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First drive: Honda's MDX a luxury 4WD

Luxurious: Honda says MDX has the right stuff to become one of Australia's top selling luxury off-roaders.

Luxury MDX seven-seater joins CR-V in Honda's two-pronged off-road assault

3 Apr 2003

HONDA has enlisted reinforcements in its quest for a larger slice of Australia's burgeoning off-roader market, and it takes the shape of the luxury seven-seater MDX.

On sale from today, April 3, MDX is Honda's long awaited answer to the popular German all-terrain wagons - a vehicle Honda says can establish it "as a leading player in the luxury sports utility segment".

Australia's top-selling SUV in 2002, the CR-V, has been outsold so far this year by other compact off-roaders in Toyota's RAV4, Subaru's Forester and the Nissan X-Trail.

But Honda Australia's new flagship, its first luxury four-wheel drive, should bolster the Japanese car-maker's recovering passenger car sales this year, led by Jazz - as well as its overall SUV share, which at the end of February trailed only Toyota (24.7), Nissan (15.8), Subaru (12) and Mitsubishi (8.3) at a healthy 7.1 per cent.

Offered since October 2000 in the US, where MDX is sold as an Acura alongside the mechanically similar but more family oriented Honda Pilot eight-seater, CR-V's big brother has only now been made available in right-hand drive Australian specification from Honda's Ontario plant in Canada.

On sale as a single model priced at $69,990, MDX has no hope of rivaling medium SUV sales leaders in Mitsubishi's Pajero and the Toyota Prado, nor Pathfinder, Cherokee, Discovery or even Jackaroo.

But with projected sales of around 160 per month, Honda hopes MDX can attract almost as many customers as the established luxury SUV kings, BMW's X5 and the Mercedes-Benz M-class. It outsold them in the US last year, but will face stiff competition from the Lexus RX330, which will also be released in April.

And then there's Volvo's Cross Country, the Lexus LX470, Audi Allroad and the concept pioneering Range Rover, plus more champagne off-road entries to come this year from Porsche and Volkswagen.

Understandably, Honda makes much of the MDX's technology, such as its proactive Variable Torque Management four-wheel drive system known as VTM-4, electronic throttle and independent suspension all-round.

And of course MDX offers a bunch of standard equipment that, according to Honda, would bring the price of of an ML350 to $85,965, an X5 3.0 to $89,180, a VW Touareg to $76,095 and a Volvo XC90 to $85,255.

The MDX was the first mid-sized SUV to score a five-star crash rating for the driver, front passenger and rear seat passengers in the US

The list doesn't miss too much, extending to synchronised front and rear climate control systems, remote central locking, power windows/mirrors, cruise control, six-CD/seven-speaker sound system with remote control, electric sunroof, foglights, 17-inch alloy wheels, eight-way power driver's seat with memory, heated front seats, leather steering wheel, auto-off headlights, woodgrain trim and full leather upholstery.

The seven-seater wagon features 60/40 split-folding second row seating (plus a 50/50-split third row), 10 cupholders and plenty of stretching room, while safety items include dual-stage twin front and side-impact airbags, Vehicle Stability Assist stability control, four-channel ABS with electronic brake-force distribution, front seatbelt pretensioners, seven lap/sash seatbelts and five child seat anchors.

MDX was only the second SUV, after CR-V, to score a five-star crash rating for the driver, front passenger and rear seat passengers in both front and side-impact crash tests performed by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in the US. Honda expects Australia's updated 2003 MDX to achieve the same result.

At the heart of MDX is a 3.5-litre 60-degree alloy V6 which, with the aid of four valves per cylinder, two-stage intake manifold, VTEC variable valve timing and a premium unleaded-only diet, produces a healthy 191kW at 5800rpm.

Qualifying MDX for EuroIII Low Emissions Vehicle status, the long-stroke engine architecture also delivers a handy 345Nm of torque at just 3500rpm, with 95 per cent of peak torque available between 2500 and 5500rpm. A five-speed automatic with "Grade Logic" will be the only transmission offered with MDX.

Built around a car-like monocoque chassis, the MDX has "Variable Assist" rack and pinion steering returning a so-so 11.4-metre turning circle, big 300/313mm front and rear brake discs and 235/65-section 17-inch tyres on 6.5-inch alloy rims.

Vital MDX statistics include a long 4800mm length, 1955mm width and 1770mm height. With short overhangs, 200mm of unladen ground clearance and a 2700mm wheelbase, there's a 28-degree approach angle and 21-degree departure angle.

Despite a 0.36Cd aerodynamic drag coefficient and tipping the scales at a hefty but still light-in-class 1980kg, claimed combined fuel consumption remains a respectable 12.9 litres/100km from the generous 73-litre fuel tank.

According to Honda, VTM-4 weighs 96kg - just two-thirds the weight of the ML320's all-wheel-drive system - and employs an integral transfer case and two-piece propeller shaft and electromagnetically-actuated clutches either side of the rear differential to apportion drive.

Claimed to provide the best of both full and part-time four-wheel drive worlds, VTM-4 has been re-mapped for 2003 to deliver 30 per cent more torque to the rear wheels (now a maximum of 55 per cent). Transferring torque to the rear wheels only as required, the system drives the front wheels alone at constant speeds, such as on the highway.

In keeping with its light-duty off-road intentions, there is no low-range. However, a unique feature of VTM-4 is the ability to lock in a maximum amount of rear-drive torque for sticky situations below 10km/h via a button on the instrument panel.

In this mode, it is claimed MDX can climb slopes of up to 31 degrees, or 28 degrees on unsealed surfaces. MDX's (braked) towing weight limit is 1590kg.

Drive impressions:

STYLED in California primarily for the US market, MDX reveals its Honda heritage via accomplished driving dynamics, performance and build qaulity.

Luxury aspirations in mind, the deceptively large five-door body also adds a good dose of interior comfort, versatility, noise supression and equipment, plus reasonable occupant safety.

The accommodating electric front buckets - with driver's memory, but no lumbar adjustment - are trimmed in nicely stitched and perforated leather, which extends all the way to the third row and doors but do creak and squeak a little, particularly on bumpy roads.

Thanks to its monocoque chassis and transverse engine layout, there's plenty of stretching room in all directions up front. And although the two-position rear seat is a child-only affair, with a distinct lack of foot and legroom, there's still enough room for a couple of large (upright) suitcases behind it.

And the way they fold into the floor, with the second row seat also folding flat to provide a fully flat cargo area behind the front seats, shows clever design and execution. Of course, there are plenty of storage bins, power outlets and cupholders, and the full complement of safety features, except the window airbags now offered by many Euros.

Speaking of Euro, the dash is dark but well laid-out, with the exception of its climate control functions being split both above and below the large, central LCD information screen.

It's also let down in a couple of key areas like the hard dash material, pretentious woodgrain inserts and flimsy front cupholder lid, while the large, central LCD screen presents a slightly cluttered combination of compass, clock, tripmeter and climate control functions.

After a testing 500km mixture of Tasmanian backroads, including an extended gravel stretch, MDX proved a capable, willing and rewarding performer in most situations, without really excelling in any particular area.

While it undercuts its opposition significantly on the scales, MDX still weighs in at almost two tonnes

In heavy traffic situations the high driving position, light steering and typically intuitive driver controls make MDX a doddle to drive quickly and confidently - easier, perhaps, than many of its luxury European rivals.

The 3.5-litre V6 offers enough torque to deliver healthy acceleration off the line and for picking gaps in traffic. Similarly, on the highway MDX impresses with good visibility, ride quality comfort and excellent road and wind noise isolation.

While there is an impressive 191kW of peak power on tap - giving MDX a class-leading 10.4kg per kilowatt weight-to-power ratio - the VTEC V6 likes to rev, offering its best only between 5000 and 6000rpm.

Sure, 95 per cent of torque is available from 2500rpm, but combined with the five-speed auto's occasional reluctance to downshift, the V6 felt a little wanting during keen corner exits or ambitious overtaking.

While it undercuts its opposition significantly on the scales, MDX still weighs in at almost two tonnes and does not feel as flexible as the 3.0-litre petrol X5.

Although the transmission lacks the manual shift function of most of its competitors, MDX's traditional shift gate does allow the driver to select, say, third gear and keep it there all day, rather than have the choice simply of selecting drive or changing gears manually at all times.

Similar to the part-time clutch-operated drivetrain found in some Audis, the electronically operated VTM-4 drivetrain can offer up to 55 per cent of drive to the rear wheels.

With the aid of the sophisticated VSA stability control, it does a good job of separating the steering from engine torque and offers clear improvements in roadholding and loose-surface confidence.

For all its hype, however, the new system amounts to little more what is already available in the part-time four-wheel drive CR-V. When pushed on the road, the over-riding theme is front-wheel drive style understeer, with a degree of front-end heaviness not found in the X5 but also a level of body control not offered by the M-class, for instance. Lift-off oversteer is readily up for grabs on the dirt too.

While it may not be as rewarding as the rear-drive biased X5 on the road either, MDX offers the type of agility and adjustability some of the Germans do not, and at all times feels solid, well balanced and eager to telegraph its progressive, predictable handling characteristics.

Like its passenger car-based rivals, however, a lack of serious wheel articulation, underbody protection and lack of a full-size spare and low-range gearing makes MDX a light-duty off-roader only. And although the rear diff locking function may prove handy in certain sticky situations, it won't hop rocks like a Pajero, Prado, M-class or maybe even an X5.

Vague on-centre steering feel (and a widish 11.4-metre turning circle) notwithstanding, the well sorted chassis is served well by suspension tune that's on the compliant side of firm - stiff enough to retain a remarkable level of body control and minimal head shake, despite the tallish ride height.

But it is also compliant enough to soak up even the largest road obstacles Tasmania has to offer, quietly and without fuss or upsetting momentum. In fact, while our test vehicle's sunroof did emit a whistle at high speed, tyre and suspension noise was outstandingly well isolated even over cat's eyes and jagged-edged potholes.

In typical Honda fashion, with a couple of exceptions, MDX combines thoughtful design and execution with excellent build and finish quality, plus above-average performance and ride/handling.

The full compliment of standard or accessory features is there too, but whether the Honda badge has the cachet value to lure luxury SUV buyers away from Europeans remains to be seen.

Even at $70,000, we suspect MDX has more chance of convincing people out of Honda's own Odyssey people-mover and smaller CR-V sibling. Depending on price, the five-seat RX330 may also lose out to MDX.

Either way, MDX is much more than just an overgrown CR-V and will make big inroads into the sprawling luxury off-roader phenomenon.

MDX at a glance:

Body: Five-door, seven-seater
Engine: 3.471-litre 24-valve SOHC alloy V6 with VTEC
Bore x stroke: 89.0 x 93.0mm
Compression ratio: 10.0:1
Max power: 191kW @ 5800rpm
Max torque: 345Nm @ 3500rpm
Transmission: Five-speed auto only
Front suspension: Independent by struts
Rear suspension: Independent by double wishbones

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