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Redesigned 2021 Acura MDX: still a premium-crossover value leader?

2021 Acura MDX, as leaked on AcuraZine.com

By Ed Piotrowski and CarPreview staff

What changes will make the 2021 Acura MDX different?

Most everything. Honda’s luxury division will redesign its flagship crossover for model-year 2021, with new exterior and interior styling, more convenience features, and perhaps Acura’s first plug-in-hybrid drivetrain.

Expect the all-new 2021 MDX to borrow styling cues from Acura’s compact RDX crossover, scaled up to midsize dimensions and with a bluffer, more aggressive-looking nose. The revamped cabin should adopt a more technical edge while retaining seven-passenger capacity via a nominal third-row seat. Gas and gas-electric-hybrid V-6 engines probably will return and could be joined by a turbocharged four-cylinder and possibly the plug-in hybrid.  

The original MDX debuted for the 2001 model year as one of the first seven-passenger premium crossovers. Its blend of refinement, road manners, and competitive pricing made it a massive sales success. Today’s third generation MDX bowed for 2014 and was refreshed for 2017 and 2019. It’s one of the oldest vehicles in the class but remains among the most popular, ranking behind only the Lexus RX and Buick Enclave in sales through the first three quarters of 2019.

Should I wait for the 2021 MDX or buy a 2020?

2021 MDX, as leaked on AcuraZine.com

Acura absorbed a blow to its stellar reputation for reliability with poor scores for dependability in recent owner surveys conducted by Consumer Reports and research firm J.D. Power. Consumer Reports in fact rated the MDX among the 10 least reliable vehicles for the 2020 model year. Acura must know it’s critical the next-generation MDX hit showrooms sans teething troubles.

That said, we have no qualms recommending a 2020 MDX. We’ve tested several from the 2014-2020 generation, and each was trouble-free, with an admirable balance of amenities and performance for thousands less than European-brand rivals. Still, it would be unwise to dismiss the recent owner surveys out of hand. It might be prudent to allow the redesigned MDX a few months to get settled before committing to a purchase.

We have a good idea what it might look like, but details about the 2021 MDX’s powertrains are conjecture until Acura releases solid info. Gas-only versions will likely come with front-wheel drive and offer the option of Acura’s Super Handling All-Wheel Drive (SH-AWD). The hybrid – including the potential plug-in – would again be AWD only. The model lineup will likely hew to Acura’s practice of a Base grade with extra-cost features available as packages but priced as separate models.

Will the styling be different?

2021 MDX, as leaked on AcuraZine.com

Yes. Amazingly, an enterprising RDX owner dug into software files of his crossover’s infotainment system and uncovered renderings that appear to show the 2021 MDX. The images were published on the forum AcuraZine.com.

They depict an MDX not dramatically different looking than the 2020 model, but with notable new touches, including an evolution of Acura’s corporate grille, here quite large and carrying a bigger brand logo. Front air intakes and bodyside creases are more pronounced, there’s a sheet metal kick-up at the rear fenders, and the roofline tapers into to a more svelte tail. Overall length seems about the same, but the wheelbase (distance between front and rear axles) appears slightly longer.

If the wheelbase is indeed longer, passenger room could benefit. The outgoing MDX provides roomy, comfortable seating in the first two rows and accommodates two average-size adults in the third row for short-to-moderate trips.

2020 MDX Sport Hybrid

Expect the same for the redesign, with the likely addition of front seats incorporating a power adjustable upper backrest hinged at shoulder height. Seating for six should again be optional with a pair of second-row captain’s chairs available with and without a console between them. The stretched wheelbase may also facilitate longer rear-door openings, correcting a shortfall of the current model by creating easier third-row entry and exit.

The next-generation interior seems to more heavily emphasize a driver’s-cockpit environment. For better or worse, the center console will retain transmission gear-selector pushbuttons instead of a conventional shift lever. The outgoing models’ redundant stacked dashboard touchscreens for infotainment and climate systems are apt to be replaced by a single 10.2-inch tablet-style display centered atop the instrument panel. Its position will likely obviate touchscreen operation, which means users will need to interact via voice commands or a center-console trackpad.

2021 MDX interior, as leaked on AcuraZine.com

The redesigned 2019 RDX adopted such a trackpad and its main innovation is likely to migrate to the ‘21 MDX. Acura calls it the True Touchpad Interface. Place your finger on any portion of the roughly 2-square-inch pad and the cursor appears in the corresponding location on the screen. We give the system mixed reviews in the RDX. It responds to a finger tap in the desired quadrant of the touchpad but seems confused if you slide your finger from one quadrant to another. There’s some haptic feedback, but you’re apt to find yourself glancing frequently between the pad and the screen to coordinate commands. We’d argue for a nice, knurled aluminum turn-and-push central control knob as a more coherent solution. 

Part of Acura’s success lies with its value proposition, so 2021 MDX buyers can again expect a host of upscale interior amenities at no extra cost, including leather upholstery, power tilt and telescoping steering wheel, and ambient cabin lighting.

Any mechanical changes?

2021 MDX, as leaked on AcuraZine.com

Very likely. Expect a 3.5-liter V-6 with a similar 290 horsepower and 267 pound-feet of torque paired with a nine-speed automatic transmission to repeat as the mainstream powertrain. Acura might surprise by also offering a turbocharged four-cylinder, perhaps a higher-output version of the 2.0-liter from the RDX. Figure around 300 horsepower, and 280-290 pound-feet of torque, and a beefed-up version of the RDX’s excellent 10-speed automatic transmission with pushbutton gearchange.

With parent-company Honda aiming to electrify most of its product portfolio by 2030, don’t be shocked by a plug-in hybrid MDX for 2021. It might replace or accompany the 2020 MDX’s Sport Hybrid SH-AWD model, a conventional hybrid that teams a 3.0-liter V-6 with electric motors for a net 321 horsepower and 289 pound-feet of torque.

An MDX plug-in hybrid could combine a 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder with electric motors and exceed the net output of the conventional hybrid. Unlike the ’20 MDX hybrid, it would get an initial charge from the electrical grid for a battery-only range of 25-40 miles before converting to conventional-hybrid operation.

Acura’s SH-AWD system should remain an effective traction and handling aid, automatically reacting to tire slip by shuffling power front to rear and side to side in back. The version on the MDX hybrids would continue to employ electric motors to power the rear wheels in place of a conventional driveshaft. Either way, the system pays dividends on dry and slippery surfaces but hasn’t been compatible with real off-roading. Neither has the MDX’s relatively modest 7.3 inches of ground clearance.

2021 MDX suspension setting, as leaked on AcuraZine.com

However, images posted to AcuraZine.com include driver-selectable powertrain settings covering the usual Comfort, Normal, Personal, Slippery, Sport, Sport+, and Snow modes. But they also showed one for Lift, suggesting the redesigned MDX for the first time could offer a height-adjustable suspension. It would increase ground clearance and might even dovetail with new calibrations to make the AWD system more effective off road.

No matter the powertrain, the next-gen MDX is likely to equal or exceed its predecessor’s first-rate road manners, with very good steering feel and confident balance. Ride quality probably won’t be as supple as with a Lexus RX or Infiniti QX60 but overall comfort should continue to satisfy discriminating premium-crossover buyers.

Will fuel economy improve?

2021 MDX, as leaked on AcuraZine.com

Most likely, but how much depends on the new MDX’s powertrain choices. If the 3.5-liter V-6 carries over, expect modest gains thanks to more advanced engineering and aerodynamics. Figure EPA ratings around 21/28/24 mpg city/highway/combined with front-wheel drive and 20/27/23 with AWD.

A turbocharged four-cylinder engine option could rate about 23/30/26 mpg with front drive and 22/29/25 with AWD.

A carryover conventional hybrid might rate 27/28/28 mpg city/highway/combined. A plug-in hybrid could see 65-80 mpg-e (gasoline miles-per-gallon equivalent) on electric power and around 33 mpg city-highway combined when running as a conventional hybrid. Count on Acura to recommend premium-grade 91-octane gasoline for all 2021 MDX models.

Will there be new features?

2020 MDX

An evolution is more likely. Expect some features introduced with the 2019 RDX to filter over, such as the newest version of the AcuraLink cloud-based connected-service system. It should include amenities like Key by Amazon In-Car Delivery that enables owners with Amazon Prime to use their smartphone to remotely unlock and then lock their vehicle to accept a scheduled delivery.

Certain to return as standard on every 2021 MDX is the AcuraWatch suite of safety features. It comprises autonomous emergency braking with pedestrian detection, lane-departure warning with automatic steering correction, adaptive cruise control, and automatic high-beam headlights.

We’d urge Acura to also make blind-spot and rear cross-traffic detection standard. On the ’20 MDX those helpful driver aids were available only with the optional Technology or Advance packages. Other Technology Package items that could become standard are remote engine start and AcuraLink.

Expect all ’21 MDXs to return with three-zone automatic climate control, a power rear liftgate, leather upholstery with heated, power-adjustable front seats, Apple CarPlay and Google Android Auto connectivity, and a multi-angle rearview camera.

If Acura hews to past practice, the ’21 MDX would be available with several extra-cost packages, including those mentioned above. And it could also return sportier-trim groupings, such as the A-Spec and PMC Edition. See below for details.

Will 2021 prices be different?

2020 MDX

They’ll almost certainly increase but continue to undercut those of key rivals, especially European-brand offerings from Audi, BMX, and Mercedes-Benz. Base-price estimates include the manufacturer destination fee, which was $995 on the 2020 MDX.

Expect the redesigned “base” MDX with the V-6 to be priced from around $46,500 with front-wheel drive and from around $48,500 with SH-AWD. If a turbo-four is offered, it might be positioned as a sportier offering and priced some $2,000 or so above its V-6 counterparts. Look for a ’21 MDX Sport Hybrid SH-AWD to return at around $57,000. Estimated base price for the plug-in variant is around $60,000.

The Technology and Advance packages should repeat, again priced as separate models. The former would likely be included with the hybrid models. For gas-only MDXs, figure at least $5,000 for the Technology Package, which would add imbedded GPS navigation, Acura’s ELS co-branded audio system, upgraded leather upholstery, rain-sensing windshield wipers, and front- and rear-obstacle detection.

2020 MDX

The Advance Package should run at least $6,750 and include ventilated front seats, heated second-row captain’s chairs in place of a three-across bench seat, real wood interior trim, heated steering wheel, sunshades for second-row occupants, an adaptive suspension, auto-dimming exterior mirrors, and a surround-view camera.

The A-Spec appearance package should also return as a roughly $3,500 option for AWD MDX models equipped with the Technology Package. It would add unique bumpers, wheels, and other exterior trim, along with upholstery trimmed in a blend of leather and suede-like alcantara. An Entertainment Package that includes a Blu-ray disc player, auxiliary HDMI input, and an ultra-wide display screen should also be available for about $2,000 on AWD MDXs that have the Technology or Advance Package.

Standard equipment for the hybrid and plug-in hybrid would probably mirror that of a gas-only MDX with the Technology Package, with the Advance Package available for the same price as on the gas-only models. Perhaps Acura will see fit to offer the Entertainment and the A-Spec packages, which were unavailable for the 2020 Sport Hybrid.

When does it come out?

2020 MDX

We could see a concept version of the 2021 Acura MDX at the New York or Detroit auto shows in spring 2020. The production version might be unveiled at the Los Angeles Auto Show in November 2020, with an on-sale release date shortly thereafter.

Best competitors

Audi Q7, BMW X5, Cadillac XT6, Infiniti QX60, Lexus RX, Lincoln Aviator, Volvo XC90, Mercedes-Benz GLE, Range Rover Sport, Tesla Model X

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About Chuck Giametta

This nationally recognized, award-winning writer brings to Carpreview.com two decades of automotive testing and reporting for newspapers, books, magazines, and the Internet. The former Executive Auto Editor of Consumer Guide, Chuck has covered cars for HowStuffWorks.com, Collectible Automobile magazine, and the Publications International Ltd. automotive book series. This ex-newspaper reporter has also appeared as an automotive expert on network television and radio. He’s a charter member of the Midwest Automotive Media Association, the president of the Rocky Mountain Automotive Media association, and a juror for the annual Active Lifestyle Vehicle of the Year awards. Chuck writes from Colorado Springs, Colo. If you have a question for Chuck, write to him at [email protected]