Acura was the first Japanese car company to offer a luxury line in the U.S. That's right - Honda's upscale division arrived before Toyota's Lexus and Nissan's Infiniti. However, they haven't been the sales leader in the segment. The Acura MDX, now in its 2nd generation, is an attempt to remedy that, by competing feature-for-feature with its Japanese and German rivals for the upscale family SUV market.
Maybe it is a little nervy to declare your intentions versus, say, BMW or Mercedes-Benz, but that's what the MDX does. Although it shares some structural elements with the more plebeian Honda Pilot, it boasts potent V6 power - 300 horsepower from 3.7 liters. Power flows through a sequential-shift automatic six-speed. It comes standard with numerous high tech and pampering features, too.
Being a high-tech Honda at heart, the MDX offers variable valve timing and electronic lift control (VTEC), computerized fuel injection and a high-flow, sports tuned exhaust system to get V8 power from six cylinders. Fuel economy, for the 4,627-pound unit, is rated at 16 City, 21 Highway (18 average), but I only averaged 16.0 mpg during my test.
Standing 5'10" tall, even with me, the MDX welcomes driver and passengers with a broad, spacious interior for five (and room for two more with the disappearing third-row seat). The Acura interior design template calls for a bold expression of motion flowing up the center console onto the dash and extending like a giant Aries symbol into the doors. The wood trim looks like it's a solid two inches thick. The three-dimensional contouring makes the car feel energized yet as secure as a bank vault. A neat, silvery rolltop cover conceals the cupholders when you're not using them.
I was surprised that this luxury vehicle still used a regular key. Although it did flip out from its case, switchblade style, it still needed to be inserted into a lock, unlike most medium to high level cars, which all use keyless entry. Also, the audio system doesn't display the entire name of the artist and song, unless it's short - an old looking technology. But the steering wheel does electrically contract towards the dash for easy entry and exit, and the dash bristles with features.
The MDX is essentially one model with one engine and transmission combination. Where you can go to town is in adding packages. The Tech Package brings in fancier leather--perhaps it takes high technology to process it. The real attraction is the upgraded audio and navigation systems, which use an eight-inch, high-resolution full VGA color display. The car's rear-view camera provides three different views. The three-zone automatic climate control uses solar sensing and has air filtration and humidity control.
The Advance Package brings even higher quality leather - perforated this time, with ventilation as well as the standard heating. There's a blind spot information system that illuminates if someone's occupying the area next to the car that's outside your mirror view. Put on your turn signal and it'll warn you visually and noisily not to turn.
Even better, the Collision Mitigating Brake System will try to keep you from smashing into anyone. One day, while driving along, I passed someone who was waiting to turn, and because the road curved, the system attempted to stop me, thinking a crash was imminent. It not only threw on the binders but flashed "BRAKE" in red letters at the top of the dash. I drove meek as a lamb after that.
With either package, you can order up the Entertainment Package, which supplies a drop-down video screen for rear-seat passengers, along with two sets of headphones, which tuck neatly into pockets on the backs of the front seats. The headsets felt uncomfortable when I tried one on, with hard pads against my ears. The package also gives you a 115-volt power outlet on the dash and heats the window-facing rear seats.
All this adds up to a pretty enjoyable driving and riding environment. The V6 pulls along nicely, but the only downside was the 16-miles-per-gallon fuel economy. The EPA's Air Pollution score is a decent 6 but the Greenhouse Gas number is a more modest 4. But this is not the car for environmentalists. Acura and Honda sell many smaller, lighter, and more efficient models for them. This is about a grand driving experience.
Prices start at $44,175 for the MDX. Add all the packages, and you will end up where my Palladium Metallic tester did, at $55,700.
The MDX, assembled in Alliston, Ontario, contains 25 percent Japanese materials, including the transmission. But it is quintessentially American, stressing size, comfort and choice. While not the darling of the Sierra Club, it provides, in the second decade of the 21st century, a level of pampering that makes luxury wagons of a generation ago seem, well, like cars.