by Marc Stengel
"Heck if I know," I said when the wife asked what the "MDX" name on Acura's wildly popular new sport-utility vehicle meant. "It's an SUV. I guess it's supposed to sound macho, durable, extreme-you know, rugged enough for all you carpooling moms."
Even before the Acura MDX washed up on my shore for a test drive, I'd already fielded a number of calls and e-mails asking me what I thought about American Honda's SUV-come-lately. Not that my opinion mattered much. At least two of my interrogators marched off and bought the MDX before I'd even set fanny in the driver's seat.
Truth be told, I've been up to my transfer case in SUVs lately-an occupational hazard in an automobile market where SUV popularity shows no signs of imminent wane. "So what else is new?" is about the only curiosity I could muster upon first spying the MDX in my drive. There it sat, chrome-trimmed, all angles and bulges like a body builder, smiling through its broad-grinning grille like a socialite posing for the newspaper living section. I drove it around a little. It drove fine. I ran some errands. It did fine with the errands. It's a sport-utility vehicle, for crying out loud-a pricey, nearly-$40-grand SUV at that. It had better drive fine and do errands.
Talk about timing. This was the weekend when I was scheduled to meet with my father at my grandmother's flat to winnow and lift and separate the remnant horde of 93 years' worth of accumulation that she would no longer need in a new, smaller apartment. "Hope you've got a truck," my dad warned.
"Sorry," I said. "There's just this new Acura SUV." "We'll just have to make several trips, then," he lamented. Great. Now it's my fault, I started to say.
I trucked the dolly down the elevator with the first load and rolled up behind the MDX. If there'd only been the one load, I'm sure it would have fit in the cargo space behind the three-passenger rear bench seat. It turns out this healthy 50-cubic-foot space is not only quite large but also conveniently boxy to accept a variety of bulky shapes. But on this day, there would be a baker's-dozen dolly loads overall, so there was nothing to do but to fold flat the split rear seats and push the first load all the way to the front. The seats folded easily enough, by the way, employing a special latch release atop the seatback that shoved the seat bottom forward as the back folded down on top.
Twelve loads later, my father and I stood facing the open rear hatch of the MDX with our own mouths agape. Everything was in there, all 13 loads, and nothing was jammed or jumbled. There was even room left for my large, industrial-strength dolly. That's 82 very commodious cubic feet of stuff, according to the Acura's spec sheet. Best of all, my father and I drove off in no need of making a return trip. The MDX was making me look pretty good in spite of myself.
After I'd unburdened the MDX of those 82 cubes of horde, and after I'd returned the rear bench to seating position, I started poking around the floor in the back. What's that? I wondered. I'd just dismissed it as some sort of storage well under the floor when, jack-in-the-box, another passenger seat origami-ed itself into being. Ditto the panel just beside. And under the floor of what was now a remnant 14.8 cubic feet of cargo space, there lay two discreetly-sized headrests for these third-row seats. "Wow! Seven passengers!" I actually said out loud. Then I turned around furtively to make sure no one was watching. Sure, I knew that all along, I reminded myself-and I almost convinced myself that I had known it.
Now I realized why a friend had called me to say how pleased she was with her MDX after I'd recommended a whole raft of other SUVs. This was a box-gobbling, seven-passenger Jonah's whale of a vehicle that didn't need a bus-sized exterior or gas-guzzling V-8 to make the whole package work. In fact, thanks to Honda's VTEC engine design, the MDX's 3.5-liter V-6 (a punched-up version of the 3.2-liter V-6 in Acura's TL sedans and CL coupes) delivers both 240 horsepower and 17 mpg city, 23 hwy. A techie all-wheel-drive system, dubbed Variable Torque Management-4, apportions power to every wheel based on traction needs, although under normal conditions it's an economical front-driver.
Taking what she wanted into account, I'd originally recommended that my friend consider the Dodge Durango, since its versatile interior was so inspired and its chunky V-8 so powerful. She'd obviously discovered on her own that the MDX has checkmated the Durango in both of these departments. In fact, Acura's seven-passenger MDX may well have checkmated the entire SUV category as it presently stands.
So my wife's curiosity has a point after all. What does it mean that such a compact vehicle exterior can camouflage so capacious and versatile an interior, all the while riding around on a sports-car-derived suspension behind a sporty 24-valve motor and featuring computerized all-wheel-drive?
Actually, it can only mean one thing: The car is beginning to disappear; the truck is beginning to disappear; the pod has arrived, and it combines the better natures of both cars and trucks in one seductive package. The MDX is just such a pod, the leading edge of what's to come. Considering its raging popularity the moment it appeared, the MDX has invaded the auto world like a body snatcher. It's only a matter of time, I predict, before the pod overtakes us all.
2001 Acura MDX
Engine: 3.5-liter V-6, 240 hp
Transmission: Five-speed automatic, front- or all-wheel drive
Length x width x height: 188.5 x 77 x 68.7 in
Wheelbase: 106.3 in
Curb weight: 4323 lb
EPA City/Hwy: 17/23 mpg
Safety equipment: Front and side airbags, anti-lock brakes
Major standard equipment: Seven-passenger seating, auto HVAC, moonroof, heated front seats, AM/FM/CD stereo
Warranty: Four years/50,000 miles
© 2001 The Car Connection