For anybody who has ever taken my advice and given Allo Allo a watch, you will no doubt be familiar with the British RAF pilots whose perpetual failed escape attempts feature throughout all 9 seasons. Anybody who has no idea what I’m talking about should indulge my suggestion for a smutty YouTube time-waster, but in regards to this post I aim to focus on another type of posh Pilot…one made by Honda’s luxury arm Acura.
European and Asian readers may not know of the Acura brand, or indeed the Honda Pilot, a mid-size SUV based on Honda’s large North American platform used for MPV’s and SUV’s of varying sizes and brands (ok admittedly only a few different models but still). A large, boxy design, the Pilot has consistently sold well based on it’s solid and practical cabin as well as it’s stellar reliability…call it a larger CR-V if you will. Acura itself is very similar to what Lexus is to Toyota and Infiniti to Nissan, but unlike those ventures Honda has chosen to endow it’s premium lineup solely with vehicles based on it’s existing cars and with the same engines used in the mainstream models, thus no V8’s. This strategy has led to many harsh commentators to decry Acura as merely tarted up Honda’s and not really worth the considerable dollars charged over and above the donor cars. Seeing as though the brand’s products are not even offered on my continent I can’t really weigh in on this debate, but I will say that odd styling choices, a confusing name strategy and an evolutionary approach to vehicle development have seen Acura’s sales fall quite drastically over the last half decade or so.
Acura’s attempt to combat this decline has seen the launch of a new version of what has historically been their most successful model; the MDX luxury SUV. The MDX is the posh Pilot I spoke of earlier; based on the same platform with very similar engine and technology choices, the Acura has been a fantastic success despite the launch of numerous talented rivals in what has become a highly competitive segment since the car’s launch in 2001. That original model actually beat it’s Pilot sibling to the market by a whole year and was one of the first luxury crossover SUV’s offered in the United States, and with a 7 seat option the MDX had an ace up it’s sleeve to lure drivers away from competition such as the Lexus RX300, Mercedes ML and BMW X5. Admittedly being based on a FWD platform meant that the MDX lacked some of the handling precision of the X5, but it acquitted itself well enough that it won numerous awards across the Pond from journalists impressed with it’s high quality and practical cabin, smart styling and good value. For a car launched in 2001, the MDX still looks awfully sharp even if it’s wheels look a little lost on the high body. Inside too it was modern and comfortable, and if it had been offered over here (and with a diesel engine rather than it’s petrol V6) then I am sure that I would be taking a long hard look at the original MDX as my next car.
Japanese engineering being what it is, it did not take too long for Acura to launch a second generation MDX complete with the new ‘shield’ styling language. Launched in late 2006, the controversial front end of the car did dampen sales of the a teeny bit, but then most large SUVs lost sales with the economic crisis of the late 00’s. Slightly more powerful, practical, economical and with the apparently amazing ‘SH-AWD’ (Super Handling AWD) system, the second generation built upon the strengths of the first to offer buyers a relatively convincing rival to the likes of the Q7 and second generation X5 (which gained 2 extra rear seats). A 2010 facelift toned down the looks of the front grille but kept the button heavy interior…and I have to say that even despite these updates I still never really liked the vibe that the MDX sent out. Being priced lower than German competition (which are generally more powerful and tech heavy), but offering higher quality and image than American offerings (which consist of the 2 posher versions of GM’s Lambda crossovers and higher-spec Durangos and Explorers) the MDX has pretty much had the lower-premium market to itself for a long time. Admittedly the Lexus RX is on offer for buyers who are after a slightly smaller crossover and don’t need the 2 rear seats, but it’s sales reflect this and it regularly sells double the number that the Acura can manage, even if we take into account the MDX’s coupe-esque sibling, the ZDX, whose sales and reception amongst buyers have been bad enough for the company to cancel it’s production after only 3 years on sale.
This brings us up to date, with the last year or so having been one of the most important in the MDX’s relatively short history. To begin with a second generation of Acura’s smaller crossover, the RDX, was launched; complete with more attractive styling (relative to both the first RDX and the MDX itself), a larger and more practical interior and a highly competitive price. To Acura’s joy sales jumped massively to the extent that the RDX now challenges it’s bigger brother in terms of sales, even if it competes more directly with models such as the BMW X3 and cheaper versions of the RX. Secondly was the launch of a new Acura flagship; the RLX, a car whose predecessor had lagged so far behind class leaders that it sold in single digit numbers for much of the year. With updated styling cues (such as jewelled headlamps) and technology, the RLX pushed it’s way ahead of the crossover to once again become the flagship for the Acura brand. Lastly, and possibly most importantly, was the launch of the Infiniti JX. Occupying pretty much the same territory that the MDX has had to itself for the past 12 years, the JX is more attractive, more user friendly and slightly cheaper than the MDX, and so far has been a big sales success for Infiniti. In fact the only areas where the JX seems to lag behind the MDX are in terms of power, handling and gearbox…where a CVT may put off those looking for a more meaty drive, plus the JX has now been renamed QX60 which could confuse some potential buyers.
Acura’s response? Well the latest MDX launched a month or so and so far signs are favourable judging from reviews I have read. Visually very similar to both the previous generation MDX and the new RLX, the new car is reasonably attractive for a car from the brand; personally I still much prefer the JX/QX60 but the MDX is at least striking from the front. There is much more room inside, and the cabin now boasts 2 massive LCD screens, one of which is a touchscreen. On the road is where the car continues to lead immediate rivals, as the SH-AWD system still gives great feedback (relative to the car’s size and platform). Power is down slightly, but so is weight and as a result it returns fuel economy that can rival much smaller rivals. I guess Acura played it relatively safe when it came to replacing their biggest seller, and in a way it’s pretty clear to see why. But if only they could have pulled it out of the bag with the styling and given it a more soulful interior then they could be looking at a car which was ahead of the pack rather than merely mixing with them.