2003 Acura MDX
2003 Acura MDX. Click image to enlarge

By Chris Chase

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In 2001, Acura’s new MDX joined other mid-size, luxury SUVs such as the Lexus RX300, BMW X5, Infiniti QX4, Mercedes-Benz ML-Class and the Land Rover Discovery.

Like its Japanese counterparts of the time, the MDX used six-cylinder power exclusively, as opposed to German models which also offered V8 powerplants. In the case of the MDX, the engine was a 3.5-litre V6 shared with the Honda Odyssey, but tuned for more output: 240 horsepower in 2001, compared to 210 in Honda’s minivan. A five-speed automatic transferred torque to the standard all-wheel drive system. In 2003, horsepower increased to 260, and another five horses came on board in 2004.

Where the Odyssey (and the Honda Pilot, introduced in 2003) demanded only regular unleaded fuel, the MDX required more expensive premium. At least the MDX’s fuel consumption wasn’t significantly higher than that of those other models. Natural Resources Canada ratings for the MDX are 14 L/100 km in the city and 9.4 L/100 km on the highway, similar to those of the RX300, and generally better than numbers posted by other mid-sized, import SUVs.

2003 Acura MDX
2004 Acura MDX
2003 Acura MDX (top) and 2004 Acura MDX. Click image to enlarge

Crash safety appears to be good too. In National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) testing, 2001-2002 and 2005-2006 models earned five stars for all seating positions in both front and side impact testing. Only 2003 and 2004 models differed: the 2003 MDX earned four stars for driver and front passenger protection in front impacts, and the 2004 model got all five-star ratings except for a four-star performance in front-passenger protection in front impacts.

The MDX earned a “good” rating from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) in that organization’s frontal offset impact test; the IIHS didn’t conduct side impact testing.

2004 Acura MDX
2004 Acura MDX. Click image to enlarge

If there’s a knock against the MDX, it’s that it doesn’t appear to live up to the reputation for excellent build quality that most Honda-built products enjoy. The most common problem is one that’s familiar to other owners of Hondas and Acuras using the five-speed automatic found in the MDX. In early models – 2001 through 2003 models in particular – transmission failures were common, due to inadequate transmission fluid cooling. A design change addressed this issue in later models, and a recall for affected trucks should have remedied the problem. If posts in the Transmission Problems forum at AcuraMDX.org are any indication, early MDXs on the used market now may have had replacement transmissions installed at some point, which should help alleviate trouble for subsequent owners.

The other recall related to the MDX addressed front springs breaking due to excessive corrosion.

2003 Acura MDX
2004 Acura MDX
2003 Acura MDX (top) and 2004 Acura MDX. Click image to enlarge

Other common trouble spots, according to posts at AcuraMDX.org, include non-functioning rear-seat A/C units, mostly due to failed fan motors. Clunking noises from the rear brakes are common, though it appears it’s not a safety concern and doesn’t affect the brakes’ effectiveness. Sloshing noises from the fuel tank are widely reported, too, but this issue seems to be more common in 2001-2003 models.

Other less common issues include weak original-equipment batteries, failed starter motors, steering-wheel audio controls that work sporadically or don’t work at all and bad auto-dimming rear-view mirrors.

So, right about now, you’re thinking that a used MDX is a terrible choice, but wait: while there are a number of issues to look out for – and more than one typically finds in a Honda product – the transmission issue is the only really serious one, and as mentioned above, it only really affected early models and many of those will have had the problem addressed, either through the recall process or a full transmission replacement.

2004 Acura MDX
2004 Acura MDX. Click image to enlarge

And the rest of the issues – while annoying when they happen – are relatively minor. Naturally, one would expect better reliability from a high-end model, but many drivers put up with more serious issues than these in more expensive German cars, while chalking it up to being part of the “ownership experience.” No, the MDX doesn’t live up to the typical Japanese quality benchmark, but if the serious stuff has been addressed by previous owners, you stand a good chance of a used MDX being a pretty dependable vehicle. The best defense is to go for a newer (2004 and up) model, which had far fewer troubles to begin with. It’s reassuring, too, that Consumer Reports considers the MDX an above-average used-vehicle buy, despite noting the transmission and climate control issues.

The 2004 model was when things starting improving, and according to Canadian Red Book, used values for that year range from about $35,400 for a base model to almost $38,000 for one equipped with the optional Technology Package. Those used values are roughly $15,000 to $20,000 less than MSRP – like most Hondas and Acuras, the MDX holds its value pretty well.

2003 Acura MDX
2003 Acura MDX. Click image to enlarge

Canadian Red Book puts a 2001 model at as low as $20,450, while a barely broken-in 2006 MDX with Tech Package is worth $51,050. Real-world prices as seen on Auto Trader in Ontario seem to follow the Red Book numbers reasonably closely. As always, shop around – the Red Book values are a good guide to follow.

Want to save a few more bucks but get basically the same vehicle? Look for a Honda Pilot. It uses the same engine in a less-potent state of tune, but doesn’t need premium fuel for peak performance. The Pilot wasn’t introduced until 2003, which means that most of the mechanical troubles that afflicted early MDXs shouldn’t be as much of an issue. Naturally, the Pilot is much cheaper, too.



Online resources

  • AcuraWorld.com– An Acura forum with more than 15,000 members and sections dedicated to each Acura model. The section dedicated to the MDX has some useful information within, but it’s not one of the busiest. A couple of neat features include an “ask the dealer” forum for members to ask questions about the Acura dealer experience, and sections for do-it-yourself projects and technical service bulletins.
  • All-Acura.com– This is a less populous forum that still has a fair bit of good information. The MDX section here is quiet, too. There’s also an article section, containing Acura news items and aftermarket information.
  • VTEC.net– VTEC.net (a.k.a. the Temple of VTEC), named after Honda’s well-known variable valve timing system, is for owners of all generations of Honda and Acura models. Again, not a lot of information on the first-generation MDX; most of the talk deals with the new-for-2007 second-gen MDX.
  • Honda-Acura.go.cc – The MDX gets lumped into a little-used discussion section called “Other Acuras;” happy digging.
  • Honda-Acura.net– This website isn’t related to honda-acura.go.cc, despite the similar URL. There’s more information here, though, again covering all Honda and Acura models. The MDX shares a forum with other Honda and Acura trucks and SUVs, but there’s some useful MDX-specific information to be found.
  • AcuraInspired.com – Another site that’s light on MDX content. Discussion related to this luxury SUV is relegated to the “Other Acura Models” forum, shared with a number of other vehicles. 
  • Honda-Tech.com – HondaTech is one of the busiest automotive forums on the web, but the bulk of the information focuses on the Civic and its Acura siblings the Integra and RSX. The MDX and other Honda and Acura trucks are afterthoughts, so not a lot of MDX information to be found here.

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Manufacturer’s Website

Owner Reviews on autoTRADER.ca


Transport Canada Recall Number: 2005260; Units affected: 4,875

2001-2002: On certain vehicles, the front suspension coil springs may have received insufficient corrosion protection during manufacturing and, in areas where road salt is used, may be susceptible to corrosion. Additionally, rubber sleeves were applied near the top and bottom of some springs to eliminate noise. The sleeves can trap salt water, increasing the potential for excessive corrosion. Over time, excessive corrosion can cause spring failure. Spring breakage in the bottom sleeve area could puncture the tire. Correction: Dealers will replace both front coil springs.

Transport Canada Recall Number: 2004143; Units affected: 85,184
(this recall also covers a number of other Acura and Honda products equipped with the same transmission)

2001-2002: Certain operating conditions can result in heat build-up between the countershaft and secondary shaft second gears in the automatic transmission, eventually leading to gear tooth chipping or, in very rare cases, gear breakage can occur. Gear failure could result in transmission lock-up. Correction: On vehicles with 24,000 kms or less, the dealer will update the transmission with a simple revision to the oil cooler return line to increase lubrication to second gear. On vehicles with more than 24,000 kms, the dealer will inspect the transmission to identify gears that have already experienced discoloration due to overheating. If discolouration exists, the transmission will be replaced. It discolouration is not present, the dealer will perform the revision to the oil cooler return line.

Used vehicle prices vary depending on factors such as general condition, odometer reading, usage history and options fitted. Always have a used vehicle checked by an experienced auto technician before you buy.

For information on recalls, see Transport Canada’s web-site, www.tc.gc.ca, or the U.S. National Highway Transportation Administration (NHTSA)web-site, www.nhtsa.dot.gov.

For information on vehicle service bulletins issued by the manufacturer, visit www.nhtsa.dot.gov.

For information on consumer complaints about specific models, see www.lemonaidcars.com.

Chris Chase is an Ottawa-based automotive journalist.

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