Tweeners: Life between two worlds for these luxury SUVs
As an immigrant of Mexican descent, I have become accustomed to hearing the phrase, “Ni de aqui, ni de alla.” It means, literally, “Neither here nor there.” My friends and cousins often jokingly say that to describe me: I have lived in America for more than a decade, but when I mingle with Americans I’m always seen as the outsider.
That phrase can also apply to our recently tested trio of luxury SUVs. They have a shorter wheelbase and a lower price than the traditional compact European SUVs (such as the BMW X3, Mercedes GLC, and Audi Q5), yet they are larger and pricier than their subcompact counterparts (such as the BMW X1, Mercedes GLA, and Audi Q3). Our batch of crossovers lives between two worlds. They are tweeners.
Whether you’re in your mid- to late 30s and are about to start a family, or you’re an empty nester who’s looking to downsize from your three-row SUV or minivan, these tweeners provide the utility, agility, and value you might be seeking.
As automakers grow their SUV offerings, they try to satisfy the needs of everyone. That means splintering segments into ever-narrower niches. In the case of this particular sector, we see consistently elegant and aggressive designs but quite different approaches in terms of technology and comfortable seating for five. Did Acura, Cadillac, and Infiniti make the right choice in splitting it down the middle?
Our goal was to have each SUV priced at about $50,000 USD. But Cadillac wasn’t able to provide us with a model meeting those specs, so they sent us one with $18,545 USD worth of packages and options—topping out at an eye-watering $56,835 USD for an SUV with a base front-drive price of $35,790 USD. Although the XT4 is the smallest crossover from this group, it also was the most expensive. It’s powered by a 2.0-liter turbo engine mated to a nine-speed automatic that sends 237 hp and 258 lb-ft of torque to all four wheels. With a ground clearance of 6.7 inches, the XT4 rides closer to terra firma than the two other SUVs in this group, but its polished design and clean lines make it an attractive crossover on the road.
Acura sent a $51,715 USD version of its top-trim RDX, with 20-inch wheels (that alone price out at $3,320 USD). Propelled by a lightly massaged version of the 2.0-liter turbo-four yanked from the wild Honda Civic Type R backed to a 10-speed transmission and Super-Handling AWD, the RDX SH-AWD is the most powerful player in this group, with 272 hp and 280 lb-ft of torque. However, its design can be polarizing. With a yawning pentagonal grille and an oversized brand logo, the RDX’s lines could be described as busy and aggressive. From the cockpit, it’s impossible not to stare at the hood’s sharp creases, which extend from the grille toward the A-pillars.
With its VC-Turbo 2.0-liter inline-four, the Infiniti QX50 has the most complex powertrain of the group. It’s a turbocharged variable-compression engine mated to a CVT that sends 268 hp and 280 lb-ft of torque to all four wheels. A technical marvel, Infiniti met our $50,000 USD cap by sending the Essential trim, priced at $49,685 USD. The QX50 can also be described as the most attractive of the tweeners, thanks to its clean lines and simple creases. Its constitution blends and expresses luxury from every angle.
The QX50’s interior is the nicest of the three, a clear statement of luxury. The design flows well, with a premium aluminum trim that delineates the contour of the cabin. For $50,000 USD, this is one of the finest interiors you’ll see in this category, and if your budget is more flexible, Infiniti provides a combination of suede, wood, and leather that’s even more opulent. This is also the only tweener that offers a second row with reclining seat backs and its own HVAC controls for rear passengers. Acura and Cadillac provide air vents and heated seats for the second row, but the RDX has two USB ports while the XT4 and QX50 have one.
In terms of versatility, both the RDX and XT4 have fold-flat rear seats, but Infiniti’s seats are a few degrees off. The Acura and the Infiniti can tumble their second-row seats from either the rear hatch or the rear door openings; the Cadillac, however, only does so from the cargo area. Speaking of cargo, Infiniti’s trunk space is superior in the category, with up to 31.1 cubic feet of space. Acura offers a smidge more cargo space, but only if you include the 1.6-cubic-foot bin located underneath the cargo floor.
As for seating multiple passengers, these tweeners are challenged for space, but we concluded that the QX50 would be the one to pick—mostly due to its reclining second-row seat backs. The RDX also has a spacious second row with a flat floor that frees legroom for middle-seat occupants. Both Erick Ayapana and Chris Walton of our test team, who are hardly giants, found the XT4 cramped. Although it has a longer wheelbase than the RDX, the Caddy’s poor packaging and high beltline proved too confining. As for my 6-foot frame, there was precious little headroom and barely enough legroom.
One of the must-haves in today’s luxury SUVs is a premium audio system. After continuously listening to the three systems, we judged Acura’s 16-speaker ELS Studio 3D as the best. It delivered crisp, clear audio quality, whether I played my own tunes through Apple CarPlay or listened to SiriusXM radio. Both Infiniti and Cadillac offer a Bose surround-sound system, but the QX50 comes with 16 speakers, and the XT4 has 13. Ayapana preferred the clarity of the Cadillac’s system but added that the QX50’s sound system was also decent.
For driver assistance, both Cadillac and Acura offer a head-up display. Cadillac’s multicolor version felt more intuitive, modern, and clear, with a premium appearance.
We had a chance to sample these SUVs in two different environments—first at the Honda Proving Center near California City, as part of the MotorTrend SUV of the Year testing. The Honda proving ground allows for closed-course driving on a challenging winding track, an off-road sand circuit that mimics fresh snow, and different surfaces that imitate the worst conditions of our nation’s highways and byways. A few weeks later, road test editor Walton, associate road test editor Ayapana, and yours truly took a deeper look at the handling of these crossovers on the roads of Southern California’s Palos Verdes Peninsula—which includes hilly switchbacks, open boulevards, and the gnarled, slow-motion landslide known as Portuguese Bend.
Whether it was on city streets, the desert, or the highway, it was easy to choose a winner in terms of performance. The RDX quickly gained everyone’s attention with the way it corners, its punchy power delivery, and the smoothness of the 10-speed automatic. It’s not the quickest of the group, but it’s the one that handles best. “I love the supportive, comfy seat, the contour and weight of the steering wheel, and the directness of the steering,” Walton said.
With four driving modes available (Comfort, Snow, Sport, and Sport+), drivers can enjoy the different settings depending on the road conditions. The RDX can reset to Comfort or Sport every time it’s turned on, but it’s easy to switch to a different mode via the enormous rotary knob in the center console. Like its name suggests, Sport+ is the most lively of all, as the software refines the response of the steering and suspension while the engine revs at higher rpms. The RDX took 6.6 seconds to get from 0 to 60 mph and completed the quarter-mile test in 15.1 seconds at 92.9 mph (149.5 km/h).
The good powertrain communication we enjoyed in the RDX was missing in the QX50. The Infiniti’s variable-compression engine is a technological marvel, but it is poorly mated to a CVT, which mutes power delivery. “There are at least three things changing all the time—gear ratio, turbo boost, and engine compression—and they are each fighting over who takes the mic,” Walton said. “They only all come together and agree what to do at wide-open throttle. What a mess.” Ayapana shared this feeling, saying that the throttle response has a “lurching, slingshotlike delivery.” We also complained about the suspension, noticing far more vibrations inside the cabin than when driving the RDX or XT4 over the same pavement. “I found bumps and impacts I didn’t know were there,” Walton said. Regardless, the QX50 was the quickest of the group, taking 6.3 seconds to get from 0 to 60 mph.
Things got a little better with the XT4, though Walton described its ride as “flinty.” Ayapana liked the responsiveness of the steering but said that it lacked road feel. He enjoyed the reaction of the transmission to throttle inputs, as it shifted when it needed to. Yet the three of us found ourselves opting for the paddle shifters for a sportier experience. Despite the XT4 being the smallest crossover of the mix, we noticed a lot of body roll, which lost the Cadillac points in terms of handling. This was the tweener with less power and more heft, with a weight-to-power ratio of 16.7 lb/hp—the worst in the group.
There are different paths to achieving in-car connectivity. With dual screens, touchpads, and even simpler interfaces, Acura, Cadillac, and Infiniti have followed different paths to please their customers.
Walton, Ayapana, and I all liked the way Cadillac handled its business with an updated version of its once-pilloried CUE system. It behaves like a smartphone and has modern graphics that are sharp and simple to use. Through an 8.0-inch touchscreen, occupants can use their phone via Apple CarPlay or Android Auto, or they can use the contemporary navigation system to get around. The infotainment system responds quickly, and it’s easy to get to where you want without frustration—you can use your fingers to zoom in or out, just like with a phone. With a straightforward layout, Cadillac really paid attention to the technology. After all, some buyers place an intuitive infotainment system higher on their must-have list than, say, handling.
Such contemporariness is missing in the QX50’s nav system and its outdated graphical interface. Infiniti opted for a dual-screen layout, leaving the top screen for the nav system and the bottom for infotainment. But it’s a missed opportunity. The clunky user interface is “a glaring weakness in an otherwise decent cabin,” Ayapana said. Walton complained about the many options to control the two screens: steering wheel buttons, touchscreen, hard buttons below the touchscreen, and the push-knob controller. “In a hurry, I never know where to go to change something,” he said. We were also disappointed to find that the QX50 offers neither Apple CarPlay nor Android Auto. Even though the QX50 is relatively new, Infiniti failing to provide this useful technology made us wonder what the product planners were benchmarking. In a retro touch, the QX50 is the only one in the group that offers a CD player—great for folks who prefer a higher-quality audio source, albeit in a ponderous form factor.
With a touchpad cursor that mirrors the screen above, Acura has the most avant-garde infotainment setup in the group. But the system still needs some refining. How easily you can control a touchpad might depend on which generation you belong to. The younger folks on our staff found the infotainment system easier to use than the mature group at the office—yet both groups concluded that the haptic touchpad was distracting, as you have to take your eyes off the road to follow the cursor on the screen. Sure, the screen is mounted on the highest point possible on the center dash, but even then it’s hard to know where each icon is located. Apple CarPlay also takes more time to navigate, as you have to swipe your finger across the touchpad to move the “cursor” to where you want it. Android Auto is not available. However, Acura’s voice control was a good redundant option, and it understood my commands even with my strong Spanish accent.
You’re buying a crossover from a luxury brand. You expect the best. And that includes safety mechanisms. Offering AcuraWatch as standard equipment across the lineup, the RDX comes with collision mitigation braking, adaptive cruise control, lane keep assist, forward collision warning, lane departure warning, and road departure mitigation. Only the Acura had been tested by the IIHS at the time of this story’s closing—it was given the prestigious Top Safety Pick+ award, scoring “Good” in all categories.
Our Infiniti came equipped with the ProAssist package, a $550 USD option that adds backup collision assist, adaptive cruise control, rear cross-traffic alert, and distance control assist, which helps maintain safe following distance without cruise control enabled. The Cadillac carried the Driver Assist and Driver Awareness packages, which together include adaptive cruise control, forward and reverse automatic braking, front pedestrian braking, forward collision alert, lane keep assist with lane departure warning, and intelligent high-beam headlights—for $1,870 USD.
Walton enjoyed a stress-free drive in bumper-to-bumper traffic with the safety tech of the RDX, including adaptive cruise that works all the way to a full stop. “It slows more gently and accelerates faster than some other systems I’ve tried,” he said. The QX50’s ProAssist system, a step below the top-trim ProPilot Assist package, doesn’t bring the full semi-autonomous experience to the QX50. Yet the intelligent cruise control followed the car in front with no hiccups. We least liked the XT4’s lane keeping system, which had a difficult time keeping the Caddy centered between the stripes.
All three SUVs bring something special to the table. Acura takes the lead on handling and safety, Infiniti brings an outstanding design and superb interior space, and Caddy’s infotainment system takes the user experience to the next level.
Mainstream crossovers are about transport. But upgrading to a premium brand puts a bit more emphasis on looks, performance, connectivity, safety, and a pleasant interior experience. Whether you’re starting a family or looking for a car to transport your grandchildren, for a $50,000 USD price tag you also want a vehicle that makes you feel special. In this tweener segment, there’s only one SUV that delivers on all those traits.
Third Place: Infiniti QX50
An alluring design with a comfortable cabin and good-quality materials is held back by a underdeveloped powertrain and outdated infotainment interface.
Second Place: Cadillac XT4
Decent handling that comes with the best infotainment of the group, but its poor use of interior space makes its loud cabin feel cramped.
|2019 Acura RDX SH-AWD||2019 Cadillac XT4 2.0T AWD||2019 Infiniti QX50|
|DRIVETRAIN LAYOUT||Front-engine, AWD||Front-engine, AWD||Front-engine, AWD|
|ENGINE TYPE||Turbocharged I-4, alum block/head||Turbocharged I-4, alum block/head||Turbocharged I-4, alum block/head|
|VALVETRAIN||DOHC, 4 valves/cyl||DOHC, 4 valves/cyl||DOHC, 4 valves/cyl|
|DISPLACEMENT||121.7 cu in/1,995 cc||121.9 cu in/1,998 cc||120.2-121.9 cu in/1,970-1,997 cc|
|POWER (SAE NET)||272 hp @ 6,500 rpm||237 hp @ 5,000 rpm*||268 hp @ 5,600 rpm|
|TORQUE (SAE NET)||280 lb-ft @ 1,600 rpm||258 lb-ft @ 1,500 rpm*||280 lb-ft @ 1,600 rpm|
|REDLINE||6,800 rpm||6,250 rpm||6,000 rpm|
|WEIGHT TO POWER||14.9 lb/hp||16.7 lb/hp||15.2 lb/hp|
|TRANSMISSION||10-speed automatic||9-speed automatic||Cont variable auto|
|SUSPENSION, FRONT; REAR||Struts, coil springs, anti-roll bar; multilink, coil springs, anti-roll bar||Struts, coil springs, adj shocks, anti-roll bar; multilink, coil springs, adj shocks, anti-roll bar||Struts, coil springs, anti-roll bar; multilink, coil springs, anti-roll bar|
|BRAKES, F; R||12.4-in vented disc; 12.2-in disc, ABS||12.6-in vented disc; 12.4-in vented disc, ABS||13.0-in vented disc; 12.1-in vented disc, ABS|
|WHEELS||8.0 x 20-in cast aluminum||8.5 x 20-in cast aluminum||7.5 x 19-in cast aluminum|
|TIRES||255/45R20 101V (M+S) Goodyear Eagle RS-A||245/45R20 99H (M+S) Continental ProContact TX||235/55R19 101V (M+S) Bridgestone Ecopia H/L 422 Plus RFT|
|WHEELBASE||108.3 in||109.4 in||110.2 in|
|TRACK, F/R||64.2/64.7 in||63.2/63.1 in||64.4/63.8 in|
|LENGTH x WIDTH x HEIGHT||186.8 x 74.8 x 65.7 in||181.1 x 74.1 x 63.2 in||184.7 x 74.9 x 66.0 in|
|GROUND CLEARANCE||8.2 in||6.7 in||8.6 in|
|APPRCH/DEPART ANGLE||17.2/21.0 deg||14.6/26.5 deg||17.2/23.9 deg|
|TURNING CIRCLE||38.9 ft||38.0 ft||36.4 ft|
|CURB WEIGHT||4,044 lb||3,949 lb||4,084 lb|
|WEIGHT DIST, F/R||57/43%||58/42%||58/42%|
|TOWING CAPACITY||1,500 lb||3,500 lb||3,000 lb|
|HEADROOM, F/R||40.0/38.0 in||39.4/38.3 in||40.0/38.4 in|
|LEGROOM, F/R||42.0/38.0 in||40.4/39.5 in||39.6/38.7 in|
|SHOULDER ROOM, F/R||60.0/57.0 in||57.0/55.1 in||57.9/57.1 in|
|CARGO VOLUME BEH F/R||58.9/29.5 cu ft (+1.6 cu ft under floor)||48.9/22.5 cu ft||64.4/31.1 cu ft|
|ACCELERATION TO MPH|
|0-30||2.4 sec||2.7 sec||2.3 sec|
|PASSING, 45-65 MPH||3.4||3.7||3.3|
|QUARTER MILE||15.1 sec @ 92.9 mph||15.7 sec @ 89.8 mph||14.8 sec @ 93.6 mph|
|BRAKING, 60-0 MPH||122 ft||118 ft||121 ft|
|LATERAL ACCELERATION||0.81 g (avg)||0.86 g (avg)||0.84 g (avg)|
|MT FIGURE EIGHT||27.2 sec @ 0.64 g (avg)||26.3 sec @ 0.66 g (avg)||26.7 sec @ 0.66 g (avg)|
|TOP-GEAR REVS @ 60 MPH||1,550 rpm||1,550 rpm||1,750 rpm|
|PRICE AS TESTED||$51,715||$56,835||$49,685|
|AIRBAGS||8: Dual front, front side, f/r curtain, front knee||7: Dual front, front side, f/r curtain, driver knee||8: Dual front, front side, f/r curtain, front knee|
|BASIC WARRANTY||4 yrs/50,000 miles||4 yrs/50,000 miles||4 yrs/60,000 miles|
|POWERTRAIN WARRANTY||6 yrs/70,000 miles||6 yrs/70,000 miles||6 yrs/70,000 miles|
|ROADSIDE ASSISTANCE||4 yrs/50,000 miles||6 yrs/70,000 miles||4 yrs/Unlimited miles|
|FUEL CAPACITY||17.1 gal||16.3 gal||16.0 gal|
|REAL MPG, CITY/HWY/COMB||20.2/29.0/23.4 mpg||Not tested||19.6/30.0/23.2 mpg|
|EPA CITY/HWY/COMB ECON||21/27/23 mpg||22/29/24 mpg||24/30/26 mpg|
|ENERGY CONS, CITY/HWY||160/125 kW-hrs/100 miles||153/116 kW-hrs/100 miles||140/112 kW-hrs/100 miles|
|CO2 EMISSIONS, COMB||0.83 lb/mile||0.79 lb/mile||0.74 lb/mile|
|RECOMMENDED FUEL||Unleaded premium||Unleaded premium||Unleaded premium|