2014 Acura MDX: First Drive

June 1, 2013
We suspect we're not the only ones who think that the very premise behind some high-performance luxury utility vehicles borders on perverse.

Who are they kidding? Unless you're seeking revenge, you're not going to load your clients (or your mother-in-law) into the back seat and head out on a nine-tenths thrill ride—and driving like that with kids in the back seat? Don't dare. Are busy parents really going to take time away from carpool duty to go carve canyon roads in a luxury ute? Wouldn't they just have a Miata or an M3 for that?

All that silliness is perhaps part of the reason Acura did something very smart when it was redesigning the all-new 2014 MDX luxury crossover: Rather than listening to driving enthusiasts or focusing on how it build the brand's image, Acura went back and listened to current MDX owners.

What did they say? They like the size; they liked its performance; and they appreciated the utility and towing ability. But they wanted to see an improved interior, simplified controls, lighter steering, a quieter interior, smoother ride, and a little more room for the third row.

The brand took all of that feedback very seriously, and with the 2014 Acura MDX that begins arriving at dealerships in July, it's complied with pretty much all of it.

And at least at first, it seems like an about-face of sorts in Acura MDX history, as the last-generation MDX took a big step in the performance direction. That version was a pretty sharp-driving, responsive crossover—one of the best driving in its class, really—yet driving enthusiasts would have probably told Acura to tune the MDX even firmer, or that the steering could load up heavier.

Lean, athletic, yet not punishing

While Acura has shaken some of that edginess in the new 2014 MDX, we found the new model to be delightfully lean and athletic, and just as much at ease on undulating, oddly banked back roads as on smooth, fast highways.

But our first impression was that the MDX is quiet inside—very quiet—thanks to a host of noise-hushing and vibration-reducing measures. Active noise cancellation, active engine mounts, acoustic glass for the windshield and front windows, thicker glass elsewhere, added underfloor insulation, tighter seals, and subframe bushings are all among the many measures that help keep things quiet inside. And oh, do they.

Ride quality, too, is phenomenally good. New amplitude-reactive dampers reduce the damping force for high-frequency inputs—jittery pavement surfaces, for example—while hydraulic sub-frame mount bushings help seal out more road vibration.

Acura claims that the new approach improves ride comfort with no trade-off to handling, but in a back-to-back drive of a new 2014 MDX with the outgoing model, the new model didn't turn in quite as crisply. You do lose a little edge with all that vibration and harshness here, but to us and to the typical buyer, it's going to be worth it without a doubt.

And you do get a chance to tune things, when you are in a zippier mood. Just behind the shift knob, the IDS button (Integrated Dynamics System) commands three different modes. Comfort uses a lighter, higher-boost setting for the steering, and with a less-certain on-center feel in this mode we can’t imagine where you’d use it unless you need to do a lot of parallel parking with a sprained wrist or broken elbow (really, it's fingertip light). On the other side, the Sport mode offers real change—for the better, we think—with less steering assist and a more confident on-canter feel.

Very satisfying powertrain

Under the hood is a 290-horsepower version of Acura’s always-excellent V-6 engine—now fed with direct injection and kosher with the full suite of Honda’s so-called Earth Dreams technologies. Across the lineup, it’s mated to a six-speed automatic transmission that includes steering-wheel paddle shifters. Click down to the 'S' mode and click the paddle-shifters, and you get quick throttle-blip downshifts. Furthermore, it's closer to a true manual mode, as the transmission here will actually let you hold onto gears—all the way up to redline, or all the way down to where you're starting to lug the engine.

Furthermore, Sport mode allows just a little more of the right engine sounds to make their way into the cabin—by actually allowing a different selective mode for the Active Noise Insulation system. Yes, it's a trick; but it works.

What's it all add up to? Rather counterintuitively, considering how much 'softer' it feels, the new MDX is actually faster on the track or on the back roads compared to the previous model. Although there's really no reference point, Acura boasted that the new model is actually eight seconds faster around the Nurburgring, with the same driver, than the previous model.

Here's where impressions start to gel, and the new model starts to make even better sense. The 2014 MDX is noticeably lighter—about 275 pounds less than the outgoing model, and now at 4,025 pounds for the base model or about 4,300 pounds for the two tech-loaded AWD models we drove, it's one of the lightest vehicles its size. And it feels quick to react to any need—whether that be pulling off a quick pass, diving into a next corner, or maneuvering precisely around a parking lot.

The weight loss can be attributed to many things. The MDX is the first vehicle to be built on an all-new platform that will eventually underpin the next Honda Pilot and Honda Ridgeline, and this structure gives up the previous model's unibody-on-ladder-frame compound construction. There's a lot high-strength steel than its predecessor (59 percent versus 25 percent), which saves 123 pounds less in the body itself. Meanwhile in the seats and air conditioning system they've managed to save nearly 55 pounds. Body engineers are perhaps most proud of the new front door ring—a world first, and done in hot-stamped high-strength steel, in a single piece. That innovation alone should help improve the MDX's performance in side-impact and small-overlap frontal tests, we were told.

Packed with useful technology

Speaking of safety, there's a lot of it. MDX models with the Technology Package add Lane Departure Warning (LDW), which will warn you when you're straying out of your travel lane, and Forward Collision Warning (FCW) warns you of a rapid closing distance on a vehicle or barrier ahead. A driver knee airbag has been added for 2014, and a Wide View Camera system is included on all models. The Blind Spot Information system is included in all models but the base MDX., while Advance Entertainment models also have Lane Keeping Assist (LKAS), which will provide a gentle, proactive nudge to the steering to help you stay in your intended lane. And, we should note, for all of the cool active-safety features here, you won't feel like you're being nudged and nannied; most of these features are light on the false warnings.

During our drive, the skies opened up and a torrential downpour erupted—just as we were covering one of the most demanding, oddly banked and rough-surfaced stretches of road. And yet here, the combination of the MDX’s SH-AWD system and some new road-stability-minded features in the stability control system added up to a vehicle that felt tenacious, predictable, and hard to fluster, even in those conditions.

Inside, the new MDX feels warmer at first look, and the impression held for the length of the five hours we spend in and out of the cabin. Acura has paid much more attention to properly coordinated materials and trims, and it shows. The only letdown from a styling standpoint is that there's a very limited (only four hues) combination of interior colors and trims.

Back seat space matters—and it's great here

In terms of seating, there are no letdowns here, and everything's a little more comfortable, a little more spacious, than you might expect given either the exterior or your experience with a past MDX or a competitor. Wheelbase on this model is up about three inches, which frees up more space for the second and third rows. You can slide the second row back and forth about size inches, and Acura has even installed a little lighted button beside the second-row outboard seats, for third-row access. A press enables a neat, cleverly-designed spring-loaded process (yes, fewer motors to short out, less weight and complication).

Still, getting into the third row was, I’ll admit, quite a challenge for me, at a lanky 6’-6” tall. But once in, I head just enough headroom and I actually fit—mostly. I wouldn’t sit back there for more than a short trip, but it’s definitely doable for anyone more ‘normal-sized.’

Of all the things that Acura has changed with this MDX, pricing and market position isn't one of them. The new 2014 MDX starts at $43,185, including the $895 destination fee, which is just below what last year's base AWD model cost. Jump all the way to the top-of-the-line Advance & Entertainment model and you'll bottom-line at $57,400. In this class, that seems very competitive—especially including some of the features you get at the top of the line, like keyfob-integrated remote engine start, adaptive cruise control with a low-speed follow feature, collision mitigation braking, a wide-screen rear entertainment system with HDMI, 12-speaker ELS audio system, and Milano premium perforated leather upholstery with ventilated front seats.

Our only complaints about the MDX seemed, almost entirely, focused around the instrument panel and center stack. Acura boasts that it's managed to simplify the center-stack design and gone from 41 hard buttons to just nine. But many of those buttons (for climate control, for instance) have simply become 'buttons' that are part of the touch screen above—and require a little more focus than hard buttons would. A haptic 'buzz' from the screen helps, admittedly.

'Simplified' interface?

But then there's the fundamental design that, after being talked through the logic several times now, we question the worth of. As with Acura's other vehicles (and now, the upper systems in the Honda Accord, for instance), there are two screens. The upper screen isn't a touch screen, but the lower one is. A large 'jog dial' controller may at first seem like it's for volume, or for the screen it's just below, but it's for the upper-most screen, and navigates through a set of primary functions. The upper screen is supposed to be for critical information, we were told at one point, yet we still wondered about exceptions to this rule—like why do you sometimes get more detail for audio on the upper screen than on the lower screen.

Acura does offer an impressive navigation system here with integrated traffic, integrated Aha and Pandora streaming radio (with a smartphone and data connection), and a set of high-power Acura/ELS premium audio systems that have to be close to the best in this class of vehicle. Yes, it's an odd set of controls, but we'd get over it because the rest of the vehicle is so good.

As we wait in a holding pattern for the breakthrough reincarnation of the NSX supercar, it seems that Acura’s crossovers, the RDX, and especially this very sweet-driving MDX, seem to hit their stride right in line with what the market wants. While Acura's other sedans—the RLX, TL, TSX, and ILX—all seem to be struggling with their identity—the MDX is right here, right now.

See our full review of the 2014 Acura MDX for more up-close details and impressions, plus specs, pricing, and more.

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