Driven: 2014 Acura MDX

By Brandon Turkus

May 31, 2013

—Rochester, Michigan
Acura’s history over the decades hasn’t perhaps been what Honda was hoping for. The brand hasn’t really ascended to the heights reached by Lexus or challenged the likes of BMW, Audi, or Mercedes-Benz. Instead, it’s been pigeonholed into the near-luxury game.
Its latest effort to change that perception has been the one-two punch of the RLX luxury sedan and the MDX seven-passenger crossover. By our accounts the Honda-owned brand hit, if not a home run, a solid triple with the RLX. Its singled-minded focus on luxury was a breath of fresh air in a segment that seems so overly obsessed with sportiness.
[Click here to read our preview of the 2014 BMW X5]
Now, Acura is seeking to pull off the same trick with the MDX. The third-generation crossover has a steeper mountain to climb, though.
Where the RLX replaced a model that never really resonated with consumers or critics, the MDX is replacing a second-generation model that was a proven success. Even during the deepest depths of the Great Recession, this seven-passenger luxury crossover never sold fewer than 30,000 units per year.
Driven: 2014 Acura MDXAs you can imagine, Acura isn’t exactly looking to rock the boat when redesigning its seven-passenger cash cow. That doesn’t mean there haven’t been some big (and long awaited) changes.
Replacing the 41 buttons of the second-gen MDX’s center stack was a high priority, so the 2014 MDX sports the same dual-screened glass cockpit found in other Honda/Acura product. We’ve talked in depth about this screen already, so we’ll spare you the details. Suffice it to say, it works just as well in the MDX as it does in both the RLX and Accord.
The interior as a whole was a bit staid as well, so Acura went to town and replaced the steering wheel and instrument cluster with the same units from the RLX. That means a pair of gauges and a centralized TFT display, along with multi-directional dials on the leather-wrapped wheel for navigating it all. Wood was used sparingly as more of an accent than a centerpiece, with subtle metal treatments around the cabin.
The MDX’s exterior follows the path set by the RLX and receives a similarly conservative restyling. It really looks like a larger RDX with a standard set of “jewel eye” LED headlamps, which is no bad thing. Still, if you’re looking for a style that’ll stand out, you might want to go elsewhere.
Part of the MDX’s march to the modern world is its new Integrated Dynamics System. Stop us if you’ve heard this one before: with a button situated behind the shifter, drivers have the option of three modes. Not surprisingly, they’re called Comfort, Normal, and Sport. Each setting tweaks the steering effort, sound control, throttle response, and torque vectoring of the all-wheel drive.
Sport has the least steering assist, the sharpest throttle response, and an even larger rear-wheel bias for the all-wheel drive. Normal is, um, normal. Comfort mode’s only tweak is a higher degree of assistance from the steering.
That’s all great, but part of the appeal of systems like these is the adjustments that can be made to the suspension. With the IDS system, we were stuck with the same suspension tuning regardless of mode.
Under the hood sits the same powertrain found in the RLX. The 3.5-liter, direct-injection, VTEC V-6 is actually down on power in this SUV application, both against the RLX it’s borrowed from and against the 3.7-liter V-6 it’s replacing.
Driven: 2014 Acura MDXIts 290 horsepower and 267 pound-feet of torque is 20 ponies and five pound-feet lower than the RLX’s output, and ten horsepower and three pound-feet of torque lower than the old MDX’s 3.7-liter. Yet, this lower output didn’t seem like a big hindrance on the driving experience.
The 3.5-liter motivated the MDX just fine, not setting our hair alight but also feeling perfectly adequate in most situations. Notably, low-end torque sees an eight-percent improvement from 2013 to 2014, which gave the new crossover a bit more pep in its step around town. It was a smooth, refined engine too, with linear power delivery and an exhaust note that was present but not overpowering. Selecting Sport mode sharpened the throttle response, although the effect seemed marginal.
Part of the reason for this new engine had to do with fuel economy, which wasn’t a highlight of the second-gen MDX. At 18 miles per gallon in the city and 27 mpg on the highway, the 2014 MDX offers best-in-class fuel economy.
This improved fuel economy isn’t just from the new engine. The third-gen MDX is 275 pounds lighter than the 2013 model, thanks to a new rear suspension assembly, redesigned seats, and most importantly, a body in white that shaves 123 pounds of fat while offering a higher percentage of high-strength steel (59 percent in 2014 versus 25 percent in 2013). A best-in-class coefficient of drag is 18 percent more efficient as well.
Mated up to the same six-speed automatic found in the RLX, we couldn’t help but wonder if maybe Acura was being a bit too conservative here. The market is moving rapidly towards seven- and eight-speed transmissions, with some manufacturers working on nine- and ten-speeds. The six AT in the MDX is fine, offering up quick upshifts and predictable downshifts, but we can’t help but think that the wonderful ZF eight-speed auto that’s been showing up in every luxury offering under the sun would be a good fit here.
The transmission has a Sport mode that can be operated independently of the IDS system. Simply drop the gear lever past “D” to access it. There’s also a pair of wheel-mounted paddles. The shift speed didn’t seem appreciably quicker, and it felt like downshifts were a bit slower than in full auto.
On the road, our overwhelming impression of the MDX is that Acura tried very hard to focus as heavily on comfort as it did with the RLX. To varying degrees, it’s worked.
This new MDX is undoubtedly quieter than the crossover it replaces. The aerodynamics minimize wind noise, while Acura’s decision to only offer wheels up to 19 inches has reduced tire roar and impact noises. Meanwhile, a new sealed body offers fewer paths for air leaks, and thicker sound-insulating glass has been used on the windshield and front windows.
The work didn’t stop there, as Acura has redone the MDX’s whole suspension. The rear suspension went from a trailing arm to a multi-link setup with coilover shocks, and in turn reduced the number of paths for vibrations to travel down from five to three. The rear subframe is more rigid, helping handling and improving NVH as well. Out front, the geometry has been tweaked to transmit fewer vibrations through the steering wheel. All four corners now sport amplitude reactive dampers, which automatically soften when presented with high-frequency inputs (think washboard dirt roads and the like).
On a variety of road surfaces, the suspension seemed more than able to soak up the variety of imperfections that develop after a Michigan winter. This composure wasn’t easily shattered, even on the most pockmarked surfaces. There was a fair amount of secondary noise that infiltrated the cabin, but the sounds were muted and could have been handled by a bit more volume from the radio. On winding stretches, the MDX felt rather composed, with controlled body motions fore, aft, and laterally.
The MDX is the latest victim of the inevitable switch to electric power steering, swapping the old rack for a meager improvement of .4 miles per gallon. Acura’s team increased the ratio by nine percent in a bid to make the MDX more maneuverable at low speeds.
Driven: 2014 Acura MDXThe steering is tolerable in Sport, as the lower level of assistance delivers a tiller with more heft and slightly more feedback. Even the default mode is decent, with enough assist to make operation an easy one-handed task. Comfort should be avoided, though. The assist is dialed too far up requiring little effort from the driver, and feeling generally overboosted and disconnected.
It’s this disconnected feeling that seemed to stand out during our time with the new MDX. We established that there’s not a lot of feedback through the steering, but there’s also not much going on through the chassis. Acura did a brilliant job at building a comfortable SUV, but it’s beaten seemingly every ounce of communication out of it in the process. The MDX’s isolation box tendencies are our biggest gripe with what is otherwise a solid, competent contender.
Following the current Acura trim formula, the MDX is available in four different levels. All-wheel drive is a $2000 option across the board.
The base trim starts at $42,290, and includes the excellent LED headlights, automatic heated seats, push-button start, USB connectivity, and the dual-screen cockpit. The MDX Tech will be volume model, starting at $46,565. It adds blind-spot monitoring, 19-inch wheels, forward collision warning, lane departure warning, the TFT display in the instrument cluster, HD radio, navigation, and rain-sensing wipers.
The Tech Entertainment starts at $48,565 and adds a rear-seat DVD player, heated rear seats, and window shades for second-row occupants. Finally, the top spec Advance starts at $54,505. In addition to adaptive cruise control, collision mitigation braking, and the vented Milano leather seats, the Advance tacks on a 12-speaker ELS stereo, remote start, front and rear park sensors, HDMI inputs for the ultra-wide rear-seat entertainment system, and lane keeping assist.
Acura’s incremental improvements in the MDX formula have delivered a third-generation vehicle that should appeal to past and present customers. We may not appreciate its stoic and uncommunicative nature, but its blend of efficiency, technology, and outright comfort make it a worthwhile offering in a segment that will likely only get bigger and more competitive.
2014 Acura MDX SH-AWD Advance
Engine: V-6, 3.5 liters, 24v
Output: 290 hp/267 lb-ft
Weight: 4332 lb
Cargo Volume, 2nd Row Up/Down: 45.1/90.9 cu ft
Fuel Economy, City/Hwy: 18/27 mpg
Base Price: $56,505