The 2008 Acura MDX remains largely unchanged from the 2007 model, when we reviewed the then-new redesign and found it chock-full of tech options inherited from Acura's sedans, and with improved handling courtesy of similarly upgraded four-wheel-drive management. Back in 2006, the first-generation MDX had some unfinished first-generation electronics, but nonetheless impressed us with the breadth of its tech offerings.
Some minor feature additions are present on the 2008 model, which improve the overall tech experience, and its solid driving dynamics are still intact. But other luxury SUVs offer better performance, and we're ready to see Acura's next round of cabin tech updates.
The styling of the exterior seems generally unpopular, and our opinion in that vein hasn't changed since last year. The snout especially is a curious mix of chrome, vents, and bumper plastic that announces the car's presence with something less than authority.
Test the tech: Road trip, round two
Our 2007 test car was subjected to a wintry road trip to Lake Tahoe courtesy of Wayne Cunningham, who put the new-to-the-MDX SH-AWD system to the test with some snowy driving shenanigans. This time around, our MDX arrived just before our annual August trek to the Monterey Historics and Pebble Beach Concours weekend, about two hours south of San Francisco.
We dug into the various cabin systems with aplomb during our five days with the car and uncovered some features we had noted were lacking in previous tests. And we were able to get in enough twisty-road miles and around-town maneuvering to appreciate the four-wheel drive system's contributions to dry-road handling.
The navigation system is an old friend to us by now, reliable and predictable, but we've heard its stories already and maybe take all its practical wisdom for granted. In short, it works as well as ever, but we're ready to try some new features. Still, it's always nice telling a car what to do and having it actually listen, and this Honda/Acura voice command system is better than most. Live traffic reporting is included with the package, with visual cues on the map available within the mid-range of zoom adjustment. We were oddly (perhaps shockingly) disappointed not to incur any major traffic delays while on any of our programmed routes during the trip, but we did enjoy seeing the suckers stuck on other highways on our map.
Voice control of the navigation is nice, but we usually end up finding it quicker to use the screen and large joystick-knob, especially for programming destinations. Voice control of the audio and climate control systems is more useful in practice, and we can now say from extended experience that once most of the commands are mastered, voice operation can trump buttons and switches for many functions.
We found the MDX a very welcome long-weekend companion, with enough room for the occasional back-seat wardrobe change, space for plenty of gear, decent performance and fuel economy, and generally comfortable driving.
In the cabin
The rest of the cabin tech appeared no different than during our previous stint with the MDX. The impressive 10-speaker ELS surround-audio system works better in the smaller cabin of the RDX, but especially while checking out the factory demo disc that was still in our test car, it perked our ears up in the MDX as well. Listening to everything from live sports to jazz to news, the crispness seemed palpable and with the surround center adjusted to the driver's seat we detected elements of familiar songs we'd lost to lesser systems.
The rear-seat DVD system includes the ability to hook up music players or game systems via RCA jacks, and the included cheapo wireless headphones can be augmented or replaced (thanks to three headphone-ins on the rear of the center console). Given the ELS system's ability to make the most of DVD audio and video discs, the ability to play DVDs through the main audio system is key. Auxiliary components can also be played to the front while another source plays into the rear headphones, all controlled from the front center console. Unfortunately, the console is a morass of flush-mounted, non-differentiated buttons, which require a glance during too many operations. The steering-wheel and voice controls are again recommended.
Seating overall is well-executed, although the third row is not really suitable for adults. The front passengers get heated seats and dual-zone climate control. Middle-row passengers get their own full set of climate controls and seat-heating for the two outside spots. Storage is good with a big center armrest bin and an extra opening on the passenger side of the main console with a sliding cover. With both rear rows folded down, cargo space is nice and flat.
Materials are nice, with durable-looking leather and pliable plastics on the soft surfaces, polished wood accents, and a refreshing lack of anything shiny. Our car's dark grey seats and black wood trim were particularly soothing.
Under the hood
Unlike many of its competitors in the luxury-SUV realm, the 2008 Acura MDX makes do with a V-6 rather than a heartier V-8 engine. Performance is therefore rather lackluster given the vehicle's size. Acceleration is adequate from rest, although cruising efficiency (not to mention overall prestige) would benefit from at least another gear in the five-speed automatic transmission.
The engine does produce a solid 300 horsepower thanks to displacement (at 3.7 liters, Acura's largest engine) and tech niceties like variable-valve timing and a two-stage intake manifold. The combination means that the MDX is able to meet ULEV-II emissions standards and gets EPA fuel-efficiency ratings of 15 mpg in the city and 20 mpg on the highway. During our time with the car, we calculated an 18.5 mpg average over 331.8 miles of mixed driving, in close agreement with the trip computer's 18.3 mpg estimation.
As in our earlier stint with the car, we found the SH-AWD system provided an excellent degree of stability and enhanced handling characteristics when pushed hard. The system runs 90 percent of the power to the front axle during normal cruising, but can shift up to 50 percent of the power to the rear during hard cornering, with all of that going to the outside wheel under extreme conditions. The MDX also offers an Active Damping system, which toggles Comfort mode on and off depending on the driver's preference for ride versus handling.
A cool if slightly distracting feature is the SH-AWD readout in the trip computer area between the main analog gauges. This screen shows bar graphs representing power levels going to each wheel and can be entertaining to (carefully) watch while working down a curvy stretch of road.
At just under $49,000 including destination charge, the 2008 Acura MDX can still be said to offer good value for the money, keeping seven passengers comfortable and entertained while returning great highway manners and reasonable economy. As a less expensive alternative, the Mazda CX-9 offers the tech basics and equal seating room.
Some of the interior systems are in need of an update, but we suspect the MDX will get a similar redesign of its infotainment package as we saw on the 2009 Acura TL. Everything in the MDX works, but little of it is cutting-edge at this point, and it's not really befitting Acura's image as a company at the tech forefront. As such, the MDX earns a moderate rating for cabin tech. We rate it about the same for performance tech, giving it points for the all-wheel-drive system. Design is the area where it really hurts, as we aren't fans of the exterior, and the switchgear is a bit too abundant.