Acura MDX Review

Acura MDX ReviewEver been stuck with too much to do but no time to do it? Acura has. Back when the SUV party was just getting started, it occurred to them that no mainstream automaker had yet brought a luxury SUV to life. Faster than you can say "first-mover advantage," Acura jumped to action. But instead of taking the time to masterfully plan out the usual ground-up design, execs struck a deal gaining permission to dress up Isuzu Troopers into what became known as the Acura SLX.

So Acura took a shortcut, and got shortchanged. An unconvincing disguise, clumsy road manners, and a Consumer Reports report of Troopers tending to land on their heads when changing direction pretty much sealed the SLX's fate. After annual sales plummeted to 694, Acura made sure to kill, bury, and disassociate itself from the SLX by the millennium crossover.

But before the end, Acura set forth on building a proper replacement that was to bear the moniker MDX. Its 2001 arrival date may have come years after Infiniti, Mercedes, Lexus, and BMW made their marks, but much more importantly, this entirely self-made SUV was a real Acura.

The MDX ascended from the platform of the Honda Odyssey, with which it shares space on the same Ontario assembly line. Just to name a few of the marked differences over the SLX, the MDX has lots more room, two more seats, replaced the full frame with one-piece unibody construction, replaced Isuzu's low-output V6 with a high-horsepower Honda mill, and runs around on a different 4WD system - one that's now front-wheel-based.

RoadTestAcura MDX Review
Before the groans begin, there are worse fates than resembling a minivan in driving character, especially one as heralded as the Odyssey. Where that Honda is smooth, predictable, and carlike, this Acura is, well, all of the above. The MDX definitely belongs to the new school of SUV design, the one where it's taught to leave ponderousness in the past. Despite its heft, feel through the wheel is the classic light Honda-Acura the world now knows to expect. It maneuvers with the dull but pleasant manner of an Odyssey and the 38-foot turning circle is tight enough for inner-city escapades; a rear back-up camera and auto-tilting right-side mirror help with parking. Aside from the various sensations caused by sitting way up here (like slightly copious brake dive), the familial resemblance is clear.

But the MDX goes like the Odyssey don't, having been born with 240 horsepower and now packing 265. That's up 25 on the Lexus RX330 and lets the MDX barge its way in and out of traffic and pass effortlessly on the freeway, with that melodic V6 growl stirring the soul all the while. This jewel of an engine mates to a 5-speed automatic transmission that's better-behaved than most made by Honda: upshifts are transparent and low-speed gear hunting is rarer than usual. The brakes, upgraded this year with brake assist for panic situations, feel sure and steady. (Oddly, the rear brakes are bigger than the fronts.) Smooth throttle, too. And unlike on its introduction date, the MDX now has stability control.

The MDX was also revised for SUV duty, a little bit anyway. A wallop of extra steel reinforces its shorter body and an all-wheel-drive system ("VTM" -variable torque management) was added to the repertoire. Yes, the MDX is one of those soft-roaders that cruises in 2WD most of the time, then calls in the backs when necessary. But instead of waiting until slip happens, the MDX's other half hooks up during acceleration. The bias varies proportionally - harder acceleration and/or lower gears send more power to the back - but the effects are transparent from the driver's seat. For truly sticky situations, Acura also gives you the "VTM-4 LOCK" button, which forces 56% of torque to be sent to the back; it can only be engaged with the gear lever in 1, 2, or Reverse, up to 18 MPH, and is strictly for off-road use. Acura is refreshingly honest, dubbing the MDX a "medium-duty" off-roader. But don't venture too far from land - without locking differentials or low-range gearing, the MDX isn't a serious sport utility.

Nor is it an NSX. Try to hustle and the MDX hangs on well for an SUV (for what it's worth), but you're too busy bracing yourself against the door panel and fighting the forces of inertia and gravity to notice. Acura may have nothing to do with the test mule Consumer Reports tipped over back in the day, but going fast in almost any SUV feels too much like a reenactment, and the MDX is no exception.

Go on a cruise and the MDX feels much more at home. As on the Odyssey, the suspension uses struts for the front and multilinks in the rear rather than the double-wishbones found on Acura's TL and TSX. They all ride pretty much the same way: a little jittery over the rough stuff, very civilized when the roads are smooth. Likewise, broken pavement thunders pretty loudly through the Michelins, as thick as they are, but it's quiet the rest of the time. One wish: that the steering had a better sense of straight-ahead and/or quicker reactions so cruising could be done with one hand on the wheel.

Not even a heavy dose of freeways could raise gas mileage higher than 20. Blame the 0.36 drag coefficient and 4,531-pound curb weight - decent by SUV standards but code for "blocky" and "chunky" by any other. At least the tank now holds 20.4 gallons as of this year.

Since most of the MDX's flaws are due to its vehicle type rather than any shortcoming on Acura's part, the main message is probably that the MDX is easy to drive for an SUV, never intimidating.

Inside & OutAcura MDX Review
Having just concluded a week spent in Acura's own RSX, entering the MDX was like crossing over from Compton to Santa Monica. This is a shining artistic example of how to mix leather, warm wood, comfortable captain's chairs (with heaters, soft leather, and memory), second-nature controls, and an instrument cluster using the most eye-pleasing sight of red, white, and blue you've seen since, well, you know. Watching the MDX light up at night is an awesome sight. Clearly, some Acuras get more love than others.

Also, the Touring Package's 8-speaker Bose stereo manages to fill the MDX's huge cabin better than the Bose in the smaller RSX. Sound quality is fulfilling (if it sounds spotty, it's probably in Rear Speakers Off mode) and the choice to make XM radio standard this year (3 months free) is fine by me.

Acura has long been praised for having the best navigation system. Aside from Infiniti's latest, that's hard to dispute. Any computer-literate rookie can start scrolling and clicking around in no time. The system gained speed and the voice command center expanded its vocabulary for 2005. It guides you to your destination reliably, though the disorganized directory can make looking up a restaurant take forever, and the slow-then-fast map scrolling can be inconvenient. Also, the climate controls should be liberated from the navigation screen so that simple adjustments like fan speed wouldn't be buried so far down in the maze.

Both the stereo and navigation wash out pretty badly in sunlight. Acura could try something besides black digits on a gray background for once, and how about moving that buried clock to the instrument cluster? Fact: drivers check the time more often than anything except the speedometer.

The automatic shifter is one of those labyrinthine zig-zag types that was once used to test rats' IQs. It's annoying, it hinders shifting, and it was successful in incorporating Honda's perennial problem of making the lever land in D4 instead of D5.

Seats, cupholders, storage space, all great. Space in the 70/30 split second row is quite good with well-shaped seats and a flat floor. Like in the Accord, two adults will be comfortable, three will manage.

One big payoff of that Honda Odyssey heritage may be the MDX's most compelling advantage: seats for seven, even if the MDX's foot-long truncation reduces the third row to a kids-only zone. Four conventional doors mean entry/exit is done coupe-style (on the right-hand side, after sliding the middle seat forward). Everyone in back gets to control their own air, listen to their own music, and watch their own movies (if rear-seat DVD is ordered); the tyke in the right-rear corner even gets to have the subwoofer thump his arm to every beat of the music. Seven 3-point belts, seven head restraints, curtain airbags that span the length of the cabin, and 5-star crash ratings for the front and sides make the MDX a safe place to stash your family.

Space behind the back bench is average, but fold all seats down and the MDX's 81.5 cubic feet make it a compelling cargo hauler. Again, that has it falling severely short of the Odyssey by a glaring 45%, and it's not so much a matter of length as it is about wasteful SUV packaging, space-eating all-wheel-drive parts, and a non-removable second row. Also, the third-row seats in the MDX aren't nearly as effortless to raise and lower. But there are handy features back here like a small under-floor tray (partly to store the head restraints) and a third 12V power outlet to go with the two in front.

The interior of the MDX could be summed up as an Odyssey's that's been beautied up and dumbed down. Like you haven't heard of that trade-off before.

Other Thoughts
Acura's simplicity makes the MDX easy to spell out. Base price is $37,470 - $4,635 more than the identical Honda Pilot EX with leather. The biggie option is the $2,825 Touring Package: Bose stereo, 6-disc in-dash CD changer, HandsFreeLink with BlueTooth phone interface, exclusive alloy wheels, driver recognition memory settings for seat and mirrors, power lumbar support, power passenger seat, speed- and rain-sensing wipers, roof rack. After buying that, you get rear-seat DVD ($1,500) or navigation ($2,750), or both, or neither.

Lexus's RX330, already in its second generation, would be the MDX's closest competition, being the only other front-wheel-drive sedan-derived midsize luxury SUV. $38,075 is pretty even, though Lexus offers a front-drive model for $1,400 less (and a hybrid for $10,985 more). Choose the Lexus if you crave that last bit of extra isolation. Avoid either of these if you need to tow; the MDX trailer-handling abilities top out at a meager 3,500 pounds.

Secondary competitors include the Infiniti FX35, BMW X5, Mercedes ML, Cadillac SRX, and Volvo XC90, Volkswagen Touareg (four of those are newcomers). Especially tempting is the Infiniti, having the most V6 power, lowest price, and rear-wheel-drive availability. If I didn't need to seat seven, I'd go with it, personally. It's a hard-rider, though - a little more than the Acura and the opposite of the Lexus.

Last WordAcura MDX Review
With the MDX, Acura has hopefully learned that more can be gained by doing one's own homework than by copying Isuzu's wrong answers.

The MDX doesn't stand out in its now-crowded class, but it can claim one unique combination of virtues: only Infiniti and Lexus can match its quality and only Cadillac can match its seating capacity. [source :]


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