I'm posting this mainly because someone else might be in the market for a vehicle on the above list, and would be interested in hearing what someone else had to say about them.
I've been looking around for the better part of three weeks now, and I'm close to a decision. Here's my homework though, hopefully it will benefit someone who hasn't made up their mind:
General info and ratings:
Safety test ratings:
Pricing engines (for invoice and retail costs)
The X5 is a nice vehicle, no doubt about it. It rides and handles very nicely, has very good acceleration, and smooth cornering. My one question to the designers of this car would be - who is the target audience? I doubt it's the family, because it has the same cargo space as a sedan.
Also a very nice vehicle, but a few questions about reliability and the appearance (hello? it's a MINIVAN). Drives heavy, typical of a MB wagon.
3. 2002 Ford Explorer EB
Why is Jacques Nasser still running that company? After the whole fiasco around the Explorer, you'd think ole' Jacques would have found the best guys in the business and hired them to work on the new Expy. Instead - the quality of materials has gone down yet another level, and the design is not very impressive (interior, it's not anywhere near as roomy as the MDX).
Jack of all trades, master of none. For luxury, the interior lags (albeit not that much) behind the X5 and ML-320. For performance, the X5 (4.4) will eat it for lunch (but at $10k more). ML-320 without the third row will take more cargo (after all - it's a MINIVAN). Still, a solid handling and performing car.
The X5 wins here, with the MDX running second, mainly because it hasn't been tested yet, and because the X5 tested incredibly well in the IIHS tests. The ML-320 runs at third, with the Explorer a distant 4th. Please explain to me why Ford goes on and on about the side airbags, and then makes them optional?
I'd even think of tying the MDX and X5 if the MDX had stability control on it's list of features. I'm sure that Acura will add it somewhere down the line; unfortunately, that doesn't help me this year.
The tendency of a vehicle to roll over in an accident is called the SSF (static stability factor), which is directly related to the track and height. Thanks to a very wide wheelbase (courtesy of it's Odyssey cousin), the SSF is pretty low for the MDX.
Braking and CR's emergency handling tests really knocked the MDX, taking it to task for fishtailing. I'm sure that stability control would improve the scores, if not improve the handling
Going solely on CR reports for reliability (I checked JD Power, and for some reason, didn't like their data. Durango?!). Here's what I got from that:
Needless to say, I expect that the reliability on an MDX should be excellent, as I've seen nothing but good comments from Acura owners on Internet based forums and CR. BMW gets 1 because they throw in maintenance for 3/36.
Here's where the MDX beat the others silly, as far as I was concerned. Decent ground clearance, yet not hard to get into. Good sized rear seats, yet not cramped for cargo when they're open and no extra vehicle length.
The dash is very nicely laid out, and the ergonomics of the vehicle are astounding. I liked the X5 as well - MB, while impressive with the quality of the amenities was not as pleasing as the X5 and MDX, and that third row seat is a joke.
Visibility was the MDX's great feat, IMHO - you can see forever on a clear day out of that vehicle. Cargo space was also good, although not as big a factor as you might think (without that silly third seat, the MB would win there).
Sorry to say it, but the MDX trailed here. That's fine by my parameters - I'm looking for a family vehicle in NYC, with occasional AWD use for safety (snow and rain). But if you're looking for serious 4WD, the other three on the list here would probably win, hands down. The lack of a transfer case, and the inability to force 4WD above 18 MPH just let me down.
If you had your hands on an X5 4.4, then you'd win in a footrace. Unfortunately, that would partially be because your pockets would be much lighter. At 3.0l, the X5 couldn't muster enough oomph to beat the MDX. Ford actually fared well here, placing a close 3rd to BMW. MB - the heavy ride hurts you here.
Cornering was impressive on the X5, with the MDX performing capably and the Explorer actually doing just as nicely (and much better than it's predecessor). I did notice some funky AWD kick from the MDXs VTM (it was raining). If I was a veteran MDX driver, I think I would have understood/appreciated it more.
I hate to say it, but the MDX disappointed me here a bit. This was another close call, with MB taking the top in the ladder and the X5 right behind it (and practically tied with the MDX). But - why all the fake wood? Would a wood shifter have cost Acura that much? And those plastic snaps on the center console? C'mon - this thing costs $40k, gimme a break Honda!
The fake wood really bugged me, but even worse was the dealer offering up an option to put more fake wood trim around the dash instrumentation. Really - $5 worth of plastic wood, and you offer it as an option?
The leather was nicest in the MB, but the MDX and X5 were virtually tied for second, and close to the MB. Ford's leather is more like very nice vinyl.
Acura - you went through the trouble of cutting a hole in the roof. Why is the sunroof so damn SMALL?
The most comfortable vehicle for me was the MDX. Roomy and w-i-d-e. Those extra inches paid off, and the seating was excellent. Most posters on the BB, when prompted for a single gripe on the car, mentioned the lack of a dead pedal for a footrest - this test drive was too short to reveal any problem with that, but I can see how it would get annoying on a long trip.
Controls were ergonomically placed within the MDX. BMW did a nice job with that too. The auxiliary controls for the MDX's rear seating air conditioning were remarkable - on a really muggy (90% humidity) day in NY, the AC in this baby was KICKIN'.
MB was very nice too - I keep saying that. Honestly - if you're in the market for a vehicle with 5 seats, 4WD, and don't mind it looking like a minivan, then I think the MB is not a bad buy. Add that third seat, though, and you're asking for trouble. That swing-out-of-the-way mechanism is ridiculous.
The MDX and Explorer both had easily retractable third row seating. Both were difficult to get in to - this is just a side effect of not having a bigger 3rd row - but my experience with these test drives tells me that you'll need a much bigger vehicle to get around that (Expedition, Sequoia or Yukon XL).
One thing I couldn't figure - the lumbar support on the MDX. Was it just me, or was it just a little off somewhere?
I liked the Explorer in this department, but you know what they say about looks - beauty is in the eye of the beholder. The MDX is also a very handsome vehicle, but without adding a bunch of dealer add-ons (like mouldings - again, a $40k vehicle, and Acura can't throw in a set of fender flares?), it looks a little plain.
Plain vulnerable is what I'd call the doors in a parking lot. I saw a lot of posts regarding that here, and now I know why. The dealer did offer some door side mouldings - $225 installed. What a bargain
The MB looks (to me) like a minivan. The X5 looks like someone distorted a 325 and turned it into a truck. I'm not fond of the typical BMW look, so I didn't think too highly of the X5, but that's me.
Inside, all of the vehicles looked nice (as well an almost $40k new car should), with the MB leading the way, and X5 and MDX a close second (tied). Ford - your interior looks like a rental car - cheap and used.
I needed a mix between a wagon and an SUV. Something that would protect my family, would offer 4WD for the rough weather we get 3 months out of the year, and would give me some height to enjoy those potholes without the wear and tear on my bumpers. Cargo space was a must, with 7 passenger seating a definite plus. The engine had to be tough enough to make merging on the BQE simple.
My best performer was the X5. It was disqualified because it was too small inside, and expensive when you added the 4.4 engine.
My best value was the MDX - it handled all of the tasks very capably, and I'm sure the reliability will be excellent.
Ford was the winner for 'if that's all you could spend, you'd get it'. Sorry, but the lack of luxury (even at a $35k EB edition and 5.4L engine) was disappointing, and the performance despite being a gas guzzler was not very enlightening.
MB - if I ever need a minivan that seats 5, I'll get this car. Until then, no way.
I put a deposit on the MDX. I'm unsure about whether or not I'll take the vehicle (I might keep looking for a different dealer) because I'm unhappy about the $500 over MSRP and the $825 side steps I had to purchase. In the end, this car represented the best value and performance for my family, and in as much as I'll be keeping it for at least 8 years, it seemed like the one I could afford to keep that long (without breaking the bank).