By Brady Holt @BradyHoltAutos
When you think about luxury cars, which brands come to mind first? Mercedes-Benz and BMW? Lexus and Audi?
What about Acura and Volvo? Sometimes dismissed as “second-tier” luxury, these two brands are often overlooked. Acuras are sometimes seen as fancy Hondas rather than true luxury cars, while some folks consider Volvos to be merely safe but unexciting.
But if you’re looking for a small premium crossover, you won’t want to miss these brands’ all-new models — which have become standouts for their marriage of premium qualities with relative affordability and utility.
We’re talking about the freshly-redesigned 2019 Acura RDX and the newly introduced 2019 Volvo XC40. The RDX offers fun-to-drive performance without sacrificing a smooth, quiet ride and a spacious interior. The XC40 brings an endearing character and excellent fuel economy, with the right touch of luxury to avoid feeling overly frilly.
Let’s start with the RDX, which was one of the first small premium crossovers when it debuted in 2007. Two generations later, Acura has used its experience in the segment to fine-tune the driving experience — more comfortable than the original RDX, yet more fun than the second generation, which was sold from 2013 through 2018.
Today’s RDX also, at last, offers a warm, welcoming interior rather than its predecessors’ more questionable brand of high-tech austerity. While its exuberant geometry still sets it apart from the formality of a European luxury interior, the RDX manages to look high-tech without being cold and offputting. Materials quality has also improved. The unusual control layout does have a learning curve, though.
Once you get moving, the RDX quickly makes a positive impression with a pleasantly snarling turbocharged four-cylinder engine and tight, responsive steering. Last year’s model used a smooth, quiet but less economical V6, but Acura trumps most four-cylinder competitors for the aural quality of its new turbo. Even drivers who typically prefer six cylinders should have few complaints, and EPA ratings of up to 24 miles per gallon in mixed driving are respectable for a 272-horsepower luxury SUV.
The RDX’s value is another standout point. It brings more standard features than the competition, providing generous levels of safety, comfort and convenience items at its base price of $38,295. Some competitors have similar starting points, but typically without the Acura’s panoramic moonroof, power liftgate, automatic emergency braking system, and automated lane-keeping steering assistance. The tested fully-loaded Advance model hit $48,295.
Cycling back to the horsepower, the RDX offers a level of powertrain performance that’s a half-step above the German competition, whose horsepower ratings tend to be in the 240s. The RDX doesn’t have an extra-powerful option like these models do, but every buyer gets a higher level of both acceleration and engine smoothness.
Overall, the RDX offers a driving experience that would be welcome in a pricier Audi Q5, along with a comfortable cabin and plenty of cargo space. A few people will want a different style and a more traditional control layout, but it’s otherwise difficult to fault this supremely executed package.
That’s not to take anything away from the Volvo XC40, which has its own strong appeal. While it’s technically a subcompact crossover, a size smaller than the RDX, it’s spacious and luxurious enough to be an alternative to many vehicles one class higher.
Priced from $35,495, the XC40 is rated for an extra-thrifty 27 mpg in mixed driving — on regular fuel rather than premium, too — with its base 187-horsepower engine. Even the tested 248-horsepower model achieves 26 mpg, though on premium.
The XC40 has a stubby design that stands apart from lower-slung crossovers. It looks more like an SUV than many of its subcompact competitors, a quality that also helps keep it roomy for its size. Yet, while it doesn’t strive to be as sporty as a BMW, or even the RDX, it still drives like a good small car — just one that has a high seating position. It doesn’t feel eager to tackle a winding road the way the RDX does, and it doesn’t have the Acura’s extra horsepower, but it’s composed and capable.
It’s also one of the fanciest-feeling SUVs you can buy for $35,000. Every model comes standard with big digital displays: a 9-inch touchscreen on the center stack and a 12-inch electronic gauge cluster. The design matches what you’d find in even the priciest Volvo, and it doesn’t look bad there either. Cabin materials strike an excellent balance between the outright opulence of pricier Volvos and everyday mainstream vehicles. Available brightly colored accents also bring a youthful vibe compared to more serious Volvo models.
While a large hump in the rear floor area keeps it from fitting three adults comfortably in the rear seat, the XC40 is otherwise brimming with functionality. The rear seats fold easily flat to open up a functional amount of cargo room, and the front console features a removable rubbish bin.
Prices can rise quickly; the tested XC40 was $44,315. But it offers much of the appeal found in Volvo’s larger XC60, but for less money and with superior fuel economy and handling agility. Meanwhile, the RDX is roomier and more powerful, but the little XC40 stands out for combining a strong personality with numerous objective qualities.
The RDX and XC40 compete in a crowded marketplace with many appealing models. These include the newly-redesigned 2019 Infiniti QX50, the value-priced Lincoln MKC, the fun-to-drive BMW X1 and X3, and the tech-friendly Audi Q5. But neither should be overlooked.
Another popular model that’s seen recent updates is the Lexus NX. With comfortable seats, agile handling and sporty modern styling, the NX is perhaps the closest rival to the RDX — thanks to similar styling themes and an appeal to sport-oriented buyers. They even have similar control layouts, with remote touchpads operating the infotainment screen.
But where the RDX is a slickly executed overall package, the NX has some hit-or-miss qualities. There’s sporty handling, but a stiff ride. There’s fully modern exterior styling, but an interior that’s less impressive for a luxury SUV that starts at $37,380.
While the NX is worth considering alongside the RDX if you’re interested in a sporty luxury crossover, don’t expect the typical Lexus staples of smoothness and quietness. The Acura, on the other hand, can provide both.
One NX-exclusive quality: a gas-electric hybrid version, called the NX 300h. It sacrifices the power and smoothness of the tested NX 300’s turbocharged four-cylinder, but it averages 31 mpg on regular fuel compared to 25 mpg on premium.
Visit tinyurl.com/rdx-sentinel to see more photos of the tested 2019 Acura RDX, tinyurl.com/xc40-sentinel to see more photos of the tested 2019 Volvo XC40 and tinyurl.com/nx-sentinel to see more photos of the tested 2018 Lexus NX 300.
Brady Holt is a member of the Washington Automotive Press Association.