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Car reviews - Honda - MDX - five-door wagon

Our Opinion

We like
Accommodation, build quality, performance
Room for improvement
Fuel consumption, off-road ability

16 Sep 2003

IT’S time to stash away your Warn winches, snatchem straps, snorkels and jerry cans - the age of the heavyweight soft-roaders has arrived.

It all really started with BMW’s X5 – the first occasional off-roader of reasonable dimensions to put aside thoughts of deep-bush adventure and concentrate more on interior space and on-bitumen capabilities.

The X5 followed the principles first seen in the Toyota RAV4 in that it aped the vertical, utilitarian shapes of the heavy-duty 4WDs but used all-wheel drive underpinnings that were more related to regular road cars.

Used as most people tended to use the old-school 4WDs anyway – often short-distance shopping excursions where the wagon-like proportions were more relevant than the truck-like driveline – the RAV4 was a revelation in terms of general on-road manners.

The BMW upped the ante by upscaling the general dimensions to levels closer to a Pajero than a Suzuki Vitara. The X5 was a direct competitor for the Mercedes M-class, even though the base concepts were different.

The Mercedes made some concession towards serious 4WD use with a two-speed transfer case allowing it to scrabble through gnarly situations that were out of bounds for the BMW.

Where the Mercedes made some attempt to appeal to grass roots 4WD buyers, the BMW was, in reality, truer to real market perceptions about how such vehicles could be used. But the two ended up being virtual rivals.

The latest heavy-duty soft-roaders include vehicles like the Porsche Cayenne and its virtual sibling, the Volkswagen Touareg, the Lexus RX330 – and Honda’s MDX.

The MDX is big brother to the enormously successful CR-V and the late but rarely lamented HR-V.

It’s tall, wide and relatively handsome, and big enough that it can offer seating for seven passengers. It also boasts a respectably powerful 191kW V6 engine that displaces 3.5 litres and is more than comfortable with the MDX’s almost two-tonne mass.

The MDX’s driveline follows now-accepted soft-roader principles in that it generally acts as a two-wheel drive and does not offer a set of low-range transmission ratios.

But its drive system is a little different to others (including the CR-V) that only engage 4WD when wheel slippage is detected. In the MDX, a set of multi-plate clutches in the rear drive is activated not just when the front wheels start to spin, but also during acceleration.

In a style Honda describes as proactive, this apportions some drive through to the rear wheels even if there’s no front wheelspin.

The result is that the MDX tends to feel more like the preferred, three-differential type of 4WD than your average CR-V style part-timer, avoiding the odd squeal from the front wheels on initial acceleration.

And did we mention the 191kW V6 gets up and goes? In case we hadn’t, it does, particularly if you plant your foot and allow the revs to build. It shifts the big Honda along swiftly, making full use of all its VTEC gear, including variable camshaft timing and variable inlet valve camshaft profile to produce a good balance of power, torque and emissions control.

In fact, the Honda, with its two closely coupled primary catalytic converters, meets the tough EuroIII Low Emission Vehicle (LEV) standards. The 12.9 litres per 100km fuel consumption, which is about what you’d expect given the Honda’s weight, is compromised by the requirement that the MDX is run on expensive premium-grade fuel.

The MDX clearly belongs to the high centre of gravity genre, smoothing the bumps quite effectively (though it’s not as soft as the Lexus RX330) and tending towards a noticeable list when pushed towards its limits.

Like everything else at this end of the market, any waywardness is ultimately tamed by a stability control system that steps in to control under or oversteer.

But the driver, sitting high and proud, feels pretty good in the MDX, albeit with a steering system that is over-assisted and not particularly sharp or responsive to subtle changes of lock.

The five-speed adaptive auto is a smooth shifter that will run the engine through to redline (6300rpm) if asked, and change down on throttle-off descents if a touch of brake is applied. Otherwise it’s a regular-style auto without the benefits of a sequential-shift facility.

Take the MDX slightly off road and there’s a rear differential lock that can be used to send drive equally to all four wheels at speeds up to 29km/h. It’s no low-speed traction specialist, although Honda claims that, with two people on board, the MDX is capable of climbing gradients up to 30 degrees, or 28 degrees on a less tractive dirt surface.

In terms of safety the MDX gets, in addition to the usual anti-lock braking (with full four-channel control), electronic brakeforce distribution, the stability control system - dubbed Vehicle Stability Assist (VSA) by Honda - and dual front and front side airbags.

Although the airbag number is less than, say, the Lexus RX330, the Honda performed well in crash tests in the USA where the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety rated it highly.

Bearing in mind the applications in which many owners use their 4WDs, Honda has also set a handy towing capacity of 2045kg (braked) for the MDX.

The MDX interior falls somewhere between the utilitarian nature of a Nissan Patrol and the unrestrained luxury of a Lexus RX330. One gets the feeling the Honda is happier accepting a bit of mild abuse than the kid-glove Lexus.

The seats – leather trimmed and offering the driver full power adjustment - are appropriately generous for a biggish 4WD wagon, and there’s plenty of legroom for at least the first and second-row passengers.

The rearmost seats have a 50-50 split and fold away to form a flat floor, while the 60-40 split centre row double-folds in a smooth, simple motion. Access to the rearmost seat (basically for kids) is facilitated by a fold-and-slide action on the inner centre-row seat.

The MDX comes in one version only, which means that your 70 grand buys you everything from power sunroof to six-stack CD player, to climate-control air-conditioning with independent controls at front and rear. There’s an odd piece of fake wood to help along the luxury ambience but it never gets anywhere near the Lexus in that respect.

In the end, the Honda’s tendency to feel a little less luxe than the Lexus RX330 is probably more a good, than a bad thing. As we mentioned earlier, the MDX owner is less likely to blanch at the thought of getting the tyres dirty and will be less resistant to throwing a bit of working gear in the back.

Because it reflects more accurately than the Patrols and LandCruisers why most owners buy big 4WDs, the soft-road genre is not likely to go away quickly. The Honda MDX is a well-engineered, useful example that trumps the rest with its ability to seat up to seven passengers.

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