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2011 Acura ZDX is a space (challenged) oddity

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Before we get to the main course, here's a little "inside baseball" info that should be included: When an automaker starts the process of launching of a new vehicle, the business, marketing and engineering teams gather together to figure out what the Next Big Thing is. Product planners show a series of charts comparing attributes like price, performance and utility, and plot out various products from both themselves and the competition. With all of that knowledge in front of them, they find an empty slot in the chart – the so-called "white space" – and proclaim that this is where their next wonderwagon will reside.

While "white space" products can yield great results (the Ford Transit Connect, original Scion xB and Subaru Forester come to mind), there are times when there's a reason for leaving the space blank. Like the X6, the ZDX may well fall into the category of "Why bother?"

Obviously, the ZDX isn't going to sway the opinion of those unenthused about Acura's current styling direction. On the other hand, this might be Acura's most successful application of its new aesthetic. From the prominent can-opener grille to its pinched tail, the overall design is far more cohesive than some of Acura's recent efforts. But despite that, it's still polarizing.

Combined with its deeply drawn doors and an inboard greenhouse, the result is a husky appearance that would be far more attractive if it were riding at the same altitude as a sedan. As it is, the ZDX looks like a rally-raid buggy built for Dakar... on Mars.

Compared to the aforementioned other vehicles, the body comes in four inches shorter than the Crosstour and just slightly longer than the X6. But where the ZDX differs from the Crosstour, MDX and its BMW doppelganger is the position of its roof and floor.

The Crosstour has six inches of ground clearance with the ZDX at 7.9 inches and the MDX at 8.2 inches. However, the ZDX has the lowest roof height, standing at 62.8 inches with the Crosstour at 65.7, MDX at 68.2 and the BMW at 66.5 inches. The reason we mention this is when you open the door there's a typical SUV tall step in, but combined with the lower door opening, taller occupants may have to duck to clear their heads, particularly in back. The high floor means you get the tall hip-point that seems to attract people to SUVs and crossovers, but the limited roof clearance requires the seat to be mounted lower to the floor. Instead of the expected upright seating position, sitting in the ZDX is almost sports car-like, aside from the fact that your rear is further from the ground.

While the seating position is peculiar in the context of the ZDX's height, the rest of the interior will be familiar to those who have sampled Acura's recent products. The sweeping dual cockpit layout in the front is similar to what you'll find in a TL or TSX. However, the strip of aluminum that spans those sedans has been slimmed down in favor of a hand-wrapped and sewn leather covering. The combination of the seamless, soft-touch upper dash and the leather trim is attractive, but there's a very visible, if minor, problem. Where the leather-covered parts sweep down to the center console, there is a seam between the upper and lower portions. Because of the leather wrapping, the seam is more prominent than it should be and fails to keep with the upscale look Acura is after. However, redemption is found in the rest of the cockpit, including a reassuringly thick steering wheel and Acura's superlatively supportive seats. And then you get to the back.

The sweeping greenhouse means that even with the seat cushions mounted low, headroom is at a premium for anyone hovering around six-feet tall. Worse than that is the rear door opening, which has shrunk both vertically and longitudinally, causing more than one instance of unintended head-banging when getting in and out. Acura admits that the ZDX is targeted more towards couples, but we have to question why you have rear seats when ingress, egress and overall comfort is so severely compromised in the first place.

Acura may have sacrificed rear passenger volume to style, but luggage capacity remains plentiful. With the rear seat up, the ZDX can swallow 26.3 cubic feet, a volume that grows to 56 cubic feet with the rear thrones folded flat. The tall rear deck and flat cargo sides make for a useful luggage area, and Acura has also included a trio of hidden storage areas below the rear load floor and in each rear corner.

Pressing the red start button yields a bit of a surprise with an engine note that's decidedly more aggressive than we've grown accustomed to from Acura – up to and including the six-speed manual-equipped TL. The aural entertainment proves pleasant, especially under hard acceleration. We've always been fond of Acura's V6, and this one is no exception thanks to its 300 horsepower and 270 pound-feet of torque. It revs freely to its 6,600 rpm redline and never complains about having to work hard. Of course, with the ZDX's 4,452-pound curb weight, the V6 has its work cut out for it. To be fair, a decade ago, a 0-60 mph time in the low six-second range would have been nothing to sneeze at for a 300-hp vehicle, but in 2010 it's merely so-so.

Unfortunately, Honda's all-new six speed automatic transmission doesn't help the performance situation. The steering wheel-mounted paddles allow some manual control, although tapping the flippers up or down seems to be more of a suggestion rather than a control interface – ratios will only be switched when the electronics are good and ready. Running the 3.7-liter V6 up to the far end of the tach will still trigger automatic upshifts even in "manual" mode, but on the plus side, when the cogswaps arrive, they are quick and smooth.

Acura's torque-vectoring Super Handling-All Wheel Drive (SH-AWD) was one of the first such systems to come to market and remains one of our favorites. The electronically controlled clutches in the rear axle actively send drive torque to the outside wheel to help push the ZDX around a corner and counteract understeer. Press the CUV into a series of corners and it tracks through neutrally, no muss, no fuss and decidedly un-crossover-like. While the ZDX is no off-roader, if your commute includes a brisk run down a gravel road, the SH-AWD is more than capable of dealing with lower grip situations.

Unlike the TL and TSX, the ZDX retains hydraulic power steering. However, Acura has added an electronic control system to vary the amount of boost according to speed and the position of the Integrated Dynamics System (IDS). IDS adjusts the settings of the active dampers along with the steering, and the hydraulic steering assist gives the ZDX a tighter feel devoid of dead spots. We tried the IDS in both Sport and Comfort modes and ended up deferring to Sport for the majority of our drives. The suspension does a good job of soaking up the worst that Michigan roads can offer, while keeping the body level with minimal vertical motion.

Aside from the lazy transmission response, the ZDX surprised us dynamically. Unfortunately, the design imposes some serious compromises in the name of style. Assuming you can live with something closer to a 2+2 and aren't put off by the deeper seating position, the ZDX has its attributes. However, the bigger sticking point is its price tag. Our ZDX was equipped with the Advance package (adaptive cruise control, collision mitigation braking, etc.) and stickered for a steep $56,855. The price may seem high for an Acura, but even maxed-out, that's still about $500 less than the entry tariff for an X6. The BMW is roomier and ultimately more engaging, though, and if you need more than 300 hp (and who doesn't?) the X6 offers up three different V8 options, including a hybrid and the mighty X6 M.

Ultimately, the decision to buy any vehicle upmarket of the most basic commuter involves a significant emotional element, and there is no doubt that this Acura is capable of stirring up some major gut reactions. The ZDX has arguably the best implementation to date of Acura's design philosophy and generally very good driving dynamics despite its compromised package. In the end, though, the rumblings in our gut are closer to cramped discomfort than excited butterflies. The fundamental premise of a high riding and very heavy 2+2 strikes us as silly unless you are going to take the idea to its (il)logical zenith with some insane performance like the BMW X6 M. Barring that, we'd rather see Acura's product planners focus on the kind of smaller, lighter, white spaces that Soichiro Honda likely would have filled were he still kicking around the headquarters that bears his name.


 Category :
Acura RDX
Acura TL
Acura ZDX
Acura MDX
Acura RL
Acura TSX
Used Acura for Sale


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