Acura MDX – Review: Picture in your mind a sport sedan. One with all-wheel drive, an active damper system, and responsive steering and brakes. Give it a powerful V6 engine and a quick-shifting automatic transmission with a seamless shift-for-yourself mode. Imagine its sharp chassis reflexes were tuned on Germany’s famous Nürburgring race track, alongside BMWs, Mercedes-Benzes, Porsches and all manner of performance cars. Now give it seven-passenger seating and a big, hulking crossover SUV body. Fantasy, you say? No, it’s the 2007 Acura MDX. Acura claimed that its MDX would be a sport sedan in SUV clothing, and it wasn’t kidding. For people who like to drive, it’s definitely on the short list.
What We Drove
The basic MDX starts at $40,665 with the $670 destination charge, and boasts leather seats and the V6 all-wheel drive powertrain. The Technology package brings the price up to $44,165 and adds a navigation system, surround-sound audio system and Bluetooth wireless phone connectivity. The Sport package adds an active damper system and sport seats with perforated leather to the Technology package, bringing the price up to $46,265. An Entertainment package adds the second-row DVD video system, heated second row seats and remote power liftgate to either the Sport or Technology packages for an additional $2,200. All told, our loaded Formal Black MDX with the Sport and Entertainment packages came to $48,465, including destination.
With its 3.7-liter 300-horsepower V6 engine and five-speed automatic with manual shift control, the MDX scoots off the line and keeps accelerating hard. Power goes to all four wheels through the Super Handling All-Wheel Drive system, and the transmission snaps off shifts smoothly and effortlessly. Shift for yourself and you’re rewarded with quick upshifts and mostly smooth downshifts from the responsive console-mounted lever. It even managed a respectable 19.5 mpg in mixed driving. While the linear power delivery was praised, some of us miss Acura’s hallmark power surge when the VTEC variable-valve timing kicks in. Also, some of the MDX’s competitors have transmissions with more gears. This is primarily a marketing advantage, and we see no need for extra gears.
For sport sedan lovers who dread needing a bigger vehicle in which to carry their kids or antiques or whatever it is that MDX buyers haul, this is one crossover that has no qualms about hauling ass, too. The Super Handling All-Wheel Drive actively overdrives the outside wheels up to 1.7 percent in corners, giving the MDX excellent stability in hard maneuvers. The active damper system provides very good body control without a punishing ride. It does err on the stiff side though, so a comfort setting is available to take the edge off sharp bumps if you have a sensitive tush. The MDX also has a 5,000 lb. tow rating, and a stability program helps prevent trailers from fishtailing.
From the outside, the MDX sports thick D (rearmost) pillars that you’d think would hamper visibility. You’d be right, too. The rear window glass is small, and those big rearmost pillars create enormous blind spots. Acura compensates with a backup camera that displays a wide-angle version of the world on the large centrally-located navigation screen, but it’s only active in reverse. At least the second-row headrests are low, and the middle one disappears completely when not in use. Otherwise, like in most large SUVs you sit well above traffic, and with the narrow front pillars forward vision is excellent.
Fun to Drive
Normally, the phrase “fun to drive” isn’t associated with a 4500-lb. SUV, but man, this thing is a blast. The engine makes great sounds, somewhere between Acura’s usual V6 rip and the throatiness of a V8. The steering is sharp and responsive, the brakes and throttle linear and progressive and the overall driving experience is one that invites – and rewards – a driver who loves to drive. We were impressed that such a large and heavy vehicle could feel tossable, but with plenty of track time under our belts, we can say that this is a big boy that loves to be driven hard. That it’s such an unlikely vehicle for those antics is icing on the cake.
Front seat comfort in the MDX is excellent. The seats are firm and supportive, and power adjustable eight ways for both front passengers – the driver also gets adjustable lumbar – with two memory settings for the driver’s seat. Our test car’s seats were covered in chocolate brown perforated leather as part of the sport package, and the front seats were heated. Almost everything within reach is nice to touch; the leather steering wheel and shift knob, the padded door armrests and sills, and the padded center console armrest. About the only tactile letdown was the plastic wood used throughout the cockpit. Its dark wood-grain pattern looks good, but the obvious plasticness contrasted sharply with the otherwise luxurious surroundings.
The second row in the MDX is quite comfortable, with plenty of leg, head and foot room, even for tall passengers. Second row passengers also get their own set of climate controls, as well as a ceiling-mounted flip-down video screen with a pop-out remote to control the front console-mounted DVD player. There are also auxiliary video inputs for junior’s PS3. Outboard seating positions are heated, the seatbacks recline, and the center armrest features two cupholders, augmenting those in the door pockets. The passenger side of the second row slides forward, opening a narrow space to squeeze into the cramped third row. Too small for adults, kids will like it, and won’t mind that amenities are limited to the cupholders.
The MDX is a silent runner. The engine is virtually noiseless at idle and cruise, and only makes the right kinds of sounds at full throttle. There is a little bit of wind noise around the top of the A-pillar and outside mirror, but you’d have to be going jail-time fast for it to be intrusive in any way. You get some occasional thumps from the road, but it’s just reinforcing the sporty nature of the MDX rather than intruding on your personal space. Overall, there is very little noise that you don’t want to hear, and if the remainder bothers you it can easily be covered by the excellent sound system, even at low volumes.
With an emphasis on driving, it’s easy to forget that the MDX is also a big box that can haul up to 83.5 cu. ft. of cargo with all the seats folded. The liftover isn’t too bad by SUV standards, and the power hatch is handy when your arms are full. The seats are all easy to fold down, but curiously, they don't create a flat cargo floor. Instead, the load floor slopes downward to the rear hatch. If you stuff a lot of groceries or Christmas shopping or other bags back there, remember what they say in the airlines: Open the hatch with caution, as items may have shifted in transit.
Our first test car showed some odd interior fit problems, uncharacteristically bad for Acura. We called to inquire, and Acura informed us that we had accidentally gotten a so-called “pilot” vehicle that wasn’t up to production specs. We swapped it out for a similar production model, and sure enough, the fit problems were solved. A quick stop at an Acura dealership confirmed that our second car was up to proper specs, so that's the vehicle on which we based our build quality impressions. Enough full disclosure: Fit and finish are very good on the MDX, with tight fits, pretty much zero gaps, and no rattles or squeaks. About the only nit is a largish gap between the dash and door panel.
For the most part, the interior materials are very good. Things are soft where you expect them to be, with padded armrests, door tops and dash top. We did notice some hard plastic used on the cowl for the dash-mounted navigation screen, on the lower door panels and on the bottom of the dash, but nothing unusual for the class. Second row materials are good, but third row occupants are subjected to more hard plastic than anybody else in the MDX. Our only major complaint is the plastic wood used in the interior. Its fakeness is evident in the way it’s molded and the slick, plasticky feel of it. C’mon, Acura, use metal or real wood, please.
Maybe product planners told the MDX designers to come up with something to shield Acura from criticism about bland styling. Maybe those designers took the “shield” thing too literally. Whatever the case, the MDX wound up with a polarizing grille treatment that some of us grew to like, but others just thought looked silly. The rest of the front end is well done, with interesting headlights that are echoed by the taillights. The rest of the MDX is flavorless by contrast. There are sporty fender flares, a too-subtle character line on the flanks, and the rearmost pillar treatment, but overall it’s a little too slick and smooth. We’d prefer more definition to the MDX’s profile than just chrome door handles.
Like any vehicle with the word “utility” in its class title, the MDX sports plenty of interior storage space. There are two cupholders each for the front seat and outboard second row passengers, as well as holders built into the plastic molding in the third row. The front center armrest is split, allowing either the driver or passenger access to the large storage underneath without disturbing the other’s elbow. The glovebox is generous and lined, and there’s a nifty storage space on the transmission tunnel on the front passenger’s side. There’s also a hidden compartment under the floor behind the third row. Each door has a generous map pocket, and there are pockets on the front seatbacks, too.
Technology is part of the Acura experience, which means lots of buttons. The entertainment and navigation system controls alone include three knobs, two slots for various types of discs, and 34 buttons all within an area about the size of a 6 x 9 notepad. That doesn’t include the four buttons and six rocker switches on the steering wheel, or the dozens of functions available through the navigation system itself. Over time owners would certainly get used to it, and the voice-activated navigation system can control anything a button does, but it takes a thorough reading of the owner’s manual to take it all in. Complexity aside, the audio system sounds incredible, and the navigation system never steered us wrong.
Compared to the audio system controls, the climate controls are basic and simple. We’d prefer knobs for things like temperature and fan settings, but the automatic mode obviated that need. The dual-zone system kept a good temperature differential between driver and passenger, and even at full speed the fan was quiet. Rear passenger controls are located on the back of the center console bin, and are easily reachable by the rear passengers. They also feature an automatic setting, and the two big centrally-mounted vents move plenty of air. Front seat climate controls can also be operated through the voice navigation system, if you prefer the high-tech approach. Third row passengers are at the mercy of those in the first and second rows.
The one thing that the MDX – and other Acuras – share with Hondas is ergonomics. Please, please, please, Acura, in your quest to be different from your corporate parent, never change this. The MDX is almost ergonomically perfect with the headlight, window and all other switches exactly where they should be. The controls themselves feel a little nicer than their Honda equivalents – we didn’t think that was possible – and the only ergonomic shortcoming is the buttontastic center stack. The shifter feels solid in the hand, and invites clicking up and down in manual mode.
The MDX is bulked up compared to its predecessor, but it also enters a field that has improved considerably. It outpowers the Mercedes-Benz ML350 and Lexus RX 350, and neither of those has a third row of seats. The new BMW X5 3.0i offers a third row and very good handling, but its base price is almost the same as our loaded test car, and it doesn’t have the power of the MDX. The closest competitor is the Audi Q7 3.6, which is close in power, torque and price. Start adding options, however, and the MDX holds its edge in value. Other competitors include the Cadillac SRX, Volkswagen Touraeg, Infiniti FX35, and Lincoln MKX.
2nd Opinion –Wardlaw
Acura MDX – Christian J. Wardlaw’s Opinion:
Last summer, I enjoyed Acura’s redesigned MDX on the winding, hilly roads of western Pennsylvania and in a torrential thunderstorm at BeaveRun Motorsports complex. Here in Los Angeles, it’s equally pleasing on the freeway and in the city. Outstanding brake pedal feel and modulation helped me avoid a wreck on the infamous 405 freeway, a throaty bellow when punching the gas reminded me that a V8 isn’t necessary, and capable handling entertained me on the multitude of on- and off-ramps. The sound system is phenomenal, the seats comfortable, the materials upscale, and cargo room generous. Plus, I dig the controversial design. Personally, I’d ditch that third row and add second row legroom, but otherwise, the MDX is just about perfect.
2nd Opinion – Chee
Acura MDX – Brian Chee’s Opinion:
He tried to catch me. Turn after turn, I could see the blue angst flowing out of the cabin of his sedan, but the MDX kept him at arm’s length. It wasn’t because of my skill, but the on-track capability of the SUV: On the track, the MDX is an excellent ride. It cornered magnificently, the powertrain leapt to attention, and I thought it was perfection…until I drove it on the streets. Mind you, it’s a short-lister and a strong upgrade, but there are problems: The control layout made me feel like I was piloting a plane, there are a few blind spots in back, the snout is ugly, and I was never able to get comfortable in the seat.