2002 Acura MDX Expert Review:New Car Test Drive
New Car Test Drive
Among the best of the on-road SUVs.
Introduced last year, the Acura MDX was quickly named 2001 North American Truck of the Year by a group of 50 independent automotive journalists.
It's not hard to see why. The Acura MDX offers an outstanding V6 powertrain, seven-passenger seating, and a four-wheel-drive system that prevents skids almost before they occur. These benefits come wrapped in a neat though not flashy package packed with the calm attention to detail expected of Honda's luxury brand. It's also a package that provides excellent crash protection.
For 2002, the MDX has been further refined for a quieter ride with new side mirrors, a sound-absorbing roof liner, thicker windshield glass, and a layer of Thinsulate insulation in key areas throughout the interior. The 2002 MDX also gets an intermittent rear windshield wiper and the LATCH (Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children) child-seat securing system for the second row of seats.
MDX powered by a 3.5-liter V6 engine mated to a five-speed automatic transmission.
MDX ($34,700) comes standard with a long list of luxury and convenience features: leather seating surfaces and leather door inserts; wood-patterned trim; keyless remote entry; power windows, door locks and mirrors; power tilt and sliding moonroof; cruise control; seven-speaker AM/FM/cassette stereo with in-dash CD player; power adjustable front seats; alloy wheels and a multi-function digital trip computer.
An optional Touring package ($2600) adds a killer 200-watt, eight-speaker Acura/Bose music system with in-dash six-disc CD changer; a keyless remote linked to the two-position driver's seat and mirror memory system; eight-way adjustable passenger seat; roof rack; an outside mirror that tilts to track progress while backing up; and special alloy wheels.
The optional Acura Navigation System with DVD ($2000) needs only one disc to cover the entire continental US. My favorite among navigation systems for its intuitive simplicity, the Acura system holds some 3.7 million points of interest ranging from ATM machines to restaurants and hospitals. If you want to pick up some cash, make a stop at the nearest Chinese take-out and then locate an emergency room for your over-indulgence, it is all at your beck. A novel addition to the nav system, uniquely appropriate for a vehicle equipped to seek out the uncharted outbacks, is a feature that leaves electronic bread crumbs on screen. No road visible under the little wedge-shaped marker that represents your vehicle? Not to worry. This nav system leaves a line that you can easily retrace back to where there be no more dragons.
The Acura people speak of the MDX's athletic appearance. True enough if you have in mind a linebacker rather than a 100-meter sprinter. A casual look reveals a sturdy, stable-appearing machine with a wider, firmer stance than its competitors. Limited overhang gives it a denser, compact air. Large taillights also add to the straightforward sense of a strong presence.
The MDX does not draw a gasp for unique design or beauty of line. Rather it is like Emily in 'Our Town' who asked her mother if she were pretty. Remember the scene? The motherly answer: pretty enough for all 'normal purposes.'
What isn't obvious except in a body-off view is the duality of the construction of the MDX. It is both unibody and body on frame! This Centaur-like approach gives uncommon rigidity and strength gained from the longitudinal rails with eight box-section cross members. This is the thinking engineers' path to making a car/truck both a car AND a truck whichever is appropriate to the occasion.
Oh yes, something else evident when the chassis is 'naked': there's a vent tube for the differential so that water won't get into it when you are bumper deep (actually up to 18 inches) in a creek. So they have given thought to either rugged use or flooded roads. That goes beyond the usual 'neutralize bad weather' approach of SUVs.
The airy perforated leather on the seat is echoed in the side panels, the steering wheel and the shift knob. There is nothing swoopy or eye-popping about the instrument panel, just easily read instruments with an unobstructed view. Honda's simple large knobs fall easily to hand and are easy to operate whether that hand is wearing mittens or has long fingernails. The overall sense is the serenity of simplicity.
The air bag fits flat into the fascia of fake animal hide, which looks better than it sounds. The sun visors have extensions for those sharp shafts of sun angling low at dawn and dusk. And then there's the added touch of elegance makes you say to yourself, 'If they thought of this they must have thought of everything': That's the roof-mounted grab handles that don't go CLUNK against the ceiling when released; they whisper their dampened way back into place.
Oh yes, another thing they thought of: that muddy back-of-the-legs syndrome when getting out of an SUV after driving in sloppy slush or a rainy road. Acura has enclosed that offending dirty-maker in bodywork so you can dismount cleanly.
The third row of seats is easier to get into than those, say, of the Volvo Cross Country wagon. They are a dandy bonus for kids who seem to like far-away places. Every seat in the house has a shoulder harness as well as a lap belt. (Many SUVs do not come with a shoulder belt in the rear center position.) And there are anchors for child seats seemingly everywhere. Lots of cup holders, too.
But maybe the most impressive feature is the split air-conditioning system. Not only can those in back have a different temperature than the front-seat riders, but one zone can get heat while another gets air conditioning. That ought to cut down on whining.
When not in use, the third row of seats folds to disappear completely into the floor, leaving a flat surface with no protrusions to scratch your luggage. They split as well for a varied mix of people and stuff.
Space and cargo flexibility are superior to the class.
SUVs are the offspring of cars and trucks. Which side of the family they most resemble is a design choice. And how you use your SUV should determine whether you opt to favor Auntie Car or Uncle Truck.
If you are serious about your off-road adventures you are, firstly, rare. (Surveys say only 5 percent use their SUVs for off-road travel.) If, however, you do need to navigate over fallen logs, dried ruts and rocks of Plymouth size, then you need a suspension with long travel to maintain adequate contact with the trail's surface. You need a low, low 'creeper' gear to take you down extremely steep inclines without having to touch your brakes (and thus maybe skid sideways.)
Unfortunately, all of that Uncle Truck stuff makes for poor highway going. High ride height and long suspension travel can lead to excessive lean in corners and a greater possibility of rollover should a curb or pothole get in the way. And the ride can be rough and lurchy.
Now Auntie Car is far smoother on paved surfaces, taking to corners with a quick turn-in and a secure grip. But she can scare you in the serious outback. Even strand you.
Every SUV is a compromise. Some have chosen to forego off-road competence with a more comfortable - and comforting - ride on city streets and highways. Their higher seating position and their four-wheel-drive capability makes them neutralizers of bad weather, which is what most SUV buyers really want.
Acura sees the MDX competition as the BMW X5, the Lexus RX300 and the Mercedes-Benz ML320. These are SUVs that tend to favor Auntie Car. (The Mercedes M-class does have a transfer case and a low range, however. The others, including the MDX, don't.)
Of all the SUVs in our experience the Acura MDX seems to balance Auntie Car and Uncle Truck traits the best. Its highway manners are excellent with secure cornering, though perhaps without the keen turn-in of the BMW X5. The MDX feels extremely stable and as untippable as a rhino.
It comes with a 3.5-liter VTEC V6 engine generates 240 horsepower and 245 pounds-feet of torque happily available from 3000 to 5000 rpm. A five-speed automatic transmission features gear ratios spaced to match the requirements unique to an SUV.
Acceleration is better than any of those Auntie Car machines (and all of the Uncle Trucks). The MDX will get to 60 mph from a stop in 9 seconds, a full second faster than the nearest competitor. The mesa-shaped torque curve gives comforting acceleration (for merging and passing) at any speed. And the brakes are absolute standouts, responsive and secure.
MDX is capable of towing 4500 pounds, capability normally considered an Uncle Truck trait.
As for off-road, the MDX makes up for the absence of a transfer-case and a granny gear with a regular low gear that is extra low. Venturing onto badly rutted forest service roads or trails leading to fishing sites and trailheads will not overtax the MDX.
It comes with a unique new four-wheel-drive system. The MDX is normally in front-wheel drive for reasons of economy. Some all-wheel-drive systems normally cruise in front-wheel drive, but when their sensors detect slippage the rear wheels are engaged. Not so the MDX. Slippage, the Acura engineers reason, can only occur under acceleration. And so the MDX engages the rear wheels as well as the front wheels whenever under acceleration without waiting for slippage to occur. Acura has always been good at taming and avoiding torque steer, the curse of powerful front-wheel-drive vehicles, and this system cuts it off before it can start.
Acura provides an 'unstuck' button on the dash (that's what it says) that locks the differential progressively to get out of really tough situations.
Though safety and clean emissions do not figure in how a car drives they do figure in how you feel about driving it. Two safety points: Acura expects a five-star federal crash rating (the best) on the MDX. And Acura claims the MDX can be hit from behind by a vehicle g.
The 2002 Acura MDX combines most of the virtues of the SUV genre and diminishes or eliminates most of its vices. Anyone seeking comfort, performance, spaciousness, flexibility, proven safety features, environmental awareness and driving pleasure in a value-loaded package must have a look at the MDX.
Availability of the MDX is limited as the plant that builds it (Honda of Canada Manufacturing in Ontario, Canada) is struggling to meet the demand. A new plant is coming on line, but don't look for too many deals as demand for the MDX is strong.
Fred Vang contributed to this review..
MDX ($34,700) (YD1822JN).
Options As Tested
navigation system ($2,000); Touring Package ($2,600) includes special alloy wheels, roof rack, tilting back-up mirror, remote keyless entry linked to memory seat and mirrors, Acura/Bose 200-watt audio system with 6-disc CD changer.
MDX ($34,700) (YD1822JN).
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