Photos copyright ©2010 Michael Harley / AOL
Fifteen years ago, feeling obligated to answer a new threat from Infiniti
, Acura introduced the world to its first sport utility vehicle. While Infiniti and Lexus both had models in the corporate family to lean on (the Infiniti QX4 was a rebadged Nissan Pathfinder
, while the Lexus LX 450
was a rebadged Toyota Land Cruiser
), Acura had an empty garage. Undeterred, the automaker partnered with Isuzu and reworked the rugged body-on-frame Trooper as the "all-new" Acura SLX in 1996.
Bad press (Consumer Reports rated it "Not Acceptable" after discovering the SLX's tendency to roll during emergency maneuvers), lousy performance and an overall unappealing appearance doomed it from the start. The Acura SLX was sold for just four years before it was discontinued after the 1999 model year.
After a year without offering a high-riding wagon, Acura launched its first home-grown crossover – renamed the MDX – in 2001. While Infiniti and Lexus continued to offer brawny and capable truck-based SUVs, Acura's newest seven-passenger model shared platforms with the Honda Odyssey
minivan and the Honda Accord
sedan. Unlike the rugged truck-like competition, the unibody constructed MDX featured a transverse-mounted 3.5-liter V6, a five-speed automatic transmission and an all-wheel-drive system based on front-wheel-drive running gear.
The second-generation Acura MDX debuted for the 2007 model year. Completely redesigned and larger in every dimension than its predecessor, the new seven-passenger CUV shared architecture with the Honda Pilot
and Honda Ridgeline
pickup – both unibody front-wheel-drive platforms. While the Ridgeline featured Honda's "VTM-4" AWD, the upscale MDX was fitted with Honda's performance-oriented "Super Handling All-Wheel Drive" (SH-AWD), powered by an upgraded 3.7-liter six-cylinder running through a five-speed automatic transmission.
Acura made several big changes to its flagship SUV for 2010. Most visibly, the MDX received a facelift to align its appearance with the rest of its siblings. Under the hood sits a new 3.7-liter engine with an upgraded six-speed automatic transmission. The steering and suspension were tweaked, and 19-inch wheels were added to its new Advance package. Lastly, Acura performed a few cosmetic enhancements inside the cabin and updated many of the electronics.
Unlike some of the competition that tend to sell you on an upgraded trim level with a more powerful engine and then nickel-and-dime you for additional options, Acura's pricing structure is both simple and logical. All models share the same long list of standard equipment and the identical powertrain. However, five distinct models are created by mixing and matching three major equipment packages (Technology, Entertainment and Advance). The few available accessories, such as mud guards, roof rails and cargo liners, are negotiated at the time of sale and installed at the dealer.
The buy-in for an Acura MDX starts at $42,230 (plus $860 destination), but entry-level models rarely get parked in our garage. While the standard car is beautifully equipped, Acura chose to lend us a top-of-the-line "MDX with the Advance and Entertainment packages." The total sticker price of $54,565 included the Technology Package (navigation with real-time weather/traffic, ten-speaker surround sound with Dolby Pro Logic II and GPS-linked climate control system), Entertainment Package (DVD-based rear-seat entertainment, nine-inch display, wireless headsets, heated second-row seats and a 115-volt power outlet) and the Advance Package (active suspension, collision mitigation braking system, sport seats, adaptive cruise control, HID headlamps, 19-inch wheels and more). That's an exhaustive list of features, accessories and creature comforts – nearly to the point of sensory overload – but expected considering the sticker.
All 2010 Acura MDX models share a significantly reworked 3.7-liter SOHC 24-valve V6, now rated at 300 horsepower and 270 pound-feet of torque – down five lb-ft from last year, but Acura claims overall efficiency is improved. The largest powerplant in Honda's arsenal features an aluminum block, magnesium-alloy heads and a forged crankshaft to save weight. Bolted to the transversely-mounted engine is a new six-speed automatic transmission. The traditional wet gearbox utilizes Acura's Grade Logic and Shift Hold software to improve drivability and features wheel-mounted paddle shifters for manual control. Power is sent to all four wheels through the automaker's SH-AWD system, standard across all models. Acura doesn't publish acceleration times for the 4,600-pound MDX, but most publications peg its 0-60 sprint at about seven seconds (a few tenths off its mechanical twin, the slightly lighter Acura ZDX).
The MDX picked an excellent week to hang out with us. In addition to a slew of family-oriented appointments that were sure to keep its engine warm, we had a one-day 600-mile road trip inked on our calendar. The mid-size Acura would be busy, allowing us plenty of time to scrutinize its performance.
On a very positive note, there was no need to worry about being held captive within the MDX's cabin for any length of time. The driver and front passenger are pampered with supportive, incredibly comfortable seats that offer excellent back support, plus heating and cooling features. Second-row occupants have their own climate controls, heated seats and the overhead DVD-based entertainment system to keep them occupied. While the third row is best suited for children (as is nearly always the case), the back row in the MDX does seem more accommodating than most in this segment. The quality of the premium leather is impressive and the fit and finish of materials is top-notch, but it is easy to become overwhelmed with the acres of fake molded wood grain plastic (we weren't fooled for a second, and neither were any of our passengers).
Primary instrumentation is easy to visually decipher, but things become much more difficult when the task falls to the fingers. Blame the multitude of buttons that cover the steering wheel, door panel, dashboard and center console like wildflowers on a hillside in spring. The dials, knobs and switches are all functional, of course, but 1950's-era flight engineers stared at less intimidating panels. Furthermore, our tester was fitted with a color navigation screen display, monochromatic radio numerals and a glaring orange display on the instrument panel. All offered different bits of information presented in a unique manner. While we yearned for a single large display to interact with the vehicle's many subsystems, several others who rode in the SUV scoffed at our uneasiness with the dashboard ergonomics. They said it looked "futuristic" and "cool." Buck Rogers would be... proud?
Considering the level of high-tech gadgetry on the MDX, it's a bit odd that the CUV's primary controls remain so traditional. It still uses a steel key slotted into the steering column for ignition, a foot-operated parking brake with a hand release, and standard "PRNDS" transmission lever.
Driving around town, with or without a full complement of passengers, the MDX is a crossover your grandmother would adore – as docile as a pony in a petting zoo, without any handling quirks or mannerisms to make the driver nervous. The 3.7-liter engine makes sufficient torque off the line, so pulling out and merging into traffic is a breeze, and the braking system never had us questioning its performance. Outward visibility is good when underway, and even semi-decent when parking (we liked the reverse camera's multiple views, but would have welcomed the audible tone of back-up sensors as an addition). The Acura is far from petite, but it drives much smaller than its physical presence would suggest.
On the highway, Acura's largest SUV ticked off the miles effortlessly. It showed no fear when climbing steep grades and it refused to flinch when passing oversized big rigs, holding its track as if fitted with an arrow's vanes. Noise intrusion into the cabin, from the engine or tires, was kept low and muffled (and the audio system sounded great). The active suspension absorbed harsh bumps, yet was yielding enough to allow our passengers in the back to sleep as the miles rolled by.
The sophisticated SH-AWD system seamlessly transfers power to the corners of the vehicle, completely devoid of clunking or pulsing. Reminding the driver of the system's effectiveness, the MDX features a display in the middle of the primary instrument cluster that shows, in real time, how much torque is being sent to each wheel. Not the brightest thing to do while pummeling corners, but we digress.
Fuel burn is about what we expected. The EPA rates the 2010 Acura MDX at 16 mpg city and 21 mpg highway sipping premium unleaded. During our 600-mile run, we consumed two full tanks on the highway. Hand-calculated, that worked out to 19.41 mpg on the first fill-up (daylight hours and averaging about 75 mph), and 21.78 mpg on the second (reduced speeds on the highway in the dark). Our city fuel economy, reported as 15 mpg by the trip computer, wasn't as inspiring.
If forced to throw stones at the MDX, we know where we would aim. Acura calls it a "driver's SUV" that was "...tuned on Germany's famed Nürburgring track." Yes, it is surprisingly athletic (in spite of those all-season tires), but the feedback through the steering wheel is anesthetized. Regardless of what the SH-AWD is doing at each corner, the sensation from behind the wheel is exactly what you'd expect: it's a big, heavy crossover, that's very obedient, but not particularly fun. The Acura delivers the cornering G's, but fails to hand over any driver gratification in the process. A driving enthusiast would be disappointed, but the majority of drivers out there will prefer the isolation.
When looking at the big picture, it becomes obvious that Acura has finessed its flagship into owning a comfortable niche in the seven-passenger luxury-CUV segment. The mass of heavy-hitters, including the Audi Q7
, BMW X5
, Land Rover LR4
, Lexus GX
and Mercedes-Benz GL-Class
, are significantly more expensive when comparably equipped. Only the Volvo XC90
, more similar to the MDX than the aforementioned competitors, occupies the same price bracket. However, the Acura offers more technology than the Swede, matches the Volvo for crash safety and handily beats it in reliability.
After a very enjoyable week with Acura's flagship – arguably the best product in the automaker's lineup – we surmise that the MDX is a well-executed, luxurious, family-oriented, all-season sport utility vehicle. Heralded as such (and not as a performance vehicle), it's a leading player representing one of the best values across a wide swath of the segment.