SAN FRANCISCO – It’s likely a coincidence.

Just as Honda Motor Co. Ltd.’s Acura luxury brand prepares to launch its RDX small cross/utility vehicle with a 2.3L turbocharged 4-cyl. and all-wheel drive, Mazda Motor Corp. rolls out its all-new CUV with the same attributes.

While Acura officials here insist the real competition for the ’07 RDX is BMW AG’s 6-cyl. X3, the timing couldn’t be worse, with the Mazda CX-7 already on sale with a lower price.

The high-end AWD CX-7 tops out at about $32,000, where Honda says the RDX pricing likely will begin when it goes on sale in August. For the record, the ’06 X3 begins at $36,880.

The Acura RDX represents the first time Honda has offered a turbocharged engine in a U.S. model. The CUV also features the second application in the U.S. of the auto maker’s Super Handling All-Wheel-Drive (SH-AWD) system.

Each technology adds several thousand dollars to the vehicle’s price, but company officials believe well-heeled consumers will be willing to pay more for an upscale Acura than for a mid-market Mazda.

In addition to having similar engines and drivelines, the RDX and CX-7 interiors bear an uncanny resemblance, with a sea of black leather and plastic offset with metallic accents.

The fit of the RDX interior is impeccable, with tight, even panel gaps, especially around the audio system and heating, ventilation and air conditioning controls on the dash.

Unfortunately, there is nothing that screams “premium” or “luxury” material-wise. Minus the Acura logo on the steering wheel, the interior quite easily could be mistaken for that found in many Hondas.

While Acura says it’s aiming for interiors more likened to BMW sportiness than Lexus elegance, it has yet to find a definitive way to distinguish its products.

The RDX rides on what Honda officials say is a 90% new platform, with some parts shared with the upcoming new Honda CR-V CUV, Honda Accord midsize sedan and Acura RL flagship sedan.

The RDX has a wheelbase of 104.3 ins. (264.9 cm), 3.6 ins. (9.1 cm) less than an Accord sedan and 1 in. (2.5 cm) longer than the current CR-V.

The RDX is 180.7 ins. (459.0 cm) long and 73.6 ins. (186.9 cm) wide, with a height of 65.2 ins. (165.6 cm), an inch shorter than the ’06 CR-V.

The suspension is a MacPherson strut-type in the front and a multlink setup in the rear.

In designing the RDX, Honda says it wanted a sporty, performance-oriented CUV, in contrast to the larger and more refined MDX, which also is redesigned this year.

While certain buyers may not take to the jostling, even over moderately rough pavement, of the RDX’s stiff suspension, the Acura CUV is a much kinder ride than BMW’s ultra-bouncy X3.

The RDX’s cabin is comfortable and spacious, at 101.4 cu.-ft. (2.9 cu.-m), with plenty of rear-seat legroom. However, the rear seats do not recline, a feature that is found in other CUVs, such as the lower-priced Nissan Murano and the upcoming Jeep Compass.

The RDX’s turbocharged and intercooled DOHC I-4, which employs Honda’s i-VTEC variable valve timing and electronic lift control and variable timing control system, is destined to please low-end torque fans looking to peel away from a dead stop.

The turbo-4 is a lhigh-revving engine, not achieving peak horsepower and torque until 6,000 and 4,500 rpms, respectively. But, with the vehicle’s electronic drive-by-wire throttle system, that range is within easy reach.

Yet, despite the RDX’s 240 hp and 260 lb.-ft. (353 Nm) of torque, there are times when turbo lag is evident, such as passing another vehicle on the highway.

And don’t expect a quiet ride with the RDX’s raucous exhaust tune, especially in “turbo mode,” which Honda allows buyers to conveniently follow via a dedicated cluster gauge.

The standard 5-speed automatic transmission with paddle shifters is reminiscent of the gearbox in Honda’s new Fit Sport subcompact: Both offer instant response to inputs. Unfortunately, the smallish paddles require the use of thumbs to hold the steering wheel, leaving the other four fingers to control them.

There was one alarming quirk in a few pre-production, non-salable models driven here by members of the media.

Even with the shift lever in “S” for Sport mode, some drivers experienced their vehicle shifting on its own. That should only occur when the paddles are employed while the shifter is in Drive. Honda officials say they’re looking into the problem.

Honda expects about 40% of ’07 RDX buyers will opt for models upgraded with the next-generation ELS Surround DVD-Audio system, developed for Panasonic Automotive Systems Co. of America by recording engineer Elliot Scheiner.

The initial ELS sound system debuted on the Acura TL sedan.

The 410-watt, 10-speaker surround-sound system offers eight discreet audio channels vs. the typical two and supports compact discs in the DVD-A format.

Buyers not opting for the upgrade only get a 7-speaker, 360-watt audio system, with standard 6-disc changer and auxiliary jack for an MP3 player. All RDX buyers will get a complimentary 3-month subscription to XM Satellite Radio, which includes XM’s real-time NavTraffic service.

Honda hopes to sell 40,000 RDX CUVs annually in the U.S. (13,000 in calendar 2006), which seems like an achievable target.

Time will tell whether buyers put more stock in Acura’s reputation for quality and notoriously high residual values, and choose the RDX over Mazda’s similar, but less pricey CX-7. In today’s cutthroat market, the RDX could be in for an uphill battle.

cschweinsberg@wardsauto.com