Seating seven and weighing in at a whopping 4,551 pounds, the 2011 Acura MDX is the last vehicle you'd expect to see ripping up the pavement on your favorite mountain road, but that's exactly where we took this 300-horsepower beast to put its active suspension and SH-AWD technology to the test. The results we came back with were surprising to say the least.
What's more, this physical powerhouse is also a tech powerhouse, with an array of safety technology to keep you and your six passengers entertained on roads less twisty.
Surprisingly nimble seven-seater
Under the hood of the 2011 MDX, you'll find the same 3.7-liter V-6 engine that can be found in the TL and TSX sedans. However, the heavier MDX needs a few more ponies to get the job done, so Acura gave it a 20-horsepower boost for a total of 300 hp. The added weight and more aggressive tune pull the MDX's fuel economy down to 16 mpg city and 21 mpg highway. We managed a combined 13.8 mpg during our testing, but that's probably explained by the, well, spirited manner in which we drove during our testing. We're sure that the average driver would fall right in the middle of the EPA's estimates.
Power flows from the MDX's 3.7-liter engine through a six-speed automatic transmission with a Sport program and paddle shifters for manual gear selection. From there, torque is transferred to either the front or rear wheels through Acura's Super Handling All-Wheel Drive system (SH-AWD). This system not only biases torque between the front and rear axles, it features a torque vectoring system on the rear axle that sends power to the outside wheel in a turn, increasing grip, control, and rotation. The end result is a nimble ride uncharacteristic of a vehicle the size of the MDX.
Helping the MDX's agility is an active magnetic suspension that is able to adjust the dampening characteristics of the SUV's suspension many times per second in order to provide the highest-quality ride. The suspension's two modes, Sport and Comfort, give you the choice of emphasizing performance or a supple ride.
Shifting the MDX's transmission into Sport mode, we pushed the SUV up one of our favorite mountain roads. Paddle shifting allowed the MDX to hold its revs and prevented awkward midturn shifts. Finding ourselves hot on the tail of a fellow enthusiast in a Volkswagen GTI, we were impressed by how well our 4,550-pound beast stuck to the rear bumper of the nimble hatchback. Of course, with almost 100 horsepower more, you'd expect the MDX to keep up with the VW on the straights, but on twisty roads such as this one, raw power loses to handling. Still, there we were, keeping up the chase through the mountains. There was a noticeable bit of body roll, but the MDX felt planted through the gentler turns and the SH-AWD system brought the vehicle's tail around nicely in the more aggressive switchbacks.
Reaching the top of the hill, we paused to give our arms a break from sawing away at the steering wheel, when we noticed that during the entire trip up the mountain, the MDX's adjustable suspension had been in its Comfort mode. Switching the suspension into its Sport setting to match the transmission, we again tossed the MDX into the twists and turns of the mountain road--this time headed downhill. The difference in the handing characteristics of the SUV was immediately noticeable. The body roll we noticed on the way up was drastically reduced, allowing the MDX to stay flatter in the turns and enabling the SH-AWD system to really scoot the ute's tail end around as we powered through turns at speeds that a seven-passenger SUV shouldn't be capable of. We found ourselves grinning as we dove into bends carrying more and more speed before our fun was abruptly brought to a halt by a flashing amber light on the instrument cluster.
No, the warning wasn't from the traction control system, which was surprisingly transparent in its actions. It was from the collision mitigation braking system (CMBS). This forward-facing radar constantly monitors the road ahead of the MDX to warn drivers of potential collisions. If there is no reaction to its flashing lights and sound, the CBMS will apply the brakes automatically and cinch the driver's seatbelt in preparation for a crash. Apparently, the rapidly approaching trees and rock wall on the outside of the switchback we'd been aggressively diving into had caused the system to falsely trigger enough times that it was second-guessing itself and displayed an error code. Driving was not impeded in any way by this error and a quick halt and restart of the vehicle cleared the error code.
We decided to take it easy on the ride back from the mountain and chose a highway route. Switching the gearbox back into its normal automatic mode and the suspension back to Comfort, we took this opportunity to test out the safety features of our MDX's Advance Package. The active cruise control (ACC) system uses the same forward radar as the CMBS (which is also part of the Advance Package) to monitor and maintain a safe distance between the MDX and the vehicle ahead of it. At its tightest, the system still kept a full two car lengths between our front bumper and the car ahead of it, which is great for safety. However, when used in moderate traffic, the system was pretty aggressive in slowing the vehicle to maintain that gap, leading to a jerky ride. Additionally, the system will only slow the vehicle to about 35 to 45 mph before it simply shuts off and stops accelerating (other systems, such as that of the Infiniti FX50, will bring the vehicle to a complete stop and reaccelerate). This makes Acura's ACC system less than ideal for heavy traffic situations.
Also part of the Advance Package is the Blind Spot Information System, which notifies drivers that a vehicle is in the MDX's blind spot by illuminating an LED near the appropriate side-view mirror and flashing that LED if the turn signal is activated. The system makes no attempt to prevent the driver from merging into an obstruction and doesn't operate at low speeds, so it isn't useful in stop-and-go traffic situations.
The Advance Package also brings pre-tensioning seat belts that prepare the passenger in the event of a crash, autoleveling xenon headlamps, the Active Damper adjustable suspension mentioned earlier, and ventilation for the perforated leather sport seats. OK, that last bit isn't exactly a safety feature, but it is nice to have.