WHEELER SPRINGS, Calif. -- Crank the volume on that 10-speaker audio kit but watch out because the cliff on our right in the Santa Ynez Mountains of California drops a thousand feet vertically and ahead awaits one hairpin kink after another as snaky route 33 descends through Wheeler Gorge.
That's okay, though, because we're cinched in the contoured driver's bucket and gripping a leather-bound steering wheel while playing the shifter paddles on a six-speed electronic automatic and pushing the drive-by-wire throttle toward a rather tall redline to test the temper of the latest luxurious and sporty car in the mid-size class.
A trunk tag labels it as the ZDX by Acura, the line of performance and luxury vehicles derived from Honda of Japan.
Acura describes the ZDX as a "four-door coupe" because the silhouette resembles a rakish two-door GT coupe with hatchback styling but a four-door package with cleverly concealed rear door handles.
It looks like the car stylists at Acura worked a sleek and edgy hatchback treatment on Acura's boxy five-door crossover utility vehicle (CUV), the MDX.
And so they did, as the front-wheel-drive (FWD) platform of MDX supports the slick aerodynamic structure of the ZDX which has four flank doors like a sedan and flexible seating in a plush leather-lined cabin plus 56 cubic feet of cargo space in the aft bay with access through a tail-side liftgate.
ZDX's body measures almost an inch longer but more than five inches lower at the roofline than MDX, although it shares the CUV's 108-inch wheelbase length.
Standing several inches higher off the pavement than the typical coupe or sedan for better clearance of bumpy-road obstacles, the ZDX lists as standard equipment the spry wheel control of Acura's SH-AWD (Super-Handling All-Wheel-Drive) equipment.
The computer-managed SH-AWD system can disburse the powertrain's torque not only to wheels fore and aft but the left or right ones too. It's always engaged and enables the vehicle to maneuver on wet or dry pavement with uncanny agility.
cura's AWD system normally channels most of the engine's power to the front wheels.
At highway cruise speed, about 70 percent of the torque is driving the front wheels, while the remaining 30 percent goes to turn the rear ones.
If you put your foot hard into the accelerator, however, the computer quickly inverts the power ratio. It shoots 70 percent of torque to rear wheels to help the acceleration effort, while still holding 30 percent on the front wheels.
The device goes further than AWD controls employed by other vehicles because it can automatically increase the rotation speed of an outboard rear wheel during quick and hard cornering maneuvers.
Boosting the rear wheel's rotation speed ends up decreasing the cornering load on the car's front wheels, which thwarts the tendency of an AWD system to understeer and ultimately enhances total tire grip through a turn.
Also working in favor of a dynamic vehicle is the fully independent suspension system -- tuned MacPherson struts up front and a multi-link design in back with solid-core stabilizer bars added front and rear to check lateral body sway when ZDX tackles a set of curves like route 33 through Wheeler Gorge.
And there's a computer-managed vehicle stability control (VSC) system aboard coupled to a traction control system (TCS), plus a four-wheel anti-lock braking system (ABS) with electronic brake distribution (EBD) and brake assist (BA) units.
The 19-inch cast aluminum wheels on ZDX are wrapped in Michelin Latitude 255/50R19 all-season tires.
Acura maxes hardware for safety on ZDX, with the cabin surrounded by hidden air bags -- up-front inflators for front seats plus seat-mounted side air bags and curtain-style air bags concealed in headliners above side windows.
Also aboard is an active head restraint system (AHRS) for each front bucket.
Power flows freely from the six-pack engine that drops into ZDX.
With single overhead camshaft and four valves in every cylinder, the plant with aluminum alloy block displaces 3.7 liters and employs Honda's remarkable VTEC (variable value timing and lift electronic control) valvetrain to precisely manage engine breathing and combustion in order to maximize horsepower and disperse the torque across a broad band.
It delivers strong muscle numbers -- 300 hp at 6300 rpm plus 270 lb-ft of torque at 4500 rpm.
Sole transaxle is a silky electronically controlled automatic with six forward speeds plus Acura's Sequential SportShift override for clutch-less manual shifts with those paddle tabs mounted behind the steering wheel's center spoke.
Federal EPA fuel consumption numbers for ZDX tally to 16 miles per gallon for city driving and 23 mpg on a highway.
The ZDX passenger compartment contains two broad bucket seats in front of a modest rear bench. Premium hand-stitched leather hides cover the dashboard, center console and door panels, while overhead a panoramic glass roof with integrated power moonroof stretches from windshield header to hatchback lip.
ZDX lists significant standard equipment such as automatic xenon headlamps and heated exterior mirrors, a dual-zone automatic climate system, a back-up camera with display in the rearview mirror, power tilting and telescoping steering column with a leather-wrapped three-spoke steering wheel, leather seat upholstery, eight-way power controls for front seats with internal heat elements, a trip computer, power liftgate, Bluetooth and an audio kit with eight speakers and 6x CD changer.
Acura adds two optional packages:
* Technology -- keyless ignition and entry, navigation system with real-time traffic/weather, a multiview back-up camera, and the 10-speaker Acura/ELS surround-sound stereo system with 15-gig hard drive.
* Advance -- Technology package equipment plus adaptive cruise control, a collision mitigation braking system, blind-spot warning device, heated and ventilated front seats, a sport steering wheel, and electronically adjustable suspension dampers.
Acura's price chart for the 2011 ZDX begins at $45,645.