I’ve been wanting to do some really lopsided comparison tests — something along the lines of a Lamborghini Aventador vs. a Mitsubishi Mirage. I didn’t quite get that, but I did manage something marginally more useful: what does an extra $15,000 get you between two family-hauling crossovers?

I drove, back-t0-back, two crossovers of similar general design and scale. One is decidedly more upmarket than the other: a 2016 Acura RDX and a 2015 Mitsubishi Outlander. I really wanted to know just how much that actually matters, I mean, really, deeply matters.

Because, let me be totally honest with you here, I don’t find either vehicle all that compelling from the start. I’m not exactly a modern crossover guy as it is, but I certainly acknowledge and understand that many, many people are.

The RDX is one of the biggest-selling Acuras, and the Outlander is one of the reasons Mitsubishi still exists. People do like the slightly-downsized SUVs, and what I want to determine here is if buying the better car (the Acura, because, come on, who are we kidding here) will actually make you happier.

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Let’s get to some specifics on the two vehicles so we all know what we’re dealing with here: a 2016 Acura RDX AWD with the Advance package. That particular configuration comes to $44,340, plus dealer charges and whatever celebratory snacks/sex acts you choose to purchase.

The Mitsubishi I tested was the 2015 (I’m using the 2016 prices and details — it’s essentially the same car) Outlander SE S-AWC Premium, which clocks in at $29,945, though I bet a Mitsubishi dealer will be so happy to see you he’d knock a grand or so off that price and probably offer up his watch and dirty pictures of his wife too.

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So, we’re looking at about a $15,000 difference between the two cars. That’s a pretty serious chunk of cash. Hell, it’s enough to get the Outlander and a Mitsubishi Mirage for the price of the Acura. That Acura better be way the hell better than the Outlander, right?

Technically, it is. But I don’t think the answer is so clear. We need to break this down more.

Here was my testing methodology: I pretended these cars were my own. I used them for all daily errands with my little boy Otto, I took them both on multi-hour road trips with him and my wife, and when I walked away from the car at the parking lot, I really considered what it meant to be associated with that car. I paid attention to the usual technical parts of car reviewing, but I was trying more to think of this as a life choice I’d made, if that makes sense.

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I’m going to break down all these complex thoughts into categories to make this easier, and pick winners for each. Off we go.

Looks

From across a parking lot, in profile view, in the same color, most people likely won’t really care enough to tell the difference in these two. In general silhouette, they both read as taller wagons, the usual SUV/CUV look. That’s sort of a shame as the Acura does have a better window line, more emphasis on the wheels, and a little more side sculpting. But it doesn’t really feel too different from the Outlander.

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The faces of the cars are a different story. I really don’t like Acura’s idiot-cybernetic-eagle corporate face. The 10 headlights (yep, 10. Five in each pod-thing) and the massive chrome beak just make the front look like a squinty, sneery mess.

The Outlander, on the other hand, I think has a clean, modern, well-designed face. The narrow upper grille resembles a twin-blade shaver in the best ways, the headlights have a good shape and flow well with the grille, the whole effect is crisp and handsome, I think.

WINNER: Mitsubishi Outlander

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Interior Look And Feel

It seems like at least half of that extra $15,000 for the Acura went inside the car. There’s no question the materials are better, the equipment is better, the floormats smell better, the plastics are more evasive about the fact they’re plastics, there’s more color variation, the instruments and screens are better, and so on. It’s better.

But is it 7500 two-dollar bags of Munchos better? That I’m not so sure. The Mitsubishi’s interior isn’t fantastic, but it’s not horrific, either. It’s mostly that dreaded sea of black that overtakes most uninspired car interiors, but at least there’s some attempt to make things interesting with ‘piano black’ inserts and bits of synthchrome brightwork. The layout’s not terrible, but it’s not as good as the Acura, with their inspired hooded center-stack screen. But it’s comfortable and usable enough.

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The Acura, for as much better as it is, suffers two fatal flaws: the light, creamy interior carpet that coats every surface below your hips is going to look like that disgusting beige shitty apartment carpet that retains a record of every dropped burrito and post-party vomit spray after a year or two. The inky blackness of the Outlander will absorb all that crap much more invisibly.

And, for as ostensibly nice as the Acura interior is, it’s not exactly interesting. You think, hey, this is pretty nice, and then you forget about it. It’s like a nice escrow company’s office. After a few minutes, you just couldn’t give a shit.

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WINNER: Acura RDX

Practicality/Usability

This one is pretty important, since after all the newness and novelty has worn, off, the car’s going to actually have to do stuff. And here, I think the cheaper car wins. First, it actually manages to have a third row of seating in about the same exterior space, which can be really handy, and I think the overall load area is as flexible and a bit bigger, a slightly boxier, more usable shape, and, most importantly, clad in not-too-great black carpet that will deal better with real-world use than the Acura’s fussy and stain-prone light tones.

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I love light car interiors, but light carpet in a cargo area just isn’t really realistic. Ideally, it’d be a tough rubber mat back there, but almost no company has the balls to do that.

The Mitsubishi also gets noticeably better gas mileage than the Acura, likely as a result of it having two less cylinders, about 100 less HP, and funny Dutch-invented cones instead of gears. The difference seemed to be about 5-6 MPG better in the Mirage, for what it’s worth.

WINNER: Mitsubishi Outlander

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Performance/Driving Experience

Thanks to the efficient and modern and awful CVT transmission in the Outlander, the Acura wins this one by a mile. Now, granted, that’s not saying much. Beating an underpowered (166 HP) tall station wagon with a CVT in driving enjoyment and performance is like having a sandwich contest against a used Subway Cold Cut Combo that’s been urinated on twice by two different vagrants and winning with absolutely any other sandwich. It’s just no contest.

In the Mitsubishi’s defense, the one I tested did come with something called S-AWC for ‘Super All Wheel Control.’ You know how on some cars, one wheel is totally out-of-control? Well, this system stops all those rouge-wheel shenanigans, plus it adds super. So there’s that.

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That’s not to say the RDX is particularly great, either. Sure the 279 HP from the 3.5L V6 has enough grunt, the six-speed auto sure feels better than the CVT in the Mitsu, and while it all does just fine, it’s not what you’d call engaging. There’s nothing wrong with the way the car drives, at all — but if you’re thinking you’re going to be getting one of these to really have a rich, engaging driving experience, you’re deluded.

And, yes, that’s even with ‘sport’ mode or whatever the hell they call it, engaged. I feel like sticking a switch on a car to hold gears a bit longer and make the throttle a little more sensitive is becoming a shorthand to free a car from having to have any real character. Besides, it barely matters — no one is autocrossing an Acura RDX.

In fact, in some ways the strange feelings of rage the Mistubishi’s CVT inspires in you is at least an emotion — at least you feel something to remind yourself you’re alive and not some air-conditioned corpse in a well-appointed coffin.

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WINNER: Acura RDX

Status/How Superior Can You Feel Index

On the surface, you may think this would be an easy win for the more expensive and more premium-focused Acura, but you’d be wrong. I mean, yes, ask people which car seems to have more status, Mitsubishi or Acura, most people would probably pick Acura, but in the real world, if this crap matters to you, you’re not usually giving people a this-or-that choice.

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I’ll admit, I personally think most brand-status concerns are stupid, but I can’t pretend it’s not real — then I don’t actually think the Acura delivers enough here.

If you tell someone “I drive an Acura” at best I think you can reasonably expect that person to think “Oh. Okay, this person is doing alright, I guess.” That’s at best. Unless that “Acura” is followed by three letters found in the bee-shilled pharmaceutical Nasonex, I just don’t think most people really give a shit.

Tell a person “I drive a Mitsubishi” they’ll likely think “Oh. Okay. This person has a car.” That’s not quite as strong a result as the Acura, but it sure as hell isn’t $15,000 worse. I just don’t think if you’re looking for brand-recognition status Acura has all that much to offer today. If this is your concern, you should probably put your money into a used Porsche Cayenne or something.

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WINNER: None

So What’s The Conclusion Here? Is The Acura Worth It?

No. Fuck no.

I mean, yes, it’s a better car, no question. But when it comes right down to it, in actual use in real life it doesn’t do anything so much dramatically better than the Mitsubishi (accounting for once you get used to the peculiarities of how a CVT-equipped vehicle feels). It just doesn’t give it a year to let the luster wear off and the let the carpets get a little dirty and let some of those soft-touch plastics get a bit worn and the differences in quality all sort of get eroded away between the cars.

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Will one age better than the other? I honestly don’t know. What I do know is that the Acura RDX is a nice, fairly premium-feeling crossover, but it’s also deeply boring. It’s a fancier CR-V, and if for some reason you really loved this platform, it’s hard to see why you wouldn’t just get a loaded CR-V for around $12,000 less.

The Mitsubishi Outlander isn’t particularly great, but it’s not awful, and if you can find one cheap I’m sure it’d do what you needed it to do, well enough.

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Wait, What’s Your Advice, then?

Here’s what it comes down to: in that murky border zone between “normal” crossovers and
“premium” crossovers I don’t think a gap of around $15,000 gets you all that much. I do think, though, that cars are very important, and if you actually have an extra $15,000 to spend on your car, and you want some sort of a crossover, you should. But not by buying an Acura.

Get a cheaper but decent one — this Mitsubishi will work, or a CR-V, or maybe a RAV4, whatever — they’re all such bloodless clones no one will really every give a shit. But the key is then you take that $15,000 you saved, and you buy another car that you actually desire. $15,000 can get you something used and interesting almost no matter what your tastes are.

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Want an old MGB? Easy. Want a 1989 JDM Nissan Pao? I sure as hell do. Want a Fox-body Mustang or a BMW 2002? All possible.

Life’s too damn short to be stuck driving some cushy crossover that you paid too much to really have fun with and that you’ll never really love. Get something cheaper, and then get something that actually makes you excited to drive.

If you don’t have room or the means for a second/project/fun car, or you’re not that interested in cars, then, I still don’t think spending $15,000 more is worth it. The Acura just isn’t engaging enough.

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Keep the $15,000. Go on a trip. Have some custom underwear made from thinly-sliced salmon. Help a friend out of a bind. Go on a bender. Whatever. Nicer-feeling plastics won’t really make you happy, but I bet you know something that will.


Contact the author at jason@jalopnik.com.

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