The second I saw the Acura MDX, it was déjà vu all over again. Like the recently sampled Honda Pilot, the MDX that landed on my drive was an eight-passenger SUV riding on bisected five-spoke alloys, slathered in Red Rock Pearl paint. Of course, there ARE important differences. Most prominently, the MDX is about 25% more expensive than the Pilot. Which makes the MDX Acura's $10,000 Question: Is the higher-priced SUV that much better than its well-sorted sibling?
Although the Acura MDX is a platform partner with both the Honda Pilot and Honda Odyssey, casual onlookers will scarcely place the MDX on the same family tree, let alone branch. Unlike Ford's chrome-reliant Mercury division, Honda didn't opt for the easy route to affluence. Up front, Acura's designers sanded away the Pilot's bluff prow and pulled the MDX' sheet metal into a beak, complete with projector headlamps book-ending a narrow, wing-shaped grille. They also opted for a more severely raked windshield and sloped backlight. By sacrificing utility for style and aerodynamics in pursuit of a more car-like aesthetic, Acura has done an admirable job avoiding the vehicular "parent trap."
Inside, there's little indication of the MDX's shared origins. The interior is dominated by an instrument panel tastefully-rendered in quality warm-toned plastics and reasonably convincing faux burl wood. LED backlit gauges please day and night, and soft-touch switches govern all the gewgaws expected at this price point. In our 'Touring R&N' model, most all of the usual sybaritic suspects were present and accounted for: rear-seat DVD, power memory seats, XM, Bluetooth, satellite navigation, back-up camera, the works. Gas-discharge headlamps are the option sheet's only glaring omission. And, as in the Pilot, a telescoping steering wheel is notable by its absence.
The MDX' electronic gubbins are controlled by the most intuitive interface extant. Making liberal use of well-designed touchscreen menus, the system rarely leads drivers astray. While the interface facilitates the manipulation of certain higher audio and HVAC functions, it doesn't rule such systems absolutely– let alone require one of those hateful i-Drive style multi-function knobs. Said another way, you can pump-up the dB's and crank-out the BTU's without being reduced to fumbling through layers of GUI.
The MDX's sole powerplant is Honda's familiar aluminum 3.5-liter V6. On a weekend jaunt to Ohio's Amish countryside, the SUV's 265 ponies never failed to make quick work of the two horsepower buggies lurking over every hill. Its well-sorted ride delivered us to Time Warp Country with admirable comportment; saddle leather seats ensuring that our own hides remained fresh at journey's end. Better yet, the clever flat-fold second and third row seats proffered a commendable amount of stowage space… perfect for toting home inadvisable quantities of handcrafted curiosities and untold wheels of cheese.
Sadly, the county's abundance of well-groomed, serpentine tarmac revealed the Acura's inability to satisfy the enthusiastic driver's thirst for pleasure. Make no mistake: the MDX is even more car-like than the already domesticated Pilot. While the MDX's ride and handling was consistently up to snuff, never once failing to negotiate turns with dignity and grace, it simply didn't want to play. There was no goading wail from its dual box-tipped exhausts. No close-cropped seats clamping torsos in place. No sport-oriented rubber facilitating the occasional burst of accelerative exuberance. No meaty steering feel to help guide the beast through the twisties.
If you carry some speed into a corner, the MDX's Vehicle Stability Assist and all-wheel-drive system quickly put the kibosh on any seat-of-the-pants gratification. It's also unfortunate that Honda doesn't offer one of its slick manual transmissions. At least the MDX' five-speed slushbox is as well-behaved as it is in the Pilot, slurring undetectably no matter what the engine load. Although a bit more braking feel would be welcome, the MDX' electronic brakeforce distribution-governed stoppers are both consistent and reliable.
All of which strike as sensible compromises given the legions of soccer moms and cell-toting suburbanites that gravitate towards this type of vehicle. But as with too many of Soichiro's other products, the MDX ultimately slakes rather than excites. Handling limits and general refinement may be ratcheted up few notches from the (already capable) Pilot, but this is a luxo-barge SUV, pure and simple. Well-heeled adrenaline junkies should look elsewhere. But consumers swayed more by accoutrements than acceleration are advised that the comfortable, reliable, smooth-riding MDX correctly answers Acura's $10,000 Question.