Acura MDX offers a superb balance of car and truck attributes. Its highway manners are excellent. It corners well for a vehicle of its heft, though without the keen turn-in of the BMW X5. MDX feels extremely stable and as untippable as a rhino.
Its 3.5-liter, 24-valve VTEC V6 engine generates impressive power, and its five-speed automatic features gear ratios for towing and trail grinding. For 2004, the V6 engine benefits from a new dual-exhaust system that boosts horsepower from 260 to 265 and torque from 250 to 253 pounds-feet at a very usable 3500 rpm. Yet the MDX delivers better combined fuel economy than most of its luxury SUV competitors with EPA-estimated City/Highway ratings of 17/23 mpg.
In the real world, the MDX can accelerate from 0 to 60 mph in less than 8 seconds. Its mesa-shaped torque curve means responsive acceleration around town and for merging and passing at any speed. On the freeway, the MDX cruises at 72 mph with the engine turning a very quiet, fuel-efficient 2200 rpm. Acura says that MDX can tow a 4,500-boat, or a 3,500-pound trailer with a tongue weight of 450 pounds. That kind of towing capability is normally considered a truck trait.
Off road, MDX makes up for the absence of a transfer case and a granny gear with a regular low gear that is extra low. Venturing onto badly rutted forest service roads or trails leading to fishing sites and trailheads will not overtax it.
This SUV comes with a unique four-wheel-drive system. Most of the time, the MDX runs in front-wheel-drive mode for good fuel economy. Some all-wheel-drive systems normally cruise in front-wheel drive, engaging the rear wheels when sensors detect front wheel spin. Not so the MDX. Slippage, the Acura engineers reason, can only occur under acceleration. And so the MDX engages the rear wheels as well as the front wheels whenever the driver calls for acceleration, without waiting for slippage to occur. Acura provides an Unstuck button on the dash (yes, that's what they call it) that locks the differential progressively to get out of tough situations.
The MDX feels secure and much of that comes from a relatively firm suspension, firmer than that on the Lexus RX330, for example. In tradeoff, the MDX feels a bit bouncier than the RX330 on rough roads. On pavement the MDX likes to understeer, by design. That means that if you're too fast into a corner, the front wheels begin to lose grip at lower speeds than they do in the Infiniti FX35 or in the BMW X5. This encourages you to intuitively lift off the throttle and slow down. The steering is heavier than that in the Lexus. You can feel the wheel slightly tug on your hands when you accelerate hard, a phenomenon called torque steer, but it doesn't influence your heading.
The brakes are absolute standouts, responsive and secure, and everything is managed by Acura's Vehicle Stability Assist system. VSA works in concert with the all-wheel-drive and electronic throttle to enhance control during acceleration, braking and cornering, orchestrating traction control, anti-lock braking and stability management. On slick roads, VSA control will clamp the brakes on hard if you enter a corner too quickly, and pull the MDX tighter into the corner.
Though safety and clean emissions do not figure in how a car drives, they do figure in how you feel about driving it. Two safety points: Acura expects a five-star federal crash rating (the best) on the 2004 MDX, and the company claims its SUV can be hit from behind by a vehicle going 35 mph without the third row of seats being breached. High fuel economy ratings are a testimony to the efficiency of the MDX, and all models sold nationwide meet the government's strict ULEV-2 emissions standards (Ultra Low Emissions Vehicle).