How Does the 2012 Acura MDX Perform Off-Road?
Traditional off-road vehicles are fitted with sturdy frames, long-travel suspension, dual-range transfer cases, locking differentials and sophisticated off-pavement electronics. When the asphalt ends, their performance improves as they crawl up steep hills, inch their way over rocks and claw their way through mud with a confidence that cannot be matched by most of today’s sport utility vehicles.
But what happens when one of today’s more popular unibody sport utility vehicles, lacking all of the time-tested off-road equipment, attempts a similar feat? Will it leave its seven passengers stranded on the side of a mountain, or will they make it to camp in time for the weenie roast? To answer both questions and more, Speedy Daddy grabbed the keys to a 2012 Acura MDX and headed up a challenging Southern California course designed by the well-respected team at Land Rover.
Both Chris and I like the Acura MDX. It not only seats seven passengers rather comfortably, but it is loaded with innovative technology, is pleasant to drive, and it is reasonably priced (starting at just over $43,000). Most important, it has proven to be both extremely dependable and very safe (it is an IIHS Top Safety pick for 2012). Without hesitation, it is definitely a Speedy Daddy vehicle. As few MDX owners ever take their SUVs off paved roads, but many question its capabilities, we figured it would be near-perfect for this test.
COMPETENT POWERTRAIN, BUT DESIGNED FOR ON-ROAD USE
Under the hood, the MDX is fitted with a naturally-aspirated 3.7-liter V6 (rated at 300 horsepower) and a six-speed automatic transmission. The power is sent to all four wheels through the automaker’s innovative, and permanently engaged, Super Handling All-Wheel Drive (SH-AWD). Like most current unibody sport utility vehicles, the all-wheel drive system is tuned to deliver all-season capability. However, Acura turns things up a notch by adding rear-axle torque vectoring to improve performance on the pavement — adding a dose of sportiness to the MDX. Without question, the brilliant technology improves the MDX’s on-road capability.
But this challenge was off-road, where the dirt was loose, the hills steep and the trail very uneven. While the real-world likelihood of an Acura MDX ever facing such a test would be minuscule, we nevertheless moved the transmission lever into “Drive” and aimed the SUV’s pointed nose up the hill.
THE MDX FACES THREE OFF-ROAD CHALLENGES
Our first challenge was loose dirt and sharp broken rocks. As the four-door Acura was riding on all-season tires designed for road comfort, not durability against rock punctures and abrasions, I chose to take things very slowly. Driving at nothing more than a walking pace, I meticulously placed the front wheels directly on top of the rocks (the tread surface is the most durable) and in the path with the smoothest dirt. Everything worked perfectly, but I did have to roll up the windows and turn on the “recirculation” mode to keep the dust outside (kudos to the standard cabin pollen filter for keeping the air fresh).
Next on the list was a steep hill with a loose surface. Lacking a crawl mode or a low transfer range, used to allow more precise control of a vehicle’s speed and amplify the engine’s power, I was forced to use the accelerator to control the pace. Again, I chose to go slowly and deliberately, paying close attention to where I was placing the front tires. There was plenty of wheel slippage (the driver may keep track of it by watching the real-time display, which shows torque distribution, on the main instrument cluster), but the SH-AWD system diligently applied the power where it could be used most effectively. The MDX inched up the hill, leaving me more than a bit surprised.
The final challenge was a hill with a cratered surface (much like moguls on a ski course) which posed a much greater obstacle. Traditional off-road vehicles have plenty of suspension travel, meaning the wheels are able to swing up and down to follow undulated surfaces. But modern SUVs are built like passenger vehicles, with limited suspension travel (it simply isn’t needed). After I entered the most challenging section, it was immediately apparent that one or more of the MDX’s wheels would be lifted in the air while traversing the area — in some vehicles this alone would make it impassible. Once more, I used light throttle to slowly climb the hill, while ensuring none of the wheels dropped too far into a recess. At one point, when the right rear wheel was lifted completely into the air, forward progress stopped. Undeterred, I kept my foot on the accelerator as the spinning wheel fought for traction. After a few seconds, the electronics realized there was no grip and power was sent elsewhere. The MDX slowly crawled forward and eventually made it to the summit.
OVERALL MDX OFF-ROAD PERFORMANCE WAS VERY GOOD
While the all-wheel drive system on the MDX is tuned for pavement, I found myself very impressed with its off-road capabilities. The SUV plotted its way through sand, dirt and rocks with ease and it even climbed some very challenging hills. Its off-road limitations (which are common to most of its direct competitors) include low ground clearance, short suspension travel, an unprotected undercarriage, and the aforementioned all-season tires — remember, it is a luxury SUV tuned for on-road driving.
When faced with unexpected off-road conditions in the MDX, or any SUV for that matter, the most intelligent game plan is to keep speed to a crawl and be very careful about where you place the tires. While this approach won’t get you to the campsite first, it will still allow you plenty of time to arrive safely and cook the marshmallow s’mores — when traveling with the family, that’s what really matters anyway.
— Michael Harley
Photo Credit: Myles Regan