History is largely unkind to losers. That's true in the world of politics and sports, and it follows on with a few caveats in the realm of automobiles.
In terms of cars, historic losers tend to be remembered in one of two broad ways. Every once in a while, unsuccessful or oddball models actually make reputational gains after some time away from the new-car marketplace. I consider the Saab 9-2X one of the recent poster children for this group; a car that moved like molasses on dealer lots in the mid-2000s but has morphed into a sort of hard-to-find, used gem in recent years. More often, though, that which was unloved when new remains unloved with tens or hundreds of thousands of miles on the odometer. Pontiac's seriously misunderstood Aztek has king status here (despite the wailings of oddball fan clubs across the nation), so much so that invoking "Aztek" as a pejorative stopped being pithy about a dozen years ago.
I just spent a week driving the 2013 Acura ZDX, a vehicle whose distinct charms cannot save it from placement somewhere on the continuum of failed automotive experiments. It remains to be seen if the crossover will ultimately land in the pillowy, judgment-free zone many reserve for Subaru BRATs and BMW M Coupes, or the wasteland occupied by the Yugo GV, Cadillac Cimarron and their disappointing ilk.
The fact is that in 2013, just a few years removed from its introduction and well into its triple-digit sales years, the ZDX remains one of the best crossovers on the market to drive overall. This Acura offers a reasonably sporty balance between ride comfort and handling, with enough driver involvement available to push it past more run-of-the-mill members of its competitive set.
The ZDX remains one of the best crossovers on the market to drive overall.
The ZDX's steering wheel might be similarly filtered of road feel, but it offers quite a dose of heft and precision when compared to a Lexus RX, for instance. Turn-in response is a bit laggy along whimsically bent pieces of road for my tastes, but its wheel offers confident weighting for holding a line on a fast exit ramp, changing lanes at speed on curved stretches of highway, or other brief moments of dynamic joy found in everyday urban motoring.
I'll admit that when taken out for a spin on a country road, the ZDX has a nose-heaviness that more or less defines its character. But the Super-Handling All-Wheel Drive (SH-AWD) and its torque-vectoring magic counterbalances the car's understeering nature just enough that it's still possible to make a decent time out of a Sunday drive. Ask for a change of direction with some rapidity and the ZDX's nose hesitates a bit, but hold your line and keep your foot in it and the power to the rear will bring the crossover body around in relatively snappy fashion. That wouldn't be high praise if I were talking about a sports sedan, mind you, but it's just about as good as it gets where luxury-oriented crossovers are concerned (notable exceptions found below).
The 3.7-liter V6 motivating this slicked-back Acura outputs 300 horsepower and 270 pound-feet of torque – a respectable set of figures even in today's turbocharged landscape. Of course, in traditional Honda fashion, the V6 has got to be really hammered to get the most out of it. Peak power doesn't come on until 6,300 rpm, just 500 revs short of redline, with full torque available at 4,500 rpm. So, where force-fed six-cylinder engines like those in the Audi Q5 or the Volvo XC60 will get up and git at lazy engine speeds, Acura requires that you really work its six-speed automatic transmission to wring performance out of the happy-to-spin mill. And, of course, the point of a CUV, even a sporty sort of CUV, is that no one is going to expend a lot of effort to make it go fast.
There's a rakish cut to the Acura's sheetmetal that ... stirs up a lot of attention.
This isn't a driver's segment. So, unfortunately, the incremental plusses that the ZDX offers versus a bog-standard, lux crossover don't do much to move the needle. Could a higher level of performance and even more money tacked onto its bottom line have better differentiated the ZDX from the herd to the tune of meaningful sales numbers over the last four years? Hard to say, really. But I do come away from driving the Acura (not just this one, but much of the current lineup) with the nagging sense that it is very close to being very good to drive without actually getting there.
Still, when the ZDX was introduced, something about its fast, hunkered shape – riding just higher than an AWD sedan but looking nothing at all like a station wagon – triggered instant polarization amongst interested onlookers. There's a rakish cut to the Acura's sheetmetal that, along with the rarity of the model, stirs up a lot of attention, both good and bad. My not-at-all-car-interested neighbor waved hello the first day I had the ZDX, enthusiastically pointing out, "That looks like a good one!" where most cars would have caused no comment at all. I was stopped in the middle of photographing the CUV when a fiftyish-something couple amiably posed a dozen or more question about the car, not buying it at all when I tried to convince them that the ZDX wasn't "just the same as that Honda Crosstour." (By way of reminder, the ZDX rides on the same platform as the MDX while the Crosstour's bones are shared with the gen-eight Honda Accord.)
Hey, when you see a guy with a unicorn, you're probably going to ask him about it, even if you think it's weird looking. I get that.
We're still talking about roughly 6,200 specimens of this unicorn running around the US, in total.
In the 2012 model year, Acura sold fewer than 800 examples of the ZDX. In its first full year on sale, 2010, Acura dealers shifted around 3,200 units, which also represents the apogee of the soon-to-be-discontinued model's yearly sales figures. Even if we assume (boldly) that the automaker will repeat its sales figures from 2012 in the final 2013 run for the ZDX, we're still talking about roughly 6,200 specimens of this unicorn running around the US, in total.
Just as a point of reference: in MY 2010, when the Acura MDX was recently facelifted but otherwise in the middle of its second-generation, it outsold its crossover coupe stablemate 47,210 to 3,259. And just because I know that a few of you will wonder, the inexorably linked (thanks to introduction timing and bodystyle) and more expensive BMW X6 was sold to Americans 6,257 times in the same model year.
Ultimately, I think the failure of the ZDX to sell comes down to packaging and pricing, despite the oft-derided styling. Hear me out. Acura put together a lovely, somewhat austere cabin for the model: supple leather covers the dash, center console and door inserts, heated and cooled seats are super comfortable and even the carpeting and floor mats feel of above-average quality. For 2013, Acura is only selling the ZDX in one trim level, basically including all of the equipment from all of the options packages from years past: Panoramic glass roof, 19-inch wheels, HID headlights, navigation with voice recognition and the ELS sound system. (The quiet-at-speed ZDX cabin is still amongst my very favorite listening booths with this excellent Elliot Scheiner-tuned hi-fi system.) The all-in cost including an $895 destination fee is $51,815. And, while not meaning to be glib, that's an awful lot of cash for a CUV that has an impractical hatch and really cramped rear seats.
The failure of the ZDX to sell comes down to packaging and pricing, despite the oft-derided styling. Hear me out.
Even older competitors with rakish styling like the X6 and Infiniti FX37 can boast of two or three inches more headroom than the ZDX for rear seat passengers, to say nothing of cargo space. Today, the smaller-footprint Range Rover Evoque five-door has a lofty 4.3 inches of extra headroom when compared with the Acura, to say nothing of being a better realization of the personal AWD luxury vision, getting better gas mileage and having a lower MSRP. That's before we get into four-place crossovers and SUVs that aren't penalized by having a "four-door coupe" silhouette.
So, there are any number of reasons why you and I didn't buy a ZDX over the last four years, and plenty of good ones for Acura to kill the model off after 2013. But I started this review by asking how history will judge it, and the optimist in me believes that it could still find love in the years to come.
The optimist in me believes that it could still find love in the years to come.
Why? In the early going at least, the rarity of the ZDX combined with still-excellent Acura residual prices should mean that the relatively small number of buyers looking for a good used example will have to pay a premium. A cursory web search shows used prices hovering in the high $20k range for cars with over 50,000 miles and well into the $30k territory for cars with 40k miles and lower. Fast-forward a few decades, and it's not a stretch to imagine that the prescription of a quirky brand, an outsider design, the utterly unique cabin and increasing rarity could cause a car club or two to spring up. Who knows, it might even be the Saab 9-2X of the 2030s?
I'm sure that's not what Acura wants to hear. The truth is that car companies don't experiment in big splashy ways as often as they used to in years past, in part because the cost associated with the risk is just way too high. And that makes me a bit sad, and it makes me want to root for iconoclasts like the ZDX all the more. I can only hope that lessons learned with this model make Acura's next experiment more successful in the marketplace; not that it causes the company to give up trying altogether. Both outcomes are possible, even if the latter is more likely.