Acura’s MDX mixes up soft and solid SUV attributes
Having spent a bit of time in the motoring monsters currently being offered as sport utility vehicles by both domestic and import manufacturers, one thing’s a constant: the larger the vehicle, the larger the motoring noise.Rolling along on oversized, off-road-worthy tires and massive rims, most mid- to full-size SUVs start to sound like the three-quarter ton trucks they usually share as platforms. I’ve developed a standard response to those who seem surprised by this: “If you really want a truck, get a truck … and don’t pretend that your Armada/Durango/Expedition will ever sound as quiet as a regular car.”We’ve discovered a pleasant aberration to that rule, an SUV with comfortable room for seven, loads of power and – if you can believe it – a ride that’s so quiet and smooth you’ll think you’re driving your grandmother’s Cadillac.
Welcome to the wonderful world of the Acura MDX Touring Edition, the upscale incarnation of Honda’s popular and adaptable Pilot sport-ute. Loaded with style, versatility and plenty of Acura-worth perks (voice recognition-driven navigation, DVD, touch-screen controls and oodles of leather, for starters), the MDX feels equally solid as an urban traveler and as a backcountry explorer. You’ll pay about $5,000 more than the Pilot for the Acura upgrade, but the mix of pleasantries certainly seems worth it, considering the price of comparable mid-range SUVs.Aesthetics and amenities aside, the MDX’s most outstanding attribute is its wonderfully quiet highway ride. On a recent jaunt across Hoosier Pass and back to the city on US 285, my passenger and I were absolutely dumbstruck by the MDX’s whisper-smooth driving volume. At regular cruising speed, the vehicle’s 265 horsepower 3.5 liter VTEC V-6 produced loads of punchy power but was more quiet than anything we’ve driven this summer – quite admirable, really.And there’s no particular trade-off for that automotive civility. The MDX still rides on chunky 235/65 R17 Michelins and 17-inch alloy wheels, with loads of clearance and easy cabin access. With full-time all-wheel drive, the MDX employs variable torque management (VTM) to transfer power to the wheels, depending on the driving conditions. We found things smooth and stable even on some wet stretches of highway; the entire VTM system can be manually deactivated by the driver with the flip of a switch. The MDX’s five-speed automatic transmission features three driving gears and two low-range gears, although we experienced capable and consistent power, even on the steepest stretches of the Hoosier climb.
The MDX is also one of those rare vehicles which feels enormous on the inside but looks rather understated to the outside world. A broad dashboard and long nose no doubt add to that effect; beyond two very comfortable and adjustable seats up front, there’s second-row space for three and a smaller rear bench seat which will accommodate two more passengers. All that on a 106-inch wheelbase that’s still easy to navigate in tight situations and incredibly responsive during highway driving.Sporting a broad, stylized nose and perhaps the brightest non-Xenon lighting setup we’ve ever encountered (switch on the fog lamps and nearly everyone will flash their lights at you), the MDX emphasizes curved and dimpled lines which flow along the entire vehicle. In the back, massive chrome-lined brake and turn signal clusters offer a distinctive and solid look, as do a set of angular, chrome-plated exhaust ports.The MDX’s interior is finished with rugged leather and carpeting that’s both luxurious and dirt- and snow-ready and not prissy in any way. In the cabin, you’ll find hardwood finishes on the console, shift knob and side panels, with leather on the doors, dash and oversized steering wheel.
I was particularly fond of the Acura’s high-visibility gauges: Red and purple highlights and white lettering provide easy views of the tachometer, speedometer and fuel and temperature readings. Steering wheel-mounted speed and sound controls are supplemented by the microphone switch for the MDX’s voice-recognition functions.The vehicle’s navigation system and “synchronized climate control system” did require a bit of getting used to. A small set of buttons above the nav system screen partially control air flow and temperature. Fan speed is, a bit annoyingly, controlled by a separate menu on the touchscreen.
Intuitive logic also fails when first trying to figure out the stereo and DVD audio controls, which can be switched between the front console and rear controls (or adjusted using a full-sized remote) – the Bose system does provide excellent sound throughout the vehicle when you master the knobs and switches. There’s even a pair of cordless headphones for rear passengers. Acura informs us that the 2005 models of the MDX will be arriving at dealers this week (our tester was a 2004); the 2005 will come with an enhanced navigation system, a larger fuel tank, standard XM Satellite radio, OnStar and Bluetooth cell phone interfaces, plus an in-dash six-CD changer. We trust that smooth ride will remain.
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