Acura MDX (2003)

"The MDX has the soul of a minivan in the body of an SUV. Fooled you, soccer moms!"
 Good: all-wheel drive, Vehicle Stability Assist system, Honda reliability
  Bad: non-adjustable middle seat, high belt line

The truth is, minivans are better than SUVs at just about everything. They ride better, handle better, and they're safer. They get better gas mileage, they seat more people, and they're easier to get in and out of. And that may explain why the Acura MDX is so highly praised. It's based on Honda's Odyssey minivan. The MDX has the soul of a minivan in the body of an SUV. Fooled you, soccer moms!

The MDX offers most of the benefits of a minivan, including three rows of seats with a seven-passenger capacity. Yet it looks better, offers a good selection of luxury features and, importantly, has all-wheel drive. The base model has a list price of $35,700. The model we test drove included a navigation system and rearview video camera and has a manufacturer's suggested list price of $40,500.

Since the MDX is based on the Honda Odyssey minivan chassis, it rides more like a car than a truck. On city roads, the MDX really soaks up the bumps. When compared to other SUVs, we thought it handled especially well.

Because of its 5' 9" height, the MDX has a higher center of gravity than, say, a passenger car. For this reason, you're not going to be able to drive it like an Audi. You're aware of being high up, and you factor that into your cornering speeds. But, overall, it handled very well, and didn't exhibit the wheel hop and lean of some of the truck-based SUVs it competes with. It's not as "glued to the road" as the BMW X5 or the Infiniti FX45, but it has a more comfortable ride than either of those. Not to mention much more room.

A Vehicle Stability Assist (VSA) system (Acura's name for stability control) is new and standard for '03, which should give drivers even more confidence. VSA monitors vehicle speed, steering input, and vehicle position, and uses the anti-lock braking system to keep the car from skidding if you screw up and head too fast around a turn. It won't save you every time, but it may help save your butt if you do something only relatively stupid. It's a plus, no doubt.

The engine and transmission in this car are a work of art. They're smooth as silk and plenty powerful. The MDX has a five-speed, automatic transmission, but the shifts are totally undetectable. The drive train is very impressive, too-at 70 MPH on the highway, it's only doing 2000 RPM.

The interior of the MDX is great, as are most interiors that Honda concocts. Lots of useful storage and everything is where you want it and expect it to be.

It's not a cushy car, but it's certainly comfortable. It's also large. It's long, wide, spacious, and airy. The cargo compartment is nice and large, too.

One problem: You can't slide the middle seat forward to give the third-row passengers more legroom. A minor complaint, but taller passengers will need to choose their seats accordingly and stick with the front two rows. And families should consider themselves warned if they're raising a brood of basketball players.

The windows in the MDX go all the way to the back, which makes for good visibility. But the belt line rises toward the rear of the MDX (the belt line is the where the bottom of the windows meet the sheet metal). As a result, other cars that are slightly back and to your right can be difficult to see.

The MDX has an optional navigation system that's fairly intuitive to use. We also liked the fact that the heating/ventilation controls and the radio are separate from the navigation system controls. With this design, you're not forced to mess around with the touch screen just to use basic functions. Every car maker should do it this way.

The model we drove also included the rear-mounted back-up camera, which we found useful. Put the MDX in reverse, and the screen that's used for the navigation system instantly shows what's behind you via a little camera built into the lift gate.

Is it worth the additional $2,200 for the package that includes the navigation system and the rearview camera? That's for you to decide. Another concern: As with any new technology, we have no idea how reliable this camera system will prove to be.

We liked the looks of the MDX. We thought it looked great. It's got a nice, durable look, but it's not overly macho.

We expect the MDX to be very reliable. It uses the Honda 3.5-liter V6, which also powers the Odyssey. Honda makes some of the most reliable engines on the planet, and this one should be no different.

On the insides, the MDX is essentially a Honda. So, you can take it to your local mechanic for all the basic maintenance, including brakes, tune-ups, shocks, timing belt and all the usual maintenance items.

Believe it or not, the MDX is in the same price range as a Jeep Grand Cherokee. If we had to choose, we'd take the MDX in a heartbeat. It's thoughtfully designed, reasonably cushy, and comes with Honda's legendary reliability. It's also based on a minivan chassis. And unless you plan to drive over tree stumps and rope buffalo in your MDX, that gives you a ton of advantages over truck-based SUVs.


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