Seating seven and weighing in at a whopping 4,551 pounds, the 2011 Acura MDX is the last vehicle you'd expect to see ripping up the pavement on your favorite mountain road, but that's exactly where we took this 300-horsepower beast to put its active suspension and SH-AWD technology to the test. The results we came back with were surprising to say the least.
What's more, this physical powerhouse is also a tech powerhouse, with an array of safety technology to keep you and your six passengers entertained on roads less twisty.
Surprisingly nimble seven-seater
Under the hood of the 2011 MDX, you'll find the same 3.7-liter V-6 engine that can be found in the TL and TSX sedans. However, the heavier MDX needs a few more ponies to get the job done, so Acura gave it a 20-horsepower boost for a total of 300 hp. The added weight and more aggressive tune pull the MDX's fuel economy down to 16 mpg city and 21 mpg highway. We managed a combined 13.8 mpg during our testing, but that's probably explained by the, well, spirited manner in which we drove during our testing. We're sure that the average driver would fall right in the middle of the EPA's estimates.
The 3.7-liter engine won't win any fuel efficiency contests, but it does provide enough power to motivate the hefty MDX.
Power flows from the MDX's 3.7-liter engine through a six-speed automatic transmission with a Sport program and paddle shifters for manual gear selection. From there, torque is transferred to either the front or rear wheels through Acura's Super Handling All-Wheel Drive system (SH-AWD). This system not only biases torque between the front and rear axles, it features a torque vectoring system on the rear axle that sends power to the outside wheel in a turn, increasing grip, control, and rotation. The end result is a nimble ride uncharacteristic of a vehicle the size of the MDX.
Helping the MDX's agility is an active magnetic suspension that is able to adjust the dampening characteristics of the SUV's suspension many times per second in order to provide the highest-quality ride. The suspension's two modes, Sport and Comfort, give you the choice of emphasizing performance or a supple ride.
Shifting the MDX's transmission into Sport mode, we pushed the SUV up one of our favorite mountain roads. Paddle shifting allowed the MDX to hold its revs and prevented awkward midturn shifts. Finding ourselves hot on the tail of a fellow enthusiast in a Volkswagen GTI, we were impressed by how well our 4,550-pound beast stuck to the rear bumper of the nimble hatchback. Of course, with almost 100 horsepower more, you'd expect the MDX to keep up with the VW on the straights, but on twisty roads such as this one, raw power loses to handling. Still, there we were, keeping up the chase through the mountains. There was a noticeable bit of body roll, but the MDX felt planted through the gentler turns and the SH-AWD system brought the vehicle's tail around nicely in the more aggressive switchbacks.
With all modes set to Sport, we were able to coax a fun drive out of the MDX's large-SUV chassis.
Reaching the top of the hill, we paused to give our arms a break from sawing away at the steering wheel, when we noticed that during the entire trip up the mountain, the MDX's adjustable suspension had been in its Comfort mode. Switching the suspension into its Sport setting to match the transmission, we again tossed the MDX into the twists and turns of the mountain road--this time headed downhill. The difference in the handing characteristics of the SUV was immediately noticeable. The body roll we noticed on the way up was drastically reduced, allowing the MDX to stay flatter in the turns and enabling the SH-AWD system to really scoot the ute's tail end around as we powered through turns at speeds that a seven-passenger SUV shouldn't be capable of. We found ourselves grinning as we dove into bends carrying more and more speed before our fun was abruptly brought to a halt by a flashing amber light on the instrument cluster.
No, the warning wasn't from the traction control system, which was surprisingly transparent in its actions. It was from the collision mitigation braking system (CMBS). This forward-facing radar constantly monitors the road ahead of the MDX to warn drivers of potential collisions. If there is no reaction to its flashing lights and sound, the CBMS will apply the brakes automatically and cinch the driver's seatbelt in preparation for a crash. Apparently, the rapidly approaching trees and rock wall on the outside of the switchback we'd been aggressively diving into had caused the system to falsely trigger enough times that it was second-guessing itself and displayed an error code. Driving was not impeded in any way by this error and a quick halt and restart of the vehicle cleared the error code.
We decided to take it easy on the ride back from the mountain and chose a highway route. Switching the gearbox back into its normal automatic mode and the suspension back to Comfort, we took this opportunity to test out the safety features of our MDX's Advance Package. The active cruise control (ACC) system uses the same forward radar as the CMBS (which is also part of the Advance Package) to monitor and maintain a safe distance between the MDX and the vehicle ahead of it. At its tightest, the system still kept a full two car lengths between our front bumper and the car ahead of it, which is great for safety. However, when used in moderate traffic, the system was pretty aggressive in slowing the vehicle to maintain that gap, leading to a jerky ride. Additionally, the system will only slow the vehicle to about 35 to 45 mph before it simply shuts off and stops accelerating (other systems, such as that of the Infiniti FX50, will bring the vehicle to a complete stop and reaccelerate). This makes Acura's ACC system less than ideal for heavy traffic situations.
Also part of the Advance Package is the Blind Spot Information System, which notifies drivers that a vehicle is in the MDX's blind spot by illuminating an LED near the appropriate side-view mirror and flashing that LED if the turn signal is activated. The system makes no attempt to prevent the driver from merging into an obstruction and doesn't operate at low speeds, so it isn't useful in stop-and-go traffic situations.
The Advance Package also brings pre-tensioning seat belts that prepare the passenger in the event of a crash, autoleveling xenon headlamps, the Active Damper adjustable suspension mentioned earlier, and ventilation for the perforated leather sport seats. OK, that last bit isn't exactly a safety feature, but it is nice to have.
Cabin information and entertainment technology
The 2011 Acura MDX's standard cabin tech features include XM Satellite Radio playback, Bluetooth hands-free calling with address book sync, an auxiliary analog audio input, and a power-actuated tailgate. There's also an interesting standard 253-watt, seven-speaker audio system that includes an 8-inch subwoofer.
However, we have no idea how that system sounds because our MDX Advance came equipped with the Tech Package, bumping the standard audio rig in favor of a 10-speaker, 410-watt ELS system with Dolby Pro Logic II. The ELS system sounded fantastic at moderate volumes with bass that almost never distorted and high-end reproduction that was almost too clear for our Bluetooth-streamed MP3s--A2DP Bluetooth streaming being also added as a part of the Tech Package. During our testing, we noticed audible harshness at the top end of some tracks streamed from our Bluetooth-paired HTC Thunderbolt that wasn't present when the same passages were played from CDs or DVD-audio discs.
Also part of the Tech Package is Acura's HDD-based navigation system, which performed quite well, with snappy routing and response. The entire system is controlled using Acura's rotary controller, a large knob that can be rotated, pushed in eight directions, and depressed like a button to make selections and browse the map. The navigation system includes traffic data and weather updates as part of its AcuraLink communication system and even incorporates GPS data into the climate control system.
The HDD that holds navigation-system data also has a 15GB partition for storing audio files ripped from CDs.
The Tech Package increases your audio source options by creating a partition of the navigation system's hard drive for ripped audio CDs, the aforementioned Bluetooth audio streaming, and USB and iPod connectivity. When an iPod or iPhone device is connected, the MDX's voice command system can queue up songs and playlists with simple voice commands, such as "Play artist: the Beastie Boys." This is a nice feather in the cap of the Acura's voice command system.
As we've seen in previously tested Honda vehicles, Acura's voice command system is robust, allowing almost every onscreen interaction and a few offscreen interactions--such as adjusting the climate controls--to be handled with a spoken voice command. However, the Acura voice command system is also needlessly complex. Because it seeks to replicate touch commands with voice rather than handle true voice recognition, accessing simple functions can take way too many steps and require the driver glance at the screen far too many times while driving. For example, inputting a street address can take as many as 10 discrete spoken commands. Likewise, voice command for hands-free calling isn't true voice recognition and the system cannot understand commands such as "Call Brian at work" without a manually assigned voice tag.
The ELS audio and satellite-linked navigation system of the Tech Package are nearly identical to those of the 2012 Acura TL SH-AWD that we recently tested. Check out that review for Senior Editor Wayne Cunningham's impressions.
Adding the Entertainment Package nets you a motorized, ceiling-mounted display and heated rear seating.
Adding the Entertainment Package puts a second optical drive in the dashboard for DVD playback and puts a motorized 9-inch LCD on the MDX's ceiling for rear seat entertainment. This system also includes an IR remote control and two sets of wireless headphones for rear seat passengers. The entire system can be controlled from the back seat or commanded--but not viewed--from the front seats with an override. The front passengers are given the option of dual-zone audio playback or allowing the DVD system to take full advantage of the MDX's 5.1 surround-sound system. During dual-zone playback a standard source is piped through the front speakers while the rear speakers are muted to allow DVD audio to play through the wireless headphones.
If you checked out the 2012 Acura TL review and thought, "I'd love to drive a sport sedan, but I really need more space," the 2011 Acura MDX is exactly the car for you. It loses surprisingly little in performance compared with the TL that most people would notice on public roads, while also offering seating for seven or a massive rear hatch for bulky items if you stow the third row of seats.
The MDX's third row of seats fold flat to offer enough space for your average CNET editor, but getting getting in and out can be tricky.
The MDX starts at $42,580, but if you want any of the performance, comfort, or safety technology we've been raving about, you'll need to step up to one of the higher trim levels. To get the killer ELS audio system, hard-drive-based navigation, and better digital audio source options, you'll need the $46,255 MDX with Tech Package. For the safety technology suite with ACC, CMBS, and blind-spot detection, you'll want the MDX with Advance Package and the Tech Package options, for $52,205. The Entertainment Package--which adds the rear seat entertainment system as well as heated second-row seats and a 110-volt outlet in the center console--can be added to either the Advance or Tech packages for $1,900. Add an $860 destination fee to reach our as-tested price of $54,965.
We spec'd a new BMW X5 xDrive35i Premium with similar options and the total came to a whopping $72,075. Maybe the BMW would be a better drive through the twisties, but from the driver's seat of the Acura MDX we can't imagine it being $17,000 better. Against competition such as the Infiniti FX35, the gap in price is significantly decreased, but we're sure that most drivers in the market for one of these Japanese luxury SUVs would be happy behind the wheel of either.
|Model||2011 Acura MDX|
|Trim||Advance with Entertainment Package|
|Power train||3.7-liter V-6, 6-speed automatic, SH-AWD|
|EPA fuel economy||16 city mpg, 21 highway mpg|
|Observed fuel economy||13.8 mpg|
|Navigation||HDD-based navigation with traffic and weather|
|Bluetooth phone support||basic voice command, phonebook sync|
|MP3 player support||analog 3.5mm auxiliary input, USB/iPod connection|
|Other digital audio||standard XM satellite radio, Bluetooth stereo streaming, HDD-based jukebox|
|Audio system||410-watt ELS, 10-speaker, 8-inch subwoofer|
|Driver aids||rearview camera, blind-spot information, adaptive cruise control, Collision Mitigation Braking System|
|Price as tested||$54,965|