By Alex Kramer
- Truly inspired handling
- Bold interior and exterior styling
- Smooth, refined drivetrain
- Awesome DVD based multi-channel audio/video system
- Acceleration could use a little more “oomph”
- Operation of navigation system could be made easier
- 3rd row seats are for kids only
- Cartoonish front grill
Traditionally, driving a large SUV has meant making certain trade-offs. To gain the extra utility and off-road capability of an SUV, sacrifices in performance and handling are required, as any driver of a Ford Explorer or Chevy Blazer could attest to. Some of the recent car-based crossover designs have injected a bit more zip into the driving equation, but given the option of a sports sedan or a crossover SUV for tackling a set of switchbacks, and the choice is still obvious.
After driving the 2008 Acura MDX for a weekend, all I can think is that the engineers over at Acura must have missed this portion of SUV design school. This is the first large SUV I’ve driven where the phrase “it handles well” doesn’t need to be followed with “for an SUV”. The MDX handles so well that you’ll probably forget it seats seven, has a full leather interior, a DVD entertainment system, and all the other features of a large luxury SUV. Let’s take a closer look at the vehicle that puts the sport back in sport utility.
Every MDX is packed with lots of standard features, including leather upholstery, sunroof, heated front seats, power everything, and airbags all around. Our MDX featured the top of the line sport and entertainment packages, which add such features as an adjustable suspension, navigation system, and DVD entertainment system. All this fancy technology is packaged within a car that is very solidly built, from the door hinges to the windshield wipers. As up-scale as the MDX might be, this car comes from the same extended family as the trustworthy Civic and Accord, which should reassure any potential buyer worried about long-term reliability.
Interior Comfort and Ergonomics
When I first sat down in the driver’s seat of the MDX, it felt more like sitting in a cockpit than getting behind the wheel of a car, with the front seats fully separated from each other by a continuous center console. There are buttons, knobs, and controls everywhere, and everything has a very modern, technological feel to it. Although I enjoyed having everything at my fingertips, the interior will be too cluttered and overwhelming for some.
Our MDX came equipped with a DVD based entertainment system, with a fold down LCD screen for rear seat passengers and built-in wireless headphones. A discrete multi-channel, DVD-Audio sound system is also included, with 10 speakers and over 400 watts of power. This system was custom designed for the MDX and the result is stunning sound, among the best I’ve heard in a car. As wonderful as this system sounded, figuring out how to control it is no picnic. The buttons and knobs related to the entertainment system are tightly clustered and not intuitively laid out. Similarly, the navigation system is less than user friendly, with a hard to use joystick-like device that you use to access the various menus and functions. Note to Acura: touch screen user-interfaces are cool!
The MDX is billed as a 7 passenger vehicle and the interior is quite spacious on the whole. With both rows of rear seats folded down, you can easily slide large items in through the rear hatch, and throwing something like a bicycle in the back is a piece of cake. Cargo room was still quite good with only the 3rd row of seats folded down, but once this final row is deployed, there is unfortunately almost no cargo space leftover. Acura must have only had kids in mind for this 3rd row of seats, since they are quite cramped and feature almost no leg room.
Acura calls it super-handling all-wheel drive (SH-AWD). Most drivers will call it “Holy !!@%*! This thing can corner!” SH-AWD distributes optimal engine torque not just between the front and rear axles, but also between the left and right rear wheel. This allows the driver to apply a lot more throttle when cornering, since the system automatically channels the power to the appropriate wheel to prevent under or over steer. To put it simply, it is almost impossible to get the car unglued from the pavement, no matter how silly you get with the throttle.
The active damper system on our MDX allows the driver to chose between comfort and sport modes. Final suspension tuning was reportedly done on the Nürburgring race track in Germany, which explains why driving the speed limit often feels painfully slow, especially with the dampers set in sport mode. Although a bit harsh for every day driving, the sport mode provides a level of stability and confidence that is truly remarkable, especially for such a large car. This puppy was designed to fly through sweeping turns at autobahn speeds.
Steering is somewhat heavy, but provides excellent feedback. With the suspension set in comfort mode, the ride is supple yet firm enough to prevent excessive body roll. Braking is powerful and fade-free, with the wide 18” Michelin all-season tires providing plenty of bite. I can only imagine what levels of grip would be attained if these were swapped for some high-performance summer tires.
The MDX is motivated by a 3.7-liter V6 that produces 300-horsepower and 275 lb-ft of torque. This is the most powerful engine ever offered by Acura and like other high-revving Honda motors, she eagerly climbs to the redline with a nice snarl over 5,000 rpm. Yet, given that the MDX weighs over 4,500 lbs, even 300 hp isn’t enough to provide head-turning acceleration, which a 0-60 time of approx. 7.5 seconds confirms. At times you’ll find yourself wishing for some extra torque, especially since the SH-AWD provides such sure-footed power delivery.
What the MDX gives up in sheer grunt it largely makes up for with drivetrain refinement. The 5-speed automatic transmission is very intuitive in its gear shifts and also features a manual shift option, should you decide to switch gears yourself.
Having just watched the recent Transformers movie, I can’t help but chuckle every time I see the front grill of an MDX. It’s almost like the car was designed to be an extra in the movie, with its transformers badge proudly on display! What can’t be denied is that this is one macho SUV. From the aggressive front end to its wide rear hips and twin exhaust pipes, the MDX looks poised to launch down a runway. Unlike some of the other new crossovers, this is one SUV that will definitely stand out from the minivan crowd.
With an MSRP of $40,195, the MDX isn’t cheap, but you get a lot for what you pay for. Equipped with extensive technological features, and featuring the best handling in a large SUV this side of Bavaria, the MDX is an impressive tour de force of automotive engineering. Sure, you can get a full-size crossover SUV for a bunch less, but it won’t be nearly as athletic or luxurious as an MDX. And there are quite a few pricier luxury SUVs that would have a hard time keeping up with an MDX in the mountains. All of which leaves the MDX in a class of its own: a vehicle that is truly sporty, quite luxurious, and utilitarian enough for the masses.
Who should buy it?
Not enough garage space for both an S2000 and an Odyssey? Buy an MDX and you get the best of both worlds, with a touch of luxury too!