NEW YORK – It would be easy to slam the styling of American Honda Motor Co. Inc.’s Acura ZDX. After all, the luxury brand’s design language has been largely mute.

The all-new 4-door sports car/cross-utility vehicle might not photograph well, but it actually scores a lot of points in person.

What’s more, the vehicle is one of Acura’s best executions to date. The brand claimed the ZDX would be its most luxurious model ever and lives up to the hype while maintaining Honda’s reputation for world-class engineering.

The 5-passenger ZDX is positioned between Acura’s large RL sedan and MDX CUV and viewed by Acura officials as their new flagship.

It joins the BMW X6 and a growing list of other vehicles that are not easily categorized, such as the Infiniti FX CUVs, as well as the Mercedes CLS and BMW 550i Gran Turismo coupe-like sedans.

Even though it was panned by many reviewers, the X6 has performed well in the market, maintaining a small but devoted following.

Ward’s data shows X6 sales down a mere 1.8% through September vs. like-2008 to 3,302 units. The less-expensive FX was off 18.4% in the same period, with 8,299 units sold.

Like the X6 and FX, the ZDX is a 4-door CUV (Acura calls it a 4-door sports coupe). It shares a platform with the MDX.

The ZDX and MDX have the same wheelbase, 108.3 ins. (275 cm), but the ZDX is 1.7 ins. (4.3 cm) longer overall than the MDX. And because of its bulging design, the ZDX is 7.1 ins. (18 cm) wider at its mirrors than the MDX.

Height is reduced significantly from the MDX, by as much as 6.9 ins. (17.5 cm) when the CUV is fully loaded.

With empty-nester Baby Boomers a targeted demographic, the ZDX is much easier for climbing in and out, with a 0.3-in. (0.8-cm) ground-clearance difference from the MDX unladen and 1.7 ins. fully loaded.

Despite its expected Boomer appeal, the ZDX delivers a sporty drive. Acura has used the same pick-your-favorite chassis-setting system from the MDX, with electronically controlled magneto-rheologic fluid dampers, 15 sensors and a high-speed electronic controller.

However, there isn’t much difference noted in the “sport” setting compared with “comfort” on the smooth new asphalt of the Henry Hudson/Saw Mill River Parkway from Manhattan into Westchester County.

’10 Acura ZDX with Advance package
Vehicle type Front-engine, front-wheel-drive, 4-door cross/utility vehicle
Engine SOHC 3.7L V-6 with aluminum head, block
Power (SAE net) 300 hp @ 6,300 rpm
Torque 270 lb.-ft. (344 Nm) @ 4,500 rpm
Compression ratio 11.2:1
Bore x stroke (mm) 90 x 96
Transmission 6-speed automatic with sequential sport shift and grade logic control
Wheelbase 108.3 ins. (275cm)
Overall length 192.4 ins. (489 cm)
Overall width 78.5 ins. (199 cm) at doors, 85.6 ins. (217 cm) at mirrors
Overall height 62.8 ins. (160 cm) unladen, 61.3 ins. (156 cm) fully loaded
Curb weight 4,462 lbs. (2,024 kg)
Base price TBA
Fuel economy 16/23 city/hwy (14.7/10.7 L/100 km)
Competition BMW X6, Infiniti FX, Mercedes CLS, BMW Grand Turisimo, Jaguar XK
Pros Cons
Quiet, powerful engine Americans like low-end torque
Handles like smaller car But drinks gas like big one
Less pricey than X6 Will BMW buyers care?

But steering is noticeably sharper in sport mode than in comfort.

Thanks to its low-riding stance, the ZDX handles like the TSX sedan, easily carving up the Saw Mill River Parkway.

The 3.7L SOHC V-6, making 300 hp and 270 lb.-ft. (366 Nm) of torque, is Honda through and through: It’s quiet and powerful but doesn’t hit its power peak until 6,300 rpm. Low-end torque is lacking. The torque peak comes at 4,500 rpm, while the X6 peaks by 1,400 rpm.

The X6’s turbocharged 3.0L I-6 matches ZDX’s 300 hp, but the BMW engine boasts 30 more lb.-ft. (41 Nm) of torque. The FX’s 3.7L V-6 churns out 303 hp and 262 lb.-ft. (355 Nm) of torque.

The ZDX’s new 6-speed automatic – Honda’s first, in the refreshed ’10 MDX – operates smoothly, allowing drivers to seamlessly downshift two gears at a time, making up somewhat for the lack of low-end torque.

Fuel economy is so-so. Ward’s manages 18.2 mpg (12.9 L/100 km), according to the trip computer, on a 29.7-mile (47.8-km) loop outside Manhattan. A 15.3-mile (24.6-km) leg on the highway in Westchester boosts mileage to 21.6 mpg (10.9 L/100 km).

Acura designers and engineers lavish the ZDX interior with premium materials that set this CUV apart from other Acuras.

The headliner in the top Advance trim looks like suede but feels more like a plush carpet (other trims get a circular knit), and leather on seats and the dash features a natural grain.

But a quibble with the interior, more relating to functionality, is the busy, confusing center stack found in all Acuras. At least in the ZDX, the lighting behind the buttons can be cut for a cool all-black look during the day, imparting some visual peace.

As with a coupe, the ZDX is designed around the front-row occupants, so rear-seat passenger space suffers, particularly headroom. Head-bumping is common when climbing out of the rear due to the steeply raked hatchback roofline.

The CUV comes standard with Acura’s Super-Handling All-Wheel Drive, and a blind-spot detection system is optional.

When being passed or while passing another vehicle, an orange warning icon appears at the base of the A-pillar. It is a simple, user-friendly system but lacks the ability to correct the path of the vehicle as do other blind-spot systems, such as one from Nissan Motor Co. Ltd.

In addition to the base model, the ZDX offers a Technology package, which includes a voice-recognition navigation system, multi-view rear camera and real-time traffic and weather.

Also available is the Advance package, which builds upon those features, adding adaptive cruise control; collision-mitigation braking; blind-spot information system; ventilated seats; and the driver-selectable chassis settings, dubbed Integrated Dynamics System.

When it goes on sale this winter, the ZDX should do well against the FX, but prospects against the X6 are uncertain. Expect the ZDX to price well below the X6, which begins at $55,900. But the nagging question persists: Will BMW intenders even consider an Acura?

They should. The ZDX is fun to drive, luxurious, sporty and comfortable, so long as you’re not in the backseat.

cschweinsberg@wardsauto.com