First Drive, 2010 Acura ZDX

In an all too rare moment of personal clarity, I actually “get” Acura’s advertising campaign urging consumers not to think of the ZDX as “new” but rather to think of it as “next.”

If one looks at the popularity of the sport-utility vehicle starting not with the first-generation Ford Explorer in 1990 and not with the Jeep Cherokee in 1984 but with the Jeep Wagoneer way back in 1963 (notice I said popularity, not origin), there is a 47-year history of conventional, square-box, station wagon design married to a four-wheel-drive chassis. Far more recently, with models such as Nissan’s Murano and Infiniti FX line and Lexus’s RX progeny, automakers have added a more fastback style to the traditional two-box shape – but that only went so far. New models such as the BMW X6 and now the ZDX are re-jigging the SUV formula through the creation of four-door sport coupes.

Less easy to swallow is the “passionate getaway” tagline Acura uses to define the ZDX – that of a different type of personal luxury vehicle. Acura suggests its California studio designed and developed ZDX is intended primarily “to provide a means of freedom and escape for two adults and their cargo, whether that’s luggage for a weekend, sporting equipment, antiques or gardening supplies.” Frankly, that makes me cringe.

If my wife and I are going to spend our upcoming empty nest years “freedoming” and escaping, it will be behind the wheel of a roadster (best-case scenario) or car-based sport coupe (compromise), not a two-ton-plus sport-ute. Even if our escaping requires the need for an all-weather/all-season vehicle with four-wheel drive to get to the cottage or ski lodge, I would prefer Acura’s smaller, sportier RDX. That in sport coupe styling might better capture my attention.

While escaping is a laudable goal, there’s the little matter of day-to-day living – going to work, getting groceries, ferrying the kids to their extra-curricular activities. Motoring about in-town, I found the ZDX out of its element. The SUV drove big, beyond its mid-sized sport-ute dimensions – it shares the same platform and drivetrain as the more conventional MDX. My wife made a rather astute observation, noting I looked uncomfortable behind the wheel. The problem is the ZDX’s styling, particularly its sightlines.

Even with my height (6-foot-2) I couldn’t see the SUV’s front corners, never mind the protruding shark-like grille. And the rear views are atrocious, with a letterbox-like slit of a rear window and blind spots behind the back pillars large enough to hide a pachyderm thanks to the fastback roofline’s sharp angle. Proper alignment of the rear-view mirrors and the standard backup camera lessened the problem but couldn’t completely eliminate it.

The ZDX is a far happier vehicle out on the open road, cruising along in quiet, smooth-riding comfort. There, the responsive, 300-horsepower 3.7-litre VTEC V6 burbles with contentment. The engine is mated to a new Sequential SportShift six-speed manumatic transmission with steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters. Drop the shifter into Sport mode, bang away on the paddles and the ZDX moves with an alacrity that belies its size. One hundred kilometres an hour is only 7.3 seconds away. Passing power is equally impressive – 4.6 seconds to pull off an 80-to-120-km/h manoeuvre.

There’s grip to go with that power and Acura’s Super Handling All-Wheel Drive (SH-AWD) system is standard. It’s a superb system, actively varying the torque distribution first between the front and rear axles, and then between the left and right rear wheels, maximizing available traction. This torque vectoring, as Acura calls it, operates automatically and seamlessly, allowing SH-AWD to overdrive the outside rear wheel up to 1.7% faster than the front wheels. This allows the ZDX to better rotate around corners while minimizing understeer.

There’s no getting around the fact that the ZDX’s exterior styling is controversial. When I look at it, I see a Nissan 370Z that’s been bombarded by gamma rays, turning it into the SUV equivalent of the Incredible Hulk.

Everybody I talked to had an opinion to express – whether asked for or not – the majority of it less than kind. Yet, as polarizing as the outside is, the interior is modern, comfortable (for front-seat occupants, anyway) and, courtesy of the available Technology package, a gadget geek’s delight. The cabin leads off with hand-stitched leather for the dashboard – a first for Acura – door panels and sculpted centre console. It is also well lit thanks to extensive use of LEDs along with the massive panoramic sunroof with dual automatic sunshades. The Technology package adds several key features including a navigation system with voice recognition, an Acura/ELS Surround premium audio system and a multi-view rear camera.

While the ZDX is a five-seater, taller-than-average adults will probably find rear-seat legroom and/or headroom somewhat compromising. Behind those seats, there are 26.3 cubic feet of space – 55.8 cu. ft. when the seats are folded flat. The cargo area can also be expanded for longer objects by removing side panels in the cargo compartment sidewalls. Additionally, there is an under-floor storage area that provides 2.2 cu. ft. of secure space.

I have to admit the ZDX leaves me baffled. As I said earlier, I get the concept – sporty, fastback-styled SUV – but it’s the execution I’m having problems with, particularly the visibility issues. Not nearly as practical as the MDX in terms of passenger space and capacity, cargo room or towing ability, the ZDX is too big to be truly fun to drive and too compromised to be truly useful.


Type of vehicle: All-wheel-drive, mid-sized SUV

Engine: 3.7L SOHC V6

Power: 300 hp @ 6,300 rpm; 270 lb-ft of torque @ 4,500 rpm

Transmission: Six-speed manumatic

Brakes: Four-wheel disc with ABS

Tires: P255/50R19

Price: base/as tested: $59,590/same

Destination charge: $1,895

Transport Canada fuel economy L/100 km: 12.7 city, 8.8 hwy.

Standard features: Panoramic sunroof with power sunshade, Bluetooth audio, power tailgate, navigation system with Voice Recognition and rear-view camera, keyless entry, push-button start, perforated leather-trimmed interior, automatic high-intensity-discharge headlights, fog lights, rear spoiler, power tilt and telescopic steering column, cruise control, dual-zone automatic climate control system with sun positioning sensor, multi-information display, 410-watt, premium sound system with satellite radio and 10 speakers, USB device connector and auxiliary input jack, power front seats, heated front and rear seats.