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Honda MDX 2003 review

It is large, squat and exhibits a powerful presence. Not unlike, you may think, a rhinoceros. Then again, maybe not.

For reasons best known to themselves, Honda's design team settled on a rhinoceros, the blue sky states of America's southwest, and Santa Fe style, to drive their inspiration when hunting for a vehicle to send into battle in the luxury 4WD segment. Enter the MDX.

Not the first large 4WD to be saddled with the rhinoceros analogy -- Musso, the lumpy Ssanyong/Daewoo dirt basher, is Korean for rhinoceros. The MDX probably deserves better. Unlike the rhino it is not particularly nasty or anti-social. Neither is it short-sighted nor happiest when coated with mud.

In fact, the MDX is much more likely to be regarded as the domesticated rhino of cartoonist Gary Larson's imagination -- happily pottering around among its human friends in the heart of suburbia.

"The use of the rhinoceros was to underline the MDX's strength, presence and power," Honda Australia director Lindsay Smalley explains. "It's certainly a very large car when you get to it."

Smalley says the MDX is the "flagship" of Honda's range, quickly adding that the Jazz, which has been a red-hot seller, was the "flagship of the compact range".

Given the task Honda has set its new model, the MDX is going to have to be as thick-skinned as its inspiration.

Thrown into the luxury 4WD deep-end against established stars like Mercedes' ML320, the BMW X5 and the soon-to-be-released Lexus RX330, the MDX has been set quite a task.

It has a kitbag of extras with no options boxes to tick and a bargain-basement price tag of $69,990, giving it at least a $10,000 edge over the competition. Even so, Honda is predicting a fairly conservative 160 sales a month.

Since the first generation of the MDX was launched in the US late in 2000, the car, which wears the luxury Acura badge, has sold more than 117,000 -- outselling both ML and X5 with 54,000 units last year.

The Acura MDX has won a five-star rating in NCAP testing in the US and Smalley is confident it will top the class in Australia as well.

Standard equipment includes in dependent front and rear climate control systems, remote central locking, power windows and mirrors, cruise control, a concert quality six-CD/seven-speaker sound system, 10 cupholders, electric sunroof, foglights, 17-inch alloy wheels, eight-way power driver's seat with memory, heated front seats, auto-off headlights and leather upholstery. There is a 60/40 split-folding second row of seating and 50/50-split third row.

Passengers are protected by dual-stage twin front and side airbags, traction control, ABS with electronic brake-force distribution, front seat belt pre-tensioners, seven lap/sash seat belts and five child seat anchors.

The 3.5-litre VTEC engine produces a handy 191kW at 5800rpm and 345Nm of torque at 3500rpm, with 95 per cent of that available between 2500rpm and 5500rpm. On the road, the real world application of that is that the MDX can be a little sluggish off the line, is nice and strong through most of the midrange as it holds the lower gearing, but quickly gets gaspy towards the top of the rev range.

With a ratio of 0.530:1, fifth gear is nothing but an overdrive and fourth, at 0.729:1, is not a lot better. Third gear is where most of the action is going to take place.

This is not a serious off-roader. Drive is predominantly through the front wheels -- 100 per cent when cruising on dry tarmac -- and variable to 50:50 as determined by the collection of sensors -- called VTM-4.

Honda spins the system as being proactive to slip. It's not.

It needs a drive-wheel to lose grip or the yaw sensor to detect a force at a predetermined level of lateral acceleration before it intervenes to shift torque among the wheels.

What VTM-4 does do is make that decision swiftly and surely through electronically controlled clutches on the rear drive shafts. There is also a get-out-of-jail card with a dash-mounted button to lock torque to all wheels at speeds under 30km/h providing maximum escape capability for sandy or boggy conditions.

Steering is a little light, but for a big car the MDX turns in nicely and responds well to driver input.

Interior comfort is high with the seats very comfortable, the dash laid out in functional Honda style and room to burn for the first two rows of passengers. Third row seats are strictly for children.

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(base) 3.5L, PULP, 5 SP AUTO $5,500 – 8,470 2003 Honda MDX 2003 (base) Pricing and Specs
Pricing Guide


Lowest price, based on 8 car listings in the last 6 months

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