Driven: 2010 Acura ZDX

By Seyth Miersma

October 12, 2009

—Beverly Hills, California

For Drivers. Whether you catch it on the front page of every issue of Winding Road or not, that simple statement of purpose helps to frame every review we write, comparison test we formulate, or opinion piece we collectively espouse. In practice, it tells us that when we encounter a new vehicle the driving experience should be at the heart of what we communicate to our readers. Our credo does occasionally put us in the slightly sticky position of finding favor with a new car or truck that isn’t particularly riveting to drive. Enter stage right, the 2010 Acura ZDX.

Before we inflame the ire of the Acura aficionados too quickly, allow us a few sentences of clarification. The ZDX—as true a “four-door coupe” as we’ve seen since the ad men invented the mildly heretical term—is not a “bad” driver’s car, as bad driver’s cars go. Acura’s extraordinarily competent Super Handling All-Wheel Drive (SH-AWD for those outside of the know) does fine work delivering grip on dry pavement, and (we safely assume) should offer sure-footedness aplenty in the slick and the snow. The trick system can deliver torque on demand, splitting thrust between the front or the rear, and the front or the back, as demanded by the conditions undertire. That said, the default split is heavily front-biased (90/10 to the front wheels), and power delivery is less smooth than it could be in a rear-drive vehicle as a result.

Further validating the dynamics of the ZDX is the well engineered, and nicely applied, 3.7-liter V-6 engine connected to a smooth six-speed automatic transmission. The 300 horsepower six, as seen in the formidable Acura TL, delivers the ZDX to highway pace with little fuss, and in relatively short order. The six-speed auto is brand new for Acura, and was developed in concert with the ZDX project itself—meaning mostly that ratios are well-chosen for the heavyish crossover, quick-shifting, and fun to choose through the wheel-mounted paddle shifters. The system is supposed to allow for kick-downs of up to two gears at a time (e.g. fourth to second) during spirited motoring, but we were unable to force the feature in our largely slow-speed and twisty route through the Hollywood Hills.

So, engine and transmission are solid, the AWD system is sophisticated and proven—you may be asking yourself, “What’s the problem.” The answer is, typically, a little complicated.

Really there is no problem unless, like us, the Acura badge and tightly styled bodywork of the ZDX have you expecting a vehicle that is something like a sports sedan with added ride height and functionality. This is not that. For starters, there’s just no getting around the fact that the ZDX is a heavy, front-engined, MDX-based vehicle that is fighting physics with every corner you through it into. The torque-vectoring SH-AWD may be brilliant, but it can’t hide the nose-heavy nature of the beast, and the high-levels of understeer that we experienced as a result. The Acura team didn’t do its new baby any favors when it picked out the second half of our test-drive route, which consisted mainly of the highly technical Mulholland Highway, northwest of Malibu. This stirring canyon road may be just the thing for an afternoon on a motorcycle or in an MX-5, but the tightly wound switchbacks and elevation changes crystallized the flaws in the ZDX chassis. Worse still in this environment was the rather flaccid steering feel on offer. The Acura rack carried decent weight, but had a distinctly rubbery feeling that didn’t leave us with a lot of confidence. We had engaged the “Sport” mode of the ZDX’s Integrated Dynamic System (IDS), which heightens steering effort and increases damper stiffness, but the overall effects are better served on fast, sweeping corners than on mountain roads.

To some then, the lack of real sports sedan chops will be the end of the line for interest in this (actually very interesting) new vehicle—which is too bad. For those who are a little more open minded, or less dogmatic about driving only performance vehicles, the ZDX has got a lot to offer.

For starters, the ZDX is a far, far more attractive vehicle than most expect who’ve only seen the thing in pictures. Penned by the talented Michelle Christensen, Acura development brass was so taken by the original concept sketches that amazing lengths were taken to bring vision to life. The bodywork appears to be drawn, as if a malleable skin, across a framework of rakishly angled lines, with the overall effect being muscular, sleek, and fast. Wide and curving hips not only allow for a larger ultimate cargo space, but also visually plant the CUV’s shape to the road. One part of the ZDX design particularly impressed us—the grille. While the vehicle unabashedly wears a version of the corporate face that has so enraged pundits on the previously mentioned TL, nary a word of protest was heard from the assembled media members on the ZDX launch. An impressive statement about the overall look of the thing. Doubters shouldn’t just take our word for it either. While leaving Beverly Hills in midday traffic, we took note of more than a handful of head-turners trying to get a better look at us. One woman went so far as to roll down her window to give us a thumbs up, and to tell us, “Beautiful car!” We guess even the beautiful people can only be impressed with Bentleys for so long.

The interior is similarly well executed, if slightly less breathtaking, with a thoughtful mix of ergonomic design, excellent detailing, and impeccable materials. The ZDX boasts a fully glass roof, too, which goes a long way toward making the low-slung vehicle feel open and airy. (We admit to being a bit stumped by the fact that Acura covers a lot of the glass roof with an interior headliner, though it probably makes the thing more livable overall.) Driver and front passenger will travel in real comfort here, while backseat denizens have slightly less in the way of head and legroom thanks to that sloping, coupe-like roofline. In typical Honda fashion, the ZDX pulls off some nice tricks in terms of usability too; most notably with the trick cargo area that offers hidden width (ahem, golfers take note) with fold-down side panels, a massive hidden compartment under the floor, and fold-flat rear seats.

Lest we leave readers thinking that the ZDX is all show and very little go, let’s take a second to reframe the dynamic argument. Canyon carver it may not be, but put the ZDX in swiftly moving traffic, on an undulating freeway, or in city traffic, and it feels just like home. Acura’s advanced noise canceling acoustics do a fine job of mellowing out the aural environmental harshness, and the Comfort mode of IDS offers a really relaxed drive. Not the worst thing in the world, by a long sight.

Acura hasn’t announced official pricing yet, but they tell us to expect the ZDX to slot in between the MDX (starts at around $41K) and the RL (starts at around $47K). That range will put the ZDX about thirteen grand below its nearest formal competitor, the BMW X6, and right in the wheelhouse of many other premium CUV/SUVs. For drivers, the new Acura will never live up to its outstanding shape, but for cruisers, weekenders, golfers, passengers, and boulevardiers, the ZDX may be just the thing.