The Acura MDX is a totally new sport-utility vehicle. It represents Honda's acceptance that the luxury SUV market is big and still rapidly growing.
If Honda ever believed sport-utility vehicles would become such a monster success in the marketplace the company did not act like it. Late to the SUV party, Honda rebadged the Isuzu Rodeo as the Honda Passport. The Isuzu Trooper emerged as the Acura SLX.
Now comes the much-anticipated in-house SUV. Acura claims its MDX offers best-in-class V6 horsepower and torque, greatest fuel efficiency, "greenest" emissions, and best crashworthiness. The MDX offers seven-passenger capacity and a unique four-wheel-drive system that prevents skids almost before they occur. All this is wrapped in a neat though not flashy package with the calm attention to detail expected of things Honda.
The MDX is the model of simplicity with many features but only two options. Standard are leather seating surfaces (first and second row seats) with leather door inserts; wood-patterned trim; keyless remote entry; power windows, door locks and mirrors, power tilt and sliding moonroof; cruise control, seven-speaker AM-FM/cassette stereo with in-dash CD player; power adjustable front seats; alloy wheels and a multi-function digital trip computer.
The engine (a 3.5-liter VTEC) generates 240 horsepower and 245 lb-ft of torque happily available from 3000 to 5000 rpm. The gearbox is an all-new five-speed automatic with gear ratios spaced to match the requirements unique to an SUV.
Though the full-featured line-up in the MDX is one that generally appeals to women buyers, Acura expects 70 percent of the buyers to be male. (We think the safety elements and the environmental friendliness of the MDX will prove to be extremely attractive to women.)
The optional Touring package adds a keyless remote entry linked to the two-position driver's seat and mirror memory system; eight-way adjustable passenger seat; roof rack; an outside mirror that tilts to track progress while backing up; different alloy wheels and - this is the central core of the upgrade - a killer 200-watt, eight-speaker Acura/Bose music system with in-dash six-disc CD changer.
The optional Acura Navigation System with DVD needs only one disc to cover the entire continental US. Always our favorite among nav systems for its intuitive simplicity in use, the Acura system holds some 3.7 million points of interest ranging from ATM machines to restaurants and hospitals. If you want to pick up some cash, make a stop at the nearest Chinese take out and then locate an emergency room for your over-indulgence it is all at your beck. A novel addition to the nav system, uniquely appropriate for a vehicle equipped to seek out the uncharted outbacks, is a feature that leaves "electronic bread crumbs" on screen. No road visible under the little wedge-shaped marker that represents your vehicle? Not to worry. This nav system leaves a line that you can easily retrace back to where there be no more dragons.
The MDX is produced at Honda of Canada Manufacturing in Ontario, Canada, and Acura expects to sell 35,000 to 40,000 of them in the first year of production. A problem not unknown to Acura and Honda has been production restraints. Demand often outpaces availability. A new plant is in preparation but will not be ready for 14 months. This may help put the MDX in strong demand.
The Acura people speak of the MDX's "athletic" appearance. True enough if you have in mind a linebacker rather than a 100-meter sprinter. A casual look reveals a sturdy, stable-appearing machine with a wider, firmer stance than its competitors. Limited overhang gives it a denser, compact air. Large taillights also add to the straightforward sense of a strong presence.
The MDX does not draw a gasp for unique design or beauty of line. Rather it is like Emily in "Our Town" who asked her mother if she were pretty. Remember the scene? The motherly answer: pretty enough for all "normal purposes."
What isn't obvious except in a body-off view is the duality of the construction of the MDX. It is both unibody and body on frame! This Centaur-like approach gives uncommon rigidity and strength gained from the longitudinal rails with eight box-section cross members. This is the thinking engineers' path to making a car/truck both a car AND a truck whichever is appropriate to the occasion.
Oh yes, something else evident when the chassis is "naked": there's a vent tube for the differential so that water won't get into it when you are bumper deep (actually up to 18 inches) in a creek. So they have given thought to either rugged use or flooded roads. That goes beyond the usual "neutralize bad weather" approach of SUVs.
The airy perforated leather on the seat is echoed in the side panels, the steering wheel and the shift knob. There is nothing swoopy or eye-popping about the instrument panel, just easily read instruments with an unobstructed view. Honda's simple large knobs fall easily to hand and are easy to operate whether that hand is wearing mittens or has long fingernails. The overall sense is the serenity of simplicity.
The air bag fits flat into the fascia of fake animal hide, which looks better than it sounds. The sun visors have extensions for those sharp shafts of sun angling low at dawn and dusk. And then there's the added touch of elegance makes you say to yourself, "If they thought of this they must have thought of everything": That's the roof-mounted grab handles that don't go CLUNK against the ceiling when released; they whisper their dampened way back into place.
Oh yes, another thing they thought of: that muddy back-of-the-legs syndrome when getting out of an SUV after driving in sloppy slush or a rainy road. Acura has enclosed that offending dirty-maker in bodywork so you can dismount cleanly.
The third row of seats is easier to get into than those, say, of the Volvo Cross Country wagon. They are a dandy bonus for kids who seem to like far-away places. Every seat in the house has a shoulder harness as well as a lap belt. (Many SUVs do not come with a shoulder belt in the rear center position.) And there are anchors for child seats seemingly everywhere. Lots of cup holders, too.
But maybe the most impressive feature is the split air-conditioning system. Not only can those in back have a different temperature than the front-seat riders, but one zone can get heat while another gets air conditioning. That ought to cut down on whining.
When not in use, the third row of seats folds to disappear completely into the floor, leaving a flat surface with nothing protruding to scratch your luggage. They split as well for a varied mix of people and stuff.
Space and cargo flexibility are superior to the class.
SUVs are the offspring of cars and trucks. Which side of the family they most resemble is a design choice. And how you use your SUV should determine whether you opt to favor Auntie Car or Uncle Truck.
If you are serious about your off-road adventures you are, firstly, rare. (Surveys say only 5 percent use their SUVs for off-road travel.) If, however, you do need to navigate over fallen logs, dried ruts and rocks of Plymouth size, then you need a suspension with long travel to maintain adequate contact with the trail's surface. You need a low, low "creeper" gear to take you down extremely steep inclines without having to touch your brakes (and thus maybe skid sideways.)
Unfortunately, all of that Uncle Truck stuff makes for poor highway going. High ride height and long suspension travel can lead to excessive lean in corners and a greater possibility of rollover should a curb or pothole get in the way. And the ride can be rough and lurchy.
Now Auntie Car is far smoother on paved surfaces, taking to corners with a quick turn-in and a secure grip. But she can scare you in the serious outback. Even strand you.
Every SUV is a compromise. Some have chosen to forego off-road competence with a more comfortable - and comforting - ride on city streets and highways. Their higher seating position and their four-wheel-drive capability makes them neutralizers of bad weather, which is what most SUV buyers really want.
Acura sees the MDX competition as the BMW X5, the Lexus RX300 and the Mercedes-Benz ML320. These are SUVs that tend to favor Auntie Car. (The Mercedes M-class does have a transfer case and a low range, however. The others, including the MDX, don't.)
Of all the SUVs in our experience the Acura MDX seems to balance Auntie Car and Uncle Truck traits the best. Its highway manners are excellent with secure cornering, though perhaps without the keen turn-in of the BMW X5. The MDX feels extremely stable and as untippable as a rhino.
Acceleration is better than any of those Auntie Car machines (and all of the Uncle Trucks). The MDX will get to 60 mph from a stop in 9 seconds, a full second faster than the nearest competitor. The mesa-shaped torque curve gives comforting acceleration (for merging and passing) at any speed. And the brakes are absolute standouts, responsive and secure.
MDX is capable of towing 3500 to 4500 pounds, capability normally considered an Uncle Truck trait.
As for off-road, the MDX makes up for the absence of a transfer-case and a granny gear with a regular low gear that is extra low. Venturing onto badly rutted forest service roads or trails leading to fishing sites and trailheads will not overtax the MDX.
It comes with a unique new four-wheel-drive system. The MDX is normally in front-wheel drive for reasons of economy. Some all-wheel-drive systems normally cruise in front-wheel drive, but when their sensors detect slippage the rear wheels are engaged. Not so the MDX. Slippage, the Acura engineers reason, can only occur under acceleration. And so the MDX engages the rear wheels as well as the front wheels whenever under acceleration without waiting for slippage to occur. Acura has always been good at taming and avoiding torque steer, the curse of powerful front-wheel-drive vehicles, and this system cuts it off before it can start.
Acura provides an "unstuck" button on the dash (that's what it says) that locks the differential progressively to get out of really tough situations.
Though safety and clean emissions do not figure in how a car drives they do figure in how you feel about driving it. Two safety points: Acura expects a five-star federal crash rating (the best) on the MDX. And Acura claims the MDX can be hit from behind by a vehicle going 35 mph without the third row of seats being breached.
As for "greenness," the MDX will nationwide meet the strict California emission standards. The MDX will be rated an ultra-low emissions vehicle, or ULEV.
The Acura MDX combines most of the virtues of the SUV genre and diminishes or eliminates most of its vices. Anyone seeking comfort, performance, spaciousness, flexibility, proven safety features, environmental awareness and driving pleasure in a value-loaded package must have a look at the MDX.
Model as tested
4 years/50,000 miles
Gas guzzler tax
Price as tested
Options as tested
navigation system; Touring Package includes special alloy wheels, roof rack, tilting back-up mirror, remote keyless entry linked to memory seat and mirrors, Acura/Bose 200-watt audio system with 6-disc CD changer; destination charge
Model Line Overview
Safety equipment (standard)
ABS, dual airbags standard
Safety equipment (optional)
3.5-liter 24v sohc VTEC V6
Specifications as Tested
leather seating (except 3rd row); power windows, locks and mirrors; moonroof; cruise control; seven-speaker AM-FM/CD/cassette; power adjustable front seats; alloy wheels; multi-function digital trip computer; third row stowable seats; four-wheel drive with lockable differential