The issue I have with these vehicles is that while they're adequate, they lack ambition. Their looks are clean and reasonably attractive, but they're not particularly stylish, let alone adventuresome or – heaven forbid – polarizing. Their interiors are comfortable and well screwed together, with the sort of popular features that consumers expect at a given price point. Their engines are decently powerful and vocal enough to set the heart very slightly aflutter, yet they're not too thirsty. Their transmissions are invisible and their rides are best described with whatever buzzword synonym Joe Consumer might come up with for "sporty" or "luxurious." In short, they're boring.
In reality, provided they sell well, there's really nothing wrong with automakers building Camry Syndrome vehicles – they're reasonably competent at everything and clearly meet a need. The problem is that I want some aspects of my vehicle to be better than others, because contrast breeds character. I wish someone at Acura felt the way I did when it redesigned this MDX for 2014, because for me, there's so much of this premium crossover that's merely middle of the road.
The MDX's exterior styling, for example, sacrifices style and personality in a bid to not offend anyone. Acura's infamous beak nose has been toned down considerably, presenting a sort of ultra-wide shield grille. The Jewel-Eye LED headlights situated on either side of the latter are perhaps the MDX's most polarizing exterior feature, but they're part of a look we've already seen from Acura – a look we're set to see more of. A pair of subtle character lines highlight the profile, while the taillights share their shape with the MDX's little brother, the RDX. Aside from those headlights, though, there's not a lot that draws the eye, particularly when the model in question is painted in Silver Moon like my tester.
At least the interior is a bit more interesting than the exterior. It's a nice place to spend time, featuring high-quality Milano leather on the seats and steering wheel, soft-touch plastics on the dash and nicely arranged strips of wood trim. There's a disappointingly limited variety of materials, though, as Acura only offers a single type of wood, regardless of which of the four interior colors is chosen. That minor issue aside, as is expected of a product from Honda/Acura, fit and finish is really quite impressive.
Fit and finish is really quite impressive.
My biggest issue with the MDX's cabin centers on the dual-screen infotainment system. This is a setup Consumer Reports dinged for its unintuitive nature, and indeed, it feels unnecessarily complicated. Just count how often you push a 'button' on the lower touchscreen only to have the results appear on the upper display. It's not pleasingly laid out, and many automakers have come up with more ergonomic and more effective setups employing single screens, not to mention better-to-use all-in-one controllers than the one employed here. Acura touts that the MDX's button count has decreased from 41 in last year's model to just nine in this new one (we're assuming they're talking about the infotainment alone, because there's 13 buttons including HVAC), but as it turns out, this development isn't the benefit the automaker would have you believe.
Aside from its problematic infotainment, though, the MDX offers a well thought-out interior. The controls are mostly concentrated around the bottom of the two displays, and are easy to reach. Visibility is excellent, as are this CUV's supportive, comfortable leather seats. The addition of both heating and cooling functions, as well as 10-way power adjustability, makes the MDX a great place to sit for extended periods. The second row is quite livable for adults, although the third row is primarily for smaller children, or perhaps amiable adults over short distances. Thankfully, accessing the cramped way-back seats is a one-touch affair, and they're also easy to fold for added storage space.
In fact, the MDX is quite a versatile cargo hauler. There's 15.8 cubic feet of cargo space with the third row up, a number that grows to 45.1 cubic feet when in the five-passenger configuration. Fold the second row flat, and that cargo figure expands to an impressive 90.9 cubic feet.
Fold the second row flat, and cargo space expands to an impressive 90.9 cubic feet.
Under the MDX's hood sits Acura's well-received, direct-injected 3.5-liter EarthDreams V6. With 290 horsepower and 267 pound-feet of torque available at 4,500 rpm, it's down on power and torque compared to the turbocharged BMW X5 xDrive35i (300 hp and 295 lb-ft) while the supercharged Audi Q7 offers up 22 extra pound-feet of torque but 10 fewer horses. The Acura does outgun its other three-row rival, the Infiniti QX60, which packs just 265 hp and 248 lb-ft of torque. The MDX also has a major trump card in the form of its curb weight – it's 130 pounds lighter than the all-wheel-drive QX60, 458 pounds lighter than an X5 and a whopping 860 pounds lighter than the Q7.
The powertrain, which includes a six-speed automatic and Acura's optional Super Handling All-Wheel Drive, is easily adaptable to the driver's whims thanks to the centrally located Integrated Dynamics System switch.
60 miles per hour arrives in the mid-six-second range, which is slower than the X5, but noticeably quicker than the overweight Q7.
I've seen plenty of systems like this before, with each offering a variation on the MDX's simple Comfort, Normal and Sport modes. As is usually the case, the modes tweak the effort of a variety of systems. In this case, the three modes alter the level of the electric power-assisted steering, the sharpness of the throttle response, the transmission's shift map and the torque distribution of the all-wheel drive. While there are moderate changes in the way this crossover behaves when going from, say, Comfort to Sport, the differences aren't world-altering.
Throttle response in the MDX can best be described as linear and responsive, and it's never particularly dull or sharp, even when switched into Comfort or Sport mode. Power delivery, meanwhile, is solid thanks to the revvy V6. Low and mid-range punch is perfectly adequate, with a linear torque buildup that tapers off cleanly as the revs climb. There are no particular highs or lows here. 60 miles per hour arrives in the mid-six-second range, which is slower than the X5, but noticeably quicker than the overweight Q7.
As Senior Editor Steven Ewing pointed out in his First Drive, the sound that comes from the MDX's concealed tailpipes isn't quite as sweet as what was offered from last year's 3.7-liter V6, but there's not much to complain about. Acura's Active Sound Control system allows a bit more engine noise into the cabin with IDS toggled to Sport, although it's not as if the vehicle's audible personality goes from straight-laced luxury crossover to ear-piercing racer with the press of a button – the actual increase in volume is pretty subdued.
The 3.5 is paired with a six-speed automatic. Yep, there's no seven- or eight-speed gearbox. But ignore this apparent shortcoming, as the 6AT does a fine job of distributing power to the ground through the Super Handling All-Wheel Drive system, with seamless upshifts and downshifts that involve a bare minimum of hunting for gears. Shifting the transmission into Sport (the trans' Sport mode is independent of the IDS) switches to a more aggressive shift map which holds gears slightly longer. Really, though, you'd be better off ignoring Sport and just switching into manual and working the wheel-mounted paddles. You can achieve the same effect and take advantage of the system's ability to snap off double downshifts with a couple quick pulls on the paddles.
The 6AT does a fine job of distributing power to the ground through the Super Handling All-Wheel Drive.
Acura lists its all-wheel-drive MDX's fuel economy as 18 miles per gallon in the city and 27 mpg on the highway. These are quite impressive numbers, besting the Infiniti's 25-mpg highway figure but falling just short of its 19-mpg city rating. Those EPA figures easily beat the Audi, which returns just 16 mpg in the city and 22 mpg on the highway, while tying with the BMW. In my experience, I fell just north of the MDX's 21-mpg combined rating returning 22 mpg in mixed driving, a solid result.
With an independent McPherson strut front suspension, a multi-link rear and amplitude reactive dampers at all four corners, the MDX certainly seems well sorted in the suspension department. And indeed, on smooth surfaces, the ride is comfortable. For this author, the MDX's composure completely falls apart, though, when speeds increase and the roads become less than perfect. Here, the MDX's suspension is too soft, with excessive vertical motion over bumps and imperfections. It porpoises down the freeway and feels particularly unsettled over road-spanning imperfections like expansion joints. That said, other Autoblog editors who have driven the MDX haven't reported this issue.
On the other hand, when presented with some bends, it's a competent dancer. There's not a lot of body roll, and thanks to the torque-vectoring SH-AWD shunting up to 70 percent of torque to the rear axle, it's easy to steer with the accelerator through turns (not that most three-row crossover owners would ever do such a thing). It feels neutral and despite my observed straight-line issues, it feels more planted when the suspension is loaded up. Feedback through the seat of the pants is pretty much absent, but that's par for the course with this type of vehicle.
When presented with some bends, it's a competent dancer.
My issues with its ride aside, the MDX is a quiet vehicle. Road noise from the 19-inch Michelin Latitude Tour HP tires is rarely an issue, even when hitting bigger imperfections. Thanks in large part to its class-leading drag coefficient and active noise cancellation technology, wind noise isn't much of an issue, either.
The electric power-assisted steering is the one system in the MDX that is most heavily affected by the IDS setting. Its weighting varies quite a bit between Comfort and Sport, with the heaviest setting feeling the most natural to my hands. Comfort is just too effortless, lacking any real sense of weight from on center to turn-in to full lock. Sport, meanwhile, feels the most natural in the way weight builds. Again, this isn't a real shock, but feedback is limited.
The electric power-assisted steering is the one system in the MDX that is most heavily affected by the IDS setting.
Acura has opted for two-piston calipers and 12.6-inch rotors up front and single-piston units with larger 13-inch rotors in back. Despite this odd setup, you'll have no trouble bringing this 4,332-pound CUV to a halt. The brake pedal, meanwhile, is easy to modulate thanks in part to its wide range of travel.
Pricing for the 2014 MDX starts at $42,900, and the front-wheel drive base model comes well-equipped versus its peers. But if you're like me, you'll probably seek out a higher specification, and you'd do well to pay up for the optional all-wheel-drive system, as it enhances the way this crossover drives regardless of whether or not your area tends to see wintery weather. My SH-AWD tester was also outfitted with the Advance and Entertainment Packages, making it a bit dear, with prices starting at $56,505 (plus $985 destination charge). However, there are no options to choose from at this price point. Simply tell the salesman what color interior and exterior you want, write your check and be on your merry way.
For that $57,490, you'll net the aforementioned Milano leather seats complete with heating and ventilation functions up front, heated second-row seats, a nine-inch rear display with DVD player, 19-inch alloys, a very fine-sounding 12-speaker ELS audio system, remote start, collision mitigating auto-brake and everything else available on lesser models. That's extremely reasonable considering that a base X5 xDrive35i starts at $55,100 and an option-free, top-trim Q7 Prestige with the 3.0-liter, supercharged V6 starts at $60,900. It even matches up nicely against a loaded Infiniti QX60 AWD, which rings up at $56,995 with all its packages.
It's difficult to express just how good of a deal the MDX is with just starting prices, though. You'll need to compare it to equally equipped competition, which really highlights its value. Yes, this is a value at almost $60k. Build an X5 with comparable equipment and you're pushing $70,000. It's a similar story with the Q7, which can top $65k and still lack features like rear-seat entertainment and collision mitigation. Only the QX60 matches the MDX's price-to-content mix, although as I mentioned, it's heavier and less powerful, plus it has a continuously variable transmission and a suspension that will have you thinking "minivan" when driven hard.
It's a truly smart buy, offering an excellent value in a market segment that isn't known for being affordable.
I know, I know, I could have summed this all up earlier by saying "It's fine." And it is. The Acura MDX is a perfectly adequate machine that should be on the shopping list of every single consumer in the midsize luxury CUV segment, just like the Toyota Camry should be on the list of every single consumer in the midsize sedan segment. It's a truly smart buy, offering an excellent value in a market segment that isn't known for being affordable. But compared to much of its competition, it's not a particularly engaging vehicle to drive. It's not something likely to suddenly surprise you years down the road or even be something that you'll be excited to drive home after a long day at the office. For this driver, that's a big problem. But judging by the MDX's sales (which are actually up a full 70 percent so far this year), for most buyers in this segment, it doesn't appear to be a hindrance.