The Acura MDX won't draw a gasp for unique design or beauty of line. It looks sturdy and stable with a wider, firmer stance than some competitors. The styling updates for 2004 don't do much to alter the basic look.
The signature Acura grille, now with a satin chrome finish, forms the centerpiece for a new, more tapered front end. The MDX's headlights are more angular than before; new projection-type beams enhance both illumination and appearance. There's a chin spoiler integrated into the front bumper to move air smoothly to the sides of the car and improve aerodynamics. The rear end has been updated with new, larger taillights and dual exhaust tips.
Yet even with these updates, the MDX still looks like an MDX. Limited overhang at either end contributes to a dense, compact demeanor that belies this SUV's heft and somewhat exaggerates the size of the MDX's mid-section. Some believe the large greenhouse adds to the straightforward sense and strong presence. Others claim it makes the MDX seem more like a minivan than a big SUV.
What isn't obvious except in a body-off view is the duality of construction under the MDX. It is both unibody and body on frame. This Centaur-like approach gives uncommon rigidity and strength gained from longitudinal rails with eight box-section cross members. This is the thinking engineers' path to making a car/truck both a car AND a truck, whichever is appropriate to the occasion. The effect is noise, vibration and harshness control on par with a car, and the load-and stress-management characteristics of a truck. Within the MDX frame, there's even a vent tube that whisks moisture away from the differential when the vehicle is sitting in 18 inches of water.
Acura MDX offers space and cargo flexibility superior to the class. The finish inside is excellent, with new titanium-look trim for 2004. The materials are generally high grade, and the fit and matching of various panels is first-rate.
Airy, perforated leather adorns the seats, side panels, steering wheel and shift knob. There is nothing swoopy or eye-popping about the instrument panel, just easily read instruments with an unobstructed view. Simple, large knobs are easy to operate whether that hand is wearing mittens or has long fingernails. The overall sense is the serenity of simplicity.
The air bag fits flat into the passenger-side dash. Sun visors have extensions for those sharp shafts of sun angling low at dawn and dusk. Then there's the added touch of elegance that makes you say to yourself, "If they thought of this they must have thought of everything." For example, the roof-mounted grab handles don't go CLUNK against the ceiling when released; they whisper their dampened way back into place.
Automatic headlights and an auto-up feature for the driver's window are standard. The back-up video camera with the navigation system is at least as useful as the more common, beep-beep-beep systems that warn of hard-to-see obstacles with electronic sound or readout. Bottom line, this reverse-view camera is a good thing, but it takes some getting used to: first, to get comfortable with the extreme fish-eye view, and second, to trust it. The wide panoramic images on the display screen tend to distort depth. When you learn to judge the distances it's a fine tool, but there is still no substitute for a wary, attentive driver.
Third-row seats in the MDX are easier to get into than those in, say, the Volvo Cross Country wagon. A convenient walk-in feature slides the MDX's entire second seat forward with the touch of a lever, located on the curb side. This slider has been improved for 2004 by extending forward travel 40 percent, making entry to the third row even simpler. When not in use, both the second and third rows fold to disappear completely into the floor, leaving a flat surface with no protrusions to scratch luggage or inhibit cargo loading. The seats split for a varied mix of people and stuff.
With the second and third seats stowed, there's room for a ton of stuff. With 81.5 cubic feet of cargo space, the MDX dwarves five-passenger competitors such as the BMW X5 (54.4 cubic feet) and Infiniti FX (64.5). It beats all but the Volvo XC90 (84.9 cubic feet) among seven-passenger competitors. And thanks to its space-efficient design, the MDX offers more cargo room when all three rows of seats are in place ( 14.8 cubic feet for MDX vs. 11.1 for XC90). MDX also delivers 4,500 pounds of boat-towing capacity.
The split air-conditioning system is one of the more impressive features. Not only can those in back have a different temperature than the front-seat riders, but one zone can get heat while another gets air conditioning. Every seat in the house has a shoulder harness as well as a lap belt. (Many SUVs do not come with a shoulder belt in the rear center position.) Anchors for child seats are everywhere. Lots of cup holders, too.
We like the navigation system for its intuitive simplicity. Indeed, this may be the best GPS-guided system going. The database has been expanded further, so if you want to pick up some cash, make a stop at the nearest Chinese take-out and then locate an emergency room for your over-indulgence, it is all at your beck. A novel capability, and one uniquely appropriate for a vehicle equipped to seek out uncharted outbacks, is a feature that leaves electronic bread crumbs on screen. No road visible under the little wedge-shaped marker that represents your vehicle? Not to worry. Acura's navigation system leaves a line that you can easily retrace back to where there be no more dragons.
Finally, the 2004 MDX has been equipped with a side-curtain airbag system that pro