2004 Acura MDX

    (3 Reviews)




    MSRP
    $36,400
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    2004 Acura MDX Expert Review:New Car Test Drive

    Outstanding performance and value in a luxury SUV.

    Introduction

    The 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, excellent crash protection and competitive pricing increase the appeal of this luxury SUV. 

    Introduced in 2001, MDX was named North American Truck of the Year by a panel of 50 independent automotive journalists. Through the four model years since, the MDX has been steadily improved in all areas. 

    The body has grown more rigid, allowing better vibration control and a smoother ride. Power has increased, and a more compact five-speed automatic transmission shifts even more smoothly than before. 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 handling on slippery surfaces and to enhance stability in all conditions. Acura has updated the optional navigation system and added a rearview camera that engages when the transmission is in reverse. A DVD entertainment system with wireless infrared headphones is now available. 

    For 2004, MDX gets another round of updates. This is what the auto industry calls a mid-cycle revision, and the improvements are as extensive as any undertaken so far. Horsepower and torque increase, thanks to a new dual-exhaust system. The 2004 MDX sports new front- and rear-end styling, redesigned alloy wheels, a new Side Curtain Airbag system that helps to protect occupants in all three rows, and interior upgrades that include enhanced interior lighting with ambient footlights and entry illumination. 

    In short, the attributes that earned MDX awards remain and have been refined. This so-called luxury SUV remains one of the best values in the class. 

    Lineup

    The MDX is an Acura, so it follows the brand's all-inclusive price strategy, with limited options. It's offered in a single trim level, powered by a 3.5-liter, 265-hp V6 mated to a five-speed automatic transmission. 

    MDX ($36,400) comes standard with a long list of luxury and convenience features, including many that are extra-cost options on its competitors: leather seating surfaces and leather door inserts; 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. For 2004, there's also a standard tire pressure monitoring system that uses sensors in the valve stem of each wheel to alert the driver when tire pressure drops significantly below the recommended level. 

    Even with a host of improvements, 2004 MDX prices reflect a modest price increase of $700, or less than 2 percent compared to 2003. Prices for the three options offered have not changed. 

    The 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's 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. Kids dig it. 

    The DVD-based Navigation System ($2200) needs only one disc to cover the entire continental U.S. Recent enhancements include voice recognition and upgraded graphics. The system includes a rearview camera that transmits pictures from behind the vehicle onto the navigation screen when the MDX is in reverse gear, but it can only be ordered with the Touring package. 

    Walkaround

    The Acura MDX won't draw a gasp for unique design or beauty of line. It looks sturdy and stable with a wider, firmer stance than some competitors. The styling updates for 2004 don't do much to alter the basic look. 

    The signature Acura grille, now with a satin chrome finish, forms the centerpiece for a new, more tapered front end. The MDX's headlights are more angular than before; new projection-type beams enhance both illumination and appearance. There's a chin spoiler integrated into the front bumper to move air smoothly to the sides of the car and improve aerodynamics. The rear end has been updated with new, larger taillights and dual exhaust tips. 

    Yet even with these updates, the MDX still looks like an MDX. Limited overhang at either end contributes to a dense, compact demeanor that belies this SUV's heft and somewhat exaggerates the size of the MDX's mid-section. Some believe the large greenhouse adds to the straightforward sense and strong presence. Others claim it makes the MDX seem more like a minivan than a big SUV. 

    What isn't obvious except in a body-off view is the duality of construction under the MDX. It is both unibody and body on frame. This Centaur-like approach gives uncommon rigidity and strength gained from 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. The effect is noise, vibration and harshness control on par with a car, and the load-and stress-management characteristics of a truck. Within the MDX frame, there's even a vent tube that whisks moisture away from the differential when the vehicle is sitting in 18 inches of water. 

    Interior

    Acura MDX offers space and cargo flexibility superior to the class. The finish inside is excellent, with new titanium-look trim for 2004. The materials are generally high grade, and the fit and matching of various panels is first-rate. 

    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. Then there's the added touch of elegance that makes you say to yourself, 'If they thought of this they must have thought of everything.' For example, the roof-mounted grab handles don't go CLUNK against the ceiling when released; they whisper their dampened way back into place. 

    Automatic headlights and an auto-up feature for the driver's window are standard. The back-up video camera with the navigation system is at least as useful as the more common, beep-beep-beep systems that warn of hard-to-see obstacles with electronic sound or readout. Bottom line, this reverse-view camera is a good thing, but it takes some getting used to: first, to get comfortable with the extreme fish-eye view, and second, to trust it. The wide panoramic images on the display screen tend to distort depth. When you learn to judge the distances it's a fine tool, but there is still no substitute for a wary, attentive driver. 

    Third-row seats in the MDX are easier to get into than those in, say, the Volvo Cross Country wagon. A convenient walk-in feature slides the MDX's entire second seat forward with the touch of a lever, located on the curb side. This slider has been improved for 2004 by extending forward travel 40 percent, making entry to the third row even simpler. When not in use, both the second and third rows fold to disappear completely into the floor, leaving a flat surface with no protrusions to scratch luggage or inhibit cargo loading. The seats split for a varied mix of people and stuff. 

    With the second and third seats stowed, there's room for a ton of stuff. With 81.5 cubic feet of cargo space, the MDX dwarves five-passenger competitors such as the BMW X5 (54.4 cubic feet) and Infiniti FX (64.5). It beats all but the Volvo XC90 (84.9 cubic feet) among seven-passenger competitors. And thanks to its space-efficient design, the MDX offers more cargo room when all three rows of seats are in place ( 14.8 cubic feet for MDX vs. 11.1 for XC90). MDX also delivers 4,500 pounds of boat-towing capacity. 

    The split air-conditioning system is one of the more impressive features. 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. 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.) Anchors for child seats are everywhere. Lots of cup holders, too. 

    We like the navigation system for its intuitive simplicity. Indeed, this may be the best GPS-guided system going. The database has been expanded further, 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. 

    Finally, the 2004 MDX has been equipped with a side-curtain airbag system that pro. 

    Driving Impression

    Acura MDX offers a superb balance of car and truck attributes. Its highway manners are excellent. It corners well for a vehicle of its heft, though without the keen turn-in of the BMW X5. MDX feels extremely stable and as untippable as a rhino. 

    Its 3.5-liter, 24-valve VTEC V6 engine generates impressive power, and its five-speed automatic features gear ratios for towing and trail grinding. For 2004, the V6 engine benefits from a new dual-exhaust system that boosts horsepower from 260 to 265 and torque from 250 to 253 pounds-feet at a very usable 3500 rpm. Yet the MDX delivers better combined fuel economy than most of its luxury SUV competitors with EPA-estimated City/Highway ratings of 17/23 mpg. 

    In the real world, the MDX can accelerate from 0 to 60 mph in less than 8 seconds. Its mesa-shaped torque curve means responsive acceleration around town and for merging and passing at any speed. On the freeway, the MDX cruises at 72 mph with the engine turning a very quiet, fuel-efficient 2200 rpm. Acura says that MDX can tow a 4,500-boat, or a 3,500-pound trailer with a tongue weight of 450 pounds. That kind of towing capability is normally considered a 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 it. 

    This SUV 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 provides an Unstuck button on the dash (yes, that's what they call it) that locks the differential progressively to get out of tough situations. 

    The MDX feels secure and much of that comes from a relatively firm suspension, firmer than that on the Lexus RX330, for example. In tradeoff, the MDX feels a bit bouncier than the RX330 on rough roads. On pavement the MDX likes to understeer, by design. That means that if you're too fast into a corner, the front wheels begin to lose grip at lower speeds than they do in the Infiniti FX35 or in the BMW X5. This encourages you to intuitively lift off the throttle and slow down. The steering is heavier than that in the Lexus. You can feel the wheel slightly tug on your hands when you accelerate hard, a phenomenon called torque steer, but it doesn't influence your heading. 

    The brakes are absolute standouts, responsive and secure, and everything is managed by Acura's Vehicle Stability Assist system. VSA works in concert with the all-wheel-drive and electronic throttle to enhance control during acceleration, braking and cornering, orchestrating traction control, anti-lock braking and stability management. On slick roads, VSA control will clamp the brakes on hard if you enter a corner too quickly, and pull the MDX tighter into the corner. 

    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 2004 MDX, and the company claims its SUV can be hit from behind by a vehicle going 35 mph without the third row of seats being breached. High fuel economy ratings are a testimony to the efficiency of the MDX, and all models sold nationwide meet the government's strict ULEV-2 emissions standards (Ultra Low Emissions Vehicle). 

    Summary

    Acura MDX combines most of the virtues of the SUV genre and diminishes or eliminates most of its vices. It's more versatile than five-passenger luxury SUVs such as the Lexus RX330, BMW X5 or Mercedes ML, and it retails for thousands less than seven-passenger competitors such as the Volvo XC90 and Cadillac SRX. 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. 

    Model Lineup

    Acura MDX ($36,400). 

    Assembled In

    Ontario, Canada. 

    Options As Tested

    navigation system with reverse-engaged rear camera ($2,200); Touring Package 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 ($2,600); rear-seat DVD entertainment package with wireless headphones ($1,500). 

    Model Tested

    Acura MDX ($36,400). 

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