Cars.comparison: Large Luxury Crossovers

Don't look now, but it's back-to-school time, and that means rides to and from a variety of games, matches and recitals. Here we compare three crossovers, each with seven seats in three rows for the kids -- and a little luxury for you. The longtime favorite Acura MDX takes on the successful Buick Enclave and a newcomer, the Lincoln MKT.

= Category winner
The Contenders
2010 Acura MDX 3.7L Advance Package AWD2010 Buick Enclave CXL-2 FWD2010 Lincoln MKT EcoBoost AWD

$53,755

$41,995

$49,200

Price as tested

$54,615

$47,655

$56,080

Curb appeal
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This year's styling tweaks make the grille's shield smaller and less obtrusive, especially against silver paint. The proportions are excellent. The tailpipes echo the shape of tastefully executed headlights and taillights. We like the wheels, too.
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The Enclave isn't a bad-looking car, but its nose is bulbous, and we could do without the portholes in the hood. From the chrome wheels and taillight surrounds to the large headlight clusters, the brightwork doesn't do it any favors.
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The MKT is the anti-MDX in terms of the enormous grille (against black) and bizarre proportions. Some folks like the front, but fans of the rear-quarter view are few. The wheels are interesting, though.
Acceleration

Newly endowed with a six-speed automatic, the relatively lightweight MDX is quick, though you have to rev the engine to get to the power. A Sport mode to make the transmission more reactive would be a plus.

Acceleration tracks with these models' horsepower ratings, and the Enclave has the lowest despite being the only one with front-wheel drive. That said, low-rev torque makes it quick off the line, which is great for normal driving.

With a dramatic horsepower and torque advantage, the MKT's EcoBoost turbocharged V-6 makes it the rocket of the pack, and its quick-reacting six-speed transmission is tasty icing on an overgrown cake. Neither competitor offers an uplevel engine, making this one no contest.

Gas mileage (city/highway - combined, mpg)

16/21 - 18 Long a mileage leader, Acura has slipped. It has the lowest mpg, even compared with the competitors' all-wheel-drive versions, and it requires premium gas.

17/24 - 19 With front-wheel drive, our test Enclave has the best mileage. The all-wheel-drive version is also competitive with 16/22 - 18 mpg, and both are satisfied with regular gas. We have a winner.

16/22 - 18 The MKT EcoBoost doesn't beat the Enclave, partly because of a premium gas recommendation, but the ratings are terrific considering the robust drivetrain. EcoBoost requires all-wheel drive, but if you can live with front-drive, the MKT’s base V-6 gets an even better 17/23 - 19 mpg.

Handling

With handling that belies its size, the MDX is flat-out fun, with good balance aided by the standard all-wheel drive. The steering could use a bit more assist, but the adaptive suspension's Sport mode prevents the body lean found in the other two models.

The Enclave handles competently, tackling curvy roads with some body lean but little drama. The steering is appropriately tuned. It's not a sporty experience, but the Enclave certainly doesn't embarrass itself.

The MKT drives a bit smaller than it is, with decent reflexes and nicely matched steering, but it's no match for the MDX. You feel the weight in body lean, and the all-wheel drive does little to improve the dynamics in aggressive driving.

Cabin quality
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The MDX's materials are mostly good, but the door handles are a bit cheap, and the overall quality doesn't match that of the new ZDX, which shares the same platform. The center control panel is busy, and we aren't crazy about the dark-brown wood trim in an otherwise contemporarily styled cabin.
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The Enclave's design is generally old school, and it works exceptionally well, with high-quality materials and a far more harmonious color palette than our Acura. The main downsides are a few inconsistent panel seams and some overlaps that look wrong but are intentional.
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A modern, classy design is held back by some cheap-looking plastics, mainly in the center control panel. The buttons flanking the navigation screen look awful, and why so prominent? How often do you change the color of your cupholder lighting? The shift paddles have a weird feel compared with the MDX's.
Front seats

The MDX's front seats are more supportive than the others, which some might experience as overly firm. Likewise, some occupants think the backrest side bolsters are too restrictive. Legroom is good.

The Enclave provides ample legroom, and though the bottom cushion could be a bit longer, we found it the most comfortable, if only slightly. The tilt/telescoping steering wheel drops nice and low.

The MKT's driver's seat is a clearer loser than the Buick is a winner. Even with the adjustable pedals, we wanted the seat to move back farther than it could. One editor found the vertical seam in the backrest uncomfortable.

Second row

It’s a very nice three-seat bench with good height from the floor, ample thigh support and a comfy center armrest. The seat reclines, but the release is awkwardly placed atop the backrest where it facilitates folding. Our test car included automatic climate control and heated seats for this row.

The two standard captain's chairs are a bit narrow, and although they slide forward and back to provide plenty of legroom, they sit too close to the floor. The head restraints don't adjust, and tall passengers found them too low. A three-seat bench is optional.

The second-row bench doesn't adjust forward and back, and there's no center armrest. Still, our editors were satisfied with the legroom and found the seat height very comfortable — and the recline lever is easily reached.

Third row

Tolerable: It's not as simple to climb into as the Buick. Legroom is minimal, and you can't slide the second row forward. Headroom is workable, though, putting the MDX ahead of the Lincoln.

Enjoyable: The second row goes vertical for the best third-row access, and though the legroom can be poor, the sliding second row makes it better. Good seat height and the best headroom, too. Unlike the other models, there are three seats here, mitigating the shortage in our test car's second row.

Impossible: You can make do with limited legroom, but not headroom, which is sorely lacking here. The MKT's sloped design doesn't look good enough to justify the sacrificed headroom. Entry ease was only so-so after our car's "powered" second row lowered the backrest and then left the second step for us to do manually.

Cargo room (behind third row/maximum, cu. ft.)

15.0/83.5 The MDX has the least cargo volume behind its third row, with a very short load floor. It's redeemed when all seats are folded and the maximum volume beats the Lincoln.

23.3/115.0 The Enclave's cargo volume beats the others hands-down. Its exterior is a few inches wider than the Lincoln, but it's almost 6 inches shorter from bumper to bumper, making its 39.1-cubic-foot superiority even more impressive. One issue: When folded, the Enclave’s captain’s chairs leave large gaps in the cargo floor.

17.9/75.9 In third-row headroom, the MKT pays a price for its sloping roofline. The upside is a deep well behind the third row, which provides a tall storage area and more space than the dimensions suggest – and a tightly fitted, continuous load floor.

Overall value

The top trim level is equipped with exclusive features like an adjustable suspension and adaptive cruise control, but the grouping doesn't let you pick and choose options like the others do. At $53,755, our test car had the highest MSRP of the three. The model's price of entry with standard all-wheel drive isn't cheap at $42,230.

At $47,355 as tested, our Enclave was the lowest in price, and it still would be the lowest if it were equipped with all-wheel drive like the others. What's more, at $35,515, the base CX trim level costs roughly $8,000 to $10,000 less than the competitors' cheapest trims. Even so, the Enclave's interior quality impressed us the most. That's value.

Keyless access is a notable standard feature not included in the other two contestants, but many of the goodies are options that raised our EcoBoost trim's starting price from $49,200 to $56,080 as tested. With a base engine and front-wheel drive, the entry-level MKT is the most expensive of the three at $44,200.

Editors' choice

The MDX is an excellent vehicle, but the competition is tougher than when the Acura was one of the only models of its type. It's well-rounded and has great handling, but handling isn't as important to the average large-crossover buyer as the factors in which the Buick excels.

The Enclave beats its competitors in many categories — including some of the most important. It's not the quickest or most nimble, but it's more than competent. The most important features to the crossover buyer are roominess, comfort, efficiency and quality. The Enclave is one of the best models GM makes, and, in this comparison, the editors' choice.

In this vehicle category, an excellent drivetrain isn't enough to carry the day. It's outweighed by an inferior third-row seat, disappointing front-seat comfort and so-so materials quality. For shoppers who don't expect to use the third row, this one's second row is the best reason to buy.

© Cars.com 08/02/2010
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