NEMACOLIN, Pennsylvania - Introduced for 2001 and newly reworked as a 2007 model, Acura's sport-utility vehicle offers what the company calls the most powerful V-6 in an SUV. Displacing 3.7 liters, the V-8 delivers 300 horsepower. That compares to just 253 horsepower for the 2006 MDX.
First seen earlier in 2006 as a concept model, the 2007 MDX features styling that was inspired by a luxury yacht: specifically, the Wallypower 118. Designed in the U.S., the redone MDX looks bold, clean and sleek, according to principal exterior designer Ricky Hsu.
Just over two inches longer and wider this time around, it's again a seven-passenger model. The third-row seat is mainly for kids, but now has an easier reach (reduced by 8 inches) to fold it down. Height has dropped by half an inch, and gaps around the tires have shrunk. Front and rear strakes help accent the new exterior, and a new power tailgate offers automatic opening/closing. Not everyone may fall for the new grille, which looks a bit startling at first glance.
Equipped with Super Handing All-Wheel Drive (SH-AWD), the MDX aims at improved performance, with lowered gear ratios in its five-speed automatic transmission, which incorporate Sequential SportShift operation. New Shift Hold logic holds the transmission in third gear when needed. Torque output from the SH-AWD system ranges from 90/10 to 30/70 (front/rear). Left/right torque output runs from 0/100 to 100/0. In a low-speed turn, the system can transfer up to 70 percent to the outside tire.
Customers have twin expectations, said Jim Fusco, chief engineer for body design and safety: they'll be reminded of both a luxury sport sedan and a truck-like utility vehicle. The MDX's all-new platform is exactly that, Fusco noted, and "not an Odyssey in disguise."
The MDX is "critical for elevating the Acura brand," said Scott Crail, manager of product planning. Acura advises that MDX buyers cross-shop the Volvo XC90 for its packaging and utility, BMW's X5 for its performance, and the Lexus RX for its luxury touches. Not surprisingly, marketers claim the latest MDX blends all three attributes.
When the MDX debuted as a 2001 model, Acura targeted "the stylish mom." Current MDX buyers qualify as an "affluent family," with a median household income of $139,000 per year. Some 54 percent are female, likely to be around age 45. Secondary customers come from the "affluent empty nester" group.
Rather than emphasizing "Family Mom," the 2007 MDX is meant to attract "Driver Dad" or "Executive Dad," said chief engineer Frank Paluch. While the first-generation MDX "wasn't an emotional purchase," Acura wants emotions to stir at the sight of the 2007 edition.
"This car had to look like a driver's SUV," Paluch said, to function for an "executive family mission" (whatever that might be). Developers had to maintain the model's utility but also "improve its sportiness." Testing at the Nurburgring race course may seem strange for an SUV, but it was "to be the heart of our idea," Paluch said.
Output from the 3.5-liter V-6 engine has risen by 47 horsepower, to an even 300. Torque output measures 275 pound-feet (up 25). At 9 seconds, acceleration to 60 mph is one second quicker than before. Fuel economy is tentatively estimated at a so-so 17 mpg in city driving and 22 mpg on the highway. Principal engineer Jeremy Hall notes that the MDX emits a "sporty intake sound," but it's quiet at midrange speeds. The gearshift lever for the five-speed automatic transmission has moved toward the driver.
Brakes are the biggest ever on an Acura model. Vehicle Stability Control and traction control are standard, along with Trailer Stability Assist. Like its 2006 predecessor, the latest MDX can ford its way through 20-inch water depth. Towing capacity has grown from a modest 2,000 pounds to a hefty 5,000 pounds.
An available Active Damping System with 15 sensors makes use of metallic particles suspended in oil, to react to changes in road qualities and alter the suspension accordingly. Acura's humidity control system uses sensors to calculate window-fogging risk. Auto-sensing lighting adjusts instrumentation to ambient light conditions, and personal customization lets the owner tailor settings to suit individual preferences.
Suspension-mode selections don't always have a noticeable effect on ride and handling, but with the MDX there's a distinct difference between Comfort and Sport modes. The ride difference is subtle, but Comfort mode is definitely more appealing on the highway, delivering a smooth experience. That doesn't mean Sport mode is punishing at all. In fact, the ride is generally good, even when rolling over moderately-flawed pavement surfaces.
Tested on a seriously rough road, Sport mode felt quite well controlled, without becoming seriously uncomfortable. Comfort mode definitely yields more bounce and roll. On long stretches of flawed pavement, you'll likely crave the Comfort setting.
Steering feel is taut and satisfying, without a hint of looseness or sloppiness. Even on narrow twisting two-lane roads, this MDX follows wherever it's pointed, with expertise. No, it's not a sport sedan by any means, despite some of Acura's claims for sporty behavior. But by SUV standards, handling is sharp and tight in ordinary driving. Braking is strong and certain, too.
With an adaptive suspension installed, however, the MDX tends to feel jumpy and unsure when pushed hard. Acura engineers might disagree, but the base-model without an adaptive setup feels considerably more comfortable and familiar. More predictable in behavior, it's less likely to yield unpleasant surprises under difficult conditions.
Despite its 300-horsepower rating, acceleration at lower speeds is good but not really impressive. This SUV responds better at higher engine rpm. The well-behaved automatic transmission doesn't downshift harshly when pushing the gas pedal to the floor at lower speeds. In fact, it almost seems to "know" how to avoid doing anything excessive. On the other hand, downshifts can be sluggish at times, not taking place as promptly as hoped.
Stylish and almost futuristic in appearance, the dashboard contains deep, hooded instruments that are well-lighted and easy to read. Acura's high, large hooded navigation screen is very easy to see, too. Tons of buttons adorn the center console, but they're neatly organized into sections and well-marked. Still, the layout looks a little bewilderig at first.
Supreme-quality seats are amply cushionerd. They cradle occupants snugly, while striving to provide delightful comfort and support.
Prices are expected to run between $41,000 and $48,000 when the MDX goes on sale in October. Options include a Technology Package that adds such extras as a rearview camera and an Acura/ELS 410-watt audio system. Reaching a step further, the Sport Package includes Acura's Active Damping System, premium leather upholstery, and automatic-leveling high-intensity-discharge headlights. Acura expects to sell about 60,000 MDXs per year.