The same day Sean Galanti picked up his $39,000 Acura MDX from the dealer, he hit a deer. Galanti was unhurt and the Japanese-built luxury sport-utility vehicle - a brand-new entry for 2001 - showed little damage. But that's not the most amazing part of the story. Dig a little deeper and you uncover a nugget that's likely to confound the auto analysts and trend-watchers who pontificate about the dramatic generational differences in auto buying. That's because Galanti, 25, bought the same vehicle as his 43-year-old mom. Is this a story of parental control or product clout? Galanti insists the new MDX - which parent company Honda says stands for "multi-dimensional cross-country" - is a rare vehicle that finally sold him on the idea of owning an SUV. "I had looked at sport-utes before," said Galanti, a single Superior Township resident who is a production manager at a copy shop. "They were either too small, like the (GMC) Jimmy, or too big, like the (GMC) Yukon." "The MDX is a nice size. I was impressed with how it handles - very much like a car, as opposed to a big truck. Plus, I think we might have talked a couple of friends into it." "Acura, the upscale division of Honda, pitches the seven-passenger MDX as "the next-generation SUV." While it is about 4 inches wider than a Ford Explorer and offers a surprisingly roomy cabin, the MDX is easier to park in the garage and it doesn't guzzle quite as much gas as some of the larger truck-based sport-utes. Target family: Wealthy, with a household income ranging from $85,000 to $135,000 a year. Members include two kids and a dog, says the automaker. For those families, the MDX does offer versatile features, such as 10 cupholders, a third row of seats that folds flat and a center console that flips over to form a little table for the middle-row passengers. The MDX's fuel economy numbers are better than many SUVs, at 17 in the city and 23 on the highway. All MDX models have a five-speed automatic transmission and a 3.5-liter V-6 that makes 240 horsepower, plus standard four-wheel drive. A base MDX costs $34,370. Models with an optional touring package that includes a roof rack, upgraded stereo and power front passenger seat are priced at $37,200. An optional navigation system adds another $2,000 to the vehicle's sticker price. Styling is a critical component of the new Acura, says Frank Paluch, MDX chief engineer, especially in the near-luxury SUV segment, where competitors include the Lexus RX300, the BMW X5 and the Mercedes-Benz ML320. "We wanted to target something that was not as effeminate as the RX300 and we didn't want to target something as masculine as the X5 or ML320," Paluch said. "In brainstorming sessions, we told the designer that we wanted the MDX to be patterned after a certain animal - the rhino. And that's what we got. A vehicle with a strong front character and a wide stance - broad-shouldered with a l ow center of gravity. Put it next to an RX300 and the RX300 looks puny." In a head-to-head comparison with each of its rivals, Acura's new ute comes up a winner in several categories. While its 106.3-inch wheelbase puts the MDX squarely in the middle of the pack, its overall length of 188.5 inches makes the Acura 5 to 8 inches longer than its competitors. It is also the widest vehicle in the segment, at 76.3 inches. The MDX also has an edge in engine size and power. Its double-overhead-cam 3.5-liter V-6, rated at 240 horsepower, is the biggest and most powerful six-cylinder engine in the class. In addition, the MDX undercuts its three main competitors by a handy margin. Its base sticker is priced $1,200 to $1,400 below the RX300 and the ML320 and $5,000 less than the six-cylinder X5 3.0i. As for the styling, Acura went for an uncluttered exterior look on the MDX, skipping the side cladding that seems de rigueur on most SUVs. If the outside takes its inspiration rom t animal world, the inside takes its cues from what Paluch calls "Santa Fe styling." "We copied the Southwest look," he said. "Especially adobes, with free-flowing, simple shapes. We wanted an open, luxurious look more than anything else. The SUV buyer wants that feeling of spaciousness." Standard MDX features include a power moonroof, cruise control, leather seats and a leather-wrapped steering wheel, heated front seats, a seven-speaker stereo with an in-dash CD player and an eight-way power driver's seat. The MDX pays attention to safety, with standard side air bags and anti-lock brakes. With the fully automatic four-wheel-drive system, a button on the dash allows the driver to send maximum torque to the rear wheels. This feature should come in handy if you're spinning your rear wheels in snow or mud. After a week in the MDX, we began to appreciate why Galanti and his mother are so excited about this newest entry in the luxury SUV segment. We've tested all three competitors and, until now, felt the RX300 was the best choice - the easiest vehicle to live with, day in and day out. Now, the MDX ups the bar, in terms of engine power, roominess and features. For our money, the new kid on the block is the one to beat.
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