I suppose I wasn't paying close enough attention to which MDX I jumped into, because I managed to find the only one of the five MDXs that wasn't the Sport model. Not a huge deal, because we'd simply grab a sport model on the way back, but I was anxious to check out the active dampers. On the upside, the MDX we grabbed was equipped with the tech package, however, so we briefly fiddled around with the navi and started sifting through the preloaded CDs and DVD-As (hmmm... Seal, Sting, The Eagles, Queen, and.... wth, have they released any new DVD-As since 2003?? Somebody get Elliot Scheiner on the horn!). We ended up switching over to XM and checking out what Lucy and Ethel had to say.
With that behind us, we grabbed our route book and motored on out of the Beaver Co. airport complex and on our way through the Amish hills. On the road, I found the MDX to be quite a nice drive. While the outgoing MDX had benefitted from a number of revisions and was actually quite surprisingly good for its age, the new one has certainly raised the game even further.
Power to Spare?
Of course, one of the first things I really wanted to experience was Acura's newest and most potent V6. I'll be honest - I was hoping that my first jab at the throttle would have resulted in more necksnapping hijinks than what actually happened, but the MDX steps out adequately. What impressed me most about this new motor was that it revved willingly to its 6500 rpm redline, pulling seemingly harder and harder as it approached the limiter while remaining very smooth in the process. I anticipated that the longer piston stroke would be good for padding low end and mid-range grunt, but it feels like this motor really benefitted the most in the upper 2/3rds of the rev band. Acura claims that their new V6 is competitive with V8s in terms of acceleration and V6s in terms of economy, and generally I'd go along with that. Nobody will mistake it for a V8 out of the hole, but it handily shames its 6-cylinder competitors in terms of roll-on power.
The SH-AWD system provides secure footing on the street, but the chassis is tuned such that you really don't feel much of the "magic hand" effect that SH-AWD can provide until you're in the controlled environment of a racetrack. The MDX is calibrated with a moderate amount of understeer. While there are times when the SH-AWD system delivers well on its promise, until you get really accustomed to it, there will be other times when you're wondering why it's seemingly absent. You're generally not going to be able to get the MDX to rotate to your complete satisfaction without thrashing it about a fair bit, particularly in lower speed corners. SH-AWD's benefits become more apparent as the turn radii (and speeds) increase. We keep hoping Acura's engineers will cut loose a little bit and tune the SH-AWD and chassis to provide a more active role in improving matters on tighter turns, but they're not quite there yet. Slow in/fast out is fine if you have an abundance of power, but with the rather wide gear spacing in the MDX's 5-speed automatic transmission (pardon me for asking, but how much longer do we need to wait for an automatic transmission with more than 5 ratios?), the occasion is rare where you will have sufficient torque on deck for a truly "fast" exit.
Don't be too discouraged by these gripes, though - bear in mind that we're still talking about an SUV, and the MDX's handling puts it up near the top of the heap, especially when you are able to exploit its talents in a controlled environment. And with the active damper system, the MDX's ride composure places it on an entirely different plane from its competitors.
Overall, in everyday driving the MDX is quite enjoyable to drive thanks to its nimble and responsive nature. The steering is a little bit on the light side but it has good on-center feel, tracks faithfully, and responds quickly and intuitively to driver inputs. The MDX is capable of carrying a surprising and satisfying level of pace on twisty two-lanes. It's at its best when you match the MDX to the rhythm of the road and can maintain a consistent pace through the bends rather than fiercely accelerating and braking between slower turns. For the most part the MDX drives like a smaller and lighter vehicle but on the narrower roads that we drove I was constantly reminded of its considerable width.
Most Valuable Feature: Active Damper System
We haven't talked much yet about the ride quality. In general the ride quality is very good on the 2007 MDX. It's always been a fairly sporty ride, and that hasn't changed. But now with the active damper system, Acura's able to control the MDX's ride motions to an astonishing degree. On most roads and driving conditions, the biggest difference most folks would recognize would be that the active damper system permits the MDX to corner, brake, and accelerate with virtually no roll, dive, or pitch. Ride quality on these types of roads is moderately better than the standard suspension, particularly when the active damper system is set to the "comfort" mode. Now if the roads that you normally use are as pockmarked and rippled as the twisties that we traversed, you will probably find that the base suspension on the MDX feels a little springy and underdamped when pushing it, particularly in the rear suspension. This is where the active suspension in the Sport Package plays an astonishing role in taming the wobbly motions of a conventional suspension. While the base MDX was capable of carrying a rapid pace over these roads, it was a bit of a chore to have to keep correcting the steering inputs to compensate for the constant ride motions. With the Sport Model, the active damper system maintains the feel for the road, but the level of stability is almost supernatural. Nothing we could throw at it seemed to upset it, whether it was a high speed double railroad crossing, a stream of whoop-de-doos, cratered pavement, NOTHING. Of course, tire adhesion remains a limiting factor, but it was almost as if you could go bombing over anything without worrying about spilling a drop of your mochaccino. It's almost not even fair to compare this system to that of the competitors. I only tried it against the Cayenne and a 4.4L BMW X5. The Cayenne did a decent job of maintaining its composure, at the expense of your internal organs. The BMW X5 was so smooshy that it felt okay at lower speeds, but at any sort of decent clip it quickly progressed towards the terrifying end of the spectrum. The ultimate driving machine? Hmmm...
The Sound of the Road
Road and wind noise are tightly controlled in the MDX, with more of the former making itself apparent. The level of which, of course varies with the type of surface that is being traversed, but for the most part road noises are pretty well muted. Lately, Honda and Acura engineers have let their hair down a little bit when it comes to engine notes for their sportier models, and the MDX is no exception. The exhaust has been tuned to produce less boominess at lower cruising rpms, while the intake has been tuned to tingle your spine a bit more at the upper end of the rev range. Dad will probably like that.
In terms of intended sound, the ELS audio system is just as impressive as Acura's first ELS audio system which debuted in the TL. While we didn't have the opportunity to listen to it critically, my first impression is that it has been tuned with the same objectives as the TL's system. That means clean and accurate sound. I've noticed that some people have complained that the TL's system sounds too thin on the bottom end, but I think that's mostly because other car audio systems are tuned with excessive boominess which people are misinterpreting as superior bass response. So these same folks may be a little disappointed with the MDX's lower range output as it again seems to be more focused on accuracy than moving your internal organs. The clarity of DVD-A recordings is truly remarkable, and the MDX's system sets a good stage for playback of these materials. Surround effects are quite pronounced - so much so that it might be nice if there were a way to soften the effect a little bit to compensate for some recordings that seem to overuse the technology.
Of course we didn't have the chance to test the MDX's towing capablities, but we think that it's worth mentioning that the MDX's towing capacity has been improved to 5000lbs. This is an improvement of 500-1500lbs, as the previous MDX had a strange dual rating where it was rated to tow a 3500lb trailer or a 4500lb boat - the extra 1000 lbs was said to account for the boat's superior aerodynamics (I wonder if they considered pontoon party boats...). To enhance its towing abilities, the MDX comes equipped with a high-capacity radiator with dual 160-watt fans, an automatic transmission fluid cooler, a heavy duty power steering cooler and the MDX is pre-wired for an electric brake controller. Acura's VSA system has been enhanced to include special Trailer Stability Assist algorithms. These algorithms are able to detect unsafe towing situations and rectify them by using a combination of individual brake activation and torque reduction.
For both of you who are interested in the MDX's offroad capabilities, you may or may not be relieved to learn that Acura designed the '07 to meet or exceed the first generation's medium-duty capabilities. We actually rode along in an early MDX test mule over portions of a Hummer course at the Nemacolin Woodlands resort and it tackled each task handily. These tasks included fording a 20" deep standing water crossing, a split mu hillclimb (3 of the 4 wheels were on rollers), a short 60 degree incline/decline, a side hill (stability) demonstration, and some mild "boulder bashing". This is stuff I'd certainly never attempt in my ~$50k SUV but I guess it's good to know it can handle some of the rough stuff too.