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2010 Acura ZDX first drive

CNET Car Tech gets a preview drive in the Acura ZDX.

Acura ZDX
Acura's all new ZDX is a mash-up of sedan, SUV, and sports coupe. Wayne Cunningham/CNET

When we saw the line of Acura ZDX models waiting for us in the parking lot, the cleanness of the design stood out. The sheet metal looked smoother than any new car we had seen recently, and Acura didn't load the body down with jewelry, just nicely integrated headlight casings. And the grille, which stands out like a beak on the smaller Acura sedans, seems to have found its medium. Unlike when we first saw the ZDX earlier this year at the New York auto show, the design took on new life under the bright sun at this special driving preview.

Built on the Acura MDX SUV platform, the ZDX is lower but just a tad longer than its platform-mate. During a presentation, an Acura representative called it a "four door sports coupe," and touted its off-road characteristics by showing a video of it running on a snow track. That schizophrenic character points to the ZDX's blessing or curse--it will be a convenient multipurpose vehicle to some people, but not good at any particular duty for others. That said, the ZDX comes out at the same time as other automakers experiment with this new type of crossover. BMW has the X6, and is working on the 5-series Gran Turismo. Audi is looking at making a hatchback version of the A5. These companies are trying to develop an SUV-alternative for people that no long want to drive a truck.

Acura ZDX
The glass roof extends over the hatchback lip. Wayne Cunningham/CNET

Most concept cars lose their most interesting features when they come to production, but the ZDX didn't drop a thing from its initial showing. It uses a glass roof extending from the hood to hatchback, giving both seating rows a sunroof. The short rear doors have handles hidden in the C pillar graphics. The center stack looks black when the car is off, but backlighting highlights button labels when the audio system and climate control are turned on. We hope this feature finds its way into other Acura models, as it works well to hide the mass of buttons scattered over current Acura dashboards.

In the driver's seat, that lower-than-SUV-height is apparent, and it's not a bad thing. The curving roof, leading to the hatchback, makes us feel like we're piloting a missile, a sense enhanced by the length of the ZDX. But the drive train doesn't exactly rocket the car forward. The engine is the same as in the MDX, a 3.7-liter V-6 producing 300 horsepower and 270 pound-feet of torque. EPA fuel economy is posted as 16 mpg city and 22 mpg highway, numbers which probably mean never passing 20 mpg in normal use. The ZDX does feature a new transmission, a long overdue for Acura six-speed automatic. Acura's Super Handling All-Wheel-Drive system (SH-AWD) is standard on the ZDX, generally biasing torque to the front wheels, but sending it to the rear as necessary, and shifting it from right rear to left rear to enhance cornering.

Acura ZDX
Steering wheel buttons activate the adaptive cruise control. Wayne Cunningham/CNET

The vehicle we drove was the ZDX with Advance package, the top trim available when the car goes on sale this winter. As such, it had something Acura calls the Integrated Dynamic System, combining an adjustable magnetic suspension with variable steering control. A dial at the bottom of the stack on Advance package models flips it from comfort to sport mode. Taking it down a rough bit of pavement on a downhill slope in comfort mode, the ride felt trucklike, bouncing around. Sport mode made it hunker down a bit. Throwing it around some hard corners, the SH-AWD helped it hold its line, but the suspension couldn't entirely counteract wallowing from the car's weighty body. During our drive, the ZDX performed adequately, but didn't seem to excel in any particular manner. As we suggested, jack of all trades, master of none.

However, we were treated to a luxury experience with the interior appointments. Acura has long struggled to reach the heights of competitors such as Lexus, BMW, and Mercedes-Benz in the luxury department, but the ZDX steps up the company's game. While still retaining a driver focus, the cabin gains a nice contoured band of stitched leather. Ventilated leather seats have cooling and heating functions. The switchgear, although still plastic, achieves a higher quality look, enhanced by the backlighting we mentioned earlier. The glass hatchback opens to reveal a carpeted cargo space. A hatch covering a compartment under that cargo space rises on pneumatic struts.

On the pure technology front, the ZDX with Advance package gets an impressive array of driver assistance gadgets. It comes with a blind spot warning system, which worked well during our brief drive, lighting up an icon in the side-view mirrors when it wasn't safe to change lanes. Adaptive cruise control is also included, using forward facing radar to match the speeds of slower traffic ahead. This system proved easy to activate using buttons on the right side of the steering wheel. The radar is also used in the Collision Mitigation Braking System, which will hit the brakes if it detects an imminent crash.

Acura ZDX
The ZDX stores music on its hard drive. Wayne Cunningham/CNET

The next trim level down is the ZDX with Technology package, a car with the kind of impressive cabin tech we've come to expect from Acura. That means the car gets the latest generation of Acura's navigation system, a hard drive-based unit that warns about traffic and weather problems. While we were testing out the car, we got a rare tsunami alert to show on the system. We've always liked Acura's voice recognition, and that is included here. Acura's signature ELS audio system, using 10 speakers and a 435 watt amp, is also present. In our short time with the car, it sounded very good, producing excellent fidelity.

As a new addition to Acura's technology arsenal, the iPod integration allowed for voice searches on the music library. Similar to Ford's Sync, this system responds to voice commands such as play artist or play album. Acura had an iPod hooked up in the car we drove, and we were able to issue the command "Play Eric Clapton," and have it respond accurately. The last bit of notable technology here is a rear-view camera with three views: normal, wide, and top-down. All of the equipment from the Technology package is included in the Advance package trimmed ZDX.

With the ZDX, Acura has produced a uniquely designed car with a level of luxury greater than previous models from the company. The drive quality isn't terrible remarkable, and neither is the fuel economy, but the cabin technology pushes Acura toward the cutting edge.