We all felt that the soothing calm of a week at the beach would be just the right ticket for the Beaulieu’s 2016 Family Vacation. We opted for a nearby destination we’ve never been to: Cape Cod. Living in the greater Montreal area means you’re never more than a five-hour drive away from a New England beach, and adding 90 minutes would get us to that famous sandbar that stretches into the Atlantic just south of Baahhhston.
We picked a cottage centrally located in South Yarmouth for our week in the Cape, both as an insurance against infamous Cape Cod traffic jams for daytrips and to locate ourselves near a Nantucket Sound beach (on the south side), where the water is at its warmest. That part of the Cape is also the one with the least shark sightings, well, except for Trump, spotted at a fundraiser 30 minutes away from us (to negate the bad vibe, the Obamas were vacationing just across from us on Nantucket). To complete the all-American setting, we rode there in an Alabama-built three-row seven-seat luxury SUV.
Coming home with a 2016 Acura MDX Elite, black on black leather, I thought the four women of my life would be thrilled, but first comment I got was: “We’re taking this to Cape Cod?” The problem is, we’re a family of five, square pegs in a round hole world. That’s why we’ve had minivans as family cars since 2003. Minivans offer tons of room, while three-row SUVs offer the pretence of room behind their certified coolness. Despite sharing DNA with our current-gen Odyssey, the MDX is shorter, has less wheelbase, less interior width, less headroom and even loses the famous rear well that we still find in that other platform-mate, the Ridgeline.
Hence the lack of enthusiasm for the MDX’s smallish interior space. There’s a mini-well under a self-holding cover in the back, but it’s just big enough for two rolled-up beach chairs. The room under the car is occupied by the full-size spare tire. When you need that third row up, there’s not much trunk volume left back there (447 L to be exact).
While my teenage daughters ponder my sanity and neglect my Tetris skills, let’s look at what we have here. For 2016, the MDX gained a standard nine-speed automatic transmission with push-button control. Being graced with the top-shelf Elite trim, my tester came with all the extra trimmings: engine idle stop-start, surround view camera, ventilated front seats, genuine olive ash trim, DVD player with 16.2” widescreen display and HDMI input, 546 watt stereo with surround sound and 12 speakers and front and rear parking sensors.
Front passengers get treated to first-class surroundings, with heated / ventilated leather seats (automatic or manual settings) with 10-way power adjustable driver’s seat, 8-way for passenger. Although the buckets look regal, they follow the Fernando principle – comfortable, they’re not. I was surprised to get sore after barely an hour on the road. The driver’s perch seems designed for more, ahem, American physiques than my 6’ 190 lb. The electric lumbar adjustment stops just when you begin to feel it doing something, the bolsters are too far apart and the seat is firm but flat. To remove an immediate neck pain, I had to shove the headrest as low as I could and recline the seatback a bit more than I liked. Fortunately, with the power tilt / telescope steering wheel, it’s easy to reach a good driving position. The front center armrest slides forward to meet your elbow, but your hand cannot rest on the absent gear shift lever. The tranny buttons seem like a way to unnecessarily complicate something that worked well before. And speaking of that, there’s that double-decker infotainment center. It’s like one design department wanted a remote screen with control access, the other a touchscreen interface and the manager sent both down the production line. Most controls are redundant between the two, and the final layout is confusing, irritating and highly distracting.
Surfaces in front are mostly soft to the touch, but still everybody I had on board could not believe that the MDX was really that expensive; the interior is as nice as you’ll find in a top-trim Honda vehicle, but has nothing special to make it worthy of luxury-liner status, something Toyota achieves with its Lexus products. The second row is spacious and drew no complaints from my girls, except that three abreast would not cut it for more than an hour. The center seat has a shoulder seatbelt coming from the ceiling, and the seatback doubles as an armrest, so not the best seat in the house (for 2017, the 60/40 bench becomes captain’s chairs in upper trims). Things get ugly in steerage. Unlike a minivan’s third row, passengers back there face floorboards instead of finished seatbacks and are surrounded by hard plastics – no padding anywhere. The third row in the MDX doesn’t offer enough legroom for adults and the seat is set too low; I’m not able to seat back there at all. Somehow, my eldest made the whole trip back there, but at 5’4” she had a bit more room than me. Access to the back row is so complicated that the girls preferred three abreast seating for shorter stints. Basically, what we have here is 4+3 seating.
To fit our modest cargo – three carry-ons, a few bags, a soft cooler and some beach gear – we had to fold down half of the third row and take advantage of every gap. Standard in all MDX trims, the power rear liftgate helped load and unload, and speaking of that the flat trunk has the advantage of being at hip height, easier on the back than a minivan’s well. Mind your head though: the liftgate doesn’t rise high enough for a six-footer.
With more than 24,000 km on the odo, this is a well-travelled press vehicle, so no worries about breaking it in. The 290 hp 3.5L V6 is strong and sonorous, while the nine-speed slushbox did not hunt around as much as I feared. It does shift a lot around town, where the MDX is not at its best. With its wide track, jerky low-speed throttle and choppy ride focused on handling (passengers did complain), the MDX seems designed for open roads, not bumpy suburban confines. Oddly enough for a three-row vehicle, the MDX is more driver-centric than family-oriented. The 2016 MDX Elite is priced at $65,250 before freight and PDI.
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The number one tip when driving to Cape Cod is: avoid getting there between 8 am and 2 pm on a Saturday. The Cape is separated from the mainland by a man-made canal for commercial shipping, and only two bridges cross that canal – each with two inbound lanes – a bottleneck that backs traffic up to Boston. We thus set sail in the MDX at 8:30 am and headed down to the border crossing in Stanstead, QC. We opted to drive down I-93 to take advantage of the scenic drive through the Franconia Notch in New Hampshire. Of course, just as we got there, the state park got covered by low-hanging storm clouds and torrential rain poured down – there goes the view. The MDX proved very stable on the watered-down highway, and the windshield had probably been treated by Honda Canada’s detailers as water was sliding right off the glass. Coming in and out of the downpour, I could see that the auto setting for the wipers did not perform as well as expected.
Playing with the MDX’s multiple infotainment controls usually ends up with the wheel tugging at you, the lane deviation system having sensed a painted line under the wheels. Oops. The system is able to re-center the car by itself, but after feeling the annoying tugs while clipping apexes, my wife had me turn it off. The radar-assisted cruise control works pretty well in light traffic, with easy graphic presets for distance. The constant beeping when the radar assistance came on or off became rapidly irritating though. In heavier traffic, the MDX would brake pretty hard by itself when a vehicle would cut in, so I went on full manual under these conditions.
With the girls using the DVD in the back, the sound system for us adults was left with only the front speakers to work with, and sound was tinny at best under this setup (most of the trip, really). The DVD player itself is up front, but viewers in the back have a detachable remote control to oversee operations. Best viewing was achieved from the third row, the screen location not being ideal at all for the second row occupants. The player was very sensitive to disc condition, and one has to wonder why it won’t accept Blu-ray discs at this price point.
Coming down the mountains, we stopped for the recommended premium gas, tax-free wine and lunch at the Live-Free-or-Die state’s excellent rest area in Hookset. I-93 is tolled beyond that point, but at only $1 (70 cents with EZ Pass), it’s a bargain. Entering Boston’s Big Dig by mid-afternoon, we encountered relatively dense traffic after coming back out in the daylight on the other side of the downtown area. Our fears of bumper-to-bumper traffic from Boston to Cape Cod evaporated after a few Highway 3 exits, and we drove freely onto the Cape, following the Acura’s nav indications right to the cottage. As we got there, the MDX briefly dipped to an indicated 9.9 L/100 km and it would hover in the low 10’s for the rest of the trip. Its official Energuide ratings are 12.2/9.1/10.7 L/100 km city/highway/combined so we’re in the ballpark.
If things were a bit tight inside the MDX, our vacation rental matched our needs. The cottage was a typical Cape Cod-styled bungalow, covered in grey cedar shingles with white trim. It offered two bedrooms, one with three beds, the other a master suite with its own full bathroom. When travelling with three teenage girls, you need two bathrooms. The dining area had seating for six, the kitchen was just big enough for the whole crew to move along the sandwich production line and the living room was graced with a large HDTV.
Add unlimited WiFi, cable, large backyard, rear deck, gas grill and a really neat hot water outdoor shower, square peg, square hole – we could not have done better on our budget. We were located just a 15-minute walk to Parker’s River Beach, not the most spectacular of the Cape (as are most Nantucket Sound beaches), but big enough and, more importantly, blessed with surprisingly warm waters. Having a walk-to-beach home base has its importance in Cape Cod, as beach parking varies from $15 to $25 daily. Still, we soon found free parking near the beach and avoided the 15 minutes of flip-floppin’ with the beach gear.
Beyond the beach
Cape Cod is known for its famous beaches, but if you stick to the sand, you’d be missing on a few worthy daytrips while on the Cape. The Heritage Museum & Gardens in Sandwich hit way above my expectations – wear comfy shoes, there’s a lot a walking to do there, most of it in the shade, refreshing after a sunny beach day. Heritage has of course splendid gardens, but amongst their three museums, one is dedicated to a car collection whose level of quality I did not expect – Clark Gable’s Duesenberg is there. Heritage also has excellent picnic grounds, so pack up your sandwich when going to Sandwich.
You can’t visit Cape Cod without driving all the way out to Province Town, or P-Town as the locals say. Driving in on Highway 6, the sand dunes begin right at the edge of the pavement giving you the feeling of being much further away from home. Province Town is very touristic, in the bar-restaurant-souvenir shop kind of way, but is still daytrip-worthy. To avoid flat-fee parking sharks, head to the metered public parking at the corner of Commercial and Johnson. We walked the town on $3 of change. Streets are pretty narrow in Province Town and people and bikes are all over the place, so drive very slowly and carefully – not easy with the MDX’s jerky first gear and touchy throttle. Do take the time to drive up to the National Seashore visitor’s center for a splendid view of the outer tip beaches. From there, follow the road to Pilgrim’s First Landing Park where you can walk up above the sea on a long dyke that stretches out to a lighthouse (mind the tides, though).
On your way back, try to stop by the Chatham fishing pier around mid-afternoon, and watch fishermen unload their catch of the day from an observation deck. The girls had a field day watching the playful seals catching scraps off the ships.
But dude, the beaches?
Ah yes, those endless Cape Cod sand beaches. This is the place to walk for miles and miles in the sand, or even drive if you’re equipped to do so. Beach driving creds require tow hooks, four-wheel drive, towing chains or straps, an army shovel, lowering your tires to 15-20 psi and, small detail, a $200 permit for non-residents. So no MDX pics on the beach.
The most spectacular beaches are found along the Cape Cod National Seashore National Park. Basically, the entire east coast of the Cape is a deep sand beach separated from the high land by sandy cliffs and dunes. You can beach hop within National Park beaches on the same $20 parking ticket, but if you enjoy walking trails, there are a few money-saving tricks – like parking in the shade at the Doane Rock monument for free, and walk a very scenic 15 minutes to Coast Guard Beach. We also stopped at the Marconi historic site, where some of first wireless transatlantic messages were sent. The site towers above a dreamy deserted beach, but there’s no way to go down there without breaking your neck. Outer Cape waters are colder, and playful seals swim and fish near the public beaches. The Outer Cape is also where most shark sightings are located, so stay away from Shark Chow (seals) and don’t swim too far out.
Before heading back home, we booked a chain hotel near Providence to allow us to spend the weekend in America’s smallest state, Rhode Island. That part of the drive sent us on uncharted territories, so we started to rely on the MDX’s navigation system, which proved subpar at best. We drove out of the Cape at 8:30 am, and already traffic was jammed inbound for miles and miles. Outbound, however, traffic was very light and we expected an early arrival in Newport via a scenic route, but the MDX sent us down a 30 minute + detour through nondescript suburban areas. In retrospect, we should have followed road signs, but we had a nav system to put to the test. Newport is as upscale as Cape Cod towns were minigolf-kitschy. In the late 1800’s–early 1900’s, powerful families like the Vanderbilts built their summer homes there, vast multi-million-dollar mansions that are a testament to what is now known as the “Gilded Era”.
Five of these mansions are owned by a historic preservation society and can be visited in well-organised audio-guided tours. Plan a full day to tour all five, but if you’re sampling the area like we did, opt for the two-mansion pass and visit The Elms and The Breakers. The area around Thames street is vibrant and has plenty of good restaurants, but again avoid parking sharks – a five-minute walk will get you to metered streets, where pocket change covered us for the evening. Historic downtown Newport reminds one of Beacon Hill in Boston, and some streets were too narrow to tackle with the MDX (driving past parked cars involved putting two wheels on the sidewalk). While in Newport, don’t forget to follow the “10-mile drive” along the scenic coast of the peninsula.
After a night’s rest at the Holliday Inn Express, one of the very few places that will accommodate a family of five in one room, we drove to the state capital, Providence. Free street parking on Sundays, and – bonus – free admission to the famous RISD Museum. Like its splendid colonial-era surroundings, the Rhode Island School of Design’s Museum punched way above our expectations.
Plan at least two hours to visit, and revel in their collection that features paintings by Monet, Renoir and Picasso, amongst others. The nav system got us in and out of town, but did send us down a one-way street once due to a lack of precision at local street level.
Sailing back home
We set sail for home after the lunch hour and programmed our final destination in the Acura’s navigation (which requires you to be at a complete stop). Unlike our Google Maps results from the morning, the MDX was routing us through downtown Boston, back to I-93. Google was favouring ring roads and a bypass of the interstates via Highway 3 (Everett Turnpike). Leaving the MDX’s nav to recalculate, we followed the Google strategy, weary of the Boston traffic – and we did good. The nav readjusted to our every move, but tried to route us back to the longer, I-93 route. After a few twists and turns, we concluded the navigation system’s decisions showed no logic at all; it did not use the shortest route, in time or distance, nor did it evade heavy traffic or tolled roads – is that what we call fuzzy logic? To add insult to injury, once we crossed back into Quebec at the Philipsburg crossing, the screen was showing us driving through fields and the ETA froze. Those fields became Highway 35 over two years ago; one doesn’t expect a nearly $70k vehicle to have such outdated maps. It kept giving us new options when we got near “existing” roads, and finally reduced our ETA by 20 minutes once we reached the older section of the highway. Last year’s road trip car, the Citroën C4 Grand Picasso, had a remarkable nav system that gave you multiple options for every destination. And it was accurate.
All is not bad in the MDX. Highway ride is smooth and stable, the Jewel Eyes LED headlights perform well, with very clean cut-offs (I was never able to turn on the high beams, sadly). All rearview mirrors feature auto-dimming, and once the girls finally turned off the DVD, we were able to restore sound to all speakers. The sound quality varies with source, with radio the tinniest, and USB feed colourful and deep.
Before returning the vehicle on Monday morning, the trip meter displayed 1,913.5 km for an average of 10.1 L/100 km. My calculator reveals 10.6 L/100 km, matching the combined rating despite a heavy balance of (fully loaded) highway driving.
Walking the plank
Ironically, the MDX is the most expensive press car I’ve spent some serious time with, but it’s also the first one I did not miss after handing back the keys. With poor seating ergonomics, barely useable third row, irritating infotainment, challenged navigation, choppy ride, jerky throttle and doubtful value equation at the price level of the Elite trim, I’m baffled by its sales success.
True, it’s a round hole for us square pegs, but the success of three-row SUVs just shows that Fernando was right: it’s better to look good than to feel good. Back in the water you go.
Total trip cost:
$121.11 USD, $43.42 CDN
HomeAway property #3859635 (1 week) : $1,625 USD
Holiday Inn Express Swansea, MA (1 night) : $182.76 USD
Heritage Museums & Gardens:
Adult tickets: $18 (x5) USD
Preservation Society / Newport (two mansions pass):
Adult ticket: $25.99 (x2) USD
Youth ticket: $7.99 (x3) USD