Acura's Excellent MDX

A good price, great handling, and plenty of seating makes Acura's redesigned midsize SUV a smart alternative to the BMW X5

Editor's Rating:

The Good: Price, BMW-style handling, seats up to seven

The Bad: Fuel economy isn’t great, ugly front grill

The Bottom Line: Competes head-to-head with BMW’s X5 3.0si but costs a lot less

Up Front

I recently had the pleasure of test-driving, over the course of a week, two hot, midsize SUVs that have been completely redesigned and improved for the 2007 model year: the Acura MDX and BMW X5.

Tough job, but someone has to do it.

At first, I usually left the Acura in the driveway and drove the Bimmer. Then one cold evening, I took both vehicles out back-to-back and drove them around the same circuit of hilly, curvy highways and pothole-filled backroads near my home in northeast Pennsylvania. Much to the surprise of someone who lived in Germany for two years and loves BMWs, the Honda-built (HMC) MDX became my preferred ride.

I thought it was just hype when Acura publicists bragged that the MDX—a family vehicle with three rows of seats that allow it to hold up to seven people—was "benchmarked against some of the best performance SUVs in the world and tuned on the world famous Nurburging racetrack in Germany." Sure it was, I thought. Just long enough to get some nice television commercial shots.

But the MDX's performance and handling really are competitive with German vehicles such as the $45,900 BMW X5 (see, 2/6/07, "BMW's Exceptional X5")—and at a considerably lower price.

The base-model 2007 MDX starts out at $40,665, which is far from outrageous when you consider what you're getting for your money. Standard gear includes a powerful 300-horsepower V6 engine; fancy, electronically controlled all-wheel drive; a five-speed automatic transmission with a sequential-shift manual mode; Xenon headlights; power and heated front seats; a moonroof; 18-inch wheels; cruise control; and an eight-speaker, six-CD MP3-compatible audio system with an auxiliary jack for your iPod. Standard safety features include braking assist, stability control, side airbags, and full-length side curtain airbags.

Other than the base model, there are really only two trim levels, one that adds a technology package, raising the price to $44,165, and another that adds a sport package, raising the price to $46,265. The tech package includes a backup camera, surround sound, a voice activated navigation system with rear-time traffic alerts, and a solar sensing climate-control system that automatically adapts to outside weather conditions. The sport package includes all of the above plus perforated leather trim, special alloy wheels, and a German-style, sport-tuned suspension with an active damping system.

The only other major option is a $2,200 entertainment package that includes a rear-seat DVD player and heated second-row seats. So a loaded up MDX—with both the sports package and the entertainment package—tops out at $48,465.

Now, consider that the base price of the BMW X5 3.0si—which has a smaller, three-liter, 260-horsepower engine—is just two grand less. The optional third-row seats alone cost an extra $1,700 in an X5, and the Bimmer tops $60,000 when you add all the features and technology that come on a fully loaded MDX. That makes this new Acura quite a bargain.

Will the MDX be a hit, though? The answer isn't clear. In a down year for SUVs, MDX sales were off 6.3%, to 54,121 for all of 2006, but got a nice bump after the '07 MDX came out in mid-October. MDX sales were up 66.8% in November and 17.1% in December. But the early enthusiasm for the new model may not last; sales were only up 3.8% in January.

Behind the Wheel

The MDX was obviously benchmarked against the BMW X5, both in appearance and performance. It's about the same length and slightly wider, but the Bimmer is four inches taller, a difference that's noticeable when you look at the two side-by-side or end-to-end.

Looking at the MDX and X5 from inside my house, the Acura looked like BMW lite. The X5 is not only taller but tougher and less refined looking than the MDX, with black cladding around the wheel-wells and along the lower body, and big black luggage racks and a striking, shark fin-like satellite radio antenna on the roof.

The X5 also has BMW's classic double kidney-shaped grill, while the MDX has an ugly (to my eye, at least) stylized grill and headlight assembly that looks like a leering grin. To me, the unattractive front grill is one of MDX's major negative factors.

What I like best about the MDX is the way it drives. This is a European-style vehicle with a stiff, sporty ride and tight, sportscar-like steering. There's a "comfort" button you can push to soften up the suspension, but the ride is still stiff by American standards. And it's worth noting the default suspension setting is the sporty one, not the comfort mode.

The MDX is also quick. I got 0-to-60 times of 7.5 to 8.0 seconds, depending on how I shifted. That's a tad faster than the BMW X5 3.0si, which is rated to do 0-to-60 in 7.8 seconds but was slightly slower in my tests.

I found the Acura fastest when I just floored it and let the automatic transmission do the shifting. In manual mode, power kicks out when the engine starts to redline, while a BMW shifts automatically when the engine redlines. So, you have to practice driving the Acura in manual mode to have any chance of shifting faster than the automatic does.

I marveled at the smoothness of the MDX's transmission. It's programmed to not have to search for the right gear on hills and in curves—and it never does. Leave the transmission in automatic mode and accelerate onto a highway, and it shifts in a tight, controlled pattern, as if an experienced sports car driver were at the wheel.

The MDX never seems to strain at the end of the engine's resources. Rather, it always seems to stay at the sweet point of the power range. In the manual mode, the MDX's shifts aren't as lightning fast as in a BMW or Porsche, but they are very quick. There's almost no lag.

One big advantage over a BMW is how intuitive the Acura's controls are. I had no owner's manual and yet easily figured out how everything worked. Simple tasks that require study time in a BMW—how to use the trip computer, operate the rear window wiper, lock all the doors, and operate the radio—are all easy to do in the Acura.

Another plus is that the MDX has a big, roomy glove box with a heavy door. (One of the X5's oddities is that it has no glove box.)

Acura's navigation system is also highly intuitive. I drove around Scranton, Pa., one Saturday afternoon choosing "points of interest" including the local art museum, an ATM, and a restaurant, and let the system guide me to them. It worked well, though it's a little spotty in rural areas.

The optional surround sound in the MDX is awesome, especially when coupled with the entertainment package. I put Kill Bill: Vol. 1 on the DVD player and listened to the movie while putting the MDX through its paces in the hills around where I live. It was creepy because the sound was so realistic that it seemed like all the fights and killings were happening in the back seat.

Acura claims that both of the MDX's back seats have plenty of head- and leg-room, but that's bogus information when it comes to the third-row seats. As with other midsize SUVs with an extra row of seats shoehorned in back, the Acura's are tight. I'm 5 feet, 10 inches, and when I was sitting in the back row my knees were wedged against the seat backs and my head was brushing the ceiling. The MDX's last row of seats is for kids, not adults.

If the MDX's sales growth comes in lower than expected this year, my guess is that gas price jitters will be the reason, not the vehicle's overall quality. The MDX is rated to get 17 miles per gallon in the city and 21 on the highway, which is typical for a midsize SUV.

But this SUV is so much fun to drive you may get less. In a 253-mile stretch, I only got 15.1 mpg, partly because I pushed the vehicle harder than one usually would.

Buy It Or Bag It?

Keep in mind that if all you want is a plain vanilla family SUV with a cushy ride, the Acura is not the vehicle for you. But if you covet a BMW and don't want to lay out that much cash, look into the MDX.

According to the Power Information Network, the recent average selling price of the MDX is $44,789, 15 grand less than the $59,643 BMW X5. Of course, a lot of BMW buyers are paying for the X5 4.8i, which comes with a powerful, 4.8 liter, 360-horsepower, all-aluminum V-8 engine and is much quicker than the MDX.

If speed is your priority and money no object, that's the vehicle for you. But if, as for the rest of us mere mortals, money is a concern, the Acura is a credible, cheaper alternative to the BMW X5 3.0si.

In terms of price, the MDX also compares very favorably with other competitors, according to PIN. These include DaimlerChrysler's (DCX) Mercedes M-Class at $49,428; the Infiniti FX at $42,628 (see, 6/23/06, "Complex FX"); Ford's (F) Volvo XC90 at $42,135 (see, 1/10/07, "Volvo's Exceptional XC90"); and General Motors' (GM) Cadillac SRX $41,982 ((see, 12/20/06, "Cadillac's Crossover"); and the BMW X3 at $41,753. (Like BusinessWeek, the Power Information Network is a unit of the McGraw-Hill Cos. (MHP).)

Within that group, if safe and family-friendly are more important to you than sporty, check out the Volvo. If you want a nicely appointed crossover vehicle that also drives well, test-drive the Cadillac SRX.

Pound for pound, and dollar for dollar, though, it's hard to beat the Acura. The MDX doesn't quite match the look and feel of a BMW, but it's a great stand-in considering its price tag.

Click here to see more of the 2007 Acura MDX.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.