in
"D" for drive, and override the automatic with a left-thumb downshift,
say to pass, or go down a grade, and the transmission responds
instantly, then reverts back to drive.
Merge all those features with the SH-AWD system,
which sends a portion of the engine’s torque from the front to rear
axle, apportioned for either slippery driving or the weight shift of
Up to 70 per cent of the power can shift to the rear
axle, and 100 per cent of that torque can go to the outside wheel in
hard cornering, which effectively pushes the RDX around the turn. It’s
seamless, of course. All you know is you track around the curve as if
you were on rails.
In the RL sedan, a variable extra gear can make the
outside rear wheel spin faster than the inside, while in the RDX it is
it fixed to spin 1.7 percent faster, eliminating the weight and
complexity of the extra gear.
The active-lifestyle plan of the RDX may soon make
large-SUV owners realize they don’t need girth, heft, and poor
fuel-economy to have an SUV. True enough, Honda’s high-tech cars kept
its market share growing, and if Honda missed the lucrative large-SUV
glut of recent years, the market may now be coming back to Honda.
The RDX body is rigid, with high-strength steel used
strategically for maximum stiffness, aiding handling and safety. The
rear frame is built in a wave shape for optimum controlled crumple
zones in impacts. Any such force is distributed up through the "A"
pillar or down through the rocker panels, rather than to the interior.
The instrument panel and interior is well-planned
and stylish. You can put two bikes into the rear if you fold the back
seats down, or you can haul three friends with ease to a club across
town, or a cruise to the north woods. Everything is creature-friendly.
And then there’s that sound system. I told Mr. Fujimori that his
engine was the quietest I had heard.
He seemed disappointed.
Then I admitted that it only seemed silent because
my partner and I kept the ELS audio cranked up so high we couldn’t
hear any engine sound.
Editor's note: John Gilbert writes weekly auto reviews. He can be
reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.