First Drive: 2010 Acura ZDX

Up Front

What's the best-looking new model on the market this year? My vote could easily go to the all-new 2010 Acura ZDX, a rakish-looking crossover vehicle that Honda's (HMC) luxury car division describes as a "four-door sports coupe" (never mind that coupes, by definition, have two doors). The ZDX looks even better in reality than in photos. When I test-drove a couple of preproduction ZDXs through Manhattan recently, even jaded New Yorkers were stopping in their tracks and shouting questions about the new model, which will hit dealer showrooms in December.

The ZDX is designed mainly for affluent empty nesters, couples whose kids are grown and who no longer need the passenger capacity of a true SUV. It combines the good looks of a luxury coupe such as, say, a Mercedes CLS550 with enough luggage capacity to stow four golf bags behind its second row of seats.

The market for such vehicles will grow, Acura contends, "as the population matures, becoming couples again rather than large family units, and enjoying the fruits of their success through travel, second homes, and unique lifestyle activities." To put it more prosaically: As baby boomers age, Acura figures that a lot of active, affluent old geezers will be in the market for a vehicle that seems more stylish than an SUV but less sedate than a luxury sedan.

Pricing hasn't been announced yet, but the ZDX is expected to start at around $45,000, rising to perhaps $55,000 when you load it up with options. Its image is meant to be upscale and exclusive. Acura sees the ZDX competing with, in addition to the Mercedes CLS, such diverse models as Nissan's (NSANY) Infiniti FX35, BMW's (BMWG) X6, and the Porsche Cayenne. Acura only expects to sell about 6,000 ZDXs in 2010, and 8,000 to 10,000 annually in later years.

The ZDX is Acura's first truly North American model—engineered in Ohio, styled in California, and manufactured in Ontario, Canada. It has the oomph Americans like under its hood, provided by the same marvelous 3.7-liter, 300-horsepower V6 engine found in the Acura MDX SUV. Also in keeping with mainstream American tastes, the only available transmission is a six-speed automatic—though with a manual function for those who wish to do the shifting themselves, as well as the steering-wheel-mounted paddle shifters that are now de rigueur on any North American model with pretensions to sportiness.

The ZDX's fuel economy—16 mpg in the city and 22 on the highway—is only slightly better than that of the '09 MDX and six-cylinder BMW X6 (15/20) and about the same as that of the Infiniti FX35 (16/23). However, it's markedly better than the six-cylinder Porsche Cayenne (14/16).

Behind the Wheel

The ZDX is meant to drive something like a conventional luxury car, and it comes close. The big difference is that the floor is a bit higher off the ground than a car's, giving the ZDX more of an SUV-like feel. The ZDX isn't intended to be superfast, but it's lighter and therefore somewhat quicker than the Acura MDX, which accelerates from zero to 60 in under eight seconds. That's plenty of speed for most people, and there's a ton of power when you punch the gas at highway speed. The cabin is luxury-car quiet.

I'm a big fan of Acura's new Super Handling All-Wheel Drive system, which comes standard on the ZDX. The system (obviously) improves performance on snow and ice, but also dramatically improves the vehicle's handling during hard driving. It varies the distribution of torque between the vehicle's front and rear axles, and can shoot extra power to the outside rear wheel when you're going around a curve or corner. This dramatically improves grip and reduces understeer during hard driving. I tested the system in an Acura TL at the Pocono Raceway last year, and it really is remarkable. When your brain is screaming at you to hit the brakes, you can hit the gas instead and accelerate.

The ZDX's cabin is designed for owners who travel alone or with a spouse and only occasionally have adult rear-seat passengers. The rear doors are unusually narrow, with stylish recessed handles that are nearly invisible. That gives the vehicle a cool side profile, but makes getting in and out of the rear seats a chore. The rear seats also are too cramped to comfortably accommodate adults during long drives, partly because headspace is severely limited by the vehicle's radically sloping roofline. In a pinch, you could squeeze three adults into the back, but the seat is only really designed for two. Another inconvenience: There are no storage bins built into the rear doors.

The ZDX's interior is absolutely gorgeous, with a beautiful curved dash and soft, natural-grain leather throughout. I've driven numerous luxury cars, including many far more expensive than the ZDX, and I don't recall ever seeing interior leather with such a quality look and feel to it. Dual panoramic sunroofs give the cabin an open, airy feel and add to headspace when they're open. From the outside, the entire roof looks as though it's made of dark glass.

Luggage space behind the second row of seats is a sizable 26.3 cu. ft., expanding to 55.8 cu. ft. with the rear seats folded down. There's also a 2.2-cu.-ft. storage space under the rear deck. An innovative feature is that the side panels in the rear cargo area can be removed and stowed in the under-deck storage space. That makes the rear cargo area wide enough to accommodate golf bags laid down sideways (which is why four of them will fit in back). The rear seats fold down in a 60/40 pattern and there's a pass-through to accommodate skis when there are passengers in the rear seats.

Buy It or Bag It?

Although the ZDX is mainly aimed at couples whose kids are grown, it's stylish enough to appeal to some singles and roomy enough for families with one or two small kids. However, the vehicle's high price, tight rear-seat compartment, and lack of a third row of seats make it impractical for many families.

The ZDX's likely $50,000-or-so price tag makes it more expensive than the conventional Acura MDX SUV, which sold for an average of about $41,000 in '09, and the '09 Infiniti FX35, which averaged about 45 grand, according to the Power Information Network (which, like BusinessWeek, is a unit of The McGraw-Hill Companies (MHP)). The ZDX is in the same price range as an '09 Porsche Cayenne with a six-cylinder engine (average cost: $52,962).

The '09 BMW X6 with six-cylinder power cost far more than a ZDX, an average of $64,382, according to PIN. Ditto for the '09 Mercedes CLS550, which has a powerful 5.5-liter, 383-hp V8 engine and an average price of nearly $79,000.

With the exception of the Mercedes, however, the ZDX is better-looking than any of those models, in my opinion—both inside and out. If you don't do a lot of people-hauling and are in the market for a truly distinctive new vehicle, check it out.

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