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2010 Acura ZDX: Pushing the boundaries of vehicle design

Outrageous looks and quality construction combine for entertaining urban ride
by: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT Love it or hate it, you can't miss the Acura ZDX. With 300 horsepower  
and available Super Handling All Wheel Drive, you might not be able  
to catch it, either.

When Acura engineers sat down to design the ZDX, they must have thought, 'Let's have some fun.'

The result is a refreshingly styled vehicle that defies easy classification. Bigger than a car but smaller than an SUV, it features a swooping roofline, broad rear end and large hatchback-like trunk. The high-back front seats feel like something out of a muscle car, but the suspension has a 'comfort' setting. Our black-on-black test car looked sinister but had good manners in all driving situations.

The ZDX debuted in 2010, the same year as the similar-looking Honda Accord Crosstour. Both are powered by 3.7-liter V6 engines are can be ordered with all-wheel-drive. Because Honda owns Acura and the two vehicles are so much alike, it is tempting to think the ZDX is simply a fancier of the Crosstour. But the two have significant differences, too.

As the name suggests, the Crosstour is based on the Accord while the ZDX has an Acura chassis. All of the sheet metal is different. The same can be said for every external and internal dimension. The ZDX weighs a couple hundred pounds more than the Crosstour, too.

Still, because of the similarities, it is tempting to ask why anyone would buy the ZDX, which costs several thousands of dollars more than the Crosstour. There are a number of answers, including the fact that the ZDX has a more powerful engine - 300 horsepower compared to 271 horsepower in the Crosstour. The ZDX also comes standard with a six-speed automatic transmission compared to the five-speed version in the Crosstour. And Acura's Super Handling All Wheel Drive system is more sophisticated than Honda's version.

And then there's Acura's well-deserved reputation for quality. The interior materials in the ZDX are more upscale than those found in the Crosstour, from the quality of the plastics to the grades of leathers. The ZDX simply feels more solid driving down the road that the Crosstour, although the Honda is also a very well made car.

The transmission and suspension on the ZDX are both adjustable. The six-speed transmission includes a manual shift mode that allows drivers to use steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters to move up and down through the gears. The suspension has both a "comfort" and "sport" setting. Although manually shifting the transmission improved performance, the differences between the suspension setting were harder to feel. The "comfort" setting is not overly soft, and the "sport" setting is not too firm. The truth is, the ZDX is too large to be thrown around like a sports car anyway, and the transmission shifts well enough in the automatic mode that most drivers probably won't use the manual mode very often.

Our test car came loaded with two option packages that added thousands to the bas price. One was the Tech Package that included leather trimmed sports seats, a navigation system with a rear view camera, an upgraded stereo, links to real-time traffic and weather, and more. The other was an Advance Package that included a blind spot warning system, a collision mitigation braking system and more.

While we appreciated the various options, only two were really essential - the rear view camera and blind spot warning system. The aggressive rear end styling reduces visibility out the back and along the rear flanks. Rear views are also compromised by a wing that runs across the hatchback, a styling touch also found on the Crosstour.

The sloping roof also makes getting in and out of the rear seats a little tricky, especially for taller passengers. Rear headroom is also compromised, although the seats themselves are comfortable and have decent legroom.

Despite their unconventional looks, the ZDX and Crosstour are part of a relatively new but fast-growing automotive segment - urban-only crossovers. Despite the availability of all-wheel-drive, these vehicles are not intended to be taken off road, not even on logging roads. Among other things, they come standard with performance street tires and have low air dams that are easily damaged by deep ruts and even small rocks. Other examples include the Cadillac SRX, Ford Edge and Toyota Venza.

Of course, many crossover and SUV owners never take their vehicles off road anyway. But such vehicles have historically been designed with capability of leaving the pavement behind, an attribute that companies like Jeep, Land Rover and Subaru still advertise. The all-wheel-drive systems on the new generation of urban crossover are more designed for dealing with potholes, heavy rain and light snow, however - which is not a bad thing in the Pacific Northwest.

It's easy to look at the ZDX as a design exercise that somehow made it into production with everything that Acura is known for still intact. The automotive world would be a more entertaining place if other manufacturers occasionally did the same thing.

• Model: 2011 ZDX.

• Manufacturer: Acura.

• Class: Midsize crossover.

• Layout: Front engine, front and all-wheel-drive (as tested).

• Style: Four door, five-passenger hatchback.

• Engine: 3.7-liter V6 (300 hp).

• Transmissions: Six-speed automatic.

• EPA estimated city/highway mileage: 16/23.

• Price: Beginning at approximately $46,000 ($56,855 as tested).