DRIVEN! The first-generation MDX was carefully tailored for a specific customer that Acura called "Stylish Mom," a familiar archetype you might know better as "Soccer Mom." The company's goal for MDX version 2.0 is to keep her in the fold while also convincing her husband-a guy dubbed "Executive Dad"-that an MDX is a good idea. For Mom, Acura would retain or improve upon the first MDX's utility, seven-passenger capacity, and all-weather capability. But to secure Dad's vote, Acura would need something else: performance.
To that end, Acura fit its Super Handling All-Wheel Drive system, which is also found in the RL sedan and the new RDX small SUV. The old MDX's VTM-4 all-wheel-drive system was heavily biased toward medium off-road duty and ice-and-snow situations-good for casual use, but not up to the demands of the Nrburgring, where Acura tested the MDX against Europe's best sporty SUVs, including the BMW X5 and the Porsche Cayenne. In the MDX, SH-AWD sends up to 90 percent of power to the front wheels during steady-state conditions, but under acceleration or if the system detects wheel slippage, it can send 70 percent of the torque to the rear and, once it's done that, send 100 percent of that power to either side. SH-AWD was most noticeable at BeaveRun racetrack near Pittsburgh, where it felt as if two giant hands descended from the sky, picked up the MDX's rear end, and aligned it with the front whenever the SUV threatened to plow through a corner.
The MDX's 3.7-liter V-6 is good for 300 hp and 275 lb-ft of torque, so there is always plenty of power to blast out of a turn. The engine is peaky-max horsepower isn't generated until 6000 rpm, just 500 revs shy of the redline-but with 90 percent of torque available from just 2500 rpm, there's good low-end pull. The outgoing model was rated at 253 hp and 250 lb-ft, and Acura credits the bump in outputto a 0.2-liter increase in displacement, a higher compression ratio, and improved intake and exhaust efficiency.
Acura now offers, along with GM and Ferrari, an adjustable magnetic damper system. In comfort mode, the setup is particularly adept at taking the edge off severe bumps and blemishes. In sport mode, the ride becomes more buttoned down but not unacceptably harsh. Considering that the magnetic dampers-which are part of a sport package that also includes premium leather, HID headlamps, DVD audio, and a navigation system-will command a reasonable $5500 premium, they're well worth having.
The MDX's typical Honda steering, heavy a few degrees off center and significantly lighter thereafter, can make for imprecise inputs, a characteristic amplified once we'd left the grippy surface of the track. On surface roads, where uneven pavement demanded more steering adjustments, understeer was not a problem so much as the MDX's inclination to dive for the insides of curves. SH-AWD would go to work just as we'd enter the lighter portion of the rack's range, making a rendezvous with the weeds, trees, and ditches of Pennsylvania's rural roadsides seem inevitable. But once we located where the steering feel changed and adjusted our approach accordingly, we found the MDX as capable off-track as on.
It's always risky for a manufacturer to amp up the sportiness factor of one of its more plebeian models. But with this new MDX, Acura has succeeded. The MDX is more agile than the current X5 3.0i on a racetrack-granted, not the usual habitat for an SUV, but still impressive-it bests both the V-6 Porsche Cayenne and the outgoing X5 in ride and utility, and it has far better body control than the Volvo XC90. It remains to be seen, of course, how the MDX will stack up against iterations of those SUVs that aren't a few years old. For now, however, Mom and Dad have one less thing to argue about.