The best thing about being an auto editor is getting to drive a whole bunch of new cars.

It's also the worst part.

The reason it's the worst part is that after you drive a certain number of motor vehicles, they start to blur together. Last month's eye-popping gadget looks old; there are only so many ways to put a navigation system into a dashboard.

And so it was with some skepticism last week that I strapped into a 2001 Acura MDX sport-utility vehicle, my tested version being the five-door Touring package.

This is the same new-for-2001 MDX that has won more awards of late than Julia Roberts.

Acura's first SUV was Motor Trend magazine's 2001 Sport-Utility Vehicle of the Year. At this year's North American International Auto Show in Detroit, a panel of media judges named the MDX "Truck of the Year."

Give me a break, I thought. It's an SUV for crying out loud, one of more than 50 on the market. How good can it be?

Pretty darn good, it turns out.

Outside, the MDX is certainly attractive but nothing super special. It has the elegant lines one expects from an Acura product, and the overall balance is good. At first glance, it actually appears a little smaller than its 188.5-inch length and 4,387 pounds.

Inside, it's a three-row 2-3-2 seating arrangement. The tested model's leather seating surfaces were lovely and comfortable. In the third row of seats, however, prospective buyers should definitely think "small children" because even a medium-size adult is going to get leg cramps sitting there.

With the third-row seats up, the storage area between them and the rear liftgate is tiny. Fortunately, the second- and third-row seats fold down to create 81.5 cubic feet of cargo area. There are multiple ways to configure the cargo compartment, but that's true of a lot of sport-utes.

The Acura SUV started to make a true believer out of me about 15 seconds after starting the engine and shifting it into "drive."

No truck-like feel here. What the MDX gives you is an extremely responsive 3.5-liter, 240-horsepower VTEC V-6 mated to a smooth-shifting electronically controlled five-speed automatic gearbox.

There is no lurch, no side-loading and no lag in this SUV. It handles more along the lines of a pricey, horsepower-loaded sedan.

The performance package, bolstered by four-wheel independent suspension, is not simply a flatland wonder. Winding along Highway 12 toward Napa, the MDX held the road with nary a flutter. When asked to pass a straggler, it dispatched the poke with a vengeance.

Acura has understandably touted the MDX's electronic VTM-4 four-wheel drive system. It monitors driving conditions and manages distribution of engine torque to all four wheels, making the SUV a sure-footed vehicle in virtually anything Mother Nature can hand out.

The VTM-4 also has a "lock" feature that applies maximum torque to the rear wheels when needed (like when you've backed into a snow-covered ditch.)

The bottom line is that although many SUVs are claiming to combine sporty car-like performance and off-road force these days, the MDX really does have both.

The technical, safety and comfort features stuffed into the MDX are in line with what Acura puts into its luxury sedans and coupes.

The tested MDX included 100,000-mile engine tune-up engineering, driver/front seat side air bags, theft-deterrent system, remote keyless entry, leather-trimmed surfaces, driver's eight-way power seat, heated front seats, trip computer (you can actually see the digital display), automatic climate control, power moonroof, heated/power door mirrors, driver's seat/outside door mirrors memory system, a Bose AM/FM stereo-cassette-CD changer (six-disc, in-dash) with eight speakers and a roof rack.

All that was expected. This wasn't: All that was standard for a double-take low price of $36,970. The only added cost on the tested mo l was a $480 destination and handling charge.

If you had blindfolded me, taken all the Acura badging off the SUV and then thrown me into the vehicle sans blindfold, I would have priced it at $45,000 -- minimum.

The comparatively low price makes the MDX a serious player against decidedly pricier competition, some of it offering less than what's in the MDX. (A DVD-based navigation system is an option on the MDX.)

Want some more for your money? The MDX includes a four-year, 50,000-mile limited warranty along with Acura's usually excellent customer-assistance and roadside-assistance services.

Want more? All MDX models meet California Ultra-Low Emissions Vehicle standards. Likewise, the MDX has held up admirably in crash tests; Acura engineers said the rear area is designed to withstand a 35 mph impact with no intrusion into the third-row seats.

The Golden State can take some pride in the fact that the MDX was designed at Acura's research-and-development facilities in Torrance.

State pride is nice, but the MDX's appeal is universal.