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New Car Test - Honda MDX

Nice engine but as for the rest...

by Julian Edgar

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The Honda MDX is a new type of vehicle for Honda - a full-size luxury four-wheel drive which towers over cars like the BMW X5. Next to its little brother CRV, for example, it's definitely a few sizes up. But unfortunately when compared with that excellent Honda, the MDX is also in another class when it comes to what makes a car good. Simply, the MDX isn't.

In showroom appeal it stacks up very well - the equipment level is lavish at this $69,990 price. From the 6-CD in-dash sound system with seven speakers to the stability control and four airbags and leather and sunroof and climate control and three seat rows and heated electric front seats, the MDX makes a great brochure impression. And in the flesh the good thoughts initially continue. The controls operate with precision and the doors shut well. Start the engine and the lack of NVH (Noise, Vibration, Harshness) immediately surprises - the idle is smooth and sweet and quiet.

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But get it on the road and the MDX is in some aspects staggeringly poor. Take the handling. This is a car that despite the stability control and fully independent suspension has mind-boggling amounts of understeer. Negotiate a mid-size roundabout at a pace which wouldn't worry nearly every other new car and the MDX determinedly heads straight on. The understeer is so bad that you can literally wind on an extra turn of lock as the front ploughs. If you drive the MDX as if it is a large, nose-heavy front-wheel drive car with way under-inflated tyres then you can get around many of the handling deficiencies... but should you have to?

Translate all this to the emergency evasive action required to avoid a child running out onto the road, or the sudden change in direction needed after misjudging a tight corner on a country road, and the results would be very ugly.

Even when not going around corners, the MDX fails to impress. The steering is vague and the softly-sprung body gives no feeling of reassurance: it's hard to place the car in a freeway lane and that makes this large vehicle feel even bigger. Because of this (and despite the car's excellent quietness) it's also tiring to drive long distances - you always have to watch exactly where you are on the road because the steering doesn't give adequate feedback. But isn't all that (at least partly) a corollary of the tall ground clearance and off-road capability?

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Um, what ground clearance? What off-road capability?

We took the MDX through a half-built housing estate where the roads were dirt and uneven. Despite the claimed 200mm ground clearance, to our astonishment the MDX rubbed its underside on a mound of that couldn't have been more than 15cm high - there was a slight dip ahead of it and the soft suspension was compressed a little as we went over the tiny rise. All at about 10 km/h...

And the four-wheel drive system? It's a part-time system - dubbed VTM-4 - where normally the front wheels are driven and the rears kick-in when slippage is detected. Despite Honda's claims to the contrary, the system is slow to react - unlike (say) the Nissan X-Trail, it doesn't appear to effectively pre-empt potential wheelspin situations such as when lots of throttle is being used.

We know of a short steep driveway that rear-wheel drive cars have no problems negotiating, albeit perhaps with a little bit of wheelspin in wet weather. Well, even with the bitumen driveway bone-dry, the MDX would spin its front wheels before the four-wheel drive system kicked in. Not at any stage in the 1100 kilometres that we drove the car was there that feeling of all-wheel drive security that is so well known to those who drive constant four-wheel drive cars.

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The MDX is equipped with a diff-lock, which we activated when negotiating a slightly muddy and rutted track. The car didn't get stuck, but great care was needed because of the lack of ground clearance - and at one stage all four wheels were spinning. A Pajero or Patrol wouldn't even have noticed it...

Simply, the MDX bitumen driving experience isn't very good, and in situations where you might need high ground clearance and four-wheel drive, it is no better.

The engine is a much more impressive part of the car. Boasting a massive 191kW from its 3.5 litre VTEC V6, it is tractable - with the 5-speed auto helping - and can be quite strong in its performance. Electronic throttle is used, which gives the car excellent low-speed response. Unlike some Honda engines, the torque development isn't peaky - max torque of 345Nm is available at 3500 rpm and there is 95 per cent of this from 2500 - 5500 rpm. For a vehicle of this type, the fuel economy is also excellent- we averaged 12.6 litres/100 km. However, premium unleaded is recommended and even with this fuel being used, at times we could hear transient detonation. With a decent load aboard, the sharp edge of the engine is also substantially blunted - that's when you look for a Tiptronic-style function on the gear selector, only to find it's not there...

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So what's the MDX like when it is driven gently around the 'burbs? How does all that equipment stack up then? Well, trouble is we have to tell you that yet again the promise isn't lived up to. The sound system distorts badly when played with gusto, while even at low listening levels the treble is flat. The climate control - with its controls located way too far from the driver - appears to use a completely different temperate scale depending on whether the air con is running or not. Confused? Well, with an outside temp of 15 degrees and the climate control set to 18 degrees, the actual temp of the air coming out of the vents varies substantially depending on whether the air con is on or off. Yet the display still shows the requested 18 degrees... We also found that the system allowed too great a variation in temp, blowing noticeably hot and cold as it attempted to regulate the in-cabin environment.

And for carrying people? Front room is good and the electrics are provided on both front seats. Step into the second row of seats and a surprisingly knees-upright seating position is available, courtesy of the high floor. However - especially if you have small feet that can fit under the front seats - the room is quite adequate. A fold-down cupholder can be positioned between two rear passengers, although it is too low to double as a centre armrest. But an effective ventilation system is provided for these passengers - and they also get their own controls.

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A third row of seats pops up out of the load area floor - these are accessed by means of the second row seats temporarily folding forward. But these rearmost seats are really only suitable for children aged less than about 10 years old - legroom is very tight and access for larger people awkward. Note though that the third row of seats is easy to erect; when folded, a large and useful flat load area is available.

It's very hard to find lots of positive points about the MDX. It has a sweet and effective engine that provides good economy. The equipment level is also high. However, we found that in terms of its people carrying capabilities it's nothing special (we'd much rather have a Honda Odyssey V6 - along with the CRV, another good Honda!), its on-road driving dynamics are poor, and its off-road abilities mediocre.

On a typical gentle and short showroom look, see and feel it could be quite an impressive car, but push it in any way and the perceived strengths just wilt away.

Why you would:

  • Excellent engine with good economy
  • High equipment level

Why you wouldn't:

  • Poor handling, despite stability control
  • Poor off-road four-wheel drive performance
  • Functionality of equipment doesn't live up to promise

The test car was provided by Honda Australia

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