When Acura changed their family design and started delivering new Acura TLs (one of my favorite cars) to dealerships last year I was disappointed. In my humble opinion they turned an elegant, very attractive vehicle into a its ugly robotic sister. My first thought was that they were trying to energize the kind of potential buyers that reacted positively to the design changes made by Cadillac. Understandable, I suppose. But now here's a new model and I'm thinking I had Acura's designers all wrong, they had a plan, they were building towards something, the ZDX! A design that I found unappealing looks brilliant here. And even better, the interior is brilliant as well.
Let's start with some stats. The ZDX, built off the MDX platform, has a 300hp V6 with a six-speed Sequential SportShift automatic transmission. It features Acura's SH-AWD, which I made excellent use of during the unusually wet rainy season here in southern California recently, the Integrated Dynamics System with Comfort and Sport modes and the Drive-by-Wire throttle system. The vehicle is sporty in looks and in performance and feels very luxurious, a quality enhanced by the quiet ride. Acura achieved that by reducing noise vibrations caused by the body itself. On top of that noise-asborbing and insulating materials were used in vulnerable areas like in the back or even in the windshield.
With an audio system like the ELS Surround Sound, a quiet cabin should be mandatory. We'll get to the audio a little later. There are actually quite a few cool electronics related features we should cover first. First, the ZDX has a multi-view rearview camera system. The three views are: normal, wide and above. Aside from when a wet leaf got stuck over part of the camera, the system worked superbly. I particularly liked the above view.
The ZDX also has the Blind Spot Information System. In a vehicle like the ZDX with its sloping back, it's difficult to see around the rear pillars or through the small back window. So the engineers developed this alert system which works even at really low speeds. Try 6mph. That should keep you safe in the plaza parking lots during shopping seasons. Another safety option is the Collision Mitigation Braking System (CMBS). There's a radar transmitter mounted in the ZDX grille that sends and receives a signal constantly, determining the distance and closing speed to vehicles that are in front. If a collision seems imminent, it will send audio and visual alerts to warn the driver. The CMBS will automatically tug at the driver's seat belt and begin light braking if the driver does not react. When the system senses an unavoidable collision, the front seat belts will tighten, and strong braking will be automatically applied. The infotainment system also acts as part of the safety apparatus with its option for voice commands and Bluetooth for hands-free calling.
You're probably saying though, a lot of luxury rides have these features, including blindspot alerts, automatic braking systems rearview cameras, etc. True. But what they don't have is possibly the best audio system you can get from the factory. I'm talking about the ELS Surround Sound, which still offers DVD-Audio playback. I had to mention that, because I admire Acura's stubborn commitment to true 5.1 surround sound music reproduction — even if there aren't many consumers that own DVD-Audio, or even have heard it. I like it anyway! And I'll say any audiophile that's looking to buy a car and can afford it (the ZDX starts in the mid $40Ks) should be at least required to visit an Acura dealership!
The system consists of 10 speakers and has an internal hard drive that holds 15 gigs of music. The built-in Gracenote database will identify pretty much anything you slot in, but a few discs I had weren't recognized, mainly audio manufacturer CDs for demoing systems. Any mainstream CD will almost definitely be covered. I started off with my Focal disc and "Boxenkiller". The cymbals at the beginning sounded immaculate, you could feel the room where the drums were recorded, the sound staged at a great height and the bass guitar was amazingly realistic. You can hear all the details, including the various buzzing of the strings which seemed more pronounced on this system. Overall, the system provided a great live feel with amazing dynamics. In terms of imaging this was the best factory system I've heard. That was clearly apparent during the drum rolls in "Boxenkiller". And on the heavy electronica track following Boxenkiller on the Focal demo disc I particularly liked the midbass. The sub didn't have quite the power I would've liked, especially on the heavier tracks, but you could feel it upfront; it mixed in with the rest of the music the way it should, instead of feeling separated from the sound stage.
Next I played the first track on the Audison Music Expressions Vol. 1. This should make you feel sort of like you're in a movie theater if you're listening to it on a good sound system. That is definitely the sense I got from the ELS surround sound. I followed that with Tierney Sutton's "Happy Days". The piano was crystal clear, the standup bass very authentic and I had a terrific sense of the room. It was pretty clear that the ELS Surround Sound excelled with a variety of music and at reproducing highs and mids. So I decided to audition some tracks I use for subwoofer evaluations. I started off with some Cafe Tacuba. The bass drum was distinct with the appropriate impact that I'm used to hearing on my reference system. Definitely had plenty of power. Then on Rage Against the Machine's "Take the Power Back" I was impressed with the great balance of frequencies. The song can sound fairly sharp with a system that plays a little too bright. Not a problem w ELS.
Some audio enthusiasts may find the system lacking in terms of bass output, but that's different from saying a system isn't accurate. ELS is surprisingly fine at sound reproduction, especially live instrument tracks. If it doesn't have the bass you want, that's more a matter of subjective taste and not necessarily about music reproduction. Of course, if you listen to a lot of electronica or rap that requires almost an excess of bass you might legitimately say ELS doesn't quite fit the bill, but even then I'd have to say that would probably only apply to a minority of fans who like those genres. Listening to some Jay-Z on this system didn't detract from the music.
You might argue about bass, but there's no question that ELS is the in-car standard for discrete 5.1 sound. I played Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody". The channel separation was amazing and yet the music played well together also. So then I played some Polyphonic Spree. Listening to their DVD-Audio disc on ELS is like listening to the album for the first time. At high volume the music maintained its integrity; this is a very linear system with a refinement of sound that is remarkable in a factory setup. In fact, I'd like to tell Acura (and Panasonic who is behind the audio system) to stop there. The aftermarket doesn't need you improving on ELS. And I'm sure Elliot Scheiner has plenty of music producing projects he needs to oversee instead of doing listening tests in Detroit! Jokes aside though, I have to say overall, Acura's audio system provides quality with power while not losing any sonic detail. It is pretty remarkable.
The car overall is remarkable. The steering wheel controls are very ergonomic and incidentally also aesthetically nice. The cool metallic looking center stack (it's actually plastic but very difficult to tell) is backlit. With a push of the button you can black out the entire center stack. It's fairly dramatic and I appreciate the little features like this. The only disappointment, however minor though it is, was the voice command system. By and large it worked well, but there were enough occasions when, for instance I would ask for Charles Ives and get a satellite radio channel. Additionally, the voice command system requires you push the talk button each time for a new command, instead of the system providing the next step for you, like when you dial by number. Once you complete dialing number by voice you have to push the button again to say "Dial", whereas on some other systems it will take you to the next step without having to push a button. It's not a major flaw but some drivers may find that annoying as they rely more on the voice recognition feature over time in the ZDX.