MDX vs. LL Bean Outback
Since I spent quite a while shopping for an MDX but ended up getting a Subaru LL Bean Outback, I figured it would be useful to post a comparison here. These are different vehicles, so some of the comparisons may be Apples and Oranges. Overall, I think it is quite reasonable to compare the two. While I ended up with the Outback, I still think the MDX is still about the best bet for a 7 seat SUV. On that note, here are my thoughts:
Engine: both are gems, and both are very quiet and smooth. When you do hear them, the Subaru H6 definitely sounds better, with a very pleasing mechanical whir. Overall, they are equally good.
Transmission: no question about it, the MDX has a better transmission. Smoother shifting, and the extra gear helps quite a bit. I do like the power mode in the Subaru, however, which controls shift points based on how rapidly you step on the gas.
Performance: both vehicles have a similar power to weight ratio (0.057 HP/lb for the Subaru, 0.054 for the MDX) and are within a few tenths of each other to 60 mph. The Subaru feels a little sprightlier on the road.
Handling: while the MDX handles very well for an SUV, its 4400+ lb curb weight, higher CG, and front biased weight distribution put it well behind the Subaru in the handling department. This is no big surprise. On the other hand, the Subaru is certainly not the best handling car around. If I consider the origins of each vehicle, I'd have to say the MDX is better handling as an SUV than the Outback is as a car.
Braking: Subaru wins here, although this is also a general SUV vs. car issue.
Comfort/Interior: the MDX has more luxury features, but the LL Bean Outback has a more comfortable cockpit in my opinion, and is more oriented towards the driver (I sort of felt like the MDX had a minivan feel). The LL Bean seats are more comfortable, and the leather seems to be softer and of higher quality than the MDX hides. Both lose points for the plastic wood, although the Bean's Momo steering wheel is apparently made of the real thing.
The Bean's automatic climate control system is far easier to use than the MDX unit, the controls are better designed, and it seems to heat/cool the interior more effectively. I like that Acura gives you the option of the nav system, but they should not relegate the climate system controls to a tiny group of buttons up near the center vents. It's like they were banished from useful society or something. On nav-less models, the trip computer LCD takes up too much space and has too little functionality to justify is existence (and the prime dashboard real estate it occupies).
As far as feel of the controls and switches, both vehicles are very good. I have always thought Honda had the best switches and buttons in the industry, but Subaru has caught up in recent years.
Instruments: Subaru wins here -- they gauges are bigger, easier to read, and look "serious". I thought they styling of the MDX's gauges was a tad too artsy.
Passenger Space: If you need to seat 7, the MDX wins hands down. The Subaru is fine for 4, a little tight for 5.
Ride: both vehicles have a nice ride. The MDX isolates road irregularities much better, so you don't feel them work through the chassis as often. On the flip side, the LL Bean is much more "connected" to the road, giving it a more athletic feel. What you like better depends on the kind of driving you do, I guess.
Exterior Looks: MDX wins by a long shot here -- it has a modern and unique design. The Outback is somewhat frumpy looking with generic 90s styling.
Interior Looks: two tone leather and wood steering wheel make the Bean interior much more handsome and richer looking than the MDX, and the dual glass moonroofs brighten up the interior quite a bit. I actually thought the Ebony MDX interior was rather drab and somber, but Saddle was pretty good.
Road Noise: The MDX is quiet, but the wind noise at 75 mph sticks out like a sore thumb. I have to give the edge to the Bean here, even though it may be louder overall. As an aerodynamicist, I know there is not a whole lot of difference between the shape of the Outback and the MDX, so this is one area where being an SUV does not excuse the MDX. I mean, I can take a brick and reduce its drag and wind noise, so why can't Acura do this with a much more aerodynamic shape like the MDX? Acura needs to work on the wind noise.
Audio: I think the MDX touring Bose system has rather poor sound quality. The 8 speaker system in the Bean sounds way better, and the McIntosh system in the VDC wagon is even better than that. Subaru easily wins here, and this is another area Acura needs to work on.
Utility: the MDX has more cargo room, period. The Subaru gets kudos for a truly flat load floor when the back seats are folded. The MDX roof rack is a joke. The Subaru has a better rack, easily accomodates aftermarket Yakima/Thule crossbars and accessories, and the lower roof height is a bonus for anyone who puts stuff on the roof frequently.
AWD systems: Technically, I'd say the two systems are about even -- the VTM4 is similar to the Active AWD system on the LL Bean, in that both are predominantly FWD but shift power to the rear when the fronts slip. Both systems also proactively transfer power to prevent slip. If it came down to a choice, I would pick Subaru just because they have more experience in AWD systems, and their vehicles are known to have well balanced performance in adverse weather.
The only other thing I can think to mention: the Subaru's power windows are too slow.
Value: I think the MDX is a fine value as SUVs go, but some of the shortcomings (stereo, wind noise, roof rack) make me scratch my head, because these are non-issues for vehicles costing thousands less. If I can get a Ford Escape with a decent radio, useful roof rack, and no obtrusive wind noise, why can't I get those things on an MDX? (I am not advocating the Escape here, just using it as an example). Even though I was ready to buy an MDX, these issues made me question whether the vehicle was really worth $38K for the touring model I wanted.
In terms of sticker price, the base MDX and the LL Bean Outback are about $5000 apart. You can get the Bean for near invoice, which makes the real difference about $8000. I didn't let price drive my decision, but I do feel like you get more for the money with the LL Bean, especially when you browse through the accesory list for the MDX and see how much of that stuff comes standard on the Bean (cargo mat, cargo cover, etc). On the other hand, there are options on the MDX that you can't even get on the Bean (nav, seat memory, reverse tilt mirror) and some standard features on the MDX that the Bean can't match (towing capacity, seating for 7).
In the end, you have to weigh everything. In my case the Bean has everything I wanted, it drives and handles nicely, and the stereo, roof rack, and wind noise levels are all to my liking. As I mentioned before, I still think highly of the MDX, and it is clearly one of the best SUVs around; I just think Acura has to work out a few of the issues.
Please weigh in with your questions and comments, and perhaps I can clarify some of my statements and make the comparison more thorough. I am sure I left many things out!