Brent Romans, Senior Automotive Editor
At some point in the early-'90s, a Honda manager looked out his window and saw the constant stream of dump trucks backing up to Ford's corporate offices to unload all the bales of cash reaped in from sales of Explorers (conjecture on my part). Being smarter than your average corporate bear, he thought to himself, "Hmm, you know, there might be something to this whole SUV thing after all."
Not having its own SUV at the time, Honda's stopgap solution was to call Isuzu and obtain a bunch of Rodeos and rebadge them as Honda Passports. Starting in 1996, the same was done with the Trooper to create the Acura SLX. Not a bad strategy, though Honda probably could have chosen a better partner -- Isuzu doesn't build the greatest SUVs (In our eight-vehicle Midsize SUV Comparison Test in the summer of 2000, a Honda Passport finished last.).
Honda's first in-house SUV, the compact CR-V, was a good first step (it arrived in 1997), but Honda still needed something bigger to quench America's Big Gulp-sized thirst for SUVs. The cavalry finally arrived at the 2000 North American International Auto Show in the form of the Acura MDX. Though only a concept vehicle, it was clear Honda intended the MDX to be a production vehicle. Soon after, it was announced that the MDX would arrive in late 2000 as a 2001 production model.
But Acura's arrival to the midsize SUV party is a bit late, don't you think? After all, there are lots of major league stars already in attendance, such as the BMW X5 3.0i, the Lexus RX 300, the Infiniti QX4 and the Mercedes-Benz ML320. The Jeep Grand Cherokee Limited, the Mitsubishi Montero Limited, and the Ford Explorer Limited AWD are also rumored to be here. One would hope that Acura has brought something more than just a bag of Ruffles and a 2-liter bottle of Shasta...
After spending a day with the MDX at Acura's press introduction in Hershey, Pa., we can say with confidence that Acura has indeed showed up to the party with something good. Very good, in fact. Acura wants the MDX to be a no-compromises luxury SUV, one that can deliver both the sport and the utility that consumers desire. This no-compromises goal has resulted in three-row seven-passenger seating, a maximum cargo capacity of 81.5 cubic feet, a 3,500-pound towing capacity (4,500 pounds if towing a boat), acceleration, braking and handling equal to a typical four-door sedan, an acceptable level of off-road capability, and high-zoot luxury features like GPS navigation and dual climate control systems.
Exclusively for the North American market (for now, anyway), the MDX is built on Honda's light truck platform. This platform also serves as the basis for the Honda Odyssey minivan. The two vehicles have little in common, however. Acura says the MDX shares only about 12 percent of the Odyssey's architecture. Most of the similarities lie in the design of the front-third of the body structure. From the A-pillars back, the MDX is an all-new design.
Acura's main priorities for the body structure were superior collision performance and a high level of rigidity without unnecessary weight. Acura says the body structure provides the strength needed to resist standard barrier impacts, offset crashes and side impacts. Though no government crash testing has been done as of this writing, Acura expects the MDX to earn five stars in NCAP frontal barrier tests and side impact tests. A "good" rating is expected from the IIHS's offset barrier tests.
The highly rigid and lightweight body structure comes into play for Acura's goal of creating an SUV that doesn't handle like an average SUV. Most SUVs have an independent front suspension with a solid rear axle, but the MDX uses a fully independent suspension similar to the Odyssey's. Up front is a strut-type suspension with L-shaped lower control arms and in back is a compact multi-link trailing arm design. Four-wheel disc brakes and ABS are standard.
The front and rear tracks -- 66.3 and 66.5 inches, respectively -- are relatively wide for an SUV, and the wheelbase (106.3 inches) is short. Acura wanted a wide track and short wheelbase to improve stability and agility. For comparison, an RX 300 has a front track of 61.6 inches and a rear track of 61.0. With a base curb weight of 4,328 pounds, the MDX is 347 pounds lighter than the seven-passenger Montero.
Being a luxury SUV, you might expect the MDX to be the automotive equivalent of a warm marshmallow in terms of ride quality. But that is not the case. With its relatively soft springs and firm dampers, the MDX provides a ride quality similar in feel to other Honda products. Controlled and taut, the MDX provides good handling while driving on curvy roads. The steering, however, seems more typical of an SUV, with a high degree of vagueness and little feedback.
For power, the MDX features a 3.5-liter SOHC V6. Equipped with Honda's VTEC variable valve timing system, this engine produces 240 horsepower at 5,300 rpm and 245 foot-pounds of torque at 3,000 rpm. The torque curve is exceptionally flat, with 95 percent of the engine's torque available from 2,000 rpm to 5,000 rpm. In terms of V6-equipped luxury SUVs, the MDX must share top horsepower bragging rights with the QX4. Acura says acceleration from zero to 60 should be in the low 8-second range.
The MDX's V6 is mated to a five-speed automatic transmission (no manual is offered). The transmission's gear spacing is fairly wide to improve low-end grunt while still keeping the revs down for top-gear highway cruising. At 60 mph in fifth gear, the MDX's engine is spinning at a low 1,700 rpm. An optional tow package adds a transmission oil cooler to keep the tranny's temperature acceptable during heavy-load conditions.
The MDX's most interesting powertrain component is its four-wheel-drive system. Called Variable Torque Management 4-wheel-drive (VTM-4), the MDX's system is similar to the one fitted to the CR-V. During normal cruising conditions, the MDX and the CR-V apply power only to the front wheels for better fuel efficiency. But whereas the CR-V's mechanical 4WD system must encounter front-wheel slippage before torque is diverted to the rear wheels, the MDX's electronically controlled system is much more proactive about traction. To get the most traction possible, the VTM-4 monitors throttle inputs and wheel speeds and then continually adjusts torque output to the rear wheels.
The key to the VTM-4 is a special rear axle drive unit. Like any front-wheel-drive vehicle, the MDX has half-shafts in front that constantly power the front wheels. But there is also a constantly spinning propeller shaft that runs from the transmission to the rear drive unit.
Not a rear differential in the typical sense, the MDX's final drive is a unique hypoid ring-and-pinion gearset. The gearset does switch torque from the propeller shaft's longitudinal orientation to the lateral orientation necessary to drive the rear wheels. But this happens only when the VTM-4's electronics say so.
A connection from the ring gear to each wheel's half shaft is made by left- and right-side clutches. Each clutch consists of an electromagnetic coil, a ball-cam device and a set of 19 wet clutch plates, which are similar in design to clutches used in an automatic transmission. When the VTM-4's electronics determine that torque should be distributed to the rear wheels, an electric current is sent to the electromagnetic coils, activating the ball-cam device, which in turn compresses the wet clutch plates, thereby engaging drive to the corresponding rear wheel. Being an infinitely variable system, the amount of torque provided to the rear wheels is directly proportional to the electric current sent from the ECU.
A button on the dash allows drivers to manually lock torque output to the rear wheels (equaling an approximate 50/50 split between the front and rear wheels) to aid extraction from a slippery ditch or a snow bank. The VTM-4 lock also serves to equalize torque between the left and right rear wheels, thereby improving traction.
Acura says it considered using a conventional four-wheel-drive system (one with a low-speed transfer case), but ultimately decided it would be undesirably bulky and heavy given the MDX's intended mission. The MDX is built for "medium duty" usage, medium duty being defined as the capability to support trips into the wilderness for camping or to launch a boat.
We had the opportunity to pilot the MDX on varied off-road terrain. Though Acura selected the route, this luxury SUV did seem to have enough capability to handle what most people would expect their SUV to do in terms of crossing gullies and climbing washed-out hills. The 8 inches of ground clearance was enough to clear small rocks. Still, the MDX isn't a Jeep CJ-7. Without a low-speed transfer case, its four-wheel-drive system is best suited for dealing with snow, ice and other minimal-traction situations.
Because the rear suspension and four-wheel-drive system are compact, extra passenger and cargo space is freed up for the interior. There is no drive tunnel for the propeller shaft, allowing a completely flat load floor. Three-row seating -- two bucket seats in front, a three-passenger 60/40-split middle-row bench seat, and a two-passenger 50/50-split bench seat in back -- is standard. The first two rows are trimmed in leather, while the third row is upholstered in a leather-like matching vinyl.
The heated front seats seem to be pretty comfortable, and there is plenty of legroom for second-row passengers. Because of the MDX's wide stance, shoulder room is notably expansive. The third row is for small children only, but there is still enough legroom (29.3 inches) to put adults back there for very short trips.
Both the second- and third-row seats fold flat easily. With the third seat up, cargo space is 14.8 cubic feet. Lower it but keep the second row up, and 49.6 cubic feet will be available. The rear liftgate opens skyward but is a one-piece unit, meaning that you cannot pop open the glass separately. Acura says there is enough space between the rear wheels to load 4-foot-wide sheets of building materials into the cargo area.
For safety, every seating position has three-point seatbelts. There are also dual-stage front airbags and front side airbags mounted in the seats. The front passenger seat is equipped with a system designed to disable side airbag deployment and prevent injury to a small child if they lean into the side airbag deployment path. Once the child returns to an upright seating position, the side airbag will reactivate. Child safety-seat anchor points are provided for both the second and third rows.
The MDX's interior design is clean and simple, with a dominant center pod containing the audio system, climate control buttons, and a large multi-function LCD monitor. The monitor is both button and touch-screen operated, and is used to control the optional DVD-based navigation system. Overall interior build quality seems to be very good, though Acura is using more hard plastic for the interior than you might expect for a luxury SUV. There is wood trim located on the dash, doors and shifter console. Items like a two-stage center bin, a convenient cubby slot ahead of the shifter and a big glove box provide storage space. A total of 10 cupholders are located throughout the interior.
There is one official trim upgrade called the Touring Package. So appointed, the MDX gets an upgraded Bose audio system with an in-dash six-disc CD audio system, a power-operated front passenger seat, memory seating for the driver, reverse gear tilt-down for the passenger-side mirror, a 150-pound capacity roof rack and special 17-inch alloy wheels.
One of the MDX's most impressive interior features is its dual HVAC system. More than just a simple "dual zone" climate control, the MDX actually has two independent climate systems for both the front and rear passengers. This means that rear passengers get their own heater core, air conditioning condenser, and heater and air vents. The rear HVAC can be operated from the rear or linked to the front HVAC to provide maximum cooling and heating capacity. Acura says the combined systems can provide 19,000 BTUs, a capacity that slightly exceeds the heating and cooling capacity found in the average American home. Or possibly exceeding the hot air coming from Senator Edward Kennedy's mouth.
It is clear that Acura has built a very capable SUV. Like Honda did with the Odyssey, Acura has taken its time, determined how people really use their SUVs and dissected the competition to see what works and what doesn't. The result is a vehicle that is truly good at most everything. If you have a dying need to go rock crawling or tow a 6,000-pound trailer, the MDX isn't what you want. But for every other use, whether it be going camping, skiing, hauling materials from Home Depot or just taking the kids and the dog to the park, the MDX is just about equal or superior to every other luxury SUV. Pricing should start in the mid-30s. And just like Honda and its Odyssey, we expect Acura to sell every single one it makes. Best put down your deposit now.
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