Photos copyright ©2009 Michael Harley / Weblogs, Inc.
To understand the Acura ZDX, one needs to know a bit about the MDX, its incredibly close sibling. The MDX is a very competent, traditionally-designed, unibody crossover utility vehicle. Motivated by a 3.7-liter V6 and sending power through Acura's rather brilliant torque-distributing Super Handling All-Wheel Drive (SH-AWD) system, the family-oriented MDX starts with a base price of just over $40,000. Now in its second-generation (last redesigned for the 2007 model year), the seven-passenger CUV delivers typical Acura innovation, utility, reliability and safety in a package that isn't going to raise anyone's pulse from behind the wheel. Regardless, its owners don't seem to care as it does a great job of accomplishing its objective of being a luxurious crossover.
Mechanically, the MDX and ZDX are very much alike, right down to the shared unibody design, wheelbase and track (the ZDX is slightly longer overall). Both crossovers feature the identical 300 horsepower, 3.7-liter VTEC V6 sending power through a new six-speed automatic, and Acura's SH-AWD powertrain is also standard fare on each. The curb weight of the ZDX is 4,431 pounds (with Tech package), undercutting the slightly heavier MDX by more than 100 pounds. While the sturdy MDX can tow a 5,000-pound trailer, the new ZDX is chassis-limited to just 1,500 pounds.
Although sharing much of the same DNA, these dizygotic twins are very different in physical appearance. Penned by the California-based Acura Design Studio, the sleek ZDX features bold fender flares that taper inward, hidden rear door handles, and an all-glass roof that stretches from front wipers to tailgate. The automaker accurately declares, "The ZDX is like nothing you have ever seen before from Acura." That statement may be true, but the exterior design bears more than a striking resemblance to the BMW X6 – its primary identified competitor.
More so than the aggressively styled BMW, the ZDX errs on the side of femininity. A proud parent boasting about the vehicle's edgy design, Acura repeatedly uses the word "sexy" to describe the skin of the ZDX. While we liked some of the touches (the sculpted rear quarter panels are pleasingly unique), we simply weren't struck by any carnal urges.
On the other hand, we were impressed with the ZDX's interior design. Instantly recognizable as an Acura family member, the cockpit is fresh and stylish. Driver and front passenger sit apart, separated by a sweeping dash with a tall center console. Overhead, the panoramic moonroof features two individual glass panels (not one large panel, as found with BMW). The front panel slides open, while the other is fixed. Rather than close them with an opaque shade, Acura utilizes a tight fabric mesh that allows visible light to permeate the cabin without transmitting heat or UV rays to the passengers. The primary instrument cluster features traditional round dials, while the center control panel (Acura calls it a "monolith" design) is coldly black until the audio system is switched on. From where we sit, Acura has done an amazing job within the cabin environment. Premium natural grain leathers and high quality plastics add a rich and warm feel to the cockpit. From the driver's seat, it looks, feels, and smells expensive.
There is little arguing with Acura's proclamation that the passenger compartment of the ZDX is designed primarily for the front two occupants (the automaker brazenly calls it a "two plus three" and points out that the front seats are the "primary passenger zone" while the rear is the "freedom" zone for gear... or three people). Thanks to that aforementioned styling, the sloping roof and tapered rear end cleanly remove the passenger space and utility enjoyed in the MDX. Shoehorned back there, we found the rear seats are small and cramped for anyone mildly claustrophobic or even a hair taller than Tom Cruise – we've heard that the Mazda RX-8 has more room in the second row. Just for confirmation, on the way home from driving the ZDX we hustled over to a local BMW dealer to sit in the rear seats of the X6 – they were generously cavernous by comparison.
Accessed through the standard power-operated tailgate, the rear cargo area is as nicely finished as the front passenger cabin. High-quality materials, metal-plated handles, and closed-loop carpet mean that golf bags, mountain bikes, or skis travel in their own first class compartment. While it would never be described as spacious, hidden panels line both sides for expansion, and there's a generous storage area under the floor. The second-row seats also fold flat, in a standard split arrangement, for any oversize items.
Acura will offer the ZDX in three different flavors: ZDX, ZDX Technology and ZDX Advance. All share the same powerplant and driveline, panoramic roof, all-leather interior, Bluetooth connectivity, rearview camera, 19-inch wheels and a 266-watt audio system with eight speakers. The ZDX Technology adds navigation, multi-view camera, AcuraLink® Satellite communications, real-time weather and traffic, keyless access and an upgraded 435–watt audio package with ten speakers and a 15 GB HDD. The ZDX Advance adds icing to the Technology package with added active suspension, adaptive cruise control, collision mitigation braking system, blind spot information system, ventilated seats and a sport steering wheel.
Pricing has not been announced, but Acura says the MSRP will be higher than the MDX, yet undercut the RL sedan. We figure you'll need about $45,000 to put one in your garage (in case you are wondering, the twin-turbo six-cylinder BMW X6 optioned equivalently will set you back about $70,000).
With the detailed product orientation behind us, we put the keyless entry/ignition fob in our pocket, hit the red start button, and pointed the ZDX towards the hills above Malibu.
Settled comfortably into the front seat, we immediately realize the styling has compromised the outward visibility (those are seriously thick C-pillars). Acura has attempted to increase sight lines with the additional tinted glass panel at the bottom of the tailgate. It works, but you must rely on the standard backup camera during reverse maneuvers. The seating position is coupe-like low, putting the front corners of the hood out of view from the driver's seat, and over the course of an afternoon, we never became overly comfortable with its dimensions.
Driven like a gentleman, the Acura ZDX is as mundane as a Honda Accord and as quiet as a private library. Acura engineers were obsessed with isolating passengers from unnecessary noise, vibration and harshness (NVH). Acoustic noise-absorbing mats, wheel housing insulators and special tire tread and compound limit much of the common road and mechanical noise. Much more impressive is the innovative, and standard, Active Noise Canceling system – essentially white noise piped through the audio system – to limit unwanted frequencies. The result is an amazingly quiet cabin that makes conversation easier and travel much more relaxing.
Romp on the gas in a spirited manner and the 3.7-liter V6 wakes up immediately (it will run to 60 mph from a standstill in about 6.5 seconds). It's an excellent powerplant, but not exactly engaging for the enthusiast with its unoriginal soundtrack mostly coming from under the hood (we were told the exhaust was tuned for duty in the ZDX, but you really can't hear the rear silencers from within the cabin). The six-speed transmission shifts nearly imperceptibly and it responds well to the steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters.
After being informed that Acura did suspension tuning at the famed Nürburgring, we took the opportunity to push the ZDX on some challenging canyon roads of our own. We sampled both models with and without Acura's active suspension (IDS alters suspension damping and steering effort) and found both handled about the same at the limit. Regardless of electronic intervention, the steering is rather numb on each. However, with a rock-solid platform and the variable (front-to-back and side-to-side) torque distribution of the SH-AWD clawing at the pavement, it was tough to break the ZDX's composure even when pushed beyond its limits.
The Achilles heel of this Acura's handling is found on all four corners – the all-season Michelin tires. While their standard size is meaty (255/50R19), the compound is strictly M+S (all-season) meaning they sing like holiday carolers when pushed above 6/10ths and slide like teenage snowboarders above 7/10ths. With 58 percent of the ZDX's mass over the front tires, we expected plenty of understeer at the limit. Surprisingly, it was rather balanced mid-drift and very controllable (credit goes to the SH-AWD, most likely). The ZDX will never be mistaken for a performance vehicle – it honestly isn't enjoyable to drive hard – but rest assured the Acura can handle the mission if it's ever called for duty.
We really don't know what to think of the ZDX. Acura has hit a home run with the interior appointments, chassis tuning, and cabin isolation. However, they swung and missed with second-row comfort, outward visibility, and fun-to-drive quotient. Targeted at the BMW X6, and marketed as a "Passionate Getaway" coupe for couples, the ZDX has been positioned in an awkward and rather diminutive niche. While Acura loyalists and enthusiasts lament the loss of performance-oriented vehicles such as the Integra Type-R and exotic NSX, the plebian ZDX debuts without a compelling reason to join the team.