The Acura MDX is a luxury mid-size SUV, a crossover with all-wheel drive, efficient use of space, decent operating economy, and better-than-average warranty and resale value. It's comfortable, with great seats, and it handles well for a sport-utility.
The MDX was last redesigned for 2007, and benefitted from significant changes for the 2010 model year. It's unchanged for 2011. MDX features bold styling that came with other significant changes in 2010, when it grew by one inch and 19-inch wheels were made available. It also got a new 6-speed automatic transmission for 2010, a revised version of its smooth and powerful V6, and chassis refinements including a retuned Active Damper System.
We drove a 2011 MDX Advance model, which has thicker antiroll bars to help it corner flatter and turn better. We found it does that superbly.
The MDX is built on a unibody platform. It's neither an adaptation of a passenger car platform nor a truck-based platform. It's not as long as other seven-seat SUVs, being closer in size to five-seat crossovers, but it still has good cargo space. It's a solid structure that has proven to wear well, while offering a more comfortable ride and better handling than truck-based SUVs. We carried six high-school soccer players on a 200-mile trip, and they loved it, never complaining about tight quarters.
From its wild chrome grille to its elaborately stylish cat's-eye headlamps and new bumper, the MDX continues to be edgy, figuratively and literally. It's quickly and easily identified as an Acura, and generally presents a wide stance.
The seats are laid out in three rows to accommodate seven people; flexible loading and appropriate materials make it family friendly. The front leather bucket seats are the best in the business. It brings enough features to sate most technophiles, yet doesn't get too carried away with aids and assists.
Acura's silky 3.7-liter V6 is the most powerful in its class, while getting an EPA-rated 16/21 miles per gallon City/Highway. There is no V8 option (nor hybrid nor diesel), but with 300 horsepower from the brilliant V6 engine, it's not necessary.
The all-wheel drive system can drive each rear wheel independently for maximum traction and to help drive the MDX around a bend. Acura calls the sophisticated system SH-AWD, for Super Handling All-Wheel Drive, and it's no lie. Handling is superb and the ride taut, with both comfort and performance enhanced on the Advance model.
The Acura MDX competes primarily with the Audi Q7, BMW X5, Cadillac SRX, Lexus RX 350, Mercedes-Benz GL and ML, Volvo XC90, INFINITI FX, Lincoln MKT, and Porsche Cayenne. U.S. News and World Report ranks it first among these vehicles.
The 2011 Acura MDX ($42,580) comes standard with leather upholstery in the first two rows, three-zone climate control, power heated front seats with driver memory, power windows, power locks, power mirrors, power tailgate, console, cruise control, rearview camera in mirror, message center, trip computer, AM/FM/CD/MP3 sound system, XM satellite radio, Bluetooth, auxiliary audio input, and split-folding rear seats.
The MDX with Technology Package ($46,255) adds hard disc navigation with VGA screen, AcuraLink communications, real-time weather (with climate-control link) and traffic, 410-watt 10-speaker Acura ELS surround sound system, multi-view rearview camera, and USB port.
The MDX with Advance Package ($52,205) includes the Technology Package and adds an active damper system, adaptive cruise control with collision mitigation braking system, blind spot information system, ventilated front seats in perforated Milano leather, and 19-inch wheels.
A Rear Entertainment System (RES) is available on Technology ($48,155) and Advance ($54,105) models that adds a motorized 9-inch VGA screen DVD rear-seat entertainment system, heated second-row seats, and 115-volt AC power outlet.
Safety equipment includes two-stage frontal air bags and active head restraints, two-stage driver and front-passenger knee bolsters, front-seat side-impact air bags, and three-row side-curtain air bags with rollover triggering. Active safety features, designed to help the driver avoid accidents in the first place, include all-wheel-drive, electronic stability control, and anti-lock brakes (ABS) with electronic brake force distribution and brake assist for panic stops.
The MDX was designed in America, at Honda's facilities in Los Angeles and Ohio, with input from design centers in St. Moritz, Switzerland, and Milan, Italy.
The grille is a metal-filled hole that looks like a battering ram, the new bumper air vents looking very much like a Pontiac cue and drawing the eye to the center. Darkened headlight housings place signals above the headlights as on much larger trucks, and the hood is relatively flat.
At the rear the license plate recess carries the same five-angle shape as the grille and the tail-lights are easily mistaken for an Audi. Tailpipes resemble a wide vacuum cleaner snorkel and, combined with a lack of roof rails and the broad shoulders, make the MDX look lower and wider than it is.
Substantial arches frame the tires to promote the rugged look, while a gentle upward curve in the body mirrors the downward slope of the glass from the front door back, all meeting up above the rear wheel. Adornment is thoughtfully limited to chrome door handles and window trim, with no cladding to hold road salt or eventually fall off.
The MDX is a tidy size. The Audi Q7, BMW X5 and Mercedes GL are all notably longer, while the Volvo XC90 and 5-seat Lexus RX and Mercedes ML almost the same. A three-seat-row Cadillac Escalade or GMC Yukon Denali is much larger.
Acura's power tailgate system can be operated either from the key remote key fob, a button on the driver's door panel, or from a button located inside the tailgate. The tailgate motor is in the D-pillar, not the roof, which yields more headroom for the third-row occupants. The tailgate can also be operated manually.
The rear edge of the MDX is a flat-black finish not easily scuffed by errant shopping carts or bushes, but the paint on top of the bumper could be vulnerable loading and unloading the cargo area.
The engine's relatively low placement under the hood is good for stability and pedestrian protection, and gives away the MDX is more suited to pavement that four-wheel drive trail travel.
The interior of the Acura MDX is designed with luxury, business and family all in mind. It is stylish and functional, with generous space for four adults and two kids.
Seats are powered and heated in front with a driver memory system, and offer excellent support for winding lanes or long road trips. Acura makes the best bucket seats we know of. Leather, perforated for the ventilated front seats on Advance models, is the default fabric for the front two rows. Third-row seats use a synthetic substitute for leather that is easy-to-clean and more scuff resistant; besides, you don't want to spoil the little buggers too early in life. Entry an exit to third row is best left to smaller, more agile bodies though a subcompact adult will fit if needed.
A ram's horn shape dominates the dash, with wood sweeping from a near-point where the dash and console meet, up and across, then rolling right into the door trim panels. The wood is new for 2010 as is the black-matte finish on the center control panel, and we have to admit the matte-black came off better than the wood which seems too busy with graining, sort of a combination of BMW's horizontal-grain dark walnut and INFINITI's vertical grain-maple.
The driver works with a tilt-and-telescoping dished leather-wrapped steering wheel, the aluminum trim punctuated by eleven switches; shift paddles are standard for 2010. Speed and engine rpm show in two nacelles, with coolant temperature and fuel level in half nacelles outboard. The center display offers the usual mix of info and data, including a bar-graph function for the all-wheel drive that shows the power split among wheels. Trust us, if you see more than three bars for either rear-wheel and aren't going straight ahead you should return your eyes to the road.
On cars with navigation, the top center is the nav screen, a full VGA display that works faster, has real-time weather and traffic, auto-rerouting, and a lane guide to help you find your way. It is controlled using the big multifunction button at the bottom of the panel but does voice recognition as well as any such system. The screen is also used for three rear camera views; a semi-wide-angle normal display, 180-degree fisheye for backing into a parking lot with vans on both sides, and an overhead display for trailer loading or best depth definition.
Switches and controls on the center panel number 48, a lot of white-on-black that might overwhelm at first but quickly becomes more familiar. At the top, the climate controls surround a digital display for radio and climate data; there is no need to go through the central controller and nav screen to do all common operations. Below that, the audio disc drive and controls, with the DVD drive and control source underneath. Bottom center, near the nicely-angled shift lever, is the main control button and hard keys for the majority of the car's systems and setups.
The shift on the left of the console leaves space for a big cupholder on the right and a deep center console with tray for your i-whatever. The forward edges of the armrests curve outward, making less of a dent in your forearm when it's not pointed straight ahead.
Three-zone automatic climate control allows the driver, front passenger and rear passengers to set different temperatures for maximum comfort. Advance models offer seat heat front and middle and ventilated front seats, and on navigation cars the climate control system is linked to better account for sunlight.
The middle row outboard seats are nearly as comfortable as the front and fold down wide side behind the driver. Despite the nearly-flat floor we'd still recommend the center position only for smaller types or baby seats. The third row is compact though Acura did the smart thing making it two seats and 50/50 split rather than three seats.
In addition to the big console there is storage space in the doors, glovebox and right side of the console. Dropping the third-row seats (without removing headrests) increases cargo space from 15 cubic feet to 42; dropping the second-row delivers about 83 cubic feet or very nearly what the much-longer Mercedes GL delivers.
The Acura MDX offers a quiet, taut ride and great acceleration. The all-wheel drive system adds to driving fun with its security, and with a set of winter tires the MDX will do very well in snow.
Acura's 3.7-liter V6 dishes up 300 horsepower (more than any competitor's six cylinder) and with a new six-speed automatic delivers decent fuel mileage for a 4600-pound vehicle. The engine is silky smooth and quiet, and when you floor it there's a satisfying growl as there should be. It's more of a high-revving engine than a torquey one, so you have to use the revs to climb hill or pass, but it's no problem, with the transmission and shift logic perfectly programmed.
Fuel economy for the MDX is an EPA-estimated 16/21 mpg City/Highway on premium unleaded. With our load of six soccer players and 70-mph running, we got 17 mpg on the highway. Among its competitors, only the five-seat Lexus RX and RX hybrid offer better mileage on gasoline; the diesel Q7, X5, GL and ML all do from 2-5 mpg better.
MDX uses independent suspension all around, a setup tuned more toward the BMW-enthusiast end of the spectrum than pillow-velvety Lexus style. Steering is nicely weighted and the car goes exactly where you point it. Driving it up a winding road, where the all-wheel drive pushes the car around a bend like a giant, gentle hand guiding it, is fun and rewarding.
While the plain MDX is good, the Advance car is even better. It comes with larger (19-inch) wheels and the same width tires, normally a recipe for better handling/poorer ride, but also includes an active damper system. These shocks are the same design used on top-performance Corvettes, Cadillacs and Audis and use magneto-rheological fluid to change their firmness almost instantly. In addition to the comfort/sport modes, the Advance car also gets thicker antiroll bars, especially in back, so it corners flatter and changes direction better. Pushed to its limits the MDX acquits itself well in terms of handling dexterity and braking, and its acceleration betters many V8-powered SUVs.
The 2011 MDX Advance we drove included the blind-spot warning system that works from 6 mph. Curiously, when we tested the 2010 MDX, the system never came on, apparently because there were no blind spots. But on our 2011 MDX, the warning light in the sideview mirror overachieved; it flashed on before the passing car moved into the small blind spot, and stayed on long after the car was alongside of us. The problem here is that it loses credibility and you ignore it and it becomes useless. When we tested the Jeep Grand Cherokee, the blind spot system worked about perfectly. We did some research and learned that the blind-spot sensor is in the rear bumper, tuned to where a blind spot might likely be, not necessarily where it actually is, which will depend on the positioning of the sideview mirror. And a correctly adjusted sideview mirror will be positioned based on the angle of the rearview mirror inside the car. This explains why different drivers will have different results with the blind-spot system, and why the warning flash won't necessarily be true.
Our 2011 MDX also had radar-based adaptive cruise control to maintain following distance and, if needed, apply the brakes. It worked beautifully for us. We set the cruise control at 70 mph in a 65 zone, and it applied the brakes a number of times to maintain the correct distance to the cars ahead; when the car pulled out of the way, the MDX accelerated back up to 70. We drove for more than an hour, into the city, and never had to use our feet. Although we kept our brake foot at the ready, because the system won't do quick or aggressive braking.
We also carried six high-school soccer players on a 200-mile trip, and they loved it, never complaining about tight quarters. Smallest guys in the two-seat third row, of course.
MDX carries a maximum tow rating of 5000 pounds, though we'd carefully consider weights and frontal area carefully for any trailer approaching that weight. Some of the larger competitors have higher ratings, up to 7000 pounds, worth noting if your boat is more than 3500 pounds without its trailer.
The Acura MDX has a distinctive face, luxury appointments, room for a family and enough flexibility to make it all work in the same package. It's also got a silky engine with power to spare, superb handling and stability, and an all-wheel drive system that can help as much on a dry corner as on a snowy hill. With a good warranty and resale value, it deserves consideration on any seven-seat ski-wagon shopping list.
NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent G.R. Whale contributed to this report from Pennsylvania and Los Angeles, with Jim McCraw in Detroit, and Sam Moses in Portland.