Driving The Avengers S.H.I.E.L.D. Acura MDX
The Black Helicopter Edition of Acura's Best-Selling Crossover
The Avengers Movie Cars
Jay Kavanagh, Inside Line's Engineering Editor, went to Honda's secret test track in the Mojave Desert for a sneak peek of the Acura's — Acura NSX Roadster, S.H.I.E.L.D. Acura MDX, and S.H.I.E.L.D. Acura TL -- featured in the upcoming superhero action blockbuster The Avengers, which opens May 4. | April 13, 2012
Flat black and jacked up, The Avengers Acura MDX looks like the fighter it's pretending to be. Just sitting behind its steering wheel unleashes your inner superhero, or at least your inner Rambo. Suddenly, no question deserves more than a single-syllable answer, and in your mind you develop plans to kill anyone you meet. You know, just in case.
Does it feel good?
In The Avengers, which opens May 4, it's the globe-spanning S.H.I.E.L.D. law enforcement agency that uses the MDX as its utility vehicle. In the movie S.H.I.E.L.D. stands for Strategic Homeland Intervention Enforcement Logistics Division, which means it's the not-so-secret organization that supports the superheroes. Besides the Helicarrier, which is basically a flying Nimitz-class aircraft carrier, S.H.I.E.L.D. backs up Thor and the gang with a fleet of these modified MDXs. Which is smart, since the Acuras came with a lucrative product placement deal.
But a plain Acura MDX right off the showroom floor would be way too tame when your brothers-in-arms include Hulk, Black Widow and Iron Man. So the movie's producers decided the MDXs needed to be dipped in positive male essence for S.H.I.E.L.D. duty.
At the heartless center of unglamorous North Hollywood, California, lies Cinema Vehicle Services' (CVS) 7.5-acre facility. On first sight it looks like a few fabrication shops floating in a sea of fake cabs and phony cop cars. And it turns out that's exactly what it is.
Started in 1975 by Ray Claridge, it has been the go-to facility for movie car preparation for decades. The Shelby GT500 Mustangs used in 2000's Gone In Sixty Seconds were fabricated here, as were all the dozens of Volkswagen Beetles that died portraying the title character in 2005's Herbie: Fully Loaded. Literally thousands of cars move through the CVS shops every year, getting everything from a coat of mud to a full rebuild for their screen appearances.
"You can't buy anything for the MDX," says Sam Salerno, the shop foreman for CVS. "There are a few accessories available through Acura, but they weren't right for what we were doing. Everything had to be custom-made."
Toughening the MDX
A total of 10 MDXs were built for The Avengers, with most coming brand-new straight off the production line in Alliston, Ontario. And they weren't stripped-out MDXs either, as all were equipped with the Technology package and full leather-lined interiors. Just because you're fighting super-villains doesn't mean you shouldn't be super-comfortable.
Before S.H.I.E.L.D. duty each Acura MDX was first sent to the CVS paint shop. There the paint applied by Acura was sanded down and PPG flat black was applied. "The finish has a soft-touch feel to it," described Salerno. "It almost feels like rubber. And then we painted all the chrome parts a black tint to get a black chrome effect."
Most movie cars slam through the CVS shops so quickly there's no time to paint the door jambs. Not this time. All but one of the MDXs got a complete color change. The S.H.I.E.L.D. graphics weren't applied by CVS but were later painted on by the film company's art department.
Not finding any aftermarket fender flares readily available for The Avengers Acura MDX, Salerno and his crew took flares originally intended for a Ford truck and cut them up to fit the Acura. Once the prototypes were stitched together, molds were made from them and fiberglass flares were fabricated for all 10 of the vehicles.
The front push bar started life as standard pieces from the Go Rhino! catalog, with an upper bar added and LED foglamps bolted. The sidestep bars also came from Go Rhino! and were cut down to fit the MDX. A Whelen Engineering LFL Liberty LED light bar is mounted atop each MDX.
Wheels that looked right and had the correct offset for the Acura MDX also proved impossible to locate. So CVS had wheels custom-made by a company called Intro Wheels and painted them black except, of course, for the Acura logo on the center caps. The 18-inch wheels are inside 265/65R18 BFGoodrich All-Terrain radials.
The problem with those BFG tires is that they stand 31.7 inches tall. That's about 2.5 inches taller than the standard 255/50R18 all-season Bridgestones that are standard equipment on the MDX. So for clearance and appearance, the S.H.I.E.L.D. MDXs needed their suspensions raised.
"We disconnected the sway bars," explained Salerno, "and disconnected the ride control system. We built custom spacers for the front and rear and installed air shocks. The entire idea was to get the suspension down and, therefore, the body up."
CVS's handiwork gives the MDX a tough off-road stance that looks great on film, but from the driver seat it doesn't make for a better MDX.
Driving the Prop
With its 300-horsepower, 3.7-liter SOHC 24-valve V6, six-speed automatic transmission and all-wheel-drive system untouched, The Avengers Acura MDX drives very much like any other MDX as long as it stays in a straight line. But with its tipsy ride height, off-road tires and disconnected sway bars, the crossover doesn't like corners. As in, it wants to nose over like a puppy and have its belly rubbed.
So even on the billiard table-smooth pavement at the top-secret test venue, the MDX feels less than secure. That wasn't surprising, even though a stock MDX is one of the best-handling crossovers out there.
That noted, why doesn't Acura offer the MDX in something like this butched-up form? With the fender flares and oversize tires, this MDX looks ready to crawl over the other vehicles in the Trader Joe's parking lot and haul a couple cases of Two-Buck Chuck down to Bolivia. There's something to be said for a crossover that looks tough enough to pound through the rain forest.
Even if it is just movie magic.