2003 Acura MDX
Click image to enlarge

by Greg Wilson

More horsepower and more comfort for MDX

First introduced in 2001, the Acura MDX gets some “mid-life” upgrades for the 2003 model year, and a modest price “upgrade” from $48,000 to $49,800. While exterior and interior styling are unchanged, there are some important mechanical updates. Primary among these are an increase in horsepower from 240 to 260, a new more compact 5-speed automatic transmission, a new standard Vehicle Stability Assist system, an electronic throttle, a smoother ride, and an improved all-wheel-drive system.
The 2003 MDX’s all aluminum 3.5 litre, 24-valve, SOHC V6 engine with VTEC (variable valve timing) now has new integrated cylinder heads, a shorter intake manifold port, and a retooled exhaust system that increases exhaust flow by 40 percent – all of this boosts horsepower from 240 to 260 and torque from 242 lb-ft to 250 lb-ft. Even with the extra horsepower though, the 2003 engine gets the same city and highway fuel economy as the previous engine and meets stricter ULEV-2 emissions standards.

The MDX’s new 5-speed automatic transmission is designed to handle the increased engine power, yet it is smaller in size – about 60 millimeters shorter. A new drive-by-wire throttle system, borrowed from the NSX, improves shift smoothness, but also allows the throttle control to be integrated with the Vehicle Stability system and the Cruise Control.

The MDX’s all-wheel-drive system, which Acura calls Variable Torque Management, has been revised to improve performance on slippery surfaces. Normally, the VTM system runs in front-wheel-drive only but a rear-mounted electronically-controlled clutch automatically transfers up to 55 percent of the engine’s power to the rear wheels on low friction surfaces. Acura says torque distribution to the rear wheels has been increased by up to 30 percent for 2003.

2003 Acura MDX

2003 Acura MDX
Click image to enlarge

As before, the VTM 4WD system can be locked manually by pushing a button on the dash for low speed off-road driving. It automatically shuts off above 29 km/h. Unlike some mid-size SUV’s, the MDX doesn’t offer a Low Range gear or engine descent control system for steep slopes.

For 2003, the MDX’s suspension has been retuned for a smoother ride, and the body’s torsional rigidity has been increased by a substantial 35 percent through reinforcements of the rear wheel housing, rear subframe, and tailgate frame.

Significantly, a new Vehicle Stability Assist system (VSA) is now standard equipment. If the MDX begins to lose control, it automatically brakes individual wheels and reduces the throttle to correct directional stability.

As before, standard safety features include dual-stage driver and front passenger front airbags, but for 2003, the sensors now take into account the position of the driver’s seat in deciding how fast to deploy the airbag. As well, the front passenger’s airbag deployment takes into account the severity of the crash and the passenger’s weight.

Given these changes and increases in standard equipment, the MDX’s price increase from $48,000 to $49,800 seem fairly reasonable.

Interior impressions

As I noted in my first review of the MDX (see my 2001 Test-Drive), the MDX is bigger than other SUV’s in it class, particularly in width – for example it’s over three inches wider than a BMW X5. The interior feels very spacious, and three adults can fit in the second row without feeling too cosy. The MDX comes standard with seven seats, but the third row seats are better for children than adults.

2003 Acura MDX
(US model shown). Click image to enlarge

For an SUV, the step-in height is a relatively low 482 mm (19 inches), and all four doors are wide, so it’s easy to get in and out of. The driver sits high with a good view. All the windows are large, the side pillars aren’t too thick, and the rear head restraints don’t seem to block the view.

Leather upholstery is standard on the first and second row seats, while artificial leather is used on the third row seat. The supportive, comfortable front seats have 8-way power adjustment, lumbar adjustment, and include seat heaters with High and Low temperature settings. The front seats also have 2 position memory settings.

The dash is attractive and well-finished, and controls are easy to reach, but I had a couple of concerns – in fact, the same concerns I had in 2001. I found the three pod gauge cluster sometimes hard to read, particularly the left tachometer, depending on the position of the tilt wheel. And the automatic climate control system in the centre stack has some readouts at the top of the dash and some in the centre screen display – I found it confusing. Still, there’s lots of useful information to be seen including a compass, outside temperature gauge, clock, and average fuel consumption readout.

The Bose AM/FM/cassette eight speaker stereo with in-dash 6-disc CD player offers crystal clear sound – and it’s standard equipment. The centre stack also includes a button that turns on all the interior lights at once, a coin drawer, 12 volt powerpoint, an open storage bin – and behind the attractive leather-wrapped shift lever, two hidden cupholders. Between the seats is a roomy bi-level storage bin with a built-in powerpoint.

Like other Acuras and Hondas, the button to open the glass sunroof is located on the dash to the left of the steering wheel – not on the overhead console. The advantage is that you don’t have to lift your arm up to the ceiling.

Second row seats have plenty of legroom and footroom under the raised front seats, generous headroom, and features like a fold-down centre armrest with two cupholders, rear fan and temperature controls, map pockets with bottle holders, map lights, and three head restraints.

Unlike many SUV’s where folding the rear seats is a two-step operation (pull up the seat cushions and fold down the backrests), the MDX seatbacks can be folded in a one-step process simply by lifting a lever on the back of the seats and pulling down. The backrests lie flush with the cargo area.

The two third-row seats have short cushions, short backrests and minimal legroom – they’re really too small for adults – but handy for kids. The second row seat slides forwards to make it easier to get in to the third row, but I found it a tight squeeze. Like the second row seats, the split third row seats fold flat.

Roomy cargo area

2003 Acura MDX
Click image to enlarge

Because the MDX has such a wide body, the cargo area is very wide – about 1.2 metres (four feet) wide between the wheelhousings – and the cargo opening is over 0.9 metres (three feet)high. With the third row seat up, the cargo area is only 355 mm (14 inches) long, but there’s a lot width and vertical space. With the 3rd row seat folded down, the cargo area extends to (1041 mm) 41 inches, and with the second row seatbacks folded, there’s over 1.8 metres (six feet) of length.

A hidden under-floor storage area behind the rear seats includes a special area to store the third row head restraints. The spare tire is located under the cargo floor, and can be lowered to the ground with a special tool located in the rear.

My only complaint about the cargo area is that the plastic cargo walls could be scratched. However, you can buy an optional cargo liner or cargo tray to protect the cargo area.

The rear hatch door lifts up easily and over your head, but doesn’t include a separate opening rear window.

Driving Impressions

On the road, the MDX feels very stable considering its height – chalk that up to its extra wide track, 17 inch tires, and fully independent multi-link suspension. The body feels very tight – as claimed by Acura – and the MDX’s driving dynamics give the impression that the MDX is very well-built. I found the ride comfortable and not top-heavy like some SUVs – although I couldn’t really quantify how much more comfortable the new suspension is when compared to the previous model. The well-bolstered front leather seats really hold you in place during fast cornering, and the perforated inserts and firm lumbar support keep you comfortable.

2003 Acura MDX

2003 Acura MDX

2003 Acura MDX
Click image to enlarge

The MDX’s more powerful 260 horsepower engine has a lot of get-up-and-go – especially for a 2005 kg (4420 lb.) vehicle – standing starts, freeway merging and highway passing are no problem for the MDX. 0 to 100 km/h is in the 8 and a half second range. On the freeway, the engine is smooth and quiet, revving at only 1700 rpm at 100 km/h and just over 2000 rpm at 120 km/h. The cabin is quiet – there’s very little tire or wind noise, and the engine hums along.

The MDX is capable of towing boats up to 2041 kg (4,500 lbs.) or trailers up to 1588 kg (3,500 lbs. when the vehicle is equipped with the optional Towing Package ($1,014.64) which includes a trailer hitch and harness, transmission cooler, and power steering cooler.

Fuel consumption figures of 14.1 litres per 100 km (20 mpg)in the city and 9.4 litres per 100 km (30 mpg) are not exactly thrifty, but for a 2000 kilogram SUV, they are very good. Premium unleaded 91 octane fuel is recommended, but Acura says gas with a lower octane number may be used, “with reduced performance.”

The new 5-speed automatic shifts crisply, and includes Grade Logic for keeping the car in a lower gear when descending or ascending a grade.

The MDX’s new Vehicle Stability Assist system automatically corrects understeer and oversteer by reducing throttle and braking individual wheels to restore directional control. This system will only activate if the car is in danger of spinning out, which is unlikely unless road conditions are extremely slippery or you’re going way too fast. The MDX already has traction control and all-wheel-drive – the latter runs mostly in front-wheel-drive, but this year is designed to send more torque to the rear wheels when the front wheels slip. These systems combined are more than adequate to keep the MDX under control in snowy, icy, or slippery wet conditions.

As well, the driver can activate the VTM-4 lock by pressing a button on the dash – this locks up the differential sending power in a 50/50 front/rear torque split at speeds up to 29 km/h. This is very useful for getting yourself out of a snow drift or climbing a steep, slippery hill. The MDX has a minimum 181 mm (7.1 in.) of ground clearance, and the front overhang slopes upwards to avoid striking rocks, curbs and other obstacles.

The only thing the MDX doesn’t have is a low gear for steep descents, or a computerized engine braking system like those of BMW and Land Rover.

Many standard safety features

2003 Acura MDX
Click image to enlarge

The MDX’s safety features include front and side airbags with front passenger occupant position detection system, 3-point seat belts, front seat belt pretensioners, height adjustable head restraints at all positions, child-proof rear door locks and LATCH Child Safety Seat Anchor System.

The 2003 MDX comes fully-equipped for $49,800, and there are few options. Useful ones include a block heater ($168.24), tonneau cover ($319.67), and the towing package (1,014.64)

The MDX is built in Alliston, Ontario, and shares many of its components with the Honda Pilot.

Competitor overview

The 2003 Acura MDX ($49,800) competes with the BMW X5 3.0 ($57,800), Mercedes-Benz ML320 Elegance ($55,800), Infiniti QX4 ($48,800), 2003 Lexus RX300 ($49,600) and the 2004 Lexus RX330 ($49,900), Land Rover Discovery HSE ($56,900), and Lincoln Aviator ($58,950).

As you can see, the MDX is one of the least expensive, but has more horsepower than all but the V8-powered Lincoln Aviator, and is one of only two with standard seven passenger seating.

The MDX is roomier than many of its competitors, and offers a more stable, car-like ride than vehicles like the Discovery, QX4 and ML320.

Though it’s not a true off-the-beaten-track SUV, the MDX combines comfortable on-pavement vehicle ride and handling with competent gravel road/snow/ice capability. A well-built vehicle for all seasons.


Powerful, comfortable and not at all like a truck, the 2003 Acura MDX is a 7-passenger all-weather vehicle with decent handling, ride and acceleration and plenty of standard features for a price under $50,000.

Technical Data: 2003 Acura MDX

Base price $49,800
Freight $950
A/C tax $100
Price as tested $50,850
Type 4-door, 5 passenger mid-size sport utility
Layout transverse front engine/front-wheel-drive
Engine 3.5 litre V6, SOHC, 24 valves, VTEC
Horsepower 260 @ 5750 rpm
Torque 250 lb-ft @ 3500-5000 rpm
Transmission 5-speed automatic transmission w/Grade Logic Control System
Tires Michelin Cross-terrain all season 235/65 R17
Curb weight 2005 kg (4420 lb.)
Wheelbase 2700 mm (106.3 in.)
Length 4789 mm (188.5 in.)
Width 1955 mm (77.0 in.)
Height 1811 mm (71.3 in.)
Ground clearance minimum 181 mm
Cargo volume 2308 litres (81.4 cu. ft.) behind 1st row
  1405 litres (49.6 cu. ft.) behind 2nd row
  419 litres (14.8 cu. ft.) behind 3rd Row
Fuel consumption City 14.1 l/100 km (20 mpg)
  Hwy 9.4 l/100 km (30 mpg)
Recommended fuel Premium unleaded 91 octane
Warranty 3 yrs/60,000 km
Powertrain Warranty 5 yrs/100,000 km

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