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2021 Acura RDX makes its case as best premium-compact crossover value

By Chuck Giametta

2020 Acura RDX A-Spec

What changes will make the 2021 Acura RDX different?

We’d hope for blind-spot and rear cross-traffic detection as standard rather than optional, but that change might have to await the RDX’s expected model-year 2022 refresh. The ’21 edition of this premium compact crossover is likely to repeat the formula that’s made it Acura’s best-selling vehicle and a class standout for value.

Today’s third generation RDX debuted for model-year 2019, introducing Acura’s latest design language, and only new paint colors and some cloud-based tech have been added since. Larger, faster, more fuel-efficient, and better looking than its 2013-2018 predecessor, the redesigned five-seater also got its own understructure, no longer sharing a platform with the less prestigious CR-V crossover from Acura’s parent company, Honda.

The ’21 RDX will again be Acura’s smallest crossover, slotting below the midsize, seven-seat MDX. It’ll continue to compete with the Mercedes-Benz GLC, Audi Q5, and BMW X3 – the only rivals that outsell it – and with the likes of the Cadillac XT5, Lincoln Corsair, and Volvo XC60, which trail it in sales.

This review is based on evaluations of the 2020 RDX. Where the ’21 might be different, we’ll withhold judgement.

Why should I wait for the 2021 RDX or buy a 2020?

2020 RDX Advance

Little reason to wait. The ’21 will be a virtual rerun of the 2020, but almost certainly will cost more. And getting a ’21 will mean it’s styling and perhaps some features could seem a little stale once the refreshed 2022 RDX arrives.

Intended to carry the RDX to its next full redesign, probably for model-year 2025, the ’22 updates won’t be dramatic. Expect tweaks to nose, tail, and wheels. The body won’t change, and neither should the powertrain. As we noted, more driver assists as standard would be welcome, the sooner the better.

The 2021 lineup should reprise a base RDX available with three extra-cost option packages called Technology, A-Spec, and Advance. Each package should again be priced as a separate model, per Honda/Acura custom. The sole engine would remain a turbocharged four-cylinder paired a choice of front-wheel drive or Acura’s Super-Handling All-Wheel Drive (SH-AWD).

Selling points for both the 2020 and ’21 RDX will again include an attractive exterior, a comfortable and technologically advanced interior, and an engaging driving experience. Good value is an attraction, too, with pricing that can undercut the competition by thousands of dollars and Acura’s reputation for solid returns at resale time.

Will the styling be different?    

2020 RDX

Perhaps a new color or two — Platinum White was added for model-year 2020 – but the overall look will remain as introduced with the 2019 redesign. That means a racy stance, spot-on proportions, and creases that make things interesting from multiple angles. Acura’s inverted pentagonal grille and standard LED headlights with the brand’s Jewel Eye pattern will recreate a provocative face. Dart-shaped taillamps will help distinguish the stern.

A ’21 RDX in A-Spec trim should again be particularly assertive, with gloss black exterior accents and 20-inch “shark gray” wheels. Nineteen-inch wheels should otherwise remain standard, probably returning in “glitter silver” for the base model, “pewter gray” with the Technology Package, and “medium alloy silver” for the Advance Package.

2020 RDX Advance

The cabin will retain a pronounced dual cockpit design and maintain a rational balance of physical buttons and on-screen controls. All ’21 RDXs will return a tablet-style 10.2-inch display atop the dashboard. It’s wide enough to present a range of infotainment, navigation, and vehicle data simultaneously, and you’ll again interact with it through a roughly 2-square-inch laptop-type trackpad on the center console.

Acura calls this the True Touchpad Interface and its main innovation is a feature dubbed absolute positioning. Place your finger on the pad and the cursor appears in the corresponding location on the dashboard screen. We find it responds accurately to a tap in the desired quadrant of the touchpad, but your natural tendency to slide your finger from one quadrant to another can confuse it. Haptic feedback helps, but the driver is still apt to glance frequently between pad and screen to synchronize commands. Reaction to voice commands is generally satisfying, but a turn-and-push central control knob would be a cleaner interface than this touchpad.

2020 RDX True Touchpad Interface

Some drivers are also likely to prefer a traditional transmission lever rather than the console’s gear-selection buttons. The arrangement does free up storage space beneath the console, complementing a praiseworthy array of bins, boxes, and pockets. Even if they don’t match the opulent fittings in pricier rivals, cabin materials are difficult to fault. Padded panels abound, nothing rings hollow to the touch, and the switchgear has a precision feel.

Expect leatherette upholstery and brushed-aluminum trim to remain standard. Leather should again be included with the Technology and Advance packages, the latter accented with natural olive ash burl wood. The A-Spec kit should again use Milano premium leather with Ultrasuede inserts and dark brushed aluminum accents.      

2020 RDX

Generous room front and rear on comfortable, supportive seats are assets you and your passengers will appreciate every drive. Likewise, the ample cargo room: 29.5 cubic feet behind the rear seatbacks, 58.9 cubic feet with them folded, and a handy underfloor box in the luggage area.

Any mechanical changes?

2020 RDX

Enthusiasts might pine for a high-performance RDX Type-R and environmentalists a hybrid or plug-in hybrid. All might well be in this crossover’s future, but not before model-year 2022 and more likely, not until the next full redesign. The ’21 RDX should be a mechanical repeat, and that’s no demerit.

Most competitors offer a range of engines but the ’21 RDX would return with just one, a version of the turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder from Honda’s Accord and Civic Si cars. In the Acura it’ll again have 272 horsepower and 280 pound-feet of torque and pair with a 10-speed automatic transmission. It’s the equal of any rival for smoothness and response. Acceleration is competitive, at 5.7 seconds 0-60 mph. Augmented by standard steering-wheel paddle shifters, the transmission keeps the engine in its power band when needed and kicks down promptly to provide unstrained zip to pass or merge.

Critically, this underskin structure furnishes levels of refinement and rigidity equal to the RDX’s upscale positioning. It’s a stable platform that also contributes to rewarding road manners around town and on curvy roads. Steering is sharp, body lean in fast turns well controlled. The ride is firm, but bumps and ruts are managed without unduly disturbing the cabin, even with the A-Spec’s low-profile 20-inch tires.

2020 RDX

Don’t live where it snows? SH-AWD still justifies its $2,000 premium by markedly improving handling on dry and wet surfaces alike. Operating normally in front-wheel drive, it shifts up to 70 percent of available torque rearward to allay front-tire slip and maximize traction off the line. Its added benefit is automatically distributing torque to either rear wheel, bolstering cornering prowess in most any situation. 

A console dial allows the driver to select four pre-programmed throttle and transmission modes — Snow, Comfort, Sport, and Sport+ — depending on driving needs and conditions. This Integrated Dynamics system can also alter the active dampening suspension that’s included with the Advance Package.

Will fuel economy improve?

2020 RDX

Probably not. Expect the 2021 RDX’s EPA ratings to repeat those of the 2020 model, which were about average for premium compact crossovers with 2.0-liter turbo fours.

Look for the ’21 RDX to again rate 22/28/24 mpg city/highway/combined with front-wheel drive and 21/27/23 with AWD. The A-Spec Package’s 20-inch wheels should again help reduce ratings to 22/27/24 mpg with front drive and 21/26/23 with AWD.

Acura will likely continue to recommend premium-grade 91-octane gasoline for the ’21 RDX.

Will it have new features?

2020 RDX with Key by Amazon

An element or two may shuffle among trim levels but significant new features aren’t likely to be added before the model-year-2022 midcycle refresh. The automaker could continue to tap its AcuraLink cloud-based connected-service system to expand amenities. During 2019, for example, Android Auto integration was made available via a free over-the-air update. Also introduced through AcuraLink was Key by Amazon In-Car Delivery. It enables RDX owners with Amazon Prime to use their cellphone to remotely unlock and then relock their vehicle to accept a package.

As noted above, ’21 RDX buyers who don’t spring for one of the extra-cost packages would be well-served by having blind-spot and rear cross-traffic detection as part of their standard equipment. For 2020, the least expensive way to add those useful driver assists was with the $3,200 Technology Package.

Still, even those who don’t add a package will benefit from Acura’s tradition of plentiful standard equipment for the money. In addition to features mentioned earlier, expect the 2021 RDX base grade to again come with forward collision warning with autonomous emergency braking that can stop it automatically to avoid a frontal collision, lane-departure warning with automatic steering correction, and adaptive cruise control to maintain a set distance from traffic ahead.

2020 RDX

The base ’21 RDX will also include automatic highbeam headlights, dual-zone automatic climate control, keyless access with pushbutton ignition, heated front seats, a 12-way power driver’s seat, a power rear liftgate, a panoramic sunroof, ambient cabin lighting, WiFi hotspot, CarPlay with Siri Eyes Free, Android Auto, and a multi-angle rearview camera.

For 2021, the Technology Package should again add front- and rear-obstacle detection, blind-spot and rear cross-traffic detection, leather upholstery, an imbedded navigation system that can provide real-time GPS in the absence of a cell signal, Acura’s excellent ELS audio system with 12 speakers, two USB charging ports for rear-seat occupants, and the AcuraLink telematics.

2020 RDX

Acura probably will continue to require that you order the Technology Package to add either the A-Spec or Advance package. In addition to its appearance and upholstery upgrades, the A-Spec Package should again add ventilated front seats, a 16-speaker ELS audio system, a unique steering wheel, a black headliner, red instrument panel lighting, and sport pedals.

Expect the Advance Package to also include ventilated seats and the 16-speaker audio upgrade, along with the adaptive suspension, rain-sensing windshield wipers, hands-free operation for the power liftgate, LED fog lights, extra sound insulation for the front side windows, a rear camera washer, a head-up instrument display, 16-way power adjustable front seats, heated outboard rear seats, genuine wood trim, and surround-view camera.

How will 2020 prices be different?

2020 RDX A-Spec

They’ll likely increase, although Acura exercised admirable restraint for model-year 2020, raising prices just $300 while holding the destination fee at $995. Expect the ’21 RDX to remain priced several thousand dollars below similarly packaged rivals, including the XT5, Corsair, and Infiniti QX50, and especially European-brand competitors. Granted, most rivals are available with far more powerful engine upgrades; 400-plus horsepower isn’t uncommon. Many come as hybrids, too, and the Tesla Model Y is a pure-electric. Finally, whether you consider Acura a true luxury brand has a bearing on its value equation, too.

Given slim prospects for costly updates, and assuming Acura knows pricing plays a big role in the RDX’s appeal, don’t look for big increases for model-year 2021. For reference, here are 2020 RDX prices, including the destination fee.

The base model was priced at $38,595 with front-wheel drive and at $40,295 with AWD.

With the Technology Package, prices were $41,795 with front-drive and $43,795 with AWD. With the A-Spec Package, they were $44,795 and $46,795, respectively. The ’20 RDX with the Advance Package was $46,695 with front-drive and $48,695 with AWD.

When will it come out?

2020 RDX A-Spec

Expect a 2021 RDX release date in spring 2020.

Best competitors

Alfa Romeo Stelvio, Audi Q5, BMW X3, Buick Envision, Cadillac XT5, Infiniti QX50, Jaguar F-Pace, Land Rover Discovery Sport, Range Rover Velar, Lincoln MKC, Mercedes-Benz GLC, Porsche Macan, Tesla Model Y, Volvo XC60.

About Chuck Giametta

This nationally recognized, award-winning writer brings to Carpreview.com two decades of automotive testing and reporting for newspapers, books, magazines, and the Internet. The former Executive Auto Editor of Consumer Guide, Chuck has covered cars for HowStuffWorks.com, Collectible Automobile magazine, and the Publications International Ltd. automotive book series. This ex-newspaper reporter has also appeared as an automotive expert on network television and radio. He’s a charter member of the Midwest Automotive Media Association, the president of the Rocky Mountain Automotive Media association, and a juror for the annual Active Lifestyle Vehicle of the Year awards. Chuck writes from Colorado Springs, Colo. If you have a question for Chuck, write to him at [email protected]