Acura MDX is a rare animal, a seven-passenger luxury crossover with high performance. It’s unchanged for 2015 because the 2014 was new from the ground up. Compared to the previous generation, MDX has quicker acceleration, better fuel mileage, more room and comfort inside, tighter dimensions outside, a longer wheelbase, nimbler handling, shorter stopping distances, and a better ride. It’s longer, lower, lighter, and narrower at the nose, sides and rear, with its shape driven by the wind tunnel.
Acura MDX might be cross-shopped with Infiniti QX60 or Volvo XC90. The MDX is more powerful and fuel-efficient than either, with nimbler handling than the XC90 and a better ride than the soft QX60.
The MDX design was developed at Honda’s R&D facilities in Ohio. There, with a rolling ground plane and computer modeling, engineers worked on the underbody and airflow through the engine compartment, as well as the skin, to get the coefficient of drag down and the fuel mileage up.
The 3.5-liter V6 is Acura’s first direct-injected engine, incorporating a new i-VTEC valvetrain with two-stage Variable Cylinder Management, cutting the fire to three cylinders at times. Its architecture comes from Acura’s successful endurance racing engine, a 60-degree aluminum V6, single overhead cam with 24 valves. It makes 290 horsepower and 267 foot-pounds of torque, with a lot of it down low where you need it. The engine is mounted transversely, which improves balance enormously.
It’s coupled to a smooth 6-speed automatic transmission with three modes and paddle shifters. With SH-AWD, the torque moves between the front and rear axles and left and right rear wheels, to deliver all-weather traction and control.
Fuel economy is an EPA-rated at 23 mpg Combined for the front-wheel-drive MDX, compared to 21 mpg Combined (18 City/27 Highway) for the all-wheel-drive MDX with Acura’s SH (super handling)-AWD.
In 302 miles behind the wheel of a fully loaded 2015 MDX SH-AWD, both city and highway, we averaged a good 24.7 miles per gallon. The bad news is that Premium fuel is recommended, and needed to get the best mileage. Direct injection engines manage fuel in a precise manner, but their high compression ratio needs high-octane gas.
Interior materials are of soft and high quality, with standard premium leather and simulated wood-grain trim. The backlit LED gauges are lovely and clear, and the instrumentation well organized. Touch-screen control of the higher-tech available features is problematic. Voice command was so deaf we gave up.
Acura calls its body structure ACE, for Advance Compatibility Engineering. It’s designed to absorb and deflect frontal crash energy, while isolating the cabin from destruction. It uses the world’s first ultra-high-strength hot stamped steel, in what’s basically a cage around the cabin, from front doors to A-pillars to roof rails to B-pillars to lower frame members.
The MDX has won many awards, in addition to five-star crash ratings from NHTSA for frontal and side impact for 2014, and four stars for rollover resistance, as well as a Top Safety Pick from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS).
Acura MDX was completey redesigned for the 2014 model year. The overhang in front was reduced a bit, making the nose look a bit stubby but good. We wish there were less chrome in the grille, but that big silver delta-wing-like band is the Acura cache. It just seems like big chrome grilles are so Seventies.
The nose has been carved between the grille, to slope down from each side to the bumper. It works well, to give definition to the bumper, which on so many cars is flat and ugly for being shapeless. (When we say bumper, we really mean the plastic cover that hides the steel bumper underneath.)
The front fascia openings under the grille are tidy, and the LED headlamps, five bulbs in each, are sleekly designed. Acura calls them Jewel Eyes. They are super bright; night vision is superb in the MDX. Maybe not quite like daylight as Acura suggests, but way excellent, extending the beam by 75 feet and safety by who knows, maybe 75 years.
The sides don’t have fancy styling, and the rear looks like any other SUV, with a small spoiler on the roof. Since so few designs actually score when they try to make distinctive sides and rear ends on SUV styles, clean and simple might be just fine.
The soft interior materials are of a high quality, as should be expected in any car with this price. They’ve always been good with Acura. Premium Milano leather is standard for the first two rows, while satin and simulated wood-grain trim accents the cabin. The steering wheel is stitched leather.
The instrumentation is well laid out, and the information display between the speedometer and tach is shaded and easy to read, although there’s too much information squeezed on one little screen. The gauges are beautifully backlit with LED lighting, while LED lamps with programmable brightness are used on the center console and front foot wells.
The center stack is busy, with a big screen recessed under an eave that shades the screen but doesn’t complement the dashboard lines, and seems to put the navigation map far away. But we might be design nitpicking, here; most people probably won’t notice. There is a huge deep bin in the center console, underneath a sliding armrest. It can easily hold a purse and tablet computer, maybe both. Big SUVs and pickup trucks have center consoles like this, but not many luxury crossovers.
There are just nine buttons on the center stack, which sounds like an improvement from 41 buttons with the previous generation, but not so with the touch-screen radio controls. Our notes are detailed, about what and how didn’t work, tuning the radio, mostly because the button you need does not exist. All we wanted to do was tune to XM channel 30. We looked at, considered, and tried every option there was, over a period of too many miles on the freeway: Presets, More, Shortcuts, Audio Source, non-intuitive single and double arrows (non-intuitive, defined: single arrow jumps many stations at a time, because it’s for presets, while double arrow moves up one station). We pressed them all, we did a couple total circles. We saw Religion, Canadian, and Elvis stations. We finally got there, working around the dysfunction; we pressed the single arrow until it got near channel 30, then pressed the double arrow over and over again (11 times), inching it upwards. Once there, we decided to stay on XM 30 for the rest of our trip. Yes, it is true that if you own the MDX, you will either read the manual or figure out how to do Presets for your favorite stations. So fine, if you own the MDX and only you drive it, you presumably, eventually, won’t have the problems we did. But if anyone else drives it and tries to tune the radio they may have difficulty or be distracted. That’s why we find it ironic, and a bit infuriating, that every time you turn on the car you see this message: “The driver is responsible for the safe operation of this vehicle.”
We’d also like to reply to the voice command. Get the cotton out of your ears. The lady can’t understand plain English. We tried and tried, didn’t do anything wrong, and not one time did she get it right. Another journalist was with us, and she wouldn’t listen to him either.
The front seats are roomy and could use more bolstering, especially with a car that boasts Super Handling. The A-pillar gets in the way of forward and downward visibility.
All three rows of seats are lower than before, to improve ingress and egress. The driver will want to raise the seat to get that command-of-the-road position of a big SUV. A long wheelbase and compact rear suspension allow wide as well as low entry to the rear seats. It’s a relative delight to get in and out. The second-row seatbacks have five reclining positions and six inches of travel to make for maximum legroom and comfortable snoozes on road trips. The second row flops down with a touch of one button located in three places, making it easy to reach the third row. Acura calls it One-Touch-Walk-In, and it is.
Cargo space is vast, 90.0 cubic feet, with both rows folded easily flat. With the seats up there’s 15.8 cubic feet, as much as a large sedan trunk. There’s a cargo lid with room for things you might want to hide, and it flops open 180 degrees with the third row seat folded, to provide maximum utility.
The cabin is extremely quiet with tons of foam in the roof pillars and insulating materials under and behind the second and third rows. The glass is a sandwich of tempered glass around sound insulation. You know you’re in a luxury car when you’re in the back seat of the MDX.
The Acura MDX delivers a comfortable, controlled ride. Steering is sharp and occupants are isolated from road noise and vibration, benefits of a rigid chassis, the latest in suspension engineering, and quick steering. The shock absorbers are called Amplitude Reactive Dampers, because they use variable damping rates depending on the terrain and speed.
But the best part of the MDX is the powertrain; we say that about some BMWs, too. The 3.5-liter V6 is eager and silky, all the way to redline at 6700 rpm, boosted by a smooth and quick 6-speed automatic transmission with paddle shifters and Sport mode.
We liked that when you use the paddles, it doesn’t automatically go into Sport mode, which allows you to use the paddles during relaxed driving. We also liked that the transmission isn’t programmed to out-think you; it does what it’s told and no more, although it upshifts at 6500 rpm to out-think your idea of blowing up the engine. In Sport mode, the shifts get more aggressive, and the exhaust note gets a bit growly, as programmed.
Acura’s IDS, Integrated Dynamics System, uses three modes: Comfort, Normal and Sport. The modes try to give you what you want, by balancing steering effort, throttle response, and torque to the wheels, while adding Active Noise Control. In Sport mode you get a rumble delivered to the cabin, using microphones under the hood and in the tailpipe, enhanced by a subwoofer and wired to a speaker in the headliner. For all that effort, it’s quite subtle.
Suspension settings are not a part of IDS because the shock absorbers already respond to conditions; call them smart shocks. On a patched and curvy road, the suspension handled every transition, and the steering tightened to keep the big vehicle pointed true, in corners and ripples.
The brakes are big, with 12.6-inch vented discs in front and 13.0-inch solid discs in rear, with full electronic assistance.
Agile Handling Assist uses the brakes to maintain steady cornering, by applying them to individual wheels, which puts correct turning forces on the car.
Vehicle Stability Assist (VSA) throws out all the stops to maintain control in dodgy situations.
Fuel economy for an MDX with all-wheel drive is an EPA-estimated 18/27 mpg City/Highway MDX. Premium gasoline is recommended. For improved fuel efficiency, the MDX was carefully engineered for minimal rolling resistance, friction and aerodynamic drag.
Acura goes whole hog in the electronic safety department. In addition to the relaxing Adaptive Cruise Control and well-intended Lane Departure Warning, there’s Forward Collision Warning, which raises the bar. When Volvo invented the system, it prevented low-speed rear-enders and hitting pedestrians. In the MDX you can drive in 30-mph stop-and-go traffic without using your feet at all. We did it for nearly an hour.
The system needs some work. Because it makes its decisions based on the car in front of you, in effect, the driver ahead of you has his feet on your throttle and brake pedals. So it can be jerky. And there is a lag time programmed into accelerating from a stop, so you might get honked at. And if everyone had this system, traffic would get worse. In 30-mph stop-and-go traffic, it helps for everyone if you don’t let gaps happen. Which of course requires paying attention, and this system is designed to allow you to do less of that.
You can over-ride the system, of course; but when your brain is in auto mode, relaxed like your feet, it takes time to snap into emergency over-ride. Another problem, is you will forget whether it’s on or off, so your brain has to remember to remind your foot that it’s needed to stop the car.
We are not being facetious, here. We’re thinking for people who use their brains to drive. Automakers will say that auto systems will prevent more crashes than they cause. But systems aren’t perfect, especially when they’re designed for the masses. So it’s quite possible for these systems to cause crashes in some situations. For example when the driver can see through the windshield what’s coming, before the system can measure it.
Acura MDX features a beautiful powertrain with a V6 and 6-speed automatic transmission that are sharp and smooth, roominess and comfort inside with tight and handsome dimensions outside, smooth ride, nimble handling and short stopping distances. We found the optional high-tech packages problematic. We think the best value is the base MDX SH-AWD.
Sam Moses filed this NewCarTestDrive.com report from the Pacific Northwest.