It’s a fact that Acura is a latecomer in the luxury SUV crowd — never mind the Acura SLX, a rebadged Isuzu Trooper that was just too trucklike to compete with other luxury SUV offerings.
Three years after the arrival of the Lexus RX 300 and Mercedes-Benz ML 320 and more than a year after the BMW’s introduction of its X5, Acura is finally introducing a new luxury SUV of its own. Acura officials said that Honda/Acura R&D has wanted for years to design the MDX in- house, in North America, but the group has been tied up for the last several years doing the Honda CR-V and Odyssey, and the Acura RL and TL.
Although the MDX shares only 12 percent of its parts with the Honda Odyssey minivan, both vehicles are produced on the same Alliston, Ontario, assembly line. The two vehicles have approximately the same outward dimensions, but most else is different, including the hoodline, roofline, and undercarriage. Odysseys are currently selling as fast as Honda can produce them, so Acura is likely wishing it had more production space for the MDX.
A no-compromise SUV, but…
When Acura’s Dan Bonawitz introduced the MDX to the press, he termed the MDX a "no compromise SUV." Minutes later Art St. Cyr, principal engineer for the MDX, said "This is not a hardcore off-road vehicle." Although that sounds a bit contradictory at first, this is exactly the intention of the MDX — to keep the carlike ride, handling, and comfort that people opt to forego on some trucklike SUVs, and keep them on an SUV that’s able to go off-road but not optimized for it.
Acura did very well with the MDX, and without a doubt they have a sales hit on their hands. The MDX has an engine that’s torquey and tough, but also smooth and happy to rev, a four-wheel drive system that does have a center locking differential, a capable chassis, and a comfortable interior.
2001 Acura MDX
2001 Acura MDX rear 1Enlarge Photo
A 245-hp, 3.5-liter SOHC VTEC V-6 that can now go to 105,000 miles for its first maintenance is standard on all MDX models. The engine’s VTEC (variable valve timing and lift control) adjusts the opening of intake valves according to RPM, so the engine is smooth and torquey from idle up to its 6200-rpm redline. A wide-ratio five-speed automatic works well in conjunction with the engine at most speeds, although it sometimes tends to hunt excessively at Interstate speeds. Acceleration from zero-to-sixty should be in the low to mid eight-second range.
In a time when it seems as if every manufacturer is doing four-wheel-drive systems differently, the MDX doesn’t disappoint. The MDX’s Variable Torque Management (VTM-4) four-wheel drive system is a unique, computer-controlled system that has a torque transfer unit attached directly to the transmission. Most of the time, the vehicle is front-wheel drive for better efficiency, but when the system deems necessary, it will route torque back through the prop shaft to the rear wheels. Two electromagnetic clutch packs take the place of a rear differential, routing torque between the rear wheels as needed. The driver can override the system slightly at low speeds (under 18 mph) by pressing the lock button on the instrument panel, which locks the maximum amount of torque (about 54 percent) to the rear wheels. There is no low range for the system. Acura says that the weight of the entire four-wheel-drive system is only 212 lb.
Good handling, minus entertainment
2001 Acura MDX
VTM-4 does exactly what you would want it to do most of the time, and of course, since few people will ever take their MDX on anything more challenging than a rutted two-track, it’s optimized for on-road performance just as much. Off-road, the system performed perfectly, although the MDX’s lack of wheel articulation sometimes made the going a bit more difficult for the system. Even considering this, it will outshine both the RX 300 and the BMW X5 on most off-road courses. The system defaults toward directing all torque to the front wheels for best efficiency, and then directs more torque to the rear wheels as needed. On-road, it does an excellent job of entirely eliminating torque steer from the torquey V-6, and helps the vehicle feel more neutral near the handling limit.
The efficiency and lightness of the four-wheel-drive system and the engine’s VTEC system undoubtedly contribute to the MDX’s stellar gas mileage. Fuel consumption stands at a class-leading EPA 17 city/23 highway. It’s also the first SUV to be ULEV certified in all 50 states.
While Acura engineers said that the MDX’s suspension was tuned toward offering sport-sedan handling, the MDX does not quite invite or deliver spirited, all-out driving. The MDX rides well, although in abrupt handling maneuvers there is a bit too much body motion. The MDX suspension just feels a little too softly sprung. In ordinary driving, the MDX’s ride and handling feel firmly damped and crisp, but in aggressive driving such as one would do in a sport sedan, bouncy, uneasy body motion makes the MDX feel a moment behind the input to the steering wheel. Not to say at all that the MDX isn’t stable; it’s far more nimble and coordinated than most trucklike or carlike SUVs. It just doesn’t feel as forgiving and controllable when driven near its limits as much as, say, BMW’s X5. But the X5 makes the tradeoff with a pitchier ride that becomes tortuous off-road.
Overall, the MDX is very carlike, docile, and peppy. Brakes are top-notch, and the variable assist steering is especially precise at higher speeds. The MDX also seems to be a good city vehicle with a tight 37.8-foot turning circle and good visibility in all directions.
Top towing capacity
Towing is a strong point for the MDX. Acura rates maximum towing capacity at 3500 pounds for most trailers and 4500 pounds for boats. Engineers say that when heavily loaded, the four-wheel drive system automatically apportions some torque to the rear wheels for better composure.
Acura boasts that the MDX offers the world’s first synchronized climate control system, in which the front and rear air conditioning systems are entirely independent. The front and rear do, in fact, have separate air-conditioning condensers, with the one for the rear located under the center console. It’s cold chillin’ with this powerful system.
2001 Acura MDX interior 1Enlarge Photo