First Drive: 2011 Acura MDX SH-AWD

Evan McCauslandwriterMatt Tierneyphotographer

As the saying goes, 47,000 customers can't be wrong. Nearly four years after Acura launched its second-generation MDX, 47,210 customers lined up in 2010 to bring home the company's midsize crossover. Not only does that make the MDX Acura's best-selling vehicle in 2010 (it beat the TL by nearly 13,000 units), but also one of the best-selling luxury crossovers currently available in North America.

That's impressive, considering the market is flooded with premium crossovers, many of which launched after the MDX's original debut. How then does the MDX manage to woo so many buyers in an extremely competitive segment? We slid behind the wheel of a 2011 model to find out for ourselves.

Sized Right
Macroscopically speaking, midsize luxury crossovers tend to fall into two different categories: smaller models, like the Lexus RX and Cadillac SRX, and larger vehicles -- the Buick Enclave, Lincoln MKT, BMW X5, and Audi Q7, for instance -- which offer three rows of seating and room for seven or eight passengers.

The MDX, which shares its platform with the Honda Pilot, slots nicely between those two extremes. At 191.6 inches long, the MDX is roughly a foot longer than the RX and SRX, yet it's almost ten inches shorter than the likes of the MKT, Q7, and Enclave. Those trim dimensions may not abide by the "bigger is better" way of thinking, but they do pay dividends when attempting to maneuver the MDX through a crowded parking lot or tuck it into your garage.

Despite its smaller stature, the MDX isn't deprived of interior space. Head, leg, and shoulder room measurements for the first and second rows are roughly on par or greater than those of the Enclave, X5, and Q7. Legroom for third row occupants is tight, measuring in at 29.1 inches, but on par with the likes of the Audi Q7 and Lincoln MKT. When not needed, that third row can be folded flat, providing up to 42.9 cubic feet of space. Drop both rows, and that figure swells to 83.5 cubic feet.

Sharp Styling
Most of the MDX's chiseled form is identical to early second-generation models, but a mild facelift performed in 2010 did add a few cosmetic improvements. The unusual solid grille insert is replaced with a more conventional opening, while the front bumper receives a pair of triangular openings above the foglamps to help lend the crossover a wide, low-slung feel.

Acura's recent design language has at times proven divisive, but the MDX wears the edgy styling well. The SUV has a very balanced and proportionate appearance, thanks in part to large wheels (18-inch aluminum wheels are standard; 19s are optional), short front and rear overhangs, and what appears to be a relatively low roofline. In back, the MDX's sharp fenders and upright D-pillars contrast nicely with the rounded rear window glass.

Likewise, the MDX's cabin shares a number of design cues with its siblings, yet it manages to possess a little extra sophistication. A curved dashboard tapers into a triangular center stack, which then terminates at a wide center console. Vast quantities of burl wood trim adorn the top of the console, and are nicely complemented with stitched leather trim on the armrest itself. Leather seating is standard across the board (models fitted with either the Advance or Technology packages receive upgraded Milano leather), but the seats themselves are comfortable, well bolstered (especially the outboard second-row spots), and supportive during bouts of spirited driving.

A Sports Car In Disguise?
Yes, we said spirited driving. The best part of the MDX may well be its on-road performance -- unsurprising, as Acura believes the crossover targets sports car enthusiasts forced into buying a more practical people mover.

Beneath the skin, the MDX's powertrain is almost identical to that used in the TL sport sedan. Power is provided by Acura's 3.7-liter SOHC V-6, which in MDX form, produces 300 horsepower at 6300 rpm and 270 lb-ft of torque at 4500 rpm. The engine is coupled to a six-speed automatic transmission, which was introduced to the MDX line for the 2010 model year. The extra gear allows the 2011 MDX to earn a 16/21 mpg (city/highway) rating from the EPA, a mild improvement over the 15/20 rating tied to the five-speed.

As is the case in other Acuras, the MDX's 3.7-liter is potent and the six-speed automatic smooth, but the true piece de resistance in the powertrain puzzle lies with the standard all-wheel-drive system. Acura's Super Handling All-Wheel-Drive (SH-AWD) system does more than just increase traction on slick surfaces -- it helps the 4500-pound MDX drive like a much smaller vehicle. The trick lies with the system's ability to shuffle torque to the rear wheels. Up to 70 percent of the engine's power can be sent to the rear axle, and in turn, directed to a single rear wheel. That power can be shifted to the outside rear wheel, which helps aid turn in and increase the MDX's cornering speed.

Indeed, the MDX remains planted and confident in a manner quite unlike many of its competitors. The optional Advance Package only furthers the crossover's handling prowess by adding 19-inch aluminum wheels and, perhaps more importantly, an active suspension system with magneto-rheological dampers. Not only does this system constantly adjust damping force to match road conditions and driving habits, but it also allows the driver to choose between comfort and sport settings. The latter proved remarkably taut in corners, although ride quality -- especially in concert with the bigger rims -- does suffer slightly over broken surfaces.

Pick Your Package
Like the remainder of Acura's portfolio, technology isn't relegated to the chassis and powertrain. Base models receive heated front seats, Bluetooth hands-free phone connectivity, tri-zone automatic climate control, a power moonroof, six airbags, and a USB audio input. The Technology lumps in a navigation system with integrated Zagat travel guides, enhanced Bluetooth functionality, and a wonderful ELS audio system capable of playing DVD audio discs in full 5.1-channel surround sound, while the Advance Package adds the nifty active dampers, adaptive headlamps, ventilated front seats, adaptive cruise control, and blind spot detection. If your passengers frequently seek their own entertainment options, the Entertainment Package also tosses in a flip-down video screen above the second row, along with wireless headphones.

It should be noted that ticking these option boxes will significantly impact the MDX's window sticker. Base 2011 MDX models sticker at $43,440 (with $860 in destination fees included), which is above the Enclave but roughly $4000 cheaper than its European competition. The Technology Package forces that price up by $3675 to $47,115, while the Advance Package raises the MSRP to $52,205. Adding the entertainment system to either the Technology or Advance packages adds another $1900.

Subsequently, a fully loaded MDX like our test example can run you close to $55,000. That isn't exactly inexpensive, but it is a relative bargain -- order up a comparable 2011 BMW X5 xDrive35i Premium, and you'll be staring down an MSRP approaching the $67,000.

Perhaps that's the draw behind the model's continued success. The MDX looks, feels, and drives virtually as well as its rivals from Europe, yet costs significantly less. That's an awfully attractive proposition, and we understand why 47,210 people decided to purchase a MDX in 2010.

2011 Acura MDX
Base Price: $43,440 (including $860 in destination)
Price As Tested: $54,965 (MDX Advance with Entertainment package)

Transmission: 6-speed automatic
Engine: 3.7-liter SOHC 24-valve V-6
Horsepower: 300 hp @ 6300 rpm
Torque: 270 lb-ft @ 4500 rpm
Drive: All-wheel
Transmission: 6-speed automatic

L x W x H: 191.6" x 78.5" x 68.2"
Legroom F/2/3: 41.2"/38.7"/29.1"
Headroom F/2/3: 39.2"/38.6"/37.5"
Cargo capacity (seats up/ 3rd row down/ seats down): 15/42.9/83.5 cu ft
Curb weight: 4550-4627 lbs
EPA rating (city/highway): 16/21 mpg

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