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MDX offers proven value

WHEN a new model of car or truck is launched, manufacturers work hard to generate excitement.

WHEN a new model of car or truck is launched, manufacturers work hard to generate excitement.

Silk sheets come sliding off polished sheet metal, the turntable spins, and the spokesperson booms into their headset while flashes flicker: New! Improved! Efficiency! Power! Features! Style!

Meanwhile, the previous-gen machine huddles unloved on the dealership lot, watching its successor soak up the spotlight. The magazine covers fill with perfectly-composed PR shots, the press lauds the new champion - out with the old, in with the new.

But they're still actually selling the current model, and the new one won't be along until the end of the year at least. Hey! I'm still a new car! There's nothing wrong with me! This must be what Prince Charles feels like.

So it is with Acura's strong-selling MDX, whose replacement has already bowed at the New York Auto Show. It's going to be lighter, and more fuel efficient. It's going to have interesting all-LED headlights and a suite of new Acura technologies. It's going to be better.

It all sounds great. Here's why you should buy the old one instead.

Design

In its highest-spec Elite trim, the MDX comes equipped with a rather handsome-looking set of machine-faced 19-inch alloy wheels. These fill out the flared wheel arches nicely, and give a modicum of streetcred to a conservative-yet-handsome exterior.

Viewed in side-profile, the MDX is very sharp looking - probably the best application of Acura's angular styling. From the back, it's a bit anonymous, but still handsome. From the front?

Um.

There's no getting past it, that is one beaky looking grille treatment. It resembles a parrot you've just told a funny joke to.

However, smirking avians aside, the MDX is the sort of vehicle that's stood the test of time in the design department. This is pretty typical for cars built by parent company Honda, but not always true for Acura.

I liked the look of the MDX more and more as my week driving it wore on - but couldn't shake the impression that I should perhaps offer it a cracker.

Environment

As a direct result of the MDX's big, boxy demeanour, interior space is excellent. There are bigger machines on the market, but not many that offer such a sensible layout.

While the third row is kids-only (true of any three-row vehicle short of a minivan), adult second row passengers have plenty of room to stretch out. Picking someone up at the airport? Flopping down the third-row rumble seats reveals a broad swathe of luggage-swallowing space; folding all the seats gives you enough area to fit an Integra Type-R in there.

Up front, drivers will find the usual Acura quality to fit and finish, and an interior layout that hasn't quite aged as well as the exterior. There are a lot of buttons in here, requiring taking your eyes off the road to make adjustments. But here's the thing: buttons don't break like fancy touchscreens do.

And while a few demerits must be given for the relative age of the MDX's interior styling, most of those points are won back by the simple fact that all this stuff will still be working when the car is in the hands of its third owner. It also feels sturdy enough to put up with having a three-year-old child scramble over the seats in muddy shoes and then spill apple juice directly into the CD changer.

Performance

Among the various luxury marques, Acura is notable for not ever making a V-8 engine. This doubtless hurt sales of their flagship RL sedan over the years, but driving something like an MDX reveals why they don't bother.

Despite a curb weight of more than 2,000 kilograms, the big Acura's 300 horsepower 3.7-litre V-6 is smooth and powerful, and does a good job of getting things moving. Sounds pretty good too, not that you'd notice unless you put the windows down, given all that sound-deadening.

Mated to a six-speed automatic transmission that's sturdier and more reliable than early Acura transmissions, the MDX gets off the line quickly when it needs to, and then is happy to pad along through traffic at a sensible pace. Because of its squared-off, big-box feel, sightlines are very good - especially for the crossover segment.

The back tailgate bears the acronym SH-AWD. This is Acura's shorthand for the wonderfully Japanesey "Super Handling All-Wheel Drive." Super handling! Who wouldn't want that?

Along with excellent grip, SH-AWD gives you a torque-vectoring rear-end. Well, not you, per se, the car. Being able to shunt power to the outside wheel in a corner works like a kayaker's power-stroke and pushes the nose of the MDX into the corner, fighting inertia and understeer.

Without it, the MDX would probably be yet another ponderous heffalump of a crossover. While it's not as nimble as a Cayenne or X5, the way the Acura can handle itself through the corners is confidence inspiring. Or, if we're talking about the backseat-riding offspring being flung from side-to-side, perhaps "nausea inspiring" is a little more accurate.

Features

Looks good, feels comfortable, drives well; now for the MDX's coup de grace - value. With "base" ($53,135) models packed with everything from power liftgates to heated front and rear seats to HID headlights, Acura offers excellent equipment right from the get-go.

Move up a level to the Technology package ($60,635) and get satellite navigation bundled together with blind-spot monitoring, multi-angle rearview camera and rear DVD. My top-flight ($65,335) Elite added the aforementioned 19-inch alloys, along with ventilated seats and a collision-avoidance system (this last was a bit of a nervous Nellie, always blinking away in traffic).

Can't swallow the idea of a $65,000 crossover as a value proposition? Three things: first, Acura will put big rebates on the MDX as the new model gets closer; second, after a half-decade on the road, the MDX is near-bulletproof and won't cost you in expensive maintenance or out-of-warranty repairs; third, and directly related to the reliability, the MDX offers excellent resale values - it's a safe bet on the used market, meaning it won't depreciate as fast as less-trustworthy luxury rides.

However, one looked-for improvement which the new model will bring is better fuel economy. Official ratings currently sit at 13.2 litres/100 kilometres city and 9.6 l/100 km highway. I observed about 10 per cent worse than those figures, which would still not have been too bad, save that the MDX requires premium fuel. Ouch.

Green light

Sensible layout; good cargo space; confident power and handling; strong value.

Stop sign

Thirst for premium fuel; dated interior; not quite as luxurious as competing vehicles.

The checkered flag

A luxury crossover that's a sensible, solid choice, and even enjoyable to drive. Old? More like proven.

Competitors Mazda CX-9 GT ($44,750)

Here's a non-traditional luxury comparison to the MDX, the highest trim level of Mazda's seven-seat crossover. With updated styling matching its Skyactiv-equipped stablemates, the three-row CX-9 is quite a good-looking machine and can be very well-equipped.

As you'd expect from a Mazda, it's light on its feet and even a bit better on fuel than the MDX - premium is not required either. However, the MDX is the bigger car for carrying stuff and people.

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