B. Grant Whitmore, Contributor
"Nice Trooper," shouted my Dodge Durango-owning neighbor from across the street early one Los Angeles morning.
"It's an Acura SLX," I called back.
"An Acura?" he responded. "I didn't know Acura made an SUV."
"Well, they don't," I admitted. "Acura buys Troopers from Isuzu and slaps their own badge on them."
"Aha! I knew it was a Trooper," my neighbor proclaimed triumphantly.
"No, it's an SLX. See, it says so right there," I said, pointing to the SLX badge on the Acura's flank.
"Call it whatever you want, that thing is a Trooper," he said, climbing into his Durango and closing the door on me and my next comment to the contrary.
He made a good point. While there are plenty of badge-engineered cars and trucks on the market, few are as blatant about their lack of originality as the Acura SLX. A different grille, unique wheels and Acura badges are all that separate the SLX from the Isuzu Trooper; not a bad thing if you like Troopers (Edmund's does), but an unsatisfying level of distinction for anyone interested in buying a luxury sport-utility vehicle.
People typically buy luxury vehicles because they want something more than what a "regular" car or truck can offer them. They want more power. They want more gadgets. They want more respect from their neighbors. My experience with the Acura SLX led to a strikeout on all three fronts.
A 3.5-liter DOHC V6 engine that makes 215 horsepower @ 5400 rpm and 230 foot-pounds of torque @ 3000 rpm powers the Acura SLX. This engine is tied to a four-speed automatic gearbox that features "Winter" and "Power" modes. The Acura's motor provides plenty of low-range power, giving the SLX good acceleration, but loses its grunt when highway passing is demanded. Fortunately, the Acura's transmission minimizes the SLX's engine shortcomings by changing gears intelligently, never shifting into overdrive when we were climbing steep hills or trying to pass. While we found this powertrain combination acceptable, it is disappointing that it offers no differences from the down-market Trooper. Ford managed to squeeze 300-horsepower out of the Lincoln Navigator, making it distinct from its Expedition progenitor. Why can't Acura do something similar for the SLX?
All SLXs come with a Torque-On-Demand (TOD) four-wheel-drive system developed by Isuzu. This makes engaging four-wheel drive a shift-on-the-fly affair that requires nothing more than pushing a button on the center console. Once engaged, the TOD system uses sensors at each wheel to measure wheelspin, diverting power between the front and rear axles depending on current traction conditions. The TOD system features a cool dashboard readout that indicates the distribution of power at any given moment. Our drivers took great pleasure in stomping on the gas in every possible rain and mud puddle just to see the indicator lights blink from rear to front. Arcade-game-fun notwithstanding, TOD provides idiot-proof four-wheeling across any road surface.
The Acura SLX features a double-wishbone front suspension with torsion-bar springs and a multi-link rear suspension. Wheel articulation measures 7.5-inches at the front and rear, giving the SLX a decent off-road ride. The SLX also has front and rear stabilizer bars to control lateral body motions, but we think that Acura could do some work to improve lateral stability. On the twisty portion of our test loop, the Acura keeled about like a bombed aunt at a family reunion, throwing its weight side to side and unsettling drivers and passengers alike. Contrary to what you may have read in Consumer Reports, we did not get the SLX up on two wheels. We did, however, wish we had brought an airsickness bag along for the journey. Not many people go canyon running in their SUVs, though, so we shouldn't dwell on the SLX's shortcomings in that category. Around town and on the highway the SLX provides a comfortable, well-damped ride, swallowing potholes and expansion joints with ease.
Our favorite feature of the SLX is the truck's dimensions. Big enough on the inside to hold five passengers and all of their gear for a long weekend, the SLX is small enough on the outside to make parallel parking on a crowded street easy. Every time we regarded the vehicle when parked on the street in front of our office, we thought it looked about the same size as a Ford Explorer or Jeep Grand Cherokee; once we loaded it up with people and groceries, however, it felt like a full-size SUV. This truck makes a compelling argument for purchase if your needs require lots of room, but your reality includes a small garage or street parking.
All Acura SLXs come with a full roster of standard equipment. Like any Honda or Acura product, the only options available on the SLX are those that the dealer installs once the vehicle has been delivered to the dealership. This means that our test vehicle was nicely outfitted with leather seats with heaters, oversized moonroof, remote keyless entry, 100-watt stereo with CD player and most of the other luxury touches that typify a high-buck SUV. Despite this, the Acura's interior feels austere, thanks, in part, to the truck's humble beginnings as an Isuzu Trooper. The Acura's multitude of features does not hide the cheap plastic on the dashboard and center console, unsupportive seats or thin padding on the doors' interior. While we don't mind this sort of thing in a Trooper (OK, some of us do), we think that it looks out of place on an Acura.
Acura sold less than one SLX per day, NATIONWIDE, for the entire month of February. They've sold less than 59 SLXs for the first two months of 1999. Those numbers would make Daewoo's accountants laugh. During that same period, Isuzu has sold more than 2000 Troopers, up nearly 200 vehicles for the same period in 1998. Is the Acura a bad truck? Not at all, but my neighbor knows a fraud when he sees one, and we bet you do too. With nothing to distinguish the SLX from the Trooper, there isn't a reason to buy the Acura. Heck, the badge won't even impress your neighbors, unless you live at the intersection of dumb and dumber.
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