- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 12, 2006

At a tender 20 years of age, Acura has established itself firmly in the pantheon of world-class luxury cars.

The offspring of Honda, which has the distinction of being the first luxury nameplate from Japan, has been eclipsed in some respects by later-arriving rival Lexus from Toyota. But it hasn’t been overwhelmed.

It lagged in the midsize luxury sport utility group, which was pioneered by the Mercedes-Benz ML320 in 1998, followed by the Lexus RX.

Acura’s MDX arrived in 2001, but it upped the ante by being the first in the class with three rows of seats as standard equipment. (The Mercedes-Benz had an optional third-row seat, but few customers bought it).

The runaway leader in the class today is the Lexus RX 330. But it is a five-passenger vehicle. The Acura MDX ranks second in sales, but is the only one in this exclusive class if you want seating for seven.

So there was no question when Acura’s designers set out to produce an all-new MDX for 2007 — it had to have three rows of seats.

But in a burst of honesty that is characteristic of the folks from Honda and Acura, they prefer to refer to the MDX as a 4+3. That means it has comfortable seating for four, with occasional (and not terribly accommodating) seating for the other three.

The front seats, however, are big, deep, comfortable and supportive. Outboard passengers in back also are cosseted in comfort.

On the other hand, the third row is designed for two child-sized people. An average-sized adult can actually sit back there, although it takes some gymnastic ability to access the area. The center position in the second row is a perch, but not half bad.

The striking thing about the 2007 MDX is the all-new overall design, which essentially converts this family-oriented SUV into a sport wagon.

Start with the styling. The designers say they looked for inspiration to the sleek WallyPower 118 super yacht, which sells for somewhere around $25 million and gets its thrust from three gas turbine engines that produce a total of 16,800 horsepower.

The 2007 MDX looks nothing at all like its predecessor. It has a streamlined profile, but also a wide, squat, sumo-wrestler look from behind. Yet the driver still gets that up-high, in-command seating position.

It looks as if the step-in height has been reduced, but it’s about the same as the 2006 MDX.

Power comes via a new 3.7-liter V-6 engine that delivers 300 horsepower to all four wheels through a five-speed automatic transmission.

The drive system is Acura’s SH-AWD, which stands for super-handling all-wheel drive.

It allocates power front-to-back and side-to-side on the rear wheels to keep the MDX tracking precisely around fast bends, unfazed by rough or slippery surfaces.

Most noticeable is the feedback as you put the MDX through its repertoire of moves.

Like a fine European sports sedan, it sends pleasurable tactile sensations through the steering wheel, chassis and other controls.

Along with tuned engine sounds, it enhances driver involvement.

Acura’s designers say they developed the handling feel with extensive testing on the famed Nurburgring road-racing course in Germany.

Yet the MDX also can tow up to 5,000 pounds.

Though it handles the engine’s torque very well, and is mostly seamless in operation, the five-speed automatic is the only aspect of the new MDX that does not appear to be cutting-edge.

Other manufacturers have weighed in with six-, seven- and even eight-speed automatic transmissions.

Where the MDX shines is in rapid transit over curving roads with a variety of surfaces.

The patented all-wheel-drive system, combined with traction and stability control, a stiff chassis and a taut suspension system, enables the MDX to attack sharp corners with aplomb.

That’s especially true on the MDX with the sport package, which includes magnetic shock absorbers that react within milliseconds to changes in road surfaces.

As might be expected, however, when the adjustable suspension system is in sport mode, the ride becomes harsh.

Buyers can equip the MDX five ways.

The base vehicle, which sells for $40,665, is fully equipped in the normal luxury sense, with side air bags, side-curtain air bags, traction and stability control, tire-pressure monitoring, fog lights, a motorized sunroof, XM satellite radio, 18-inch aluminum wheels, automatic climate control, cruise control, garage-door opener, leather upholstery, interior wood trim, power windows and locks, powered tilt-and-telescope steering wheel, and a wireless telephone interface.

Thankfully, Acura has resisted the current fad of substituting push buttons or other offbeat systems for the traditional ignition key.

In other respects as well, the MDX follows the KISS school of design (for Keep It Simple, Stupid).

As options, there’s a technology package with a navigation system, three-zone climate control and the Acura/ELS premium sound system.

The sport package includes the active suspension system, special wheels and premium leather upholstery.

Both the technology and sport packages also are available with the entertainment package, which features a DVD rear entertainment system, a power tailgate and heated second-row seats.

Loaded with all the options, the MDX has a sticker price of $48,465.

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