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Smaller, Longer and Better Gas Mileage For the Next Generation Crossover

The Acura MDX for model-year 2014 is the best SUV for you if you agree that sometimes less is more. Fully redesigned for the first time since model-year 2007, Acura’s flagship crossover is lower, narrower, lighter,and less powerful than the model it replaces.

It still has three rows of seat seats, and the styling still suffers a little from Acura’s odd notion of distinctive design. But there’s more technology than ever . . . and for the first time, a two-wheel-drive model. All that subtraction adds up to a better power-to-weight ratio and substantially improved fuel economy.

Acura pitches a combination of performance and technology to set this vehicle apart from such SUVs as the Lexus RX and Infiniti QX60 in the entry-premium crossover segment—a tier below the likes of the BMX X5 and Mercedes-Benz M-Class.

Compared with the outgoing model, this third-generation MDX has a three-inch-longer wheelbase and a two-inch-longer body. But it shrinks in other dimensions and, helped by a structure that’s now mostly aluminum and magnesium, it’s nearly 300-pounds lighter than the model-year 2013 version.

That allows Acura to fit a smaller engine, a 3.5-liter V-6 related to the one in its new RLX sedan. It replaces a 3.7-liter, and while horsepower is down by 10, to 290, and torque has dropped slightly, this is a more sophisticated engine, with direct fuel injection and other advances.

So it actually packs more muscle per liter. And it automatically transitions to three cylinders in low-demand driving—a gas-saving trick making its first appearance at Acura after years in V-6s from Honda, the carmaker’s parent company.

The more efficient engine, the reduced weight and even the aerodynamic advantages of the lower, narrower body help this vehicle post fuel-economy ratings among the very best in its competitive set. All-wheel-drive versions rate 21 mpg city/highway combined—a whopping 17 percent better than before. Front-wheel-drive versions—which the manufacturer expects to account for 35 percent of MDX sales—rate 23 mpg combined.

The folks who keep Honda behind the curve in the number of transmission gear ratios hold sway here, too, so the MDX stays with a six-speed automatic transmission. That’s about on par with the MDX’s closest rivals, but a differentiator between this SUV and the seven- and eight-speed automatics in the European competition.

The MDX is on point for AWD technology, though. The automaker’s Integrated Dynamics System now sends even more torque to the outside rear wheel during turns to help AWD models handle better. The system is standard on every MDX, and in Sport mode it also sharpens throttle response over the Normal and Comfort settings. In addition, Sport mode adds weight to the steering, which is now electrically assisted. New as well is a lighter rear suspension and the Agile Handling Assist, which selectively applies brakes to further help cornering.

The result is a seven-passenger midsize crossover that feels reasonably athletic on the road and pleasantly maneuverable in tight spaces. Too bad steering feel is indistinct on-center—to the detriment of highway cruising—and artificially heavy in Sport mode, taking the fun out of fast cornering. Typical of offerings from the automaker, the MDX favors a controlled ride over a cushy one. Bumps don’t jar you, but you can’t ignore them. Less weight and the better engine combine for ready acceleration. And passing response won’t leave you pining for more gear ratios—especially if you use the standard paddle shifters.

Finally, three-layer acoustic glass, active noise cancellation and other measures combine to create an impressively quiet crossover. That makes it easier to spend time in this fully redesigned cabin.

The less-is-more approach is evident in the new dashboard, where Acura addresses a criticism of the previous MDX by reducing the number of buttons in the center stack from 41 to nine. The dual-screen setup works well enough, and we like its haptic feedback and easy-to-reach central controller.

You’ll appreciate the smart design, like a steering-wheel control that adjusts audio volume and changes stations. We’re also impressed that navigation is standard on three of the MDX’s four trim levels. Voice recognition is good, and you can preload destinations with a phone app.

Standard on every model is leather upholstery, heated front seats and the convenience of keyless entry with pushbutton ignition. On paper, cabin volume is less than in model-year 2013, but you wouldn’t know it. And the front buckets’ capacity to hold you snug in turns is matched by the back seat’s ability to hug its outboard passengers.

The rear seats recline and slide. And hitting one of the seat buttons—they’re lit at night—makes it easy for even kids to fold them for better third-row access. No rival has a simpler system. If you want to carry grownups back there, though, consider the roomier QX60, Buick Enclave or Toyota Highlander. But there’s a bit more cargo room behind the third row than in the typical midsize crossover, plus a handy underfloor bin and above average volume with all seats folded.

Acura prices this vehicle above the Infiniti, Lexus and Buick crossovers but below the European brands. AWD versions begin at $45,275; front-drive versions climb through the same four trim levels but cost $2,000 along the way. Every MDX has LED headlamps, and as you spend more, the manufacturer adds features like forward-collision and lane-departure warning.

The most popular MDX has AWD and the Technology and Rear Entertainment Package. It includes navigation, 19-inch alloy wheels, and other goodies for $49,550. Another $2,000 gets you a rear DVD system with a nine-inch screen. The top-of-the-line Advanced Package model has a 16-inch entertainment screen, an HDMI input, wireless headphones and perforated Milano leather. It’ll steer you back into your lane and stop and go automatically in stop-and-go traffic.

Given its performance, interior materials and many other details, it’s evident the MDX is a bridge between less-ambitious crossovers and the true high-end brands. It’s a bridge that some buyers in both camps ought to explore.

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]