Review: 2011 Acura MDX w/ Advance & Entertainment
By Chris Haak
The Acura MDX, now in its second generation, has become Acura’s bread and butter. As the brand’s best seller in 2010, Acura saw 47,210 MDXs find new homes. That represented a full 35.3 percent of all Acura sales. Put another way, Acura sells more than three MDXs for every RDX that it sells, despite the RDX being smaller and cheaper. What is it that buyers seem to find in the MDX against the rest of the brand’s lineup?
Honda – along with its luxury brand, Acura – is one of the most masterful car manufacturers when it comes to platform sharing. Different from rebadging, where only the grille, emblem, and minor trim variations are changed, platform sharing is often invisible to the consumer, but saves manufacturers a considerable amount of money in development, purchasing, and manufacturing complexity because there are so many shared components under the skin. The Accord, Accord Crosstour, TL, TSX, and RL all share major chassis components, and the company’s Odyssey, Pilot, MDX, ZDX, and Ridgeline have a common architecture. Does basing the brand’s flagship crossover on a minivan platform mean that it’s making unacceptable compromises? We set out to find out by spending a week with a new 2011 MDX.
In 2010, Acura gave the MDX a number of enhancements to improve its appeal to consumers. Borrowing a bit from the ZDX’s parts bin, the MDX now has a six-speed automatic and several other newer technologies like adaptive cruise control and a collision mitigation braking system (CMBS – more on that in a moment). Perhaps the most interesting is that when equipped with the Advance Package, the MDX gets an active damper system in its suspension that utilizes magnetorheological shocks. As we profiled here a few weeks ago, current active suspension systems are really the state of the art in automobile suspension systems, literally meaning almost no compromise is required, yet ride and handling are both optimized.
The benefits of the new six-speed automatic over the five-speed unit used in the 2009 and earlier MDXs are twofold, and not surprising: better off-the-line performance, and better EPA fuel economy (+1 mile per gallon in both city and highway cycles; it’s rated at 16 city/21 highway versus 15 city/20 highway in the 2009 model). During a week of drivin the MDX, I observed fuel economy in the 16 MPG range, which is typical for the roads I frequent and my lead-footed habits.
Though many folks I’ve spoken with deride Acuras as dressed-up Hondas, that criticism isn’t really fair. The MDX shows a very good attention to detail inside. When tricked out with the Advance and Technology packages as this particular one was, the seats are upgraded to very soft, heated and ventilated perforated premium Milano leather, and the seats are excellent for all-day comfort. As a tall person, I give the seats extra points for having longer bottoms than many cars have today, so my entire thigh is supported. I’ve , as I’ve found in the seats of all higher-end Honda and Acura products. My tester also featured a large, high-resolution navigation screen (optional), LED lighting, and the aforementioned safety and convenience features not available in Hondas. Stuff like real wood and aluminum trim pieces, fabric-covered A-, B-, C-, and D-pillars (rather than plastic ones as you’d find in a Honda) tell you that this is actually a premium vehicle. You’re not getting it for free, but you’re getting a lot of stuff for your $55 grand.
MDXs equipped with the Advance[d Technology] package, as mentioned earlier, get adaptive cruise control, which works as well as similar systems in other vehicles, and also has something called CMBS, which stands for Collision Mitigation Braking System. In sort, the CMBS uses the same sensor as the active cruise control to determine if it believes a forward collision may be imminent. If it thinks the worst is about to happen, it will cinch the seatbelts tightly against the occupants’ chests and flash an amber “BRAKE!” warning on the digital instrument cluster display between the speedometer and tachometer, while actually activating the brakes. Imagine my surprise when in light city traffic, I was braking as I approached the car in front of me, and experienced what I just described. I was well in control of the situation, but the MDX’s CMBS disagreed. I suppose that’s better than being told after a crash that one might happen.
The interior is spacious for four or five, and tight in the third row for all but kids. It may share platform components with the Odyssey, but it’s no minivan. Front seat passengers are treated to excellent seats and soft-touch materials throughout. There are an outrageous number of buttons on the center stack – I counted 46 buttons and 3 knobs – which has been a persistent criticism of recent Hondas. Other companies are employing touch screens or mouse-like controllers. The array of buttons is almost staggering. They all feel good when you press them, but until you’ve become very familiar with their function and location, they’re an unnecessary distraction.
The navigation system is deceptively high tech; it has large text designed to be easy to read, but roads aren’t pixellated and there’s shading. difficult destination entry keeps screen free of fingerprints and allows entry while in motion, but more time-consuming to enter destinations using a dial than using a touchscreen. Voice destination entry is possible, but I did not test that feature. The only voice-recognition feature I used in the MDX is when answering a phone call, the call stays on your handset until you give the “transfer” voice command to pipe the call through the handsfree Bluetooth phone system. It’s something no other cars aside from Hondas and Acuras require, and it is a nuisance.
Entertainment choices in the MDX are impressive and numerous, particularly with the Entertainment package. Advance Package-equipped MDXs get a fantastic sound system – Dolby 5.1 surround sound. Even streaming music from the iPhone sounds great on it, and DVD-audio, if you actually have a DVD-A disc, sounds fantastic with five separate audio channels. Specifically, the system is an Acura/ELS Surround®32 410-watt Premium 10-speaker Sound System with hard disk drive (HDD) media storage, CD, DVD-Audio, MP3, WMA6 and DTS® player, Dolby®5 Pro Logic® II and AM/FM tuner. On top of this, the “Entertainment” package adds a motorized roof-mounted DVD screen for rear-seat passengers. Kids (and perhaps simple-minded adults) can be dazzled by the Star Trek-like screen deploying from the ceiling at the push of a button, and its VGA-quality picture is very good. Acura also throws in a pair of wireless headphones that only work in the rear seat area, miraculously losing their reception the second you lean your head from the back seat past the front seatbacks (don’t fret; I was trying this while the vehicle was parked in my driveway and was not traveling unbuckled).
Acura has had more than its share of [well-deserved] design criticism over the past few years, focused mainly on the cheese grater-blade grille and blob-like body shapes. The MDX is not, to me, a work of beauty, but it does manage to pull off the Acura blade grille better than its peers do on the Acura dealer’s front row, at least aside from the revised 2012 TL. It sort of looks like an over-stuffed RDX; a bit rotund and portly-looking, but with nicely-shaped fender bulges and an interesting roofline that manages to hide its squared-off rear thanks to the D-pillar’s shape around the window.
Behind the third row, there’s enough space to hold a week’s worth of groceries for a family of four (the spec sheet shows a reasonable 15.0 cubic feet back there). However, access to the third row seat is annoying. Only the passenger side second row slides forward for easier third-row access, and even small people had trouble gracefully getting into the third row – particularly women wearing skirts. Kids, however, never seem to worry much about grace and are much more flexible. They’d probably be content just climbing above a static second-row seat, putting muddy footprints on the lovely taupe-colored seats. Incidentally, the front seats in the 5,000-some mile tester had some dirt marks on them. Buyer beware, or buyer be a clean freak.
Top-spec MDXs get 19 inch aluminum wheels on all-season Michelin rubber. For the 2010 model year, Acura fitted the MDX with larger brakes, now (13 inch ventilated discs up front; 13.1 solid discs in the rear), and pedal feel was firm and progressive. You can stand on the brakes, but you’re still not going to stop instantly. The big Acura’s steering had great on-center feel and accuracy, and – aided by a thick, nicely-crafted steering wheel – telegraphed more of the road’s message than would be expected in most other SUVs or crossovers. The steering ratio, however, was a little slow. A very solid, rattle-free platform holds everything together nicely.
Handling in the MDX is really remarkable, nearly physics-law-defying. Despite a curb weight over 4,300 pounds and a tall SUV-like profile, the MDX’s mix of double-wishbone four-wheel independent suspension, active damping, and Super Handling [torque-vectoring] all wheel drive, the big boy is almost fun on curvy roads. In contrast to the pre-2010 MDX, the sport setting is firm, but not punishing, and there’s an almost eerie lack of body roll. I was ferrying my wife to an appointment to have her severely-sprained ankle checked out, and despite her sensitivity to bumps, she didn’t complain at all about my driving in the MDX, despite keeping a fairly brisk pace on a back road. SH-AWD really does a magnificent job of keeping understeer out of the picture by applying engine power selectively left-to-right or front-to-back. For example, a fast left-hand sweeper will cause SH-AWD to apply a little extra power to the right-rear wheel to push the MDX through the curve. It’s the same system employed in other AWD Acuras, such as the TL SH-AWD, ZDX, and others, and it works very well; nearly to the point of eliminating all front wheel drive-based platform bugaboos except for aesthetic ones.
Really the only dynamic criticism I have of the MDX is that it could use more horsepower. As in, 50 to 100 more. It’s not pokey, but for a luxury vehicle, it lacks the off-the-line urgency that might be expected in a $55,000 vehicle. On the bright side, the engine sounds fantastic, with a what sounds like a muffled race car-like growl. Six forward ratios in a transmission aren’t impressive anymore, with seven and eight speeds on the market, but the ratios are fairly close together. That means that the MDX doesn’t spend much time in each gear, which actually sounds kind of neat under full throttle. Also, the transmission kicks down quickly (including two-gear drops) and the behind-the-wheel shift paddles work well.
The biggest annoyance with the transmission is that the MDX cannot stand being in first gear. First gear is very short, so when you’re pulling out from a stop, in the blink of an eye, you’re in second gear. Until you come to a complete stop, it will not allow you back into first gear again. Not that most MDX buyers will be tackling the Tail of the Dragon, but there are some corners in the real world in which powering out of them is more effective in first gear rather than second gear. Instead, though, you’re left far out of the MDX’s powerband around 20 MPH, and you’ll have to wait until speed more gradually builds and the 3.5 liter V6 gets chugging before it really pulls again.
With no options (Acura packages their option packages as separate models, hence the headline), the 2011 Acura MDX with Advance & Entertainment has an MSRP of $54,965, or $55,000 less the price of a dinner for two at Applebee’s. And putting the MDX’s price against the Lexus GX 460, its likely closest competitor (though the GX is off road-capable and built on a body-on-frame architecture), the MDX comes away looking like a bargain. TrueDelta.com says the MDX is $11,200 cheaper, but when you factor in the additional equipment that the GX includes, the gap shrinks to $3,133. Having spent a week in each of these vehicles, the MDX is far and away more enjoyable to drive, and more spacious inside. The GX has nicer materials and more luxury features, though.
At the end of the day, there’s a reason the MDX is Acura’s best seller, and in fact, the top seller in this small-but-expensive segment. You’re getting a lot of sophisticated technology in the MDX, and a great-driving crossover. If it only had a bit more engine power, and slightly-better looks, it would be even closer to great. Still, it’s very good, which isn’t bad for a model that’s already past the halfway point in its life cycle.