The MDX mid-size luxury SUV has been a key pillar of the Acura lineup since its introduction in 2001. It's the brand's top-selling model by a considerable margin in the U.S. and a much smaller one in Canada.
Here the smaller and less expensive RDX is giving it a serious run for its money in terms of sales volume.
From its introduction, the MDX has garnered a reputation for car-like handling and mechanical refinement. The new-for-2014 third-generation model builds on that reputation and the knowledge nobody really buys a luxury SUV to go off-roading.
Despite all the marketing talk about affluent younger buyers with an active lifestyle, feedback from customers told Acura's product planners something different.
Instead of forging streams and climbing rocky hills, carting backpacks, mountain bikes or picnic hampers, MDX buyers wanted a luxurious urban vehicle with seating for seven, a car-like ride and reasonable fuel economy.
Handling is important too, but more for ease of maneuvering in crowded parking lots than tackling a set of corners.
Accordingly, the new MDX is quieter, far more fuel-efficient and gives up a bit of its handling prowess in return for a more supple ride.
It is the first vehicle to be built on Honda’s new Global Light Truck platform, with the next-generation Honda Pilot and Odyssey to follow.
The MDX's wheelbase has grown by 70 mm resulting in a better ride. Overall length is up by 50 mm, with most of that added length given to more leg-room up front and for third-row occupants. The second row seat can now be moved fore-aft through a 150-mm range allowing a choice of maximizing people or package space.
In contrast, the height is down 38-mm, resulting in reduced headroom in all three rows, and width is reduced by 32 mm.
In the interests of improving ease of entry and exit, the new MDX rides 17-mm closer to the road and approach and departure angles, critical to serious off-roaders but of no interest to luxury SUV customers, have both shrunk.
Another critical change is a 131-kg mass reduction compared to the outgoing model, which was already among the lightest in the class. With less avoirdupois to lug around, a smaller engine could be utilized and it is a jewel.
The 3.7-litre V-6 engine has been replaced by one displacing 3.5 litres. Ten horsepower and a few pound feet of torque were lost in the transition but that was hardly a sacrifice. Performance has not suffered but there has been a huge leap in fuel efficiency.
The new 24-valve aluminum engine boasts direct injection and the ability shut down three cylinders under no- and low-load conditions to save fuel. It is one of the smoothest engines I have encountered in decades of testing vehicles.
Because there is less weight to deal with, performance remains brisk. The 2014 MDX will accelerate to 100 km from rest in less than six seconds, one half-second quicker than the older model, putting it comfortably amidst the competition boasting much larger and more powerful engines.
But their size and power burns more fuel and they can’t match the MDX’s fuel efficiency which has jumped from L/100 km in the city and 9.6 on the highway to 11.2 and 7.7.
Critically for manu SUV buyers, the new MDX also retains a 2273-kg (5,000-lb) tow rating.
Evolution in progress
Appearance-wise there is nothing to startle existing customers, nor to indicate to potential buyers this is a different MDX. Its design is evolving at a measured pace.
Lined up side-by-side, the old and new models are different, but that big chrome snout could indicate nothing but an Acura. It is now flanked by LED headlights instead of Xenon HID units and the lines appear to be softer.
The “base” MDX is well-equipped, but if you want more three packages available – Navigation, Technology and Elite. All models come with a full suite of active (electronic) and passive (structural) safety features.
My test vehicle was an Elite model with the full array of goodies conjured up by the wizards at Honda R&D: Agile Handling Assist, Vehicle Stability Assist, Forward Collision Warning, Lane Departure Warning, Blind Spot information, Collision Mitigation Braking and Lane Keeping assist.
The interior has been upgraded with materials, fit and finish all of the highest quality. The new version is roomy, and loaded with functionality – in some areas.
New seats are supportive over long distances and efforts to reduce wind and road noise are clearly evident as both are all but absent.
On the good news side, the second- and third-row seats are much more accommodating. Access to the third row has been improved by wider doors, a 46-mm lower step-in height and by pushing a button that folds and moves the second-row seat forward.
Getting back out is similarly easy via a button atop the second-row seats. Brilliant! Space back there in the aft quarters, however, is best suited to small folks or short trips.
Not so impressive is the new model's solution to the crowded centre stack of the outgoing model, which had been heavily criticized for being too busy with its more than 40 buttons or controls.
That issue has been addressed with only nine now in evidence, most functions having been transferred to a pair of touch-sensitive screens and voice-activation. While utilizing clear graphics and fonts, however, the new system requires a great deal of attention to do some very simple tasks.
The screen used for climate and audio systems has big on-screen buttons. But adjusting the climate control requires accessing each individual function – fan, direction, temperature, et cetera, before you can adjust them.
Similarly changing audio settings requires a complex series of steps and there is no control for tuning stations.
The 2014 MDX gets a new suspension, as well as engine, but the transmission and brakes are carried over.
The new multi-link rear and revised front suspension, combined with upgrades to the SH-AWD (Super-Handling All Wheel Drive) system, result in a very nimble vehicle despite its size and weight.
The adjustable dampers on the outgoing model have been replaced by fixed units and, while not as agile in the turns, the ride is much better.
An Integrated Dynamic System adjusts steering effort, throttle response and the SH-AWD system. One key function – pun intended – is the ability for different drivers to tailor their preferences and store them on different key fobs so there is no need to reset everything when getting back in the car.
Pricing for the new MDX runs the gamut from $55,000 to $66,000. Longer but lighter with a smaller engine that offers improved performance and fuel economy, the 2014 MDX should find ready acceptance from existing owners and attract new ones.