- Helping you drive happy



By ,

Minivans disguised as luxury SUVs are all the rage in the auto industry, so it's no surprise that Honda is set to enter the fray this fall with its Ontario-built Acura MDX.

Because it's so good and because it's about the only model there, the Lexus RX 300 is the hot ticket in this segment right now, and every car company with luxury-esque aspirations is striving to catch up.

The recipe for success here is pretty straightforward -- build a minivan-like shape, give it an all-wheel-drive system, call it an SUV in the face of all logic to appeal to the people too insecure to drive a regular minivan, throw in a bunch of luxury items, and charge a lot of money for it.

Honda understands this quite well, which is why the MDX bears its upscale Acura label and meets all of those requirements and should be a hit as a result, even though it's likely to cost as much as $50,000.

As for the MDX not being an SUV in the way, say, a Ford Expedition is an SUV, consider that it's a unibody, front-wheel-drive vehicle with little more ground clearance than its Honda sibling, the Odyssey minivan.

MDX does have something that Honda calls the "VTM-4 four-wheel drive system," but this is really one of those front-drive systems that automatically shifts the power to the wheels with grip so that traction can be kept on snow- and ice-covered roads. This system will deliver a certain amount of off-road ability, but great care must be taken to avoid bad surfaces a real SUV would cover with ease.

MDX is primarily meant to haul families and their stuff on regular old highways despite their surface conditions, and on the strength of the early information should be quite good at that.

In the first place, it has that all-wheel-drive system that should allow it to conquer most of the weather conditions North America can throw at it and keep people safer because of its superior tractive abilities.

Gearheads might care exactly how this system works, but essentially the VTM-4 ships power to either or both of the back wheels when its bank of sensors tell it power is needed back there. It also has a button on the dash that the driver can push to "lock" the system into permanent all-wheel-drive when the MDX is stuck or in a low-speed, low-traction environment, which then switches off when higher speeds are reached.

The MDX also does what every minivan does by providing seating for seven, though it goes the others one better by using the flip-foldaway seats pioneered by the Odyssey.

MDX has second and third row seats that split and fold flat into the floor, so it can be configured to carry from one to seven occupants and a wide variety of cargo, including the kind of six-step step-ladder you use inside the house. This should prove to be an attractive feature with some buyers.

Everyone's probably going to enjoy what Acura calls the "exhilarating performance" from the MDX's 3.5-litre V6, which uses Honda's Variable Timing and Lift Electronic Control (VTEC) to produce 240 horsepower at 5300 rpm and 245 pound-feet of torque from 3000-5000 rpm.

This engine will likely encourage aggressive driving, so Acura was probably wise to give the MDX a fully-independent 4-wheel suspension with stabilizers bars at both ends to limit the amount of roll in hard cornering and 4-wheel anti-lock disc brakes inside 17-inch alloy wheels.

Families who buy minivans put a premium on safety, so Honda makes a big deal out of the MDX's skills in this regard. Using various methods, Honda has constructed a vehicle that it expects to earn four five-star ratings in the US federal government's front and side crash test programs (two for the driver and two for the front passenger).

As for the luxury part of the equation, Acura says the MDX will be "comprehensively equipped." In the U.S. (no information was supplied by Honda Canada), that means leather seating surfaces and door inserts, wood-grained trim, remote keyless entry, power windows, doors and mirrors, a power tilt/slide moonroof, cruise control, a seven-speaker AM/FM/cassette stereo with a dash-load CD, heated power front seats, a dual-zone (front and rear) air conditioning system, steering wheel-mounted controls for the stereo and the cruise, and three AC power outlets.

There's also going to be a Touring package, which a two-person memory system for the driver's seat and outside mirrors, a power front passenger's seat, a roof rack, and an 8-speaker Acura/Bose sound system with an in-dash 6-CD changer.