EDWARDS, Colo. — American Honda Motor Co. has a problem its competition only can envy. It has three wildly successful products ¾ Honda’s Pilot SUV and Odyssey minivan and Acura’s MDX SUV ¾ built on the same platform in two plants running at maximum capacity.
“The market is so strong for all three that we’d have to decide from where we’d take the production,” Acura Product Planning Manage John Watts told TCC as we took a break from driving 2003 MDXs on a challenging snow- and ice-covered off-road course. Currently Honda easily sells 125,000 Odysseys and 80,000 Pilots annually. “We’d like to bump Pilot up to 100,000,” said Watts, “because our dealers are screaming for them.” But they’d also like to have more Odysseys, and “Acura dealers are screaming for MDXs too. It’s a nice problem to have,” Watts admitted, “but a problem none the less.”
It says something about Acura’s dedication to its product that a vehicle with a seven-day supply in the sales pipeline (that’s basically selling them directly off the transporter) gets a significant upgrade in just its third model year. So although its exterior is practically unchanged, the ‘03 MDX gets 20 more horsepower, an all-new five-speed automatic transmission, “drive-by-wire” (electronic) throttle, four-channel Vehicle Stability Assist (VSA) system, “remapped” four-wheel-drive (VTM-4), better chassis rigidity, lower emissions, improved steering and suspension, et cetera, et cetera.
Acura brought us 9,100 feet up in the Rocky Mountains to experience MDX’s “best driving dynamics in all weather conditions” among SUVs. And though the MDX’s Variable Torque Management four-wheel-drive system spends most of its time in front-wheel-drive mode, it proactively delivers torque to the rear wheels “in proportion to forward acceleration.” That helps reduce torque steer in dry conditions and when things are really slippery, sends torque rearward in proportion to both the actual slippage and its rate of increase. The ’03 re-mapping increased VTM-4’s available rear torque by 30 percent. A “VTM-4 lock” button on the dash keeps the maximum amount of available power on the rear wheels. It designed primarily to get you un-struck, as it starts to reduce the “lock” at six mile-per-hour, ending it at 18 mph, when the system returns to normal operation.
In our high-altitude snow-driving exercises, the lock button was a last resort. We relied on the new VSA, which works in conjunction with VTM-4, ABS and the electronic throttle. VSA provides an additional traction benefit by applying braking force to a slipping wheel, thus redirecting that power to the wheel with more traction. In other words, acting like a limited slip differential. The MDX’s “Defeat Winter system” intervened so seamlessly that we didn’t feel it kick in except during extreme maneuvers or when one of us almost “lost it” to the glare ice hiding just below the minimal snow cover.
In our limited time on a dry Interstate 70 and two-lane roads between Eagle and Vail, we could evaluate those MDX upgrades in real-world conditions. Acura’s boast of “a driving experience closer to a sports sedan than an SUV” is valid to a point, but few sport sedans weigh 4500 pounds. Still with 260 horsepower, 250 pound-feet of torque (an eight-lb-ft increase) and electronic throttle, acceleration is brisk (sub-eight-second 0-60 times have been achieved) and pedal feel exact. New integrated cylinder heads, a better breathing exhaust system with 40 percent more exhaust flow, and a shortened intake manifold port get most of the credit for the horsepower and torque increases. To handle them is a new, shorter, stronger and quieter five-speed automatic that provides practically transparent shifts up or down. Despite power increases, fuel economy remains 17 city/23 highway; while that improved exhaust system and new orifice-type fuel injectors help make MDX the first SUV meet ULEV-II emissions standards.
Body of work
In the chassis/handling department, dynamic torsional rigidity increases 35 percent thanks to strategic body reinforcements. There was some fine tuning of the suspension as well, with better compression and rebound damping and slightly higher spring rates. The steering system received a new damper valve to improve high-speed feel and a kickback reduction valve to give less rough-road kickback. In order to provide what Acura calls “medium-duty off-road capability,” the MDX has eight inches of ground clearance, a deeper oil pan, more effective air cleaner, upgraded tow hooks, better low-speed throttle control, and waterproofing consistent with fording up to 18 inches of water. Because customer feedback showed most doing just “casual or weekend towing,” the MDX’s limit is 4500 pounds for boats (which tend to be aerodynamic) and 3500 for other types of trailers. Plus dual-piston calipers were added to the front brakes for increased stopping power and enhanced brake feel.
Although we’re about to seriously shortchange them, the MDX received 25 interior “refinements” for 2003, including redesigned front headrests and switchgear, a leather covered armrest, auto-up/down driver’s window, and a new interior color, quartz.
Pricing starts at $36,200. Of the production-constrained, easily sold 50,000 units, Acura expects 75 percent of buyers will add the $2600 Touring Package; 25 percent to add the $2200 voice recognition NAV system and rear view camera (which requires the Touring Package); and 30 percent to order the stand-alone DVD entertainment system that’s now available as a factory installed option. Now if the factory could figure how to make more MDXs …
2003 Acura MDX
Base price: $36,200
Engine: 3.5-liter V-6, 260 hp/250 lb-ft
Transmission: Five-speed electronically controlled automatic, all-wheel drive with integrated VSA (Vehicle Stability Assist)
Length x width x height: 188.5 x 77.0 x 68.7 in
Wheelbase: 106.3 in
Curb weight: 4420 lb
EPA City/Hwy: 17/23 mpg
Safety equipment: Dual-stage front airbags, driver and passenger side airbags, four-wheel disc brakes with anti-lock (ABS) and electronic brake force distribution (EBD)
Major standard equipment: Seven-speaker AM/FM/Cassette in-dash CD sound system, leather upholstery, heated front seats (power driver’s), dual front/rear automatic climate control, power windows, locks, remote keyless entry, power moonroof
Warranty: Four years/50,000 miles