Luxury SUVs have become such a common sight that the notation for the 2010 Acura MDX on our schedule didn't raise much interest around the office. But then we saw the thing. Rather than the somewhat delicate, beak-nosed vehicle of the past, this one's squarish stance and big air scoops made it look like a hardened criminal.
OK, an exterior styling update. Fine. But Acuras have always seemed like upscale Hondas, never embodying the real luxury found in competitive brands such as Mercedes-Benz or BMW. We got in the cabin expecting to find the usual midlevel cabin appointments, but were instead greeted with beautiful wood-grained trim elements and thick leather seats.
Facing us in the center of the dashboard was the usual Acura controller, a large knob that works as a joystick and dial, surrounded by buttons with an LCD above. We weren't thrilled to see the same old maps on the navigation system, strictly 2D with somewhat jaggy resolution showing on street names.
Given that Acura uses an in-dash hard drive for the navigation system, we can't imagine these older generation maps take up a whole lot of space. Twisting the big knob around to delve into the navigation system's menus, we found the latest Zagat listings for restaurants and one of our favorite features, a database of scenic drives, listed by state.
Entering a destination into the system proved as easy as ever, the proximity of the knob to the screen making inputs seem nearly as direct as using a touch screen. Maneuvering the MDX out onto the route it calculated, we noticed the traffic flow and incident information overlaid on the maps, and dug into the settings to ensure that the car would dynamically change the route when bad traffic cropped up.
The navigation system guided us through city streets, its route guidance enunciating street names, and the MDX proved very drivable. In the madness of downtown streets, where random double-parked cars and road construction require quick lane changes, the MDX's light steering and responsive low-speed acceleration helped us jump the car from lane to lane.
Further assisting quick maneuvering was the MDX's blind-spot detection, which lit up an icon at the base of the A-pillar when it detected a car in the lane next to us. Given the high sides of the MDX, cars in the next lane were often completely invisible. Blind-spot detection is one of our favorite safety features, and it is nice to see Acura employing it in the MDX.
During this excursion we had the suspension in Comfort mode, which made it feel like we were driving a waterbed. The car moved along with a slow motion wallow, softening the ride and absorbing the bumps and pits mining the asphalt.
At a freeway onramp, we hit the gas hard to see how the MDX handled acceleration at the top end. Here, the 3.7-liter V-6 brought its 270 pound-feet of torque to bear, spooling up the car and engine speed, reaching toward 6,300rpm where the horsepower peaks at 300. This engine isn't the most high tech compared with what other automakers are offering, but it does have Honda's VTEC valve timing.
At freeway speeds, the suspension didn't hunker down, and we were still left with the soft wallow. But it didn't adversely affect the handling, either. The steering had the usual slack built in for an SUV, allowing for effortless driving. Since the beginning of this drive, we were eager to push the button on the console that would put the suspension into Sport mode, but restrained ourselves in the interests of testing the comfort setting completely.
We left the transmission in its standard drive mode, too, holding off on using its sport setting until we found an appropriate road. But flicking the paddle shifters on the steering wheel, we noticed the gear indicator showing 6. Acura has finally caught up with the rest of the world, installing six-speed transmissions. At 70 mph, the engine hummed along at a little under 2,000rpm, which should improve fuel economy.
The EPA rating for the MDX is 16 mpg city and 21 mpg highway, not particularly great numbers, but the vehicle does have third-row seating. In our driving, which combined city, mountain roads, and the freeway, we came in at 17.6 mpg.