Acura RDX, Audi Q3 Vail draw gasps

Wheels contributor Brian Early takes a close look at crossovers introduced at the Detroit auto show.

DETROIT — When car-based crossovers first arrived on the scene, in the form of models like the Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV4, they were somewhat derisively labeled by the media and sport-utility fans alike as “soft roaders.”

Now it seems that the “soft-roader” crowd is having the last laugh, as the realities of increasing fuel prices and varying levels of environmental consciousness conspire with the allure of car-like ride and handling to entice buyers into purchasing those very same crossovers, to the point where traditional utility vehicles are becoming a rarity.

Of course, if fuel economy and good road manners were the only considerations, those buyers would buy, well, cars. However, many consumers prefer the taller seating position, greater versatility and potentially better foul-weather/off-road capability provided by utility-type crossovers.

New compact luxury models, such as the Buick Encore and Audi Q3 Vail being introduced here at the North American International Auto Show, offer those same characteristics in vehicles with an even smaller footprint.

2013 Acura RDX Prototype

Defying the trend amongst compact crossovers to downsize from six cylinder to four cylinder engines, the second generation of Acura’s RDX — shown here officially as a “prototype” but slated for production early this spring — actually gains cylinders.

A 273 hp 3.5 litre V6 replaces the previous 240 hp 2.4 litre turbocharged four (which should benefit refinement and responsiveness), while the automatic transmission gains a gear, now featuring six.

Enthusiasts may mourn the loss of the active torque-vectoring SH-AWD system fitted before, as the 2013 RDX’s all-wheel drive has been lightened and simplified. As consolation, the changes are expected to make the redesigned RDX both more powerful and more economical.

What buyers will probably appreciate more are the improvements made to both the much richer interior and the exterior. Acura’s metal parrot-beak grille design has been toned down somewhat, and there’s now a much clearer resemblance to both the larger MDX and the brand’s breadwinning TL sedan.

Audi Q3 Vail

Neither concept nor specifically stated as planned for North American sales, the Q3 Vail introduced at the show is instead described by Audi as a “themed vehicle.”

It may be a thinly disguised statement of intent, or perhaps it’s Audi’s way of testing the water. It’s already in production in Spain and available in other world markets, so there’s little to stop the German automaker from offering this roughly Ford Escape-sized premium crossover in Canada.

Named after the Colorado resort town, it’s unlikely that the Vail version’s unique winter-sports oriented upgrades would be included.

Being related to parent company Volkswagen’s Tiguan, our production Q3 would probably feature the automaker’s ubiquitous 200 hp 2.0 litre turbo four cylinder, rather than the Vail’s cool, Audi TT-RS based 314 hp turbo five cylinder engine.

My guess is that the Q3 will come our way, either as a 2013 or 2014 model.

2013 Buick Encore

Buick not only enters an entirely new segment with the 2013 Encore, it actually creates one: the domestic compact luxury crossover.

Built in Korea, the Encore is related to the sub-compact Chevrolet Sonic sedan and hatch, meaning that this baby brother to the successful 7-seat Enclave is smaller than you’d expect — smaller, in fact, than a Jeep Compass.

Offering seating for five, this diminutive Buick features the same approximately 140 hp 1.4 litre turbo four cylinder engine and six-speed automatic transmission that’s used in the larger Chevy Cruze.

All-wheel drive will be optional, as will a surprisingly comprehensive range of premium features, such as leather seating, rain-sensing wipers, Bose audio and a heated steering wheel.

A standard 7-inch full colour LCD screen handles infotainment duties.

It will be interesting to see if the Encore’s unique combination of size and upscale content will woo buyers when it arrives early in 2013.

Nissan Pathfinder Concept

Nissan only partially revealed the details of this concept version of the planned fourth-generation Pathfinder, which is set to go on sale this fall.

It is known that the Pathfinder returns to a unibody design (like the 2nd-gen. model), that it will seat up to seven, and that it will — for the first time — feature a CVT transmission.

Some will criticize the switch to this “less rugged” chassis design, but it does recognize the industry’s shift, and substantial fuel efficiency improvements are promised.

I’d suggest that the new Pathfinder will utilize the same 3.5 litre V6 as the company’s new Infiniti JX35 crossover, as these appear to be sister ships, and it would be logical to share that major component.

Additionally, if the new Quest van is any indication, expect the 2013 Pathfinder’s interior to enjoy a marked improvement in quality and style over the current version’s.

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