SAGUARO LAKE, Ariz. -- Clutching a leather-wrapped steering wheel while flicking the shift paddles on the SportShift electronic automatic in a tuned-up crossover utility vehicle, we're carving a keen line around oh-so-tight curves on Route 88 as it winds through sandstone canyons in Arizona's Superstition Mountains.
This is play time: The agile CUV, cast on a rigid chassis with a turbo-boosted four-in-line engine directing a considerable load of torque to front wheels dressed with Michelin Pilot HX MXM4 rubber, snakes through the curlicue canyon course like a sidewinder rattler slithering through Sonoran Desert sand.
A label on the hatchback trunk pegs our CUV as the RDX by Acura, marque of performance and luxury vehicles derived from Honda of Japan.
RDX slots into the compact class with a 104-inch wheelbase and totes a unique variable-flow turbocharger to nix the typical turbo's power lag.
And the 2010 issues of Acura's feisty CUV boost the fuel economy scores by several mpg points while trimming MSRP figures by several thousands of dollars by offering the new option of a front-wheel-drive (FWD) version in lieu of the previously-standard all-wheel-drive (AWD) equipment.
All RDX '10 models show fresh styling on the body, more luxury content in the five-seat passenger compartment and a number of new technology features on-board.
The turbo 2.3-liter engine, from an aluminum block and in-line four-cylinder arrangement with micro-polished crankshaft journals, has Honda's advanced system of computer-controlled intelligence for regulating camshaft phasing labeled i-VTEC (intelligent variable value timing and lift electronic control).
It generates 240 hp at 6000 rpm plus torque of 260 lb-ft at 4500 rpm.
Sole transaxle is a silky smooth electronically controlled automatic with five forward speeds plus Honda's Sequential SportShift override for clutch-less manual shifts with those paddle tabs mounted behind the steering wheel's center spoke.
Federal EPA fuel consumption numbers for the RDX FWD come to 18 miles per gallon for city driving and 24 mpg on the highway.
For RDX AWD, the numbers tally to 17 mpg city and 22 mpg highway.
RDX with AWD employs Acura's SH-AWD (Super-Handling All-Wheel-Drive) equipment.
The computer-controlled AWD system can disburse the engine's considerable torque not only to wheels fore and aft but the left or right ones too. It's always engaged and enables the vehicle to maneuver on wet or dry pavement with the uncanny agility of a wily sports car.
Acura's AWD system normally channels most of the engine's power to the front wheels.
At highway cruise speed, about 70 percent of the torque is driving the front wheels, while the remaining 30 percent goes to turn the rear ones.
If you put your foot hard into the accelerator, however, the computer quickly inverts the power ratio. It shoots 70 percent of torque to rear wheels to help the acceleration effort, while still holding 30 percent on the front wheels.
Also working in favor of a dynamic vehicle is the independent suspension -- tuned MacPherson struts up front and a multi-link design in back with solid-core stabilizer bars added front and rear to check lateral body sway when RDX tackles a set of curves.
And there's a computer-managed vehicle stability control (VSC) system aboard coupled to a traction control system (TCS), plus a four-wheel anti-lock braking system (ABS) with electronic brake distribution (EBD) and brake assist (BA) units.
The 2010 issues of RDX look more aggressive due to styling revisions for a streamlined body posing in a hunkered stance.
There's a low hood line to enhance forward visibility for the driver, with high-intensity discharge (HID) headlights mounted on front corners of the sculptured prow and Acura's five-sided grille with satin chrome brow.
The deep front fascia shows a primary air portal to feed the engine radiator, with a top inlet serving as a cold-air duct for the turbo-charger's inter-cooler, which mounts horizontally above the engine.
On flanks the wavy panels feature bold and bulging wheel arches shoved toward the corners to house the redesigned 18 x 7.5-inch aluminum-alloy wheels.
RDX's roofline slinks rearward over a band of windows with black-capped pillars.
In back a spoiler crowns the tailgate, which dips low to a flush bottom line against the bumper holding new oval exhaust tips.
In the handsome cabin there's room for five riders with supportive sport bucket seats in front of a bench for three and a rear bay for cargo.
The driver-oriented cockpit features a leather-wrapped steering wheel, an instrument cluster with light-emitting-diode (LED) back-lighting for an easy read and a Multi-Information Display (MID) which provides access to a variety of electronic functions.
Posh gear includes perforated leather trimming the seats, automatic controls for the climate system with dual zones for comfort, power operation for windows and mirrors and door locks, the driver's bucket with 8-way power controls including adjustable lumbar support, heat elements inside both front buckets, a center console up front with dual-level stow bins, a power moonroof with tilt, auto-open/close, auto-reverse and key-off functions, a keyless entry device, the back bench with a 60/40 split-folding seatback and a 360-watt Acura Premium Sound System with AM/FM/6xCD/MP3/WMA plus seven speakers and XM satellite radio service.
New standard interior features for 2010 RDX models range from a rear view camera system to auto-function headlights, ambient footwell lighting, an electronic compass and USB-port connectivity.
RDX FWD or RDX SH-AWD may be upgraded with a Technology Package of electronic gear like a navigation system with voice recognition and VGA color monitor, AcuraLink real-time traffic and weather radar mapping and a 410-watt Acura/ELS Surround premium audio system with 10 speakers.
Acura establishes MSRP figures for the 2010 RDX CUV beginning at $32,520 for RDX FWD, or $35,620 with the Technology Package aboard. The 2010 RDX SH-AWD lists for $34,520, or $37,620 with the Technology Package.