Acura calls the new ZDX "a provocative new four door sports coupe", but it's hard to feel shocked or outraged that anyone would attempt to pass off an SUV as a sports car. In the context of vehicles like Caddy's Escalade, Porsche's Cayenne, Infiniti's FX and BMW's X6, trying to define exactly what an SUV is these days is like trying to explain the differences between a Corvette and a Camry to a caveman.

The reality is the Acura ZDX is about as sporty as you'd expect a 4400lb all-wheel drive truck with 300hp, an automatic transmission, wide tires, and a relatively high center of gravity to be: A well-driven V-6 Camry SE sedan will blow its doors off on a winding back road. But with ZDX sportiness has nothing to do with function. It has everything to do with form.

The ZDX's sheetmetal is the work of 25 year old Acura designer Michelle Christensen, and looks remarkably close to her original theme sketches. Turning those sketches into the real thing required some serious rule-breaking by American Honda engineers. The sharply creased, broad shouldered rear quarter panel required a draw twice as deep as Honda regulations allowed, for example, and the development of a new phosphate coating so the metal would slip cleanly in the die. The fully glazed upper -- glass runs from the base of the windshield over the roof and down to the taillights -- raised concerns over weight and cost.

The interior shows the same dedication to form over function. Designer Michael Wiedeman's swooping concave feature lines, which arc across the dash, linking the center console and the doors, take more than an hour and a half to hand finish in leather. Honda can assemble almost a tenth of a whole Civic in the same time.

Yet there is a practical side to the ZDX. It will accommodate five, though the rear doors are relatively narrow, and that swooping roofline means visibility is limited. The rear load space might look compact, but there's a hidden under-floor compartment for extra storage, and side panels that can be removed to allow golf bags to be stowed crossways. The rear seats fold forward to create a near flat area that reaches forward to the B-pillar and offers 55.8 cubic feet of cargo space.

Under the hood is Honda's 3.7-liter V-6, which develops 300 horsepower at 6400 rpm, and 270 pound-feet of torque at 4600 rpm. The engine drives through a new six speed automatic transmission, and the latest iteration of Honda's complex but effective SH-AWD system. Like many Honda engines, the V-6 feels light on torque; a sensation not helped by the ZDX's mass and the widely spaced ratios in the transmission.

Left to its own devices the ZDX feels a tad lethargic, particularly when overtaking on two lanes. The good news, however, is the transmission offers both a sport mode (revised mapping typically keeps the transmission in the lower four ratios, and locks out sixth gear) and full manual control via steering wheel mounted paddles. A quick double tap on the downshift paddle allows the transmission to skip from sixth to fourth, fifth to third, fourth to second, if needed. Put some effort into your driving, and the ZDX responds accordingly.

Standard suspension is by way of MacPherson struts up front, and a multi-link rear axle, both anchored by beefy sub-frames. Top-of-the-range ZDXs get magneto-rheological shocks as part of what Acura calls its Integrated Dynamics System (IDS). Controlled via a large knob on the center console, IDS switches both damper and steering rates between "comfort" and "sport" settings. On our early-build tester (one of two ZDXs that are by now crumpled heaps of metal in Honda's crash lab) the sport setting's damper rates felt a touch too firm mooching around town, while the comfort setting's steering felt too light. Acura engineers have subsequently confirmed production ZDXs will get more steering feel in the comfort setting, which seems the ideal compromise.

Standard equipment is lavish. The base ZDX comes equipped with the all-glass roof, leather interior, power tailgate, backup camera, and 19in wheels and tires. The Technology Package adds sat nav with real time traffic and weather, Acura/ELS audio, keyless access and a multi-view rear camera. The Advance Package includes a sport steering wheel, ventilated seats, adaptive cruise control, collision mitigation braking system, the aforementioned IDS, and blind spot monitors, which really ought to be standard across the range.

If you want an Acura for family road trips, buy an MDX. The ZDX is designed for couples -- trendy youngsters or fifty-something empty nesters -- who want a vehicle that not only stands out in the valet line at a hip hotel, but is a comfortable and capable ride for quick getaway trips, regardless of the weather or the road surface.


2010 Acura ZDX
Base price $45,000-$48,000 (est)
Vehicle layout Front engine, AWD, 5-pass, 4-door SUV
Engine 3.7L/300-hp/270lb-ft DOHC 24-valve V-6
Transmission 6-speed automatic
Curb weight 4450lb (mfr)
Wheelbase 108.3in
L x W x H 192.4in x 78.5in x 62.8in
0-60mph 7.3sec (MT est)
EPA city/hwy fuel econ 16/22 (est)
CO2 emissions 1.06 lb/mile (est)
On sale in U.S. Fall 2009

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