Despite all the nose-thumbing we enthusiasts do at Acura these days, there is one thing they remain very, very good at: selling SUVs. Specifically, this SUV, the Acura MDX. They sold some 53,000 copies of the MDX in 2013, and they continue to fly off dealer lots this year. Many of you may read this and then wonder: Why?
(Full disclosure: Acura needed me to drive the 2014 MDX so badly they gave me one for a whole week. I took it to Target. It was that kind of thrill.)
I'll tell you why. It's because the MDX is a damn good SUV, that's why.
It's roomy, it's comfortable, it's extremely well built, and it's got plenty of features that make it attractive for parents who need to shuffle their brood to and from schools, lacrosse practices, musical recitals, and religious services.
It may also very well be the best car Acura currently makes, since the TSX Wagon is about to drive off into the sunset.
Most of the time, however, it's pretty dull to drive, something like watching an unusually thrilling game of golf. Yes, the game is thrilling, but it is still golf.
There are times when it tries not to be so boring, and it nearly succeeds, but in the end the MDX just comes up short for anyone seeking any kind of excitement behind the wheel.
But hey! That shouldn't count as marks against this SUV at all. The average MDX buyer doesn't engage in risky behaviors, like garroting a man with his own shoelaces to escape from a prison camp in Karachi because the Agency sure as hell wasn't going to bail them out of a black ops mission in Pakistan. They don't do that stuff anymore, anyway. Who do you think they are, TLX buyers?
Heavens, no. The MDX buyer has put aside their days of waiting for hours on a rainy Bratislava rooftop waiting for that foreign dignitary to walk into the crosshairs of their laser-scoped rifle; they torched their old fake passports and buried the bodies of their enemies in shallow graves a long time ago, and they have zero desire to return to that lifestyle.
The MDX buyer has already settled down, moved to a suburb of or hilariously overpriced neighborhood in the District of Columbia, and is raising children. Children who will hopefully never learn about the terrible atrocities they once committed in the name of God and country. We were at war, dammit, they'll say if those ungrateful little brats ever find out what they did, and war isn't supposed to be a nice place!
Where were we? Oh, yes. The MDX.
The MDX is on this third generation now, and all-new for the 2014 model year. It's 275 pounds lighter than the old car and more efficient than ever.
It may not look radically different from the older MDXs, but it is. It's much lighter, much more structurally rigid, and packs both a new 3.5-liter V6 engine and the latest generation of Acura's admittedly superb Super Handling All-Wheel Drive. And of course, it's got that Honda quality going for it, and that's hard to argue with.
So yeah, the MDX is very good. My tester — a loaded MDX with the Advance and Entertainment packages — came in at $57,400, so it wasn't cheap, either.
But is it luxurious enough, sporting enough and premium enough to make it the ideal choice over its rivals?
- It's a big, seven-seat SUV, but it's agile; it always feels much smaller than it is.
- Acura finally has that shield grille looking not-hideous, but it's still not beautiful.
- It stays a lot flatter in the corners than you'd expect.
- SH-AWD is no bullshit; it's quite excellent.
- It's nice inside, but not really "Impress your neighbors with how rich you are" nice.
With a few notable exceptions, I think it's fair to say neither Honda nor Acura have ever been all that stellar at exterior design. That trend continues with the latest MDX. It's not an unattractive-looking SUV by any means, but it is extremely dull. Lop off the shield grille and it could be just about anything else.
I think that's probably what your MDX buyer wants. They want something that's nice, but maybe doesn't stand out too much; a BMW, Mercedes or Lexus is far too flashy for them.
It's interesting that I got an MDX a week after I got a 2014 Honda Accord Hybrid, a car I liked quite a bit more than I ever thought I would. Before I stepped into the MDX, I wondered, Will this feel that much more premium over the Honda?
The answer, unfortunately, is not really. The cabin is nice, and the overall fit and finish is spectacular, but it still looks and feels like a slightly nicer Accord; in terms of both design and materials, I didn't get the sense that I was in a nearly $60,000 luxury vehicle.
Still, it gets points for overall comfort. The seats are wide and accommodating, the head room is decent, and the rear seats have good legroom. There's a third row, but it's only for small kids or people you don't like. Possibly both.
Audio, Infotainment, Gadgets
You know, I liked that Accord's humble seven-speaker sound system. This Acura ELS Surround Premium 10-speaker system? Not so much. Even with the bass and subwoofer cranked all the way up, it still felt flat and disappointing.
The infotainment system is very similar to that Accord's — a two-screen system, the bottom of which is touch-based. It seems to be a more fancied-up version of the Honda system with slightly better graphics, but it also adds a tactile vibrating sensation when you use the touch screen. For whatever reason, it doesn't feel nearly as quick and responsive as the one on the Accord.
Menu organization remains intuitive, and the screens get rid of the mess of buttons that adorned the old MDX, but the controller knob you have to use at times isn't the best example of this setup.
As for gadgets, my tester came with a rear entertainment system that included a widescreen 16.2 inch display that dropped down from the overhead console, as well as wireless headphones and its own separate sound system in the back. This way the kids can listen to the Young Money artist of their choosing while you opt for the familiar comfort of Steely Dan up front. I could see this package sealing the deal for a lot of people with young children who are looking to move into an SUV from a minivan.
Say what you want about Honda, but they make great engines. They always have. And the 3.5-liter Earth Dreams direct injection V6 in the MDX is no exception. It's slightly smaller than the V6 in the last MDX, and here it puts out 290 horsepower and 267 pound-feet of torque. It's the only engine available.
Put your foot down and it builds its revs steadily and strongly, with a kind of eagerness not always found in the lazy V6s used in family sedans and crossovers. It's nice and linear and it also sounds pretty nice, albeit muted in the name of luxury. I averaged about 23 MPG in the week I had this car.
On the other hand, the MDX's 4,300 pound curb weight as equipped here is a lot to ask of just 290 horses. It's a good motor, and it will get the job done just fine, but it never feels especially fast or performance-oriented. Opt for an Audi or a BMW instead and get forced induction if you desire more speed. Come to think of it, a turbo or two wouldn't hurt on this car at all.
The only available transmission is a six-speed automatic with paddle shifters. Overall, it's a pretty smooth gearbox, with shifts feeling seamless in automatic mode. Downshifts with the paddles seem a bit quicker than upshifts. It's not as impressive as some of the ZF eight-speed boxes I've sampled as of late, but it's hard to find criticism with how it does its job.
They're good, strong brakes with a nice pedal feel. You don't get that soft, overly squishy feeling here that you get on some luxury cars. That's a good thing.
Ride and Handling
I think that in the end, handling seemed to be the MDX's strongest asset in my mind. Super Handling All-Wheel Drive may make for a ridiculous acronym, but it's a very impressive system. It's a torque vectoring system capable of sending power from front and rear and right to left as necessary, and up to 70 percent of power can go to the rear.
As such, the MDX takes corners like a much smaller car; it's a big SUV, but it never ever feels as big as it is. It's not a backroad carver by any means, but it stays reasonably flat in cornering and makes its driver feel solidly in control.
This is as good a point as any to mention the Integrated Dynamics System, which has three settings: Normal, Comfort and Sport. This adjusts shift points, the tightness of the electric steering, and how much power goes to the rear. The first two were too soft for my taste, so I kept it in Sport most of the time.
And yet, even in Sport, the MDX never felt like a true sporting SUV, not something truly worthwhile to drive like its competitor the BMW X5. It's a good handler, but it's can't be considered an athlete or a performance SUV. I found myself wishing it had some kind of Sport Plus mode to give me more, you know? More sharpness, flatter handling, more edginess. The MDX feels like it wants to do this, but it's like it's not allowed to.
As for the ride, the suspension errs on the side of comfort, but it stays away from being too floaty or vague.
Hauling, Towing, Cargo Management
Hauling and towing! ...I didn't do any of that, mainly because Matt refuses to let me expense a boat. (Jalopnik needs a boat!) But I can tell you the MDX is rated at 3,500 pounds, which can go up to 5,000 pounds with accessories.
Do people tow shit with their MDXs? I've never seen it if they do. I've seen more Corollas towing U-Hauls across this great nation of ours than I have MDXs doing the same.
What people do do with their MDX is stuff it with stuff, and it's very good in this regard. You get up to 90.9 cubic feet of cargo space with the second and third rows of seats folded. The more common setup is to leave the third row down, where you get 45.1 cubic feet of space.
You may have to make the choice between hauling three rows of people and stuffing the MDX full of stuff, but it's not a minivan. I think it meets or exceeds most people's SUV needs just fine.
Off-Road & Maneuverability
I didn't even try to do this, sorry. On the plus side, no one who owns an MDX will ever take it off the pavement either, so consider my test a real-world one.
You get 7.3 inches of ground clearance, but I think it's fair to say the SH-AWD is much better suited for bad weather situations than extreme rock climbing. I think it would probably do just fine on your average gravel or dirt road unless things get too hairy.
My tester was priced at $57,400. Frankly, I think that's a lot to ask for an Acura MDX — this puts it a few grand over a BMW X5 (both rear- and all-wheel drive versions) and there's no question which one I'd rather own.
That price is also with a lot of options on this car I consider a bit superfluous. Do your kids really need the rear entertainment system? Of course they don't. It's better that they learn early that life is full of disappointment and struggle and pain, not Dora the Fucking Explorer. But like I said earlier, plenty of parents will say otherwise and go for the DVD system.
The MDX's advantage over comparable luxury SUVs is that it starts at $42,290. I really and sincerely believe SH-AWD is worth it, and that means an upgrade to $44,290. At that price range, coupled with its overall quality and unquestionable Honda reliability, I think you're looking at a pretty good deal.
I said earlier that I believe the MDX is a good SUV and I stand by that. I understand why so many people buy it — it's a safe choice, a solid one. It's not an exciting one, though, and if excitement is what you want, look elsewhere. Once again, the average MDX buyer probably doesn't care, or if they do, their second car is one that's more fun than any crossover can offer.
Good as it is, I kept wondering how great the MDX would be if it were just a little faster, a little more sporting, a little less like a nice Accord inside. But if your priorities lie elsewhere, it's hard to see the MDX as anything but a home run for Acura.
Specifications As Tested
2014 Acura MDX SH-AWD
MSRP: $57,400 (Starts at $42,290)
Engine: 3.5-liter direct injection V6
Output: 290 hp / 267 lb-ft of torque
Curb Weight: 4300 lbs
Fuel Economy: EPA estimated 18/21/27 City, Combined, Highway. (23 MPG observed)
Approach Angle: 14.9º
Departure Angle: 15.2º
Breakover Angle: 19.4º
Ground Clearance: 7.3"