Talk about split personalities: The Acura MDX SUV is one of the most versatile and satisfying vehicles you can possibly drive. Technology makes all Acuras stand out. But so does the incessant beeping from the MDX dashboard when you interact with its technology. Just remember: You're getting a BMW X5 for at least $10,000 less.
Acura debuted the MDX in 2001 on a truck chassis that effectively made it an upmarket Honda Pilot. The MDX came into its own in 2008 with unibody construction, more luxury and technical sophistication, and that Knights of the Round Table shield front grille that brands Acura for better or worse.
As of 2010 you can have your MDX with adaptive cruise control, blind spot detection, electronic damping, swiveling xenon headlamps, cooled and heated front seats, and a 6-speed automatic. Plus the standard Super Handling All-Wheel-Drive, Acura's pioneering take on torque vectoring that pushes extra power to the outside wheels to help power you through turns in rainy, snowy, loose gravel, or oh-gawd-I'm-too-fast-into-this-corner situations.
I drove a 2010 Acura MDX on a mix of mostly interstates, plus rural roads in the Adirondacks, and a fair share of bumpy but not treacherous dirt roads. The MDX can ford 2 feet of water but it's not really a macho-guy off-roader. The ride was superb and by pressing the Comfort button, the suspension backed off on the tautness you really don't need cruising the interstate.
Wide-Ranging Entertainment System
The entertainment system lets you mix and match front and rear sources. The 110-volt outlet and AV input jacks in the console let the back seat passengers switch to Nintendo 64 (it was a retro weekend) when the DVD player wouldn't accept a disc. That DVD player is in the center stack in front, which is great if you've got pre-schoolers and a pain otherwise.
The iPod adapter works capably even if the interface (photo) doesn't resemble what's on your iPod. The MDX also accepts USB keys. Satellite radio is included. The navigation system includes a Zagat guide and it's handy for finding restaurants in an unfamiliar area, within the limits of finding restaurants that haven't changed since the map-and-info data was burned to the DVD.
Effective Adaptive Cruise Control
For the interstate-highway part of my trip, I just set the adaptive cruise control (other carmakers call it active cruise control) to a legally acceptable speed and let ACC keep a safe following distance from traffic in front. I'd made the same trip in the past year in BMW and Mercedes-Benz SUVs and was proud of driving a stretch of more than 150 miles without having to intervene much. Here's the difference: Acura has ACC with 1 radar. BMW and Mercedes have stop and go ACC with multiply-focused radars, the 2nd focusing on close distances (think of it as near-distance reading glasses for radar), and that lets the car take you all the way to zero then, with a tap on the throttle, back to cruising speed.
Stop and go ACC costs more, between $2,500 and $3,000, where Acura's simpler ACC is probably less than $2,000 (it's part of a package). For most of your driving, ACC is all you need, but in the heavy traffic you see in metro areas at rush hour or returning from vacation weekends, you'd want stop and go ACC. The way it works is that the automaker offers one or the other, not both.
Saved by the Collision Mitigation Braking System
Because of the heavy traffic that frequently dropped below 20 mph, Acura's ACC cut out, by design, and wouldn't reengage until the MDX was back above 25 mph. As with all ACC systems, it also disengages at higher speeds if a vehicle cuts directly in front of you. ACC and the driver ask the same question, "Where the [bleep] did that idiot come from?" At that point Acura's Collision Mitigation Braking System took over with a stab on the brakes, a loud beep - that noise I can live with - and the word BRAKE! in the instrument panel.
The purpose of CMBS, if you read Acura's legally vague prose, appears to be that when going to hit something it will be at a lower speed thanks to CMBS, and isn't that a grand idea. In fact, the CMBS braking does appear to avoid a lot of accidents entirely because it's so good. It also remains active when ACC is off, most commonly in my case when I had ACC engaged, tapped the brakes lightly, and disengaged ACC, but my mind didn't register what my foot did. As the Acura retained momentum and closed on a slowing car in front, the driver may assume ACC is active when it's not, but regardless, CMBS will kick in.
Center Stack Has Fewer Buttons (Still Too Many)
With the first MDX, the center stack on the dash was the poster child for button overkill. Acura says it has been toned down. Maybe, but it's still too busy and hard to find things. Even worse for a company that prides itself on technology, the LCD display shows 1 thing at a time - entertainment, navigation, or phone - and won't share nicely or allow a split screen. Infiniti does this to near-perfection with a normal-size LCD; BMW does it by using an LCD that's in a 2-1 aspect ratio.
If you're using navigation on the LCD, the music info is reduced to a handful of characters on the busy radio display just below. If you're using the LCD to control your iPod and you're approaching a critical turn, you get a voice prompt but navigation doesn't momentarily commandeer the LCD.
There's no head up display option and the multi-information display (the LCD between speedometer and tachometer) is wimpy in general and doesn't show navigation prompts in particular.
The center stack controller, Acura's version of iDrive, remains mounted vertically on the center stack, meaning the MDX offers no wrist rest other than the gearshift.
World's Best Sporty SUV for Deaf Drivers?
The worst part of what really is a class-leading sporty SUV is the audible feedback you get when press buttons on the dash, use the controller, or when ACC chirps. It was so bad my wife actually chose to make the second half of the trip in another car in our convoy. If there's a setting to turn it off, it's not evident from the onscreen menu or the 700-page manual. (Acura confirmed that the audio feedback is currently hard-wired into the on position.)
I could sort of understand the chirp when ACC locks on to a car ahead and then unlocks. Although I'd rather have the option of a strobing light that only the driver sees and, despite its name, isn't blinding. Imagine the cacophony if cellphones didn't offer the option of a silent keypad.
Blind Spot Detection, No Lane Departure Warning
My Acura had blind spot detection and it worked well, as do most BSD systems. It warns if there's a car that might not be visible from your mirrors. This is 1 piece of Acura technology that didn't beep, thankfully, and the Don't Change Lanes warning light - solid when there's a car in your way, flashing if you have your directional on - is inside the car where the front of the side window slides into the door (rather than on the mirror) where it catches your peripheral vision more readily. I think they'd be even more useful on the left and right sides of the instrument pod, or mated to a steering wheel shaker used by some automakers.
While there is BSD, there is no companion lane departure warning feature useful on highways on long trips when your attention might wander.
Much Better than the Sum of Its Piddling Drawbacks
The Acura MDX rides and handles exceptionally well. The 3rd row seat (snug) is part of the base price. So is all-wheel-drive and torque vectoring. It's reliable. If you set and forget the audio rather than jump from playlist to playlist, you'll reduce some of the beeping. Prices range from the low-40s to mid-50s. I priced a roughly comparable BMW X5 and got to the mid-70s thanks to a $1,700 third row seat, $2,400 ACC, and $3,500 package that includes electronic damping. Torque vectoring, standing on Acura, isn't offered on this level X5.
Should You Buy?
The Acura MDX has lots of competors including several resurgent U.S. models (Cadillac SRX, Buick, Lincoln MKT) where prices are comparable or Acura is at a disadvantage. The Lexus RX350 is smaller but often cross-shopped; ditto for the Infiniti FX. Given its standard 300-hp V6engine and sporty nature, its closest competitors may be the BMW X5, Mercedes-Benz ML, and Audi Q7, and against these it enjoys a significant price advantage when you lard on the extras with the German machines. The Germans offer diesel engines that provide 500-600 mile driving ranges and fuel economy that dwarfs Acura's 16 mpg city, 21 highway (premium fuel), which still isn't bad for the class.
Ironically, you should especially consider the Acura MDX for its array of technologies. However, unless you can get rid of some of the beeps, you may be happier with less technology in the dashboard. Or just interacting less with it, or using voice input rather than the cockpit controller.
The bottom line: The Acura MDX is the best sport / luxury SUV for people who think $55,000 is plenty enough to pay for excellence.