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The 2007 Acura MDX, a significant model upgrade over the previous year, reinforces the tech roadmap the company set forth in its RL and RDX cars. The MDX is an SUV, complete with three rows of seating, yet it takes on Acura technologies such as Super Handling All-Wheel Drive (SH-AWD) and live traffic reporting used in the RL and the RDX. While there are some slight interface improvements for accessing the tech, the car drops behind the competition in some significant ways.
The MDX uses Acura's new pointed grill and raked front bumper design, giving it a boatlike appearance, a fairly unfortunate direction in Acura styling taken even further in the ridiculous looking concept shown at the Los Angeles Auto Show. It looks fairly compact from the outside, yet has a good amount of room for front- and middle-row passengers. Access to the rear seats requires some climbing around, which would prove difficult for people with bad backs or stiff joints. With the third row seats up, cargo space is virtually nonexistent.
The Acura MDX we tested came with the Sport and Entertainment packages, which is everything Acura offers. That means it includes navigation, Bluetooth cell phone integration, and a top stereo, all of our favorite cabin tech toys. It's a relatively big car, but it's only available powerplant is a 3.7-liter V-6. Honda just doesn't do V-8s. The automatic transmission only has five gears, which seems primitive compared to all the cars with six-plus automatics.
Test the tech: snow trip
Coincidentally, we got our hands on the Acura MDX the same week we had planned a trip to Lake Tahoe, a winter wonderland compared to never-below-freezing San Francisco. So, it was a pretty easy choice to take the MDX up and see how it handled on slippery roads, snow, and a long highway trip into the mountains. On the trip, we made significant use of the navigation system, entertainment, climate control, and SH-AWD.
To start off, we used the voice-command system to enter the address of our weekend getaway. Being somewhat experienced with Acura navigation systems, we sped through it fairly quickly: pushing the voice button on the steering wheel, saying a command, getting a result on the LCD, then cutting off the voice help by pushing the button again to say the next command. We could have probably done it faster by using the big knob on the center stack, but voice commands are so much cooler.
We dig our tires into the white stuff, with SH-AWD making traction possible.
The route the car picked was exactly what we would have chosen on a map. Because we were smart enough to leave around noon on a Friday, the live traffic reporting showed green lines, meaning free-flowing traffic, all the way to Sacramento, where we had a small section of yellow, or 20 to 40mph traffic. In Tahoe, the navigation tried to lead us up a street that was closed due to snow and ice, but we checked the navigation map and saw we could get on our road from a different direction. As we proceeded around the closed road, the nav system recalculated our route promptly.
It hasn't been a particularly snowy season on the California/Nevada border, so we didn't have to contend with heavy snow on the roads. But we did want to, so we drove off the road to a snow-covered meadow and proceeded to try out the traction. Even with highway tires, the car did well. We could feel slip starting here and there, only to be compensated for by a combination of traction control and the SH-AWD. With temperatures around freezing, the car's heated seats and climate control came in handy. The front seats get dual climate control, while the middle-row seats have a single climate control zone. The front and middle row seats are also heated. During a "freeze-out" test where we had the windows down during a 20-minute drive in the evening, front- and middle-row occupants were kept comfortable, while the third-row passenger was subjected to a continuous blast of freezing cold air.
Climate control keeps middle-row passengers comfy during a freeze-out.
In the cabin
Acura's Technology package for the MDX is very similar to the package in the RL and the RDX. With the MDX, it also comes as part of the Sport package and includes navigation with live traffic reporting, the exceptional ELS/Panasonic stereo, and Bluetooth cell phone integration. In our review of the RDX, we complained about the haphazard mess of buttons around the steering wheel and the stack. Acura cleaned it up a bit for the MDX, using a nice triangular design for the hub of the steering wheel that makes multiple buttons easily accessible. The center stack joystick/knob can be a bit difficult to figure out when trying to find satellite radio stations or tracks on an MP3 CD.
The cabin materials aren't as luxurious as what we've seen in the Infiniti FX45 or the Lexus RX350. Strangely, the dashboard material looks cheaper than it feels. Ours had a pebbled light brown plastic-looking cover, which was ugly, but it also was soft to the touch. The wood grain accents are nice, and the switch gear has a quality feel to it, but the cabin comes off as midrange more than luxury.
Acura's voice-recognition system is the best in the business, easily recognizing our commands and offering good feedback on the LCD to let us know the next command options. At least, that's how the navigation, audio, and climate voice system works. The voice-recognition system for Bluetooth cell phone recognition is a completely different system. It's also good at recognizing commands, but it doesn't provide the same level of feedback on the screen. And because there are two voice systems, there also are two sets of buttons on the steering wheel for activating voice recognition. We would prefer to see a more integrated system, with one button to activate voice recognition and top-level voice commands for entering the phone system, navigation, climate control, or audio.
The triangular steering wheel design makes the multiple buttons more accessible than on the Acura RDX.
The navigation system itself works well. Setting a destination is easy, and its points-of-interest database includes just about anywhere you would need to go. We already covered how well its route guidance and live traffic reporting work above. Our only issues are it doesn't show a split-screen graphic and map for upcoming turns, and it doesn't read out the names of all streets. We don't see the latter text-to-speech functionality in very many cars, but good indications for upcoming turns are very important for a navigation system.
We were prepared to be blown away by the stereo, as we had liked the one in the RDX so much. This stereo has been specially tuned for the MDX and uses 10 speakers. The audio quality was great, but not as impressive as other systems we've heard. The speaker placement in the MDX is similar to the RDX, but it's a much bigger cabin to fill. We didn't feel quite the same surround effect as we did in the RDX. The audio quality was similarly crisp and, as in the RDX, we had to adjust the tuning to get a more satisfying bass note. An extra set of speakers would help this sound system fill the cabin and provide the surround effect this stereo is meant to have.
As for audio sources, this system won't let anyone down. Its six-disc changer can handle MP3 CDs, regular CDs, and DVD audio. You can plug in an MP3 player through RCA jacks in the rear of the console if the car comes equipped with the Entertainment package. XM radio also is included, along with a free three-month subscription.
The Entertainment package adds a rear-seat DVD screen and player, the latter mounted in the stack below the CD player. The screen is a nice, wide 9 inches, and the system includes a pair of wireless headphones and three headphone jacks. A remote for the system pops out of the ceiling screen module. The same RCA jacks that can be used for an MP3 player also can be used to plug in a PlayStation or other game console.
As mentioned above, we wish the phone system was better integrated with the rest of the car systems. It offers basic Bluetooth phone connectivity, and its voice-recognition system makes it easy to dial numbers. But it doesn't copy over address books, requiring you to build it up one entry at a time.
The LCD turns into a rear-view monitor when the MDX is put into reverse, but there are no animated overlays that show where the car is going. It's only useful for seeing if there are obstacles somewhere behind the car. The side mirrors tilt down whenever the car is in reverse, making it easier to see parking lot lines, but not helpful if you're looking for obstacles on the side of the car.
Under the hood
The powerplant in the MDX is a 300 horsepower 3.7-liter V-6, which makes for some underwhelming, though adequate, acceleration. This engine gets the MDX around all right, but it won't throw you back into the seat. The engine's power is channeled through a five-speed automatic. Considering Honda/Acura's tech leadership, not to mention the company's focus on fuel economy, we're surprised the MDX isn't fitted with a six speed.
The powertrain behaved as we would expect, giving us a good boost (as much as the engine could handle) when we wanted to pass someone. The car takes off without hesitation, rolls along well at 70mph on the freeway, and has a fairly responsive throttle for around-town driving. The MDX gets an EPA fuel economy rating of 17mpg city and 22mpg highway. The latter number could probably have been improved with a sixth gear. In our freeway-biased driving, we saw 17.8mpg. This is a very clean engine for an SUV, getting an Ultra Low Emissions II rating from the California Air Resources Board.
A small engine for an SUV, this V-6 doesn't provide much punch, but it is economical.
While we think the powertrain could use some improvement, the combination of Acura's SH-AWD system and traction control worked very well. In fairly hard cornering, the MDX didn't feel top-heavy at all, but its understeer meant our arms were twisted around on particularly tight corners. The ride quality felt a bit lighter than a typical SUV, and the road is smoothed over by Acura's Active Damper System. The system, which can be turned on with a button labeled Comfort on the console, adjusts the suspension response in milliseconds depending on the current road conditions. It's designed to keep the ride smooth during performance driving, something we felt and appreciated. While jamming down a twisty highway, the ride felt as comfortable as if we were on a flat road.
Our 2007 Acura MDX came with the Entertainment and Sport packages, putting its price at $48,465 with its $670 destination charge. These packages included just about everything you can get in the MDX, including all the dashboard technology.
The only technology in the MDX that we thought really made it over the bar was the SH-AWD. The handling on the MDX felt very good, although the steering could have been tightened up. The voice-command system for the navigation, audio, and climate control is also impressive. We didn't feel the stereo quality came up to the same level as the ELS system in the RDX, although it still is very good. With a similar level of technology, the Lexus RX 350 is a worthwhile competitor to the MDX. On the high side, the Infiniti FX45 also is a solid choice compared to the Acura MDX.