Review: 2010 Acura MDX

Up Front

Think sport utility vehicles are dead? Check out the latest sales statistics at Acura and you may change your mind. The redesigned Acura MDX luxury SUV is the top-selling product at Honda's (HMC) luxury division, well ahead of the Acura TL sport sedan. MDX sales were nearly two-thirds higher this May than in the same month a year ago and soared 51.2 percent, to 16,683, during the first five months of this year.

There's a reason for that. Dollar for dollar, the 2010 MDX is probably the best luxury SUV on the market. It has three rows of seats and a maximum capacity of seven, yet handles like a smaller, nimbler vehicle. That's partly because the MDX comes standard with Acura's terrific "super-handling" all-wheel drive system. Like other Acuras, it's also packed with performance, safety, and convenience technology, much of it standard (and much of it also found in the new Acura ZDX crossover vehicle).

Even so, the MDX's price remains relatively low. The 2010 sells for an average of about $45,000, according to the Power Information Network (PIN)—about $3,300 less than the average premium crossover SUV. Even fully loaded, the 2010 MDX tops out at a little under 55 grand.

Not content with that, Acura also improved its flagship SUV for the 2010 model year. The 3.7-liter, 300 horsepower V6 has been retuned and the automatic transmission upgraded from five to six speeds. Those changes helped raise the fuel economy rating to 16 miles-per-gallon in the city and 21 on the highway—1 mpg better than before on each count.

A number of new optional technology upgrades have been added, including a multi-view (normal, top-down, and wide-angle) backup camera, adaptive cruise control, blind-spot warning, and an accident-mitigation system that alerts the driver and activates the brakes if a collision seems imminent.

Standard safety gear includes knee bolsters and dual-stage front and side air bags, as well as front seat belt pretensioners, active head restraints, and cabin-length, head-protecting, side curtain air bags. The MDX's roof also has been reinforced to meet not only current but anticipated government standards. The MDX earned the top five-star government crash-test rating in every category except rollovers, where it earned four stars.

Convenience features include a hard-drive-based navigation system with real-time traffic information and a rear-seat entertainment system with a fold-down, high-resolution, nine-inch screen.

Most luxury SUVs are seeing double-digit sales increases this year. Other than the MDX, the strongest performers include the Audi Q5—which made its debut in 2009 and whose sales have soared 78 percent, to 7,790, so far this year—and the Cadillac SRX, which got a dramatic boost from its recent redesign. SRX sales are up a phenomenal 493.2 percent in the first five months of this year, to 18,861.

Behind the Wheel

Personally, I love being in the MDX, whether I'm behind the wheel or in the back seat. From a driver's standpoint, it's a lot like a BMW X5 (BMWA), except that it's cheaper and comes with more standard equipment. The MDX doesn't handle like a roomy people-hauler. Steering is tight and precise. The vehicle remains flat and in control when you throw it into a corner at any remotely reasonable speed. And the brakes bite like crazy.

Much as I loved the previous MDX, I could never understand why it sold so well. The suspension seemed almost too harsh for American tastes, which has been changed for 2010. The new MDX remains very sporty but its ride—whether in the sport or normal setting—seems more forgiving and comfort-oriented. The electronic steering is also lighter to the touch, though the steering wheel itself is chunkier and more solid-feeling than before.

The MDX isn't the quickest SUV in its class, but it's plenty fast for most people. I clocked my test vehicle at around 7.2 seconds in accelerating from 0 to 60; Car and Driver magazine got a time of 7 seconds flat. That's quicker than the Mercedes ML 350 4matic (DAI:GR) (7.9 seconds), the BMW X5 xDrive30i (7.8 seconds, according to Automobile magazine), and the turbocharged version of the Cadillac SRX (7.5 seconds). It's about the same time I got in the top-selling Lexus RX 350 (TM).

However, the new 2011 BMW xDrive35i (6.4 seconds) is quicker than the MDX (as well as the previous X5). Other, faster rivals include the Audi Q5 3.2 Quattro (VOW:GR) (6.6 seconds according to Automobile) and the much larger Lincoln MKT (F) with an Ecoboost V6 (6.3 seconds).

In the Acura TL, I loved the super-handling all-wheel drive because it improves grip by shifting weight to the outside rear wheel during hard driving. In the MDX, it's probably most valuable in inclement weather. I wasn't able to drive my test MDX in snow, but it really clung to wet pavement.

Manual shifting activates automatically when you start using the steering-wheel-mounted paddles. The shifts aren't particularly quick, but it's still fun.

The MDX's cabin resembles a BMW's. There's more leather than before, and build quality is excellent. The main downside is that the center console remains a confusing mass of buttons and displays, some of which are less-than-intuitive to use. I've figured out the trip computers in several hundred vehicles but in the MDX, I couldn't get the trip odometer to reset to zero, even after consulting the lengthy owners manual. I also had trouble getting the DVD player to operate from the back seat. Owners will figure these things out over time, probably not without aggravation.

As in the previous MDX, the rear-seat entertainment center is fabulous. It comes with wireless headphones and can be operated from the front or rear seats using a ceiling-mounted control panel that pops out to become a handheld wireless remote control. The screen has higher resolution than before and the surround sound is amazingly realistic.

The third-row seat isn't exactly roomy, but two adults my height (5 ft., 10 in.) can squeeze in for short rides as long as their knees are akimbo. The second-row seats slide forward to make space so a passenger can crawl into the back row, but doing so is awkward. There isn't a lot of space and the floor is high off the ground. Another inconvenience: The third-row seat is designed for entry only from the right side of the vehicle.

The third-row seats fold down flat and the second-row seats fold down in a 60/40 configuration. Cargo space is only 15 cu. ft. with all the seats up, but expands to 42.9 cu. ft. with the third seat down, and to 83.5 cu. ft. with both rear seats down. On overnight trips you'd probably have to use a rooftop cargo system if you had passengers in both rows of rear seats. Maximum towing capacity is 5,000 lbs.

My gripes about the MDX? It still starts with a stiletto-style key—why no push-button starter? There's also a big blind spot (caused by the high seat backs and headrests) to the right and slightly behind the driver.

The model's main downside is that its fuel economy is mediocre, though improved. The MDX's 16/21 rating beats or more-or-less matches the all-wheel-drive Mercedes ML350 (15/20), and Ford's Lincoln MKT with an Ecoboost V6(16/22). Toyota's smaller Lexus RX 350 (18/24) and Volkswagen's Audi Q5 (18/23) do better. So does the new BMW X5 xDrive35i (17/25).

Acura probably could have eked out at least an extra mpg by going with a more sophisticated eight-speed automatic transmission such as the one in the new BMW X5.

Buy it or Bag It?

At an average selling price of just under $45,000, the 2010 MDX is a real bargain, especially considering its seven-person maximum seating capacity. The new BMW X5 (which has an optional third row of seats) is much improved over the previous X5 and is both speedier and more fuel-efficient than the MDX, as well as being slightly cheaper than the previous X5. Still, it starts at $46,675 in a very basic version, and $52,475 (plus $1,700 for a third row of seats) for a Premium version with leather upholstery and further standard equipment. On average, the 2011 X5 sells for $60,753, according to PIN—nearly $16,000 more than the MDX.

The roomy Lincoln MKT with AWD and an Ecoboost V6 sells for an average of $51,123. The Mercedes ML350 with AWD goes for $50,706, seating a maximum of only five people; it is being remodeled for the 2012 model year.

The top seller, the Lexus RX350 ($43,555), is a very well-designed vehicle. I also like the Cadillac SRX ($44,066) for shoppers who want a domestic brand. However, those models also have only two rows of seats. Ditto for the new Audi A5 ($44,066), which is very nice but competes more directly with the Acura RDX.

Bottom line: If I only needed two rows of seats, I might go with the Lexus, Audi Q5, or Cadillac SRX. If I needed seven-person capacity and didn't want to spend an arm and a leg, the new Acura MDX would be my top choice.

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