Approaching its 21st season since landing on these shores as the first Asian luxury brand, Honda's Acura arm is working hard to upgrade its products and image from nice but bland to high-tech and hot. This effort is handicapped by the lack of a V-8 or a rear-wheel drive anywhere in its lineup but with 300-hp V-6s and Acura's pretentiously named but highly effective Super-Handling All-Wheel Drive (SH-AWD), they contend, who needs those?
Given the surprising performance of the new MDX, we're beginning to agree.
In marketing speak, Acura's goal is to move the MDX from its 2001-06 predecessor's "near-luxury SUV" segment (large but with little growth) to the expanding "performance SUV" niche. With stickers in the $41k-$48k range, that places it directly against the Audi Q7, Cadillac SRX, and Infiniti FX35/45, somewhere between the BMW X3 and X5 and into Porsche Cayenne territory.
"We want to pump up the emotional factor," says Product Planning Manager Scott Crail. "The target is somewhere between Audi and BMW," adds Senior VP, Automotive Operations John Mendel.
Honda/Acura targets buyers with near-comical precision. Where the previous MDX appealed to "Family Moms," Crail says this new one aims at affluent "Stylish Moms," who will either make or heavily influence the purchase decision, while shifting "Executive Driver Dads" into its sights. "The intent is to satisfy both by "breaking out of the pack" to create a new "family sport luxury SUV" combining driving excitement, prestige, and "stealth utility."
Stealth utility? That means the vehicle's styling, performance, and image are up front, while the people, cargo, and (5000-pound) towing capabilities are more covert. While the '07 is the same size as the '06 MDX on a two-inch longer wheelbase, the design makes it look smaller, with the curved triangular C-pillar obscuring the fact that there's a semi-useful third-row seat.
Enough horses from fewer cylinders
The MDX's new 3.7-liter SOHC VTEC (Variable Valve Timing and Lift Electronic Control) V-6 - Acura's largest and most powerful ever, and the strongest six in any U.S.-market SUV - pumps 300 peak SAE net horses and 275 lb-ft of torque through a five-speed automatic with Sequential Sport Shift. We didn't get a straight-line performance test, but 0-60 should fall into the sub-seven-second range. EPA rated economy is 17/22 mpg city/highway.
We did flog the MDX mercilessly on Pennsylvania 's BeaveRun road-racing course and found it surprisingly good. Yes, it understeered when we turned into a corner a bit late and got momentarily light cresting a fast brow, but it was otherwise virtually Velcroed to the track. Unlike the BMW X5, Porsche Cayenne (V-6), and Volvo XC90 provided for comparison, this new Acura's steering was spot-on, it turned in crisply and surely, tracked tightly and powered out of corners aggressively with a strong and satisfying engine note. Our only complaints: the brakes (Acura says they're "best in class") heated up and developed a soft pedal following repeated hard laps, and we couldn't convince the manumatic to downshift to first for the tightest turns.
Given that the Acura engineers pulled a page out of their German and U.S. competitors' book by developing the MDX's dynamics at Germany's Nuerburgring race trace, we should not have been so surprised. And the MDX - despite its substantial size and three-row utility - is in reality a car-based "crossover" SUV greatly enhanced by Acura's SH-AWD, which can transfer up to 70 percent of available torque to the rear wheels and up to 100 percent of that to the outside rear wheel. That helps glue it to dry pavement as well as to slipperier surfaces.
The new suspension geometry, MacPherson strut up front and multi-link in back, rolls on 18 x 8J alloy wheels wearing P255/55R18 all-season tires. Cooperative Vehicle Stability Assist (VSA) incorporates traction control and Trailer Stability Assist and works with the SH-AWD by predicting the need for VSA and transferring torque quickly enough to eliminate it. The four-wheel-disc ABS brakes include Electronic Brake Force Distribution (EBD) and Brake Assist, which optimizes brake pressure in emergency stops. Using the same concept and magnetic fluid as GM's Active Handling, an available Active Damper System (part of the Sport Package) instantaneously shifts from tightly damped for aggressive driving to comfortably soft for normal cruising. This enables MDX to outperform X5 and Cayenne in performance handling and Lexus RX330 in ride, according to Vehicle Dynamics Engineer Jason Widener.
Plush where it needs to be
The odd-looking grille, which reverses past Acura practice with wide chevron-shaped chrome bars where black space normally is and black space replacing the usual thin chrome central bar. "We wanted something that stood out and caught your eye," says Chris Combs of Honda Research, which styled the new MDX in its California studio. Otherwise, MDX looks about right for its mission, with equal parts SUV aggressive and luxury impressive.
The driver-oriented interior is a right-on blend of plush and sporty. It's a three-row, seven-passenger CUV with bolstered second-row buckets as comfy as the front pair, so a middle-row center passenger essentially perches on a padded kitchen chair between them. Those second-row seats tilt and slide forward with one touch for easy access to the (kids-only) two-abreast third row, and both back rows fold flat into the floor for 83.5 cu. ft. of cargo space.
The glovebox and console storage box are huge, and the latter has a split cover so the driver can get into it without disturbing a sleeping passenger. Besides the odd, overly chromed grille, the only design details we subjectively didn't like were the shiny faux-wood interior trim and the outside mirrors, which seem to droop downward like a dog's ears.
Features and safety
Because the third leg of Acura's image stool is tech-heavy content, the standard content list is long, and three feature-laden packages are optional. A Technology Package upgrades the already premium audio to a truly awesome 410-watt, six-channel, ten-speaker ELS surround sound system with a six-disc CD/DVD-Audio changer, adds voice-recognition navigation with real-time traffic info and a rearview camera and even links the climate control to the GPS to automatically adjust temperature according to the position of the sun.
A Sport Package includes all of that plus the active dampers, auto-leveling xenon HID headlamps, premium full-grain leather seating, textured metallic interior accents and an exclusive alloy wheel design. An Entertainment Package piles on a remote power-operated tailgate, heated outboard second-row seats, a 110-volt AC power outlet and a rear-seat DVD system with a flip-down nine-inch screen, three audio jacks and a pair of Dolby Digital Surround Sound wireless headphones.
On the safety front, this new MDX boasts Acura's Advanced Compatibility Engineering (ACE) body structure designed to evenly distribute crash forces and has a special frame member below its front bumper to engage the front bumper of a smaller vehicle and better protect its occupants in a frontal crash. The six-airbag interior provides dual-stage, dual threshold front bags, driver and passenger side bags, and full-length side curtain bags.
If you identify with Acura's Stylish Moms or Executive Driver Dads, perhaps a luxurious, sporty, technology loaded CUV with surprising dynamics and stealth utility is what you need.
2007 Acura MDX
Base price: $37,500 (est.)
Engine: 3.7-liter SOHC VTEC V-6, 300 hp/275 lb-ft
Transmission: Five-speed automatic, all-wheel drive
Length x width x height: 190.7 x 73.6 x 68.2 in
Wheelbase: 108.3 in
Curb weight: 4541 lb
Fuel economy (EPA city/hwy): 17/22 mpg
Major standard features: HID low-beam, halogen high-beam headlamps; Tri-Zone automatic climate control with humidity control and air filtration; keyless remote; cruise control; power tilt/telescope steering wheel; power windows, locks, and mirrors; leather seating; power heated front seats (10-way driver's, 8-way passenger's); Multi-Information Display; Bluetooth wireless telephone interface; 253-watt, eight-speaker premium audio with six-disc in-dash CD, MP3, WMA changer, XM Satellite Radio, and aux input jack
Safety features: Anti-lock brakes with EBD and Brake Assist; stability control; dual front, side, and curtain airbags; front active head restraints
Warranty: Four years/50,000 miles