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(Acura Photos)

'European panache' in an Asian SUV

THE BASICS
Base price/as tested: $41,000-$48,000 (est.)
Fuel economy: 19 miles per gallon (est.)

THE SPECIFICS
Drivetrain: All-wheel drive
Seating: Seven
Horsepower: 300
Torque: 275 lb.-ft.
Length: 190.7 inches
Wheelbase: 108.3 inches
Height: 68.2 inches
Width: 73.6 inches
Curb weight: 4,541-4,551 pounds

BIG BEAVER BOROUGH, Pa. -- It is not a phrase you would expect an Asian auto builder to use to describe one of its cars: ``European panache."

And the venue -- the winding, undulating race track at BeaveRun Motorsports Complex -- is not one where a big SUV is normally found.

Yet Acura, Honda's elite division, developed its complete remake of the popular MDX on perhaps the most fearsome race track in the world, Germany's deadly Nurburgring Nordschleife . The company recently brought it to this western Pennsylvania race track to compare it with key cars considered competitors: the BMW X5, Porsche Cayenne, and Volvo XC90.

Why drive an SUV on a racetrack? Because you can easily test it to the limits that stupid drivers often try to reach on public highways: excessive speed, sudden lane changes, emergency braking, and getting into corners too fast.

So after a winding drive on Pennsylvania roads, where we found the 2007 MDX to be quiet, comfortable, and stable, we set about to see how loud, uncomfortable, and unstable we could make it on the race track -- head to head with all that European steel.

Using a V-6 engine, Acura has managed to boost the horsepower of the MDX from the 2006 model's 253 to an impressive 300.

And it now has a 5,000- pound towing capacity. Nobody is pretending this can't function as a workhorse for hauling. It's still suitable for big families that need to make their way through bad weather or over rough roads with their gear .

Coupled with an all-wheel drive system that shifts power front to rear, as needed (and as much as 100 percent side-to-side to individual wheels), it now ranks as one of the most stable vehicles on the road.

On the race track that stability held, even in hard braking at just over 100 miles per hour approaching a hairpin turn.

It fought through a rising late-apex corner (if you're trying this on a public road, your license should be pulled), and the five-speed automatic transmission, used in sequential sportshift manual mode, allowed the car to be redlined out of corners for maximum speed before upshifting for the straights.

As to comfort, the bolstered front sport seats held firm along the thighs and up the torso -- like mild racing seats -- ensuring that in scary moments on regular roads, passengers will be firmly in their grip.

The front seats are replicated by twin buckets in the second row. The third row seats three on a bench and is targeted at 12-year-old passengers.

With the rear two rows folded flat, the car can handle a full sheet of plywood.

From front seats to rear, bench passengers are protected by a series of reinforced rings that encase the cabin. And while on the track it was doubtful the full complement of front, front-side, and front-to-rear side curtain air bags would be needed, they certainly will save lives in more dangerous places: public roads throughout the United States.

Traction and stability control are also standard fare on the MDX.

Considering that it was being braked hard and late approaching every bend, its throttle was being buried down the straights, and its tires were being put to screeching tests, the inside remained remarkably quiet.

The MDX comes loaded with leather, electronic wizardry, and safety features standard.

Its ACE system for frontal collisions sends the energy of a crash below and over the cockpit, rather than into it, and it is designed to be compatible with smaller vehicles so it will not ride over them.

Three upgrades include a technology package with navigation, a satellite link with real-time traffic reports from key cities including Boston, upgraded sound, and a hands-free telephone link; a sport package (which includes the technology package) with active damping for the suspension, upgraded leather, upgraded wheels, and auto-leveling Xenon headlights; and an entertainment package (with either of the other upgrade packages) that adds a rear DVD, heated second-row seats, and a remote-operated tail gate.

A few days of everyday driving in future tests will give us a better look into how its intricacies fit with regular family needs.

For now, this powerful, quiet package looks ready to handle almost any situation -- just as it handled its competitors on the race track.

The MDX goes on sale this fall, priced at about $41,000 to $48,000.

Royal Ford can be reached at ford@globe.com.


(Acura Photos)
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