Earning the Badge – Inside the Design of the Acura MDX Model S


A long-treasured story in Honda lore tells of the day that the first motorcycle rolled off the line in Marysville, OH. The Elsinore was met with great fanfare as the culmination of years of work in building, staffing and creating a Honda plant and product in the United States. Less than 24 hours after sending notice to Japan of its success, Marysville leadership received a note from Japan congratulating them… and then instructing them to proceed with automobile production. 

It is a story which MDX Type S project leaders Grant Foreman, David Pietenpol, Mike Dunn and their team are very familiar. Not long after the first Acura MDX rolled off the line at the East Liberty Auto Plant, plans moved ahead to build the Type S – an evolution of the brand’s flagship SUV that would take Acura’s “Precision Crafted Performance” ethos to new heights.

The turbocharged MDX Type S would be the first Acura SUV to wear the Type S badge, and is the brand’s quickest and most powerful SUV ever. 

Determining Expectations 

As a next-level performance SUV, the MDX Type S is uncharted territory for Honda and Acura. As a company that made its name in building affordable and reliable vehicles, this was an introduction to a new customer base. So, while Foreman’s team plotted how to incorporate new technologies on a performance SUV, he and his team first had to determine what the customer would expect from the MDX Type S. 

“What customers expect from a high-performance luxury SUV wasn’t something we had much experience with at the start of this project.” Foreman said. “We have built supercars, and performance variants, but a Type-S SUV was different. We had to connect with these customers to see what they wanted and to find out what is attractive to them.” 

So, while the team’s research gave them a laundry list of things that customers coveted in a high-end SUV, the team needed to consider how these things fit the Acura DNA. Added features equal added weight, which detracts from vehicle performance. Given that the Type S badge embodies performance, striking a balance was paramount in the planning phase. 

First and foremost is the new turbocharged V6 engine specifically tuned for the Type-S MDX. Powertrain A-ALPL Mike Dunn led this joint development with colleagues in Japan. “Collaboration was key,” Dunn said. “Between all the body groups, we had some issues later in the development where the ability to get everyone together and solve issues was vital to making this project a success. Whether it was finding new ways to manage cooling, or finding space for additional components, working together was a key.” 

“Everything we did was bigger and better on the Type S MDX – 21-inch wheels, our biggest brake system, upgraded chassis and drivetrain components,” continues Foreman. “We increased the flow rate in the exhaust system to improve performance, and we moved the battery to the rear of the vehicle to balance weight for better driveability.” 

Pietenpol adds, “As the main model was under development, we always had a performance image of the MDX in our minds. We included the key design points that would allow us to produce the Type S version without having to do a lot of changes. Obviously performance is key and we wanted to design in things like body rigidity to help with the more powerful engine. We needed bigger air intakes to help cool the engine and we had to do some styling modifications to accommodate.  We also did some subtle changes that gave it a stronger stance and a more aggressive look, like the quad exhaust tips in the rear.” 

Getting to the Next Level 

Getting the power from the new turbocharged engine was one accomplishment, but being able to use that power was something altogether different. Matching the new 10-speed 10AT transmission with the turbocharged engine would allow designers take the MDX to the next level. 

“Mating the 10AT transmission with the turbo engine allowed us to use more of the capacity of the engine,” Dunn said. “The 10AT was developed knowing that the (turbo) was coming, so there are exclusive parts in there to allow it to handle the torque output. Moving the MDX into a Type S variant was a challenge, but the powertrain was able to be tuned to the point where you could have the performance at a Type S level. That has been what I am most proud of.” 

So as power and handling were increased, the key component then became the literal point where the vehicle meets the road. Bigger tires and wheels look nice, but their weight can negatively affect ride comfort. Also, larger tires can create more road noise, which is always a concern. So, the team went back to the tire manufacturer to find a solution. 

“Wheel and tire assembly required a lot of thought. Bigger tires and wheels are heavy and are un-sprung weight, which negatively affects the ride in a luxury SUV,” states Foreman. “Our largest tire and wheel combination ever on the MDX creates a larger contact patch to improve handling, but also creates more noise that can be transmitted to the cabin. To combat that, we used a sealer from inside the tire. It deadens road noise and provides self-healing to most tread punctures.” 

The scope of the project and the obstacles presented by the COVID-19 pandemic encouraged the team to utilize as many of its resources as possible, despite the fact that meetings could be problematic. But the project leaders drew heavily from the expertise of the Auto Development Center (ADC) as well as other vital sectors of the business. 

“It is a real success story. It was a multi-faceted approach with key contributions from purchasing, factory assembly and our design and test groups within ADC,” recalls Foreman. “I am incredibly proud of the Type-S MDX. It truly displays the capability of ADC and our unique abilities to create products for the North American market. Like Ohio associates did back in the 80s with the first Accords, we used all of our resources and our best thinking to provide a quality product.”


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