Acura's SLX luxury sport-utility vehicle (SUV) has undergone several changes for 1998, among them a new, more powerful engine, a new Torque On Demand four-wheel-drive system and a restyled front-end.

This year there is only one model, and its base price of $36,300 is $2,000 less than last year's Premium model. It is loaded with leather seats, wood trim, power moonroof, compact disc player, heated outside mirrors and anti-lock brakes. The outside mirrors can be folded back electrically for driving in close quarters, either off-road or on.

Acura, which is the American luxury division of Honda, got into the luxury SUV business by agreeing with Isuzu to sell a dolled-up version of its Trooper. Honda and Isuzu also cooperate on the Honda Passport, which is essentially a rebadged Isuzu Rodeo.

Luxury SUVs function as luxury sedans, for the most part, but they are appealing because they have big interiors and can still handle reasonable off-roading. Skid plates are built in to protect vital parts from rocks and logs.

The 215-horsepower, 3.5-liter V6 engine is a dual-overhead-cam (DOHC) unit with four valves per cylinder, while the one from last year was a single-overhead-cam design. Both the cylinder block and cylinder heads are aluminum. This engine has 25 more horsepower than last year and consequently feels somewhat livelier. Its low-speed power has been improved a bit, although it still responds most energetically when it is revved. Vibration is commendably absent, and its smoothness rivals that of a luxury sedan.

Fuel economy is up, too, by one mpg in both city and highway driving.

The automatic transmission has both "power" and "winter" modes. The

"power" mode raises shift points for stronger acceleration, while "winter"

engages third gear for starts in order to avoid wheelspin.

I often found that I slid the gearshift lever past D4 to D3 because the

detent is not strong enough. A soft detent between these gears is fairly common on other Hondas as well, so it must be designed this way to ease shifting down for more power.

Also new this year is Torque On Demand four-wheel drive. This

shift-on-the-fly system is engaged at the touch of a button and sends power to the wheels with the most traction. A system like this is most useful when the roads are slick or when tackling obstacles off-road. A small pictogram on the left side of the instrument panel gives a visual representation of how the

system is working.

Inside, there is ample room throughout, thanks to the tall and boxy profile. You won't knock your cowboy hat off riding in this vehicle, that's for sure. The front seats are wide and flat, yet provide decent lateral and lumbar support. There is plenty of room in back too. Of course, dropping the back seat opens up a sizable cargo space that is easy to use because the side-opening rear door is hinged vertically.

Putting down the back seat requires flipping up the bottom cushion and removing the headrests from the seat back. A simpler design gets used more frequently.

The radio is an old design whose small buttons require too much attention to use without being distracted from the road.

Last year the SLX and Trooper were embroiled in a controversy because Consumer Reports magazine gave it an "unacceptable" rating, alleging it was prone to tip in certain evasive maneuvers. The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) did not find fault with the design and said that, based on its investigations, it would not order a recall of the Trooper or SLX.

Price

The base price of our test vehicle was $36,300. Everything was standard,

and the addition of freight brought the sticker price to $36,735.

Warranty

The basic warranty is for four years or 50,000 miles.

Vehicles for The Star's week-long test drives are supplied by the auto manufacturers.

Point: The SLX p vides a luxurious environment with a smooth and

powerful V6 engine and an all-new Torque On Demand four-wheel-drive powertrain.

Counterpoint: Irritations are few: The gearshift slides too easily past D4, the radio has too many tiny buttons and folding the back seat is not as easy as it could be.

SPECIFICATIONS:

ENGINE: 3.5-liter, V6

TRANSMISSION: automatic

WHEELBASE: 108.7 inches

CURB WEIGHT: 4,615 lbs.

BASE PRICE: $36,300

PRICE AS DRIVEN: $36,735

MPG RATING: 15 city, 19 hwy.