FARMINGTON, PA – Coming from an auto maker known for conservative styling, the ’07 Acura MDX cross/utility vehicle is a good way to silence the critics.

Rolling through the hills of eastern Pennsylvania, the all-new MDX is unmistakable when it appears in the rearview mirror.

The solid pentagon-shaped grille, split horizontally with the Acura logo front-and-center, is identical to the concept unveiled in April at the New York auto show.

While the concept was polarizing, at least judging by online chatter, vehicle design chief Ricky Hsu says he wanted instant recognition for the MDX.

He got it.

The daytime running lights, long and thin on the lower bumper, add a sinister flair to the CUV’s already menacing face.

Complete with standard 18-in. wheels, the new MDX from Honda Motor Co. Ltd.’s upscale luxury division registers high on the bling-o-meter and potentially could lure Cadillac Escalade owners looking to downsize.

In addition, the MDX might whittle market share from the segment-leading Lexus RX. So far this model year, the Acura CUV is No.2 in Ward’s Luxury CUV segment.

Best not to make too much of the fact, then, that the design inspiration for the ’07 MDX was a high-tech luxury yacht with the decidedly un-hip name, “Wallypower 118.”

Well-matched to the aggressively styled MDX is the new 3.7L SOHC V-6, which increases the horsepower of the outgoing model’s 3.5L V-6 by an impressive 47 ponies.

Acura engineers say 20 hp came from increasing displacement, 15 hp was squeezed out via more-efficient intake port and valve shapes, and 12 hp was obtained from induction- and exhaust-system improvements.

Torque also is up 25 lb.-ft. (34 Nm) to 275 lb.-ft. (373 Nm). The extra oomph is much needed to propel the MDX’s 4,541 lbs. (2,060 kg), 56% of which are upfront.

While the new model is just 70 lbs. (32 kg) heavier than its predecessor, the old MDX was deemed underpowered by some critics.

The MDX’s exterior dimensions have increased across the board, except for a 0.6-in. (1.5 cm) drop in height. Length is up 2.1 ins. (5.3 cm) from the ’06 model, overall width grows 2.3 ins. (5.8 cm) and wheelbase increases 2 ins. (5.1 cm).

Riding on an all-new unibody platform, the ’07 MDX is longer and wider than its primary competitors: the ’06 BMW X5 3.0i, ’07 Lexus RX 350, ’06 Porsche Cayenne and ’06 Volvo XC90 2.5T. Only the XC90 is taller, at 70.2 ins. (178 cm) vs. 68.2 ins. (173 cm) for the MDX.

In weight, the Acura falls in the middle of the pack, heavier than all-wheel-drive variants of the RX 350 and XC90 but lighter than the pudgy Cayenne and X5.

Adding to the MDX’s poundage is its Super-Handling All-Wheel-Drive system, first employed on the Acura RL flagship sedan two years ago and also fitted on Acura’s new RDX compact CUV. By manipulating torque flow not just from front to rear but also between the rear wheels, the system uses the AWD capability to positively influence vehicle handling.

Although the system adds weight, Acura says SH-AWD weighs 7% less than the outgoing AWD system, while upping torque capacity 37%.

In a track test, SH-AWD is intuitive. Many CUVs’ AWD and stability control systems aggressively manage torque apportionment to assure stable handling. But in navigating a quick corner, the system allows the rear axle to break loose slightly, helping to rotate the vehicle through the corner.

Rest assured, though. SH-AWD, integrated with standard vehicle stability assist and traction control, minimizes fishtailing and keeps the vehicle on its intended path.

Technically speaking, the biggest selling point likely will be the new Active Damper System, part of the optional Sport package.

It allows drivers to select the desired level of damping by balancing ride comfort with body control. Using the ADS’ “comfort” setting relieves an occasionally rough ride from the MacPherson-strut front and multilink rear suspensions.

Like other recent semi-active damper systems, the MDX’s uses electronically controlled magneto-rheologic fluid dampers.

Acura says the dampers can adjust from minimum to maximum damping force in as little as five milliseconds. Engaging the center-console comfort button provides immediate relief from pitted and pockmarked roads.

In developing the all-new chassis, engineers focused strictly on the X5, Mercedes-Benz ML 350, Cayenne and XC90.

Early on, engineers drove these models on European roads and on Germany’s famed Nurburgring track to find handling weaknesses.

Engineers say they most closely benchmarked the Cayenne. In test-driving the Cayenne and MDX, it appears they succeeded in matching Porsche’s level of ride, handling and body control.

Against the softer-riding X5 and XC90, meanwhile, the stiffer, sportier ride quality of the new MDX is demonstrable.

Designers approached the interior from a “spy-dad” perspective, going for a “Mission Headquarters” look to complement the vehicle’s target buyer: an on-the-go, executive “driver dad.” Second-row seats feature a bucket-type layout with “aggressive bolstering.”

The MDX is a surprisingly capable hauler, boasting the most cargo capacity length (83.5 ins. [212.1 cm] with both second- and third-row seats down) in the class. It also has top-of-class cargo width, with 48 ins. (121.9 cm) between wheelhouses, enough to accommodate a standard sheet of plywood.

The CUV’s towing capacity also has increased sharply, from a measly 2,000 lbs. (907 kg) to 5,000 lbs. (2,268 kg). Acura research indicates the preponderance of light-vehicle towing is for 5,000 lbs. or less.

Behind the wheel, the extensive use of metallic finish on the dash, coupled with the extra-large navigation screen, provide a rich feel.

Fit-and-finish is up to Honda’s usually high standards, although there are a few slight interior-panel gaps in pre-production models driven here.

One minor complaint is the ultra glossy simulated Koa wood trim. A vehicle as pricey as the MDX (projected at $41,000 to $48,000) should get authentic wood or, at the very least, a more convincing fake. At first glance, the glossy topcoat makes the wood look like carbon fiber.

Acura offers a plethora of state-of-the-art amenities for the MDX, including a Bluetooth hands-free phone link that allows for the storage of 10,000 phone numbers (10 numbers per 1,000 names) from a driver’s cell phone.

Also offered is a tri-zone climate control system, allowing second- and third-row passengers to control the temperature without input from the driver.

However, the driver has the ability to sync all three climate zones with the push of a button – a vital feature missing from some high-priced luxury vehicles.

And, as in the Acura TL and new RDX, the ELS DVD-A 10-speaker, surround-sound audio system is an upgrade.

The ’07 MDX boasts Honda’s ballyhooed Advanced Compatibility Engineering (ACE) body structure, painstakingly engineered to protect the cabin from impact intrusion and deformation in case of an accident.

Other safety features include front active head restraints, six standard airbags, driver- and front-passenger knee bolsters and an energy-absorbing hood to protect pedestrians.

Three option packages will be offered. The Technology package includes voice-recognition navigation and DVD-A audio. The Sport package includes perforated leather and special alloy wheels. The Entertainment package includes a rear-seat DVD entertainment system and heated second-row seats.

Preliminary fuel-economy ratings stand at 17 mpg (13.8 L/100 km) city and 22 mpg (10.7 L/100 km) highway. Clearly, product planners placed their priority on beefing up power before gasoline prices were holding steady at $3 per gallon.

All told, the new MDX should achieve handily – if not surpass – its 60,000-unit annual sales target, thanks to its insightful combination of style, performance, handling and functionality.

It arrives in Acura U.S. showrooms this fall.

cschweinsberg@wardsauto.com