• Image Credit: Honda
In the fictional town of Lake Wobegon, Minn., public-radio personality Garrison Keillor says, "all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average."

Unmentioned in that closing line of "A Prairie Home Companion" is a description of the cars people drive in this better-than-average town.

I like to imagine it's an Acura MDX.

The MDX is powerful – it's V6 engine produces 290 horsepower and can tow 5,000 pounds. The MDX is attractive – its new interior borrows from its RDX sibling, named one of the Ten Best Interiors By Ward's Auto last month. The MDX has traditionally accomplished a lot of things in an above-average manner.

Over the past year, Acura engineers have given the brand's entire fleet a much-needed overhaul. The MDX was one of the last vehicles to receive its facelift, but it's finally read for the road.

On Wednesday, I drove the 2014 Acura MDX down country roads and around charming lakes in the far northern reaches of Detroit's suburbs, an idyllic swath of the Midwest that could very much be Lake Wobegon.

The latest MDX, in many ways, marks a sharp departure from previous generations. Is it still worthy of an above-average family? Click through to read our review.
The Basics
  • Image Credit: Honda

The Basics

Sticker price: $42,290 - $56,505

Engine: 3.5 liter, direct-injected V-6 engine mated to a six-speed transmission.

Performance: 290 horsepower at 6,200 RPM and 267 pound-feet of torque at 4,500 RPM.

Fuel Economy: 20 mpg City, 28 mpg Highway

Seating: 7 people
Exterior Design
  • Image Credit: Honda

Exterior Design

The residents of Lake Wobegon are humble Midwesterners. They're not ostentatious. Which is another reason the Acura MDX might be a perfect fit for the roads of their fictional town.

Luxury car owners typically like to show off their automotive bling. The Acura is for the minority who appreciate a more understated, inconspicuous approach to appearance. Its lines and curves are smooth and gentle. Its shape is familiar. It could be accused of being too plain, although it's notable that Acura didn't resort to gimmicky grilles like some competitors. New LED headlights add functional modern appeal.

(If you're looking for risky steps forward, check inside the car, where Acura has added a eucalyptus-colored trim option, a grayish-green medley that provides a refreshing alternative to those tired of the tedious black-brown-beige interior trinity).

What drivers should be more interested in are developments that go beyond the skin-deep impression.

The MDX gets an all-new body, all-new chassis and all-new rear suspension system. Front occupants get a re-engineered door frame. Rather than constructing the frame out of four pieces as they did in the past, engineers collaborated on the "Hot Stamped Stiffener Ring," a welded ring of steel.

Buyers should care about this development because the ring may be more protective in the event of an accident, transferring force loads to other areas of the car. It's designed to help the MDX on the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety's new small-overlap front crash test, which small SUVs as an overall segment, have fared poorly upon. We'll know if it works when the 2014 Acura MDX faces those tests later this year.

The previous generation MDX received "good" marks on all IIHS tests, the highest-possible designation.
Interior
  • Image Credit: Honda

Interior

The premise of the luxury-minded MDX is that buyers enjoy a three-row interior in a space that appears to be designed for a two-row crossover. This is an arrangement that mostly works.

Ample room exists in the first two rows – a perfect scenario for a family of above-average height.

Engineers provided the driver and front passenger an incredibly spacious cabin, enough that two adults north of six feet will have no difficulty relaxing. Even better, front occupants could push their seats to the rear limits and still leave plenty of room for six-foot adult passengers behind them to extend their legs. Airlines could learn a lesson or two about legroom from Acura.

Conditions in the third row are considerably tighter, though not claustrophobic. The greater problem is that entering and exiting the third row is a slog.

Acura has taken measures to counteract that predicament, lowering the entryway by 1.8 inches and introducing its One Touch Walk-In feature. In layman's terms, this is a button on the side of the second-row seats that automatically folds the seat and jettisons it forward so third-row occupants can clamber aboard.

No more manual labor for harried parents accustomed to pulling a lever and shunting a seat forward. One Touch Walk-In is a nice innovation. Still, save the acrobatics of climbing into the third row for the kids.
Driving Dynamics
  • Image Credit: Honda

Driving Dynamics

If there's an area where the 2014 MDX model has made strides over its previous iteration, its in the driving dynamics. Acura worked hard to address customer complaints, and delivered.

One of the biggest complaints about the previous MDX was that it was noisy. Engineers launched a bumper-to-bumper assault on noise, adding a thicker windshield, a new trailing-arm rear suspension that reduces noise paths into the cabin, active sound control in the roof and a sealed floor plane. The result is, without a doubt, a significantly quieter ride.

Drivers will need to listen carefully to hear the muted, smooth upshifts emerging from under their hoods.

Another big complaint came in steering. Acura installed a more rigid single-piece steering shaft, but more importantly, added an integrated dynamics system that lets drivers choose between, normal, comfort and sport modes.

Have a different driving preference than your spouse? Driving mode preferences can be stored on each key fob, and the IDS can automatically set itself depending on who unlocks the door.
Tech And Infotainment
  • Image Credit: Honda

Tech And Infotainment

Acura added a second screen to its center stack. At first glance, I didn't like the fact both were nearly the same size. The 8-inch and 7-inch screens seemed to compete for a driver's attention compared to the more standard primary and secondary display arrangement.

This concern proved unfounded.

During the drive, it was nice to have two prominent screens, the upper of which could be dedicated to displaying our route through the lush landscape in northern Oakland County. The other, a haptic feedback touchscreen which vibrates slightly when you touch it, functions as the nerve center of the car, controlling audio functions.

The addition of the second screen helped Acura reduce the number of buttons in the center stack from a keyboard-like 41 on previous models to nine on the 2014 version. Both screens are easy to use, even for a Luddite like myself.

If you're really into infotainment, you may want to sit in the second or third row and let someone else do the driving. The rear-entertainment system features a 16-inch monitor that is capable of simultaneously showing different movies on split screens.

Higher-end trim levels come loaded with the latest safety technology, including an advanced lane-keeping assist that's more useful than the lane-departure warnings, a forward collision warning and collision-mitigation braking system.

There's also blind-spot information and adaptive cruise control on the premium trim.
The Competition
  • Image Credit: BMW

The Competition

There's more than a $16,000 difference in price between the base MDX and its premium all-wheel drive trim level, so competition varies depending on which end of the spectrum a buyer is examining.

At the upper reaches, the MDX stakes its spot as a legitimate contender to the BMW X5 and the Audi Q7 – and lands about $5,000 cheaper in both cases. At the lower level, the MDX draws comparisons to the Buick Enclave and Lexus RX – and is about $3,000 more expensive.

As always, buyers should compare specific trim levels in order to make an apples-to-apples comparison of what they're getting for their money.

When it comes to shopping the MDX both within its trim levels and benchmarking against competitors, key questions for a prospective customer should be, "Do I really want all the technology? Or do I just want the third row?"
Fuel Economy
  • Image Credit: Honda

Fuel Economy

Engineers jettisoned 275 pounds from the overall weight of the previous model and replaced the former 3.7-liter engine with this year's 3.6 liter, two changes that help the new MDX achieve some of the highest fuel economy in its segment.

The two-wheel drive option should net drivers 20 miles per gallon in city driving and 28 MPGs on the highway, while the all-wheel drive gets 18 city and 27 highway, according to EPA estimates. The all-wheel drive numbers represent a 22 percent improvement from the previous generation, an impressive achievement.

Fuel economy is one of the key factors that sets the MDX apart from a competitor like the X5, which gets an anemic 14 MPG city and 20 MPGs on the highway in its premium trim level.

But the midsize luxury SUV is an underachieving segment for fuel economy overall, and being the best of a bad bunch is, at best, a dubious proposition.

If fuel economy is a top concern, prospective buyers may want to check out the Lexus 450 hybrid, a midsize luxury SUV that achieves 32 MPGs city/28 MPG highway and comes at a similar price point (mid $40s). Buyers might forgo a wealth of technology and entertainment options, but they can decide whether those are more valuable than fuel savings.
Bottom Line
  • Image Credit: Honda

Bottom Line

The 2014 MDX was born in Ohio, designed in Ohio and engineered by a team entirely based in the Buckeye State. This is a car with credible Midwestern underpinnings. The arrival of a two-wheel drive option should broaden its appeal in Sunbelt states.

Which is fine, because at its heart, this is a vehicle designed with mass appeal in mind. It's a solid seven-seat family car that's better than most in terms of fuel economy. It retains enough heft and power to appeal to those who want a full-fledged SUV.

It comes with plush interior options that ensure occupants feel like they're riding in a luxury vehicle. Its driving performance can be tailored to each driver's preferences with the electronic steering system. Its infotainment system is comprehensive and easy to use.

Acura made incremental improvements across the board. Collectively, they help the MDX retain its status as a jack-of-all-trades luxury SUV that's priced competitively in its segment. In short, a perfect car for Lake Wobegon, or wherever customers seek an above-average vehicle.
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