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.
Acura's stack looks cleaner in the MDX than in previous generations.
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.
This icon in the A-pillar lights up when a car is in the MDX's blind spot.
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.
You can change the following distance for the adaptive cruise control with a button on the steering wheel.
The freeway gave us the opportunity to test the car's adaptive cruise control, another new feature for Acura. Setting the speed at 70 mph, we left the brake and gas alone, watching as the MDX matched speeds with the car ahead, maintaining a set distance. There was plenty of traffic, with some slowdowns to 40 mph, but the car kept its distance from the one ahead, and did not react badly when other cars cut in front of us.
Acura uses the adaptive cruise control's forward radar for a collision warning system, as well, a feature we saw in action when we took back manual control of the car. Coming up a little too close to slow traffic, a helpful amber Brake sign flashed in the instrument cluster. A little acceleration while coming up on slow traffic also got the seat belt tensioners to tighten up as the Acura braced us for an expected crash.
Having tested these useful driver aids, we turned attention to the stereo, the premium ELS audio system found in high-trim Acuras. With 410 watts of power and 10 speakers with which to deliver it, this system can get loud, but its default tuning leans toward well-defined treble. Putting in a bass-heavy track and maxing out the subwoofer level does bring out some thump, but in general this surround sound system seems designed for acoustic, orchestral, and light pop.
We mentioned previously that the navigation system uses a hard drive, so we weren't surprised to find HDD as one of the audio sources. Acura makes 15GB of the hard drive available for music, with an onboard Gracenote database that automatically recognizes and tags CDs. The disc player also plays MP3 CDs and DVD audio.
With voice command, you can tell the car what music to play from an iPod.
A USB port in the console supports USB thumb drives or iPods. We plugged an iPhone into the system and had access to all of our music, sorted by album, artist, and genre. More impressively, we found that we could choose music through voice command, a feature heretofore only available from Ford and Mitsubishi. In the MDX, we had to push the voice button, say "iPod search," then push the voice button again to request specific artists, albums, or tracks. This feature, called Song by Voice, worked well, never once getting our requests wrong.
As for the iPhone, at the same time we were using it as an audio source, we also had it paired up to the MDX's Bluetooth phone system. The onscreen phone system offered all we could want, with a recent calls screen, phone book imported from the phone, and dial by number. But this system doesn't support using voice command to interface with names in the phone book, somewhat of a surprise considering the voice command interaction with the iPhone's music library. Although we like being able to call up music by artist name, placing phone calls by name would seem to be a more essential feature.
Straightening the curves
After some time spent enjoying music on the freeway, we finally made it to suitable roads for testing out the MDX's sport settings. We generally don't expect to throw SUVs hard around corners and get anything like a satisfying experience, but the MDX had a sport suspension setting, something we don't see too often.
Acura fitted the MDX with magnetic suspension technology, similar to that used by Audi. The suspension has electromagnetic coils wrapped around shocks filled with an iron-enriched fluid. When those coils power up, the magnetic fields make the fluid become more viscous. But rather than just making the suspension more rigid, a computer analyzes the MDX's roll and yaw, along with other factors, and constantly adjusts the power in the coils to actively counteract roll.
A button near the shifter toggles the suspension between sport and comfort modes.
With the suspension set and the shifter in the Sport gate, we proceeded to plow into a nice mountain highway, heading for the turns at speed. The transmission kept the engine speed above 3,000rpm and we tugged the wheel over as we went into the first corner. The results were amazing, with the suspension keeping the car level and putting it into a nice, flat rotation.
As we gave it gas on the way through the turn, Acura's Super Handling All-Wheel-Drive system (SH-AWD) performed its torque vectoring magic, sending power across the rear axle to spin the outside wheel harder than the inside. The feeling of the car sending its back end around to help complete the corner was fantastic.
Finding these systems working in harmony to improve handling, we flung the MDX into each successive corner, marveling at the very non-SUV-like performance. We've only experienced this type of handling in two other SUVs, the Porsche Cayenne GTS and the BMW X5 M. The MDX may not be quite up to the level of performance of those vehicles because of disparity in engine sizes, but it was just as much of a joy to plunge through tight corners.
Besides the relative shortage of power, the MDX's transmission doesn't quite live up to its promise of sport. In Sport mode, it doesn't keep the engine revving quite high enough for consistent power, and neither does it aggressively downshift when braking before a corner, as some other sport transmissions do. It does have a Manual mode, complete with paddle shifters, but the response to manual gear changes shows typical automatic transmission lag.
We came away very impressed with the 2010 Acura MDX. The combination of an updated cabin tech suite, the new Song by Voice feature, blind-spot warning, and adaptive cruise control earned it an excellent cabin tech score, the main drawback being the low-res maps. As for the performance tech, the engine isn't much improved from the prior generation, and the transmission's Sport mode could be more sporty. But we do appreciate the sixth gear, and the handling comes up to the level of much more expensive cars. The MDX also cuts a nice enough figure, its grille-work being its best design element. The sides and back are a little more humdrum. Acura did nice work on the interior, which should make buyers feel like they are getting their $50k-plus worth.
|Model||2010 Acura MDX|
|Power train||3.7-liter V-6|
|EPA fuel economy||16 mpg city/21 mpg highway|
|Observed fuel economy||17.6 mpg|
|Navigation||Hard drive-based with traffic|
|Bluetooth phone support||Standard|
|Disc player||Two single DVD players|
|MP3 player support||iPod integration|
|Other digital audio||Bluetooth audio, USB drive, onboard hard drive, satellite radio|
|Audio system||ELS 410-watt 10-speaker surround sound|
|Driver aids||Adaptive cruise control, blind-spot detection, backup camera|
|Price as tested||$54,565|