2003 Acura MDX Expert Review:New Car Test Drive
New Car Test Drive
Outstanding performance and safety in a luxury SUV.
Acura MDX offers an outstanding V6 powertrain, seven-passenger seating, and a standard four-wheel-drive system that prevents skids almost before they happen. Neat styling, attention to detail, and excellent crash protection adds to the attraction of the MDX.
Introduced in 2001, MDX was named North American Truck of the Year by a group of 50 independent automotive journalists. Improvements for 2002 brought an even quieter ride.
For 2003, Acura has further refined MDX, with significant upgrades to the engine, driveline, body, suspension, and steering. Acura's 'Next Generation' V6 boosts horsepower from 240 to 260 and reduces emissions while maintaining the same EPA-rated fuel economy. An all-new, more compact five-speed automatic transmission shifts even more smoothly than before. A new drive-by-wire throttle helps reduce shift shock and incorporates cruise control functions. And MDX's standard VTM-4 four-wheel drive system has been remapped to work seamlessly with a new Vehicle Stability Assist (VSA) system to improve performance on low-traction surfaces, and to enhance stability in all conditions.
The already sturdy body of the MDX is 35 percent stiffer in torsion for 2003; this has allowed the suspension to be re-tuned for an even smoother ride. Refinements to the steering mechanism enhance feel and reduce kickback, while new dual-piston front brake calipers boost stopping power. Acura has updated MDX's optional navigation system with voice recognition, enhanced graphics, an expanded U.S. database and a rearview camera that engages when the transmission is in reverse. A DVD entertainment system with wireless infrared headphones is now available.
Safety improvements include dual-stage, dual-threshold front airbags and additional front airbag sensors with new system control logic.
Acura offers the MDX in a single trim level, powered by a 3.5-liter V6 engine mated to a five-speed automatic transmission. Refinements for 2003 make the MDX the first SUV to meet rigorous ULEV-2 emissions standards.
MDX ($35,700) 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-slide 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; rain-sensing windshield wipers; and special alloy wheels.
Acura DVD Entertainment System ($1500) for rear-seat passengers adds a seven-inch widescreen display that flips down from the ceiling at the push of a button. The system comes complete with two infrared (IR) wireless headphones and a wireless remote control.
The opional Navigation System ($2200) needs only one disc to cover the entire continental U.S. Enhancements for 2003 include voice recognition and upgraded graphics. A rearview camera has been added that transmits pictures from behind the vehicle onto the navigation screen when the MDX is in reverse gear.
Acura MDX does not draw a gasp for unique design or beauty of line. It looks sturdy and stable with a wider, firmer stance than its competitors. Limited overhang gives it a dense, compact demeanor. Large taillights add to the straightforward sense of a strong presence.
Minor appearance changes for 2003 include a new alloy wheel design and splashguards for the rear wheels.
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. A vent tube for the differential keeps out water when sitting in 18 inches of water.
Acura MDX offers space and cargo flexibility superior to the class.
Airy, perforated leather adorns the seats, side panels, steering wheel and shift knob. There is nothing swoopy or eye-popping about the instrument panel, just easily read instruments with an unobstructed view. Simple, large knobs 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 passenger-side dash. 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.
New for 2003 are automatic headlights and an auto-up feature for the driver's window.
Third-row seats are easier to get into than those, say, of the Volvo Cross Country wagon. 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.
An 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.
When not in use, the third row 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.
We like the navigation system for its intuitive simplicity. The database has been expanded even further for 2003. So 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 capability, and one uniquely appropriate for a vehicle equipped to seek out 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. Acura's navigation system leaves a line that you can easily retrace back to where there be no more dragons.
Acura MDX offers a superb balance of car and truck attributes. Its highway manners are excellent. It corners well, though without the keen turn-in of the BMW X5. MDX feels extremely stable and as untippable as a rhino.
Its 3.5-liter VTEC V6 engine generates 260 horsepower and 250 pounds-feet of torque available from 3500 to 5000 rpm. A five-speed automatic transmission features gear ratios spaced to match SUV requirements.
MDX can accelerate from 0 to 60 mph in about 9 seconds, a full second faster than the nearest competitor. A mesa-shaped torque curve means responsive acceleration for merging and passing at any speed.
The brakes are absolute standouts, responsive and secure.
Acura says that MDX can tow a 4500-boat, or a 3500-pound trailer with a tongue weight of 450 pounds. That kind of towing capability is normally considered truck trait.
Off road, 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 four-wheel-drive system. Most of the time, the MDX runs in front-wheel-drive mode for good fuel economy. Some all-wheel-drive systems normally cruise in front-wheel drive, engaging the rear wheels when sensors detect front wheel spin. 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 the driver calls for 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 going 35 mph without the third row of seats being breached. As for 'greenness,' all MDX models sold nationwide meet strict ULEV-2 emissions standards.
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.
Options As Tested
navigation system ($2,200); Touring Package ($2,600) includes special alloy wheels, roof rack, rain-sensing windshield wipers, tilting back-up mirror, remote keyless entry linked to memory seat and mirrors, Acura/Bose 200-watt audio system with 6-disc CD changer.
Acura MDX ($35,700).
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