By Eric Peters, Automotive Columnist
Before the tsunami hit Japan earlier this year, the expectation was that Acura was going to release an all-new MDX in early 2012 — maybe even late 2011. Now it appears that the next redesign won’t see daylight until summer/fall 2012, when it will be debut as a 2013 model. So the 2012 MDX will soldier on as a carryover.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
In fact, the year before a major transition can be the year to buy, for two reasons. One, the “new and improved” model may not be to your liking. That happened to me back in 2005 when Nissan decided to up-size the Frontier pick-up. I bought one of the previous (smaller) models and am glad I did — no offense to the current Frontier. It just wasn’t what I needed or wanted.
Secondly, an “all-new” model will probably be more expensive than the one it replaces.
These are two solid reasons not to wait for the 2013 MDX.
But the most important reason is the 2012 MDX itself.
WHAT IT IS
The MDX is a mid-size crossover SUV that competes in the entry-luxury segment against similar models from Lexus (RX350), Audi (Q5), BMW (X5) and Cadillac (SRX), among others. Prices start at $47,230 for the base model and top out at $53,755 for one with the Advance/Technology/Entertainment packages.
All versions come standard with Acura’s Super Handling All-Wheel-Drive (SH-AWD) and third-row seating.
WHAT’S NEW FOR 2012
The current model is a carryover; however, the MDX was recently updated with a more powerful standard V-6 and six-speed automatic transmission as well as interior and exterior tweaks, a new hard-drive-based GPS system with music storage and a revised back-up camera with a directional view that moves with your steering angle.
Acura’s SH-AWD system is standard equipment (some competitors come standard with front-wheel-drive; AWD costs extra) and is a more sophisticated design than many other AWD systems.
Standard seven-passenger seating.
Airbus-like array of electronics.
WHAT’S NOT SO GOOD
Costs more than the very similar 2012 Lexus RX350 (base price $39,075) the 2012 Audi Q5 2.0 Quattro ($35,600 to start; $43,400 with the optional V-6) and the 2012 Cadillac SRX — which starts at $35,185 ($39,175 with AWD).
Third row seat is for children only.
Airbus-like array of small buttons, switches and gadgets.
UNDER THE HOOD
The MDX comes standard with a 3.7 liter, 300 hp V-6 that is one of the most powerful standard engines in a current-year crossover SUV. It is significantly more powerful, for example, than the Lexus RX350’s 3.5 liter, 275 hp V-6 and the Audi Q5’s standard 211 hp 2.0 liter four (and also its optional 3.2 liter, 270 hp V-6). It lines up even Steven with the 2012 BMW X5’s standard 3 liter, 300 hp in-line six.
The 2012 Cadillac SRX, which now comes standard with a 308 hp 3.6 liter V-6, is one of the very few that trumps the MDX on power.
The MDX’s V-6 is teamed up with a six-speed automatic and Acura’s sophisticated Super Handling All-Wheel-Drive (SH-AWD), which has the ability to adjust power delivery to individual wheels, as opposed to just front to back. The result is much-improved dry-road handling as well as superb poor-weather traction (more on this below).
Zero to 60 takes about 7.8 seconds. Gas mileage is 16 city, 21 highway.
The MDX can pull a 5,000 lb. trailer — more than the Lexus RX and Caddy SRX (3,500 lbs.) and Audi Q5 (4,400 lbs.) but less than the BMW X5 (6,000 lbs. when ordered with the optional diesel engine).
ON THE ROAD
Aside from interior and cargo space, one of the chief reasons people shop crossover SUVs is their ability to deal with poor weather better than a standard car. Even front-wheel-drive models usually do pretty well because of their higher ground clearance and (usually) better/grippier tires.
The MDX proved the worth of its SH-AWD system to me. Other reviewers have panned the system’s advertised advantages as far as dry-road handling is concerned — arguing that most drivers will rarely, if ever, drive aggressively enough for it to matter or even be noticeable that the system can modulate power to each individual wheel. Maybe they’re right. But in snow, it’s a different story. Then you don’t have to be driving aggressively to appreciate the virtues of SH-AWD.
If you’ve ever crabbed your way down a snow-slicked country road you will immediately get this. While basic AWD systems do a fine job maintaining traction in a straight line — routing power from front to rear as needed — the more involved Acura system offers superior control on not-so-straight roads, keeping the vehicle from sliding off the edge into a ditch. It does this by applying (or limiting) power to each of the four corners of the car, working with the ABS and traction control to constantly adjust the car’s path as it moves.
I did some deliberate experimenting with the system, entering corners a bit too fast for instance — and the system corrected for me and kept the MDX tracking in the right direction without my having to do much in the way of correcting anything myself through steering or throttle inputs.
The SH-AWD is absolutely worth it if you drive in winter weather — or just drive fast — and its presence as standard equipment helps justify the MDX’s higher price relative to most competitors.
But there’s a downside — other than price. The MDX is a weighty waddler — 4,550 lbs. empty. That’s about 400 pounds more than the RX350 and Audi Q5 and 200 pounds more than the Caddy SRX. The BMW X5 is one of the few crossovers in this segment that weighs more (4,982 lbs.) but it makes up for this by offering an available 350 horsepower 4.8 liter V-8 (a high-torque diesel is also available).
The MDX’s higher curb weight evens out the horsepower advantage it has — on paper — compared to the standard engines in the RX, Q5 and others. Most of them are quicker, 0-60 — and feel lighter and more athletic at higher speeds.
AT THE CURB
The MDX is bolder-looking than most crossovers — especially when viewed from the front, where its distinguishing feature is a large “v” grille dominated by a large brushed aluminum bar that runs across the top of the “v.” This is Acura’s new look (it first appeared on the new RL sedan) and it’s definitely distinctive.
The interior is sport-themed (pretty much the standard look these days) with a mix of analog and digital readouts. Between the speedometer and tachometer there is a display for the SH-AWD system that shows how much power is going to each of the four wheels at ay given moment. A polished bar of rich-looking wood wraps around the cabin, from the door panels across the dash and flows into the center console — where there’s a very well-designed storage cubby with a split-folding top.
The shift lever is also located off-center (to the left, near the driver) which is smart ergonomics and also makes room for a cupholder to its right.
A weak point is the complicated interface for the GPS, stereo and climate control. The main controller is a rotary/push knob, with many secondary buttons — several of which are small and not easy to find by feel or identify without taking your eyes off the road. The new Lexus Remote Touch system in the RX350 is much, much better. Instead of a round knob and a million little buttons to drive you to distraction, there’s a simple toggle-style mouse on top of an ergonomically designed handrest pad that is shaped to fit your palm. The toggle controls a cursor on the LCD display screen; there’s a click button on the left side of the pad located right where your thumb naturally falls. Just two main inputs to work — vs. two or three times that many in some of the worst systems out there.
Acura needs to copy the Lexus system. So does every other carmaker.
The MDX is a bit bigger than most of its competitors (some of which, like the RX350, don’t offer third row seating). While the third row seats are cramped they can be used by adults if need be.
Total cargo capacity is 84 cubic feet (15 with the third row in place). This beats the Lexus RX350 (80 cubic feet) and BMW X5 (75 cubic feet) and flat out creams the Audi Q5 (57 cubic feet) and Caddy SRX (61 cubic feet).
The standard AWD and the fact that it’s a very sophisticated type of AWD gives the MDX a leg-up, safety-wise, over its chief rivals. After all, the vehicle that’s less likely to wreck in the first place is arguably safer than others. In addition, the MDX offers a Collision Mitigating Braking System that can automatically apply the brakes if the driver doesn’t react quickly enough to a developing situation, such as suddenly. stopped traffic ahead. There’s also a stability control function for trailer towing.
These are features well above and beyond what is offered or even available in competitors models — on top of the expected stuff such as front seat side-impact air bags, full-length curtain air bags, traction and stability control, ABS and so on.
The MDX is not inexpensive, but you do get a lot for your money. And not just in terms of features and equipment. Acuras hold their value exceptionally well — and have an excellent track record for quality and reliability.
THE BOTTOM LINE
It may not get to 60 fastest, but it will get you there when others might not.