As anyone with memories of high school can remember, being popular doesn’t always equate with being the coolest kid in class.
The best-selling compact luxury SUV on a retail basis is the Acura RDX. Sure, when you include sales to corporate fleets, Mercedes, Lexus, and Audi sneak by. But when you count sales to folks like you and me, the RDX holds the lead.
It’s popular, and it’s easy to see why. It has a snappy powertrain, great packaging, loads of fancy features, smart pricing, and upgraded Super Handling All-Wheel Drive compared to the mainstream Honda AWD system. Add it all up, and you got winner winner poulet au vin blanc dinner.
But is it the coolest SUV on the market? Not hardly. In the world of compact crossovers, the trendy kid with the swoopy hair, more stylish clothes, and better musical taste is the Volvo XC60.
So, who would you rather hang out with? We grabbed the keys to our two long termers—a 2019 Acura RDX A-Spec and 2019 Volvo XC60 T5 Momentum—to find out.
Sizing them Up
Despite all the lumberjack marketing for these car-based SUVs, 99 percent of shoppers buy crossovers for hauling around their kids and possessions, not for off-roading. So we’re going to focus on these customer-facing issues first.
The RDX runs on a 108.3-inch wheelbase, with a LxWxH of 186.8 x 74.8 x 65.7 inches. (Yes, the RDX runs down the same assembly line as the mainstream Honda CR-V, but Acura reps swear the two SUVs are on different platforms, despite some manufacturing commonalities.) By contrast, the XC60 runs on a 112.8-inch wheelbase, with a LxWxH of 184.6 x 74.9 x 64.8 inches.
What does that actually mean? The Volvo has pushed its wheels to the corners, which theoretically should provide better driving dynamics, and more planted-looking styling, while the Acura has longer overhangs, which should provide more room for cargo. But the problem with numbers is that they can deceive, as we shall see shortly.
When you ask folks who work for Acura about the front fascias of their cars, they grit their teeth and cross their fingers when they say how much their buyers like them. At least it’s better than the old parrot-beak design. About the nicest thing you could say is that the Acura starburst grille takes some acclimation. But design is a very personal thing; some owners might ignore the chaotic emblem every time they walk out to their car in the morning. The RDX styling does improve as it works its way toward the back, although the array of sweeping character lines down the flanks is a bit anarchic. The squinty rear-corner windows create huge blinds spot for the driver.
The Volvo is stylish, yet familiar, the ovoid grille and brand logo (the symbol for iron) is the comforting presence of a trusted friend. The Thor’s Hammer headlights are a snazzy detail element. The side sheet metal is sleekly sculpted, and the broad windows provide excellent vision for the driver. The kinked hatch lid is a racy touch.
If you like the Transformers movie series, you’ll love the Acura’s multi-faceted center console design—but all those angles create visual chaos. The RDX’s seats are just-OK for a luxury vehicle, and they tend to have a bit of sag in the butt-bone area. Second-row seating is outstanding; although the backrest doesn’t recline, the floor is nearly flat, which increases the amount of perceived space. A 6-foot passenger can easily sit behind a 6-foot driver. Even though the rear seats are arranged stadium style, there is still plenty of headroom.
The Volvo’s interior layout is classy, very Scandinavian, dare I say sexy. It makes you feel like you spent your money well. Its classic lines don’t look like they will be outdated within the next decade. Volvo seats are the best in the business. There’s a bit less backseat room compared to the Acura, but there’s still plenty of room for passengers, just not as much as in the Acura.
Cargo space: The Acura has 29.5 cubic feet with the second-row seats up, and a yawning 58.9 cubes with them down. That’s not counting the 1.6 cubic feet available under the cargo floor. The Volvo has 22.4 cubic feet with second-row seats up, but a mere 50.6 cubes with them down.
Even with a sizable 7.1-cubic-foot advantage with the seats up, it seems as though Acura was using a different measuring stick than Volvo. The XC60 is a decent place to stash your stuff, but I audibly gasped when I opened the RDX’s hatch. It seemed so expansive for a relatively small vehicle (and don’t forget the Acura’s commodious second row). Where did all this space come from? It also seems like the hatch opening is a little narrower in the Volvo. But it gets even better for the Acura. Underneath the cargo floor partition is a series of secret stashes for valuables. Acura really knows how to do packaging.
Features and Amenities
This is always a tricky one, especially when comparing trim levels that may not be like-for-like competitors. So we’ll take a step back from optional equipment for a second, and evaluate what you get as standard no matter what model you get.
The RDX starts at $38,595, whereas the XC60 starts at $41,440. Both vehicles’ base models essentially duplicate standard features: faux-leather seats, power tailgate, moonroof, power heated front seats, touchscreen, dual-zone climate control, a suite of safety systems and a 4-year/50,000-mile warranty. The Acura gets standard 19-inch wheels, the Volvo rides on 18-inch wheels. While the Acura offers a 6-year/70,000-mile powertrain warranty (to the Volvo’s 4-year/50,000-miles), the Volvo gives you three years of free maintenance, and you have to pay as you go with the Acura.
Adding the A-Spec trim (which also requires adding the Technology package) to the RDX gets you premium leather, upgraded 20-inch wheels, navigation, more USB ports, blind spot detection, front and rear parking sensors, rear cross-traffic monitors, some cool exterior and interior styling upgrades, and a 16-speaker ELS stereo with HD radio. Combined, these packages add an additional $6,200.
With the Volvo, we would have to spend another 10 grand to get keyless entry, 19-inch wheels, upgraded Harman Kardon stereo, proper leather seats, adaptive cruise control, parking assist, retractable mirrors, power-folding rear seats and headrests, blind-spot detection, and full LED headlights and foglights, among other things.
So it appears you can get both with basically the same features, but Acura seems to carry a significant price advantage to get them.
Once you get everything and everyone loaded up, you still have to drive the thing. Is either luxury crossover rewarding?
I hate reading paragraphs of “spex spew,” where all the numbers just smash into each other in a confusing mess, so I’m going to bulletpoint their key performance metrics:
2019 Acura RDX A-Spec
- Engine: 2.0-liter turbo; 272 hp, 280 lb-ft
- 0-60: 6.4 sec.
- ¼-mile: 14.8 sec. @ 94.7 mph
- 60-0 braking: 116 ft.
- Figure-Eight: 27.6 sec. @ 0.61 g
2019 Volvo XC60 T5 AWD
- Engine: 2.0-liter turbo; 250 hp, 258 lb-ft
- 0-60: 6.5 sec.
- ¼-mile: 15.2 sec. @ 89.5 mph
- 60-0 braking: 118 feet
- Figure-Eight: 27.3 secs @ 0.62 g
So the Acura is a wink quicker off the line, a few car-lengths faster to the quarter-mile, takes two feet less to stop, but is a bit slower around the figure-eight. The XC60 T5 Momentum comes in at 4,130 pounds, nearly 200 pounds porkier than that Acura, which could account for the difference in performance.
Note, however, that Acura only offers one engine choice, while the XC60 lineup also offers a T6 with turbocharging and supercharging (as well as a T8 with an added hybrid system). That can significantly improve your performance, but also take a further bite out of your wallet. At this trim-level—and for the price you’ll pay, I have to say…
Ride & Handling
There’s bench racing, then there’s the actual experience behind the wheel.
The Acura has a great engine that’s looking for a better transmission. Shifts from the 10-speed automatic often feel like they are lagging, but the gear-change itself can be harsh and snatchy. Sport mode helps with transmission logic somewhat. Road test editor Chris Walton notes: “Once it’s underway, the turbo comes on and it really wakes up. The shifts are smooth, but well shy of redline—even in Sport+ and manual shift (where it still auto upshifts).”
The RDX’s ride is choppy, too. Dynamically, testing director Kim Reynolds notes: “It doesn’t meet my expectations. There was too much understeer, lackluster turn-in sharpness, and it isn’t particularly powerful either.” As for the Acura’s vaunted Super Handling AWD, Reynolds couldn’t notice its effects, with a lack of turn-in or rotatability: “It seems rather lackluster relative to its badging.” Brake feel is great upon initial input, and then gets more wooden as your foot digs in harder.
As for the Volvo, the 2.0-liter turbo seems well mated to the eight-speed automatic. Shifts come smoothly, although a bit slower when under full throttle. Driving dynamics feel a bit more plugged in, with a much more controlled ride—although offset bumps do tend to result in a bit of head-toss. Walton states: “Wow, this thing is a blast! Who knew? The XC60 offers a slight bit of rotation on entry and mid-skidpad. Zero understeer. Zero. Incredible balance for an SUV. The steering is light (which I like), and quick.”
The XC60 may take two feet further to stop, but feedback is excellent (though beware the panic-stop belt-cinch which will practically cut your torso in half). A collective, “Well done, Volvo,” from the test team.
The RDX may wish to brag about its newfangled touchpad infotainment user interface, but it’s just plain janky according to many staffers, including resident human-factors geek Stefan Ogbac. A multi-step process to search for a radio station with what feels like a 20-year-old Microsoft touchpad is not a modern solution. And Acura’s decision to stick with its button-and-toggle actuations of park, reverse, and drive gears is just begging for driver confusion.
Volvo’s infotainment system is like a giant iPad, so in an automotive application it takes a little getting used to—but it’s not completely inscrutable like the Acura. The user interface is more intuitive, and less distracting in terms of keeping your eyes staying on the road.
I didn’t find Acura’s lane-keeping assist especially helpful, but its adaptive cruise control system was acceptable … until it terrified me by almost rear-ending someone stopped at a red light. The car in front of me decided to move into the left-turn lane, which the RDX interpreted to mean launching forward aggressively. If I hadn’t been on my game and interceded with a firm stomp on the brakes, I’d have been looking at an expensive insurance claim. Even weirder, the event didn’t even set off one of the irritating and frequently unnecessary “BRAKE” warning lights on the dashboard instrument panel.
By contrast, Volvo’s smart cruise is precise and predictable at seeing obstacles and braking cars ahead, though a bit slow to get back up to cruising speed after coming to a halt.
Value/Cost of Ownership
If you are paying cash on the showroom floor, the Acura wins going away. The as-tested price of our loaded up RDX A-Spec was $46,895, while our XC60 T5 Momentum was $49,440. But that’s just the start of the number crunching.
According to MotorTrend partner IntelliChoice, however, the cost to own the vehicle actually comes out ahead for the Volvo in terms of retained value over a five-year period.
The cost to own the vehicle actually comes out ahead for the Volvo in terms of retained percentage over a five-year period, even if you add 10 grand in options. In pure dollars-spent terms over those five years, though, the Acura still will cost less to own.
For many shoppers, that significant MSRP difference at purchasing time will be a deal-breaker. But strategic thinkers might look longer term.
I have owned and loved both Acuras and Volvos, so conspiracy theorists can take a hike. In this comparison, Volvo takes five categories, Acura takes three, and there are two ties. Seems a clear-cut win for Volvo, but the three categories Acura takes are significant for a SUV comparison: interior space, acceleration, and braking, and the cost of extra features. If those items are priorities, you may be happier with the Acura. However, if your wish list calls for a sharp-looking vehicle that’s fun to drive while also making rush-hour easier, the Volvo XC60 is your cool new friend.
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