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2014 Acura MDX Test Drive Review
Everything about how the MDX drives is exacting, finely tuned to deliver the luxurious driving experience most owners want while simultaneously retaining the athleticism most owners need.
Last year’s MDX, though 7 years old, was a terrific crossover SUV: big, bold and stylish, whether you liked its looks or not. Now, a redesigned 2014 Acura MDX is on sale, seemingly sanitized for everyone’s protection. Don’t assume, however, that the new MDX is just a stretched 7-passenger version of the smaller Acura RDX and equipped with fancy LED headlights. It might not look as exciting as the old MDX, but it’s a better SUV in almost every respect.
Look and Feel
The 2014 Acura MDX is a 3-row luxury crossover SUV and one of the automaker’s best-selling models. In 2012, nearly one out of every three Acuras that rolled off showroom floors was an MDX, despite the fact that it was the oldest member of the company’s lineup. This year, the MDX and the smaller RDX crossover accounted for more than half of Acura’s sales through the middle of 2013.
So yeah, the Acura MDX is kind of a big deal. Trouble is, for all the refinement that is dripping off its flanks, the redesigned 2014 MDX has lost some of the previous iteration’s distinctive flavor in the process.
More on that in a moment. First, let’s review the 2014 Acura MDX lineup. This year, Acura offers the MDX with front-wheel drive in addition to the previously standard Super Handling All-Wheel Drive (SH-AWD). As a result, the new model is actually about $1,000 less expensive than the old model, starting at $43,185, including a destination charge of $895. Add the SH-AWD system and the price jumps to $45,185, a $1,010 price increase over the 2013 model.
Once you’ve chosen a drive type, there are three option packages from which to select. The Technology Package ($4,275) adds Keyless Access passive entry, a navigation system with AcuraLink real-time traffic, a premium sound system with HD Radio and satellite radio, a GPS-linked climate control system, a Forward Collision Warning system, a Lane Departure Warning system and a Blind Spot Information system. This package also contains larger 19-inch aluminum wheels to distinguish it from the base trim. To this, the Technology and Entertainment Package ($6,275) adds a rear-seat DVD entertainment system with a 9-inch screen, wireless headphones, a remote control, 110-volt power outlet and heated rear seats.
The top-of-the-line MDX includes the Advance and Entertainment Package ($12,215). It contains the Technology and Entertainment Package, replacing the 9-inch screen with a 16.2-inch widescreen display. It also includes premium perforated leather seats, ventilated front seats, auto-dimming side mirrors, remote engine start, front and rear parking sensors, Adaptive Cruise Control with Low Speed Follow, a Lane Keeping Assist System and a Collision Mitigation Braking System.
My test vehicle had all of this equipment, plus SH-AWD, for a grand total of $57,400. Acura paints the MDX in any of seven shades of paint, and mine was Silver Moon. Four different interior colors are offered, and I strongly recommend something other than the relentlessly black Ebony selection, which my test vehicle had and which shows every speck of dirt.
Compared to the previous generation MDX’s dramatically flared and contoured interior, with its showy gauges, thick strips of wood trim and pinched center control panel, the 2014 model’s cabin is more conservative in appearance. Button count is dramatically reduced, with functions now accessed through the dual screen displays that replace them, but a measure of the MDX’s personality has been lost with the interior redesign. Quality of materials is not a problem, and the controls certainly are refined, but there’s a definite lack of style that would, if present, make the MDX look and feel special.
Similarly, the new MDX’s exterior styling is less distinctive than before, yet unmistakably reflects a modern Acura. Except for the Jewel Eye LED headlights and my test model’s 19-inch aluminum wheels, though, the new MDX looks a whole lot like the smaller and less expensive RDX.
A new “Earth Dreams” 3.5-liter V6 engine powers the redesigned 2014 Acura MDX, rated to make 290 hp at 6,200 rpm and 267 lb-ft of torque at 4,500 rpm. Equipped with Variable Cylinder Management technology, the engine operates on fewer cylinders when coasting or cruising in order to conserve fuel. It also helps that the new MDX weighs 275 pounds less than the last version.
A 6-speed automatic transmission with a Sport driving mode and paddle shifters delivers power to the MDX’s front wheels. Additionally, the 2014 MDX comes standard with Agile Handling Assist, which employs selective braking to generate a torque-vectoring effect in sharper corners taken at moderate speed. An Integrated Dynamic System (IDS) offers three driving modes: Comfort, Normal and Sport. A Super Handling All-Wheel-Drive system, so-called because it can direct a majority of power output to one of the rear wheels to create an additional torque vectoring effect, is optional.
My test vehicle had SH-AWD, and I left the IDS in Normal mode the majority of the time. Overall, I’d say this SUV’s driving dynamics are nothing short of astonishingly good. Just as the company did with the previous MDX, Acura says it spent lots of time tuning the new version of the SUV on Germany’s famed Nurburgring racing circuit. It shows, because the new MDX’s driving dynamics are expertly calibrated.
The V6 engine is strong and refined, smooth-revving with a muted growl. Paddle shifters help to keep the power flowing when climbing a twisty 2-lane mountain road, and both the Agile Handling Assist and SH-AWD torque vectoring effects are blatantly evident when hustling the SUV around tight corners. In town, the V6 proves plenty powerful with a family of four aboard. Accelerating and merging into fast-flowing traffic is not a problem, and it is easy to execute left turns onto well-traveled streets.
While the new MDX is softer and more refined, that doesn’t mean it is less adept in terms of handling. The electric steering feels natural, light and responsive, making the MDX easy to park yet engaging to drive. The suspension is more compliant, able to soak up the lousiest of pavement zits, yet the MDX still feels athletic when you toss it down a favorite back road or make an evasive maneuver to avoid the sleepy, texting driver in the next lane. The brake pedal is also a pleasure to use, providing excellent feel and modulation, in turn allowing the driver to apply just the right amounts of pressure.
Everything about how the MDX drives is exacting, finely tuned to deliver the luxurious driving experience most owners want while simultaneously retaining the athleticism most owners need—even if they don’t realize it. The weakest link here is the tires, which ultimately limit the amount of fun an enthusiast driver can have in the MDX. But since 99% of MDX buyers have no intention of exploring the SUV's limits, the choice in rubber is a good one, because this Acura's ride quality and quietness levels are admirable.
Form and Function
As far as interior quality is concerned, the 2014 MDX is constructed with care using upscale materials. The end result, and this impression is almost certainly strengthened by my test vehicle’s Ebony interior, is one of austerity.
From the seat cushions up, the MDX is equipped with low-gloss, soft-touch surfaces grained with a tasteful leather-style pattern. The windshield and center roof pillars are wrapped in fabric, and the cabin is sparingly decorated with wood trim and polished silver accents. My test vehicle also had the premium Milano leather upholstery, which is soft, plush and supple.
As nice as the leather is, however, I don’t find this new MDX to be as comfortable as the previous version. From the driver’s seat, the new MDX feels smaller, and the seat is unable to provide the degree of both vertical lift and thigh support that I desire. I don’t recall that being an issue in the previous model.
The new MDX’s second-row seat is spacious, but sits a little bit low to the floor, compromising thigh support. Side window shades in my loaded test vehicle helped to shield young eyeballs from the sun. The second-row seat also slides forward to create extra legroom for third-row occupants.
Acura claims to have improved third-row access, and that strikes me as true, but the third-row seat cushion is low and flat, and there is no room for feet under the second-row seat. This space should be reserved only for kids, kids who are going to loudly complain that they cannot see out given the edifice of second-row seatbacks they’re facing and the MDX’s tiny triangular rear side windows.
If you need a minivan and you’re thinking the MDX is a reasonable substitute, it’s not. This Acura is best used as a 5-passenger conveyance. That’s partly because of tight third-row seat room and partly because of tight cargo space behind the third-row seat. Stacked vertically to the window and roof, 15.8 cubic feet of cargo fits back there. Fold the third-row seats down, and the MDX holds five people plus 45.1 cubes of cargo. Toss your passengers out, and the MDX can swallow a total of 90.9 cubes of your stuff. That’s almost as much room as the redesigned 2015 GMC Yukon.
Choose a base version of the new Acura MDX, and aside from Bluetooth connectivity and music streaming, hands-free text messaging capability, a USB port, a reversing camera and the automaker’s Jewel Eye LED headlights, your new SUV is relatively free of technology. Start adding option packages, and that changes. Fast.
Every MDX does get twin display screens in the dashboard, though. The lower touchscreen is used to control the stereo and other features, and I found that it suffers plenty of glare while collecting lots of dust and fingerprints. I know Acura has been dinged in the past for having too many buttons and knobs on its control panels, but I prefer that approach to this approach. At least I can see and use buttons and knobs when the sun is shining on them.
The Technology Package adds a number of convenience, entertainment, information and safety features. One of the upgrades is a GPS-linked triple-zone climate control system that is supposed to take into consideration the vehicle’s direction of travel and sun angle to fine-tune cabin temperature for individual occupants. I found that it let me get too hot when sitting on the shady side of the SUV, even with the system set to 68 degrees on a cool early fall afternoon. That's when I decided to activate the seat ventilation system, which was rendered invisible due to the glare on the dashboard's touchscreen.
A rear-seat DVD entertainment system is included in the Technology and Entertainment Package and is an absolute breeze to use. For a change, neither my wife nor I needed to reference the owner’s manual to make it work. The system includes rear HDMI and video inputs, two wireless headphone sets and a 2-prong 115-volt electrical outlet.
In the Advance and Entertainment Package, an ultra-wide 16.2-inch screen replaces the standard 9-inch screen. This package also contains the Adaptive Cruise Control with Low Speed Follow system.
I’m still not a fan of adaptive cruise control. Maybe this technology is fine under certain conditions, but on Pacific Coast Highway near Los Angeles, where cars ahead disappear from and re-appear in the radar cone due to curves that can be taken at moderate speed, or on thickly traveled L.A. freeways, where people will cut you off without an ounce of consideration, the MDX’s adaptive cruise control does not perform smoothly.
What really bugs me, though, is that when the MDX is doing the thinking and the driving, and is executing the acceleration and braking, the driver generally won’t be ready for the amount of braking or the surge in acceleration, because what the software has decided to do is often different from what the driver’s brain would decide to do. All the software cares about is resolutely maintaining a set distance from cars ahead, no matter what else is going on. As a result, the software brakes harder and accelerates stronger than the driver would under the same conditions. There’s no finesse, no consideration of other driving conditions or surrounding motorists.
The result is driving behavior that is downright embarrassing on occasion. On Pacific Coast Highway, the MDX braked more severely than I would have when the car I was following suddenly “re-appeared” in the system’s radar detection cone, forcing the driver behind me to stab the brakes in turn, which created a chain reaction of panicked braking in traffic behind me.
The same thing happened on the Ventura Freeway in Encino. I was driving in the center lane at about 70 mph when a car merged onto the freeway, shot across two lanes, and got in front of me doing about 60 mph. The MDX freaked out, the Forward Collision Warning system blared a warning, and the SUV slammed on its own brakes even as the car ahead accelerated and switched into yet another lane. You can imagine what happened behind me. Needless to say, I turned off the cruise control for the remainder of my testing.
People, can’t we all agree to just drive our cars ourselves, and to have stricter licensing requirements and regulations for driving under the influence, or to just take the bus?
I am a huge fan of blind-spot information systems, and I think they ought to be required equipment in every new car, truck, and SUV. The rest of the Acura MDX’s safety nannies I could do without, especially the items contained in the Advance with Entertainment Package. That’s right, Adaptive Cruise Control, Collision Mitigation Braking and Lane Keeping Assist systems, I’m talking about you.
Even the Lane Departure Warning system that comes in the Technology option packages is a frequent irritant. Again, maybe this feature is useful in areas of the country where lanes are wide and roads are often striped with yellow down the middle, but in Los Angeles, where lanes are very narrow and endless freeway improvement projects are the norm, the MDX’s Lane Departure Warning system is hyper-active. Not only that, but it is also frequently inaccurate, often reading grooves in the pavement as lane markings, or detecting old lane markings in construction zones. Good thing it can be shut off.
Crash testing for the 2014 MDX is incomplete. As this review is written, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has not conducted any tests on the new MDX. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) says the MDX gets a Good rating in both the moderate overlap frontal-impact test and in the side-impact test, but has not finalized other assessments. The MDX’s front crash prevention rating is Advanced, according to the IIHS.
As is true of most luxury-branded vehicles, the 2014 Acura MDX is not as cost effective to own as a 7-passenger SUV that doesn’t have an upscale badge affixed to its nose and tailgate. Plus, because it is a brand-new model, Acura isn’t offering deals on the new MDX just yet. Furthermore, when it comes to the MDX’s historical reliability and dependability, Consumer Reports and J.D. Power disagree with one another, effectively canceling one another out. Finally, Kelley Blue Book says the old MDX’s 5-year cost of ownership was average, and nothing more.
Where the new MDX excels is with regard to fuel economy. My fully loaded test vehicle was rated to get 18 mpg in the city and 27 mpg on the highway, for a combined 21 mpg. I managed to get 22 mpg, with an emphasis on highway driving. The MDX is also expected to hold its value over time. According to ALG, the previous version of the MDX received a depreciation rating of 4 stars out of 5 stars, and Edmunds has named Acura as the luxury brand that does the best job of retaining value over time.
Christian Wardlaw has nearly two decades of experience reviewing cars, and has served in editorial leadership roles with Edmunds, Autobytel, and J.D. Power and Associates. Chris prefers to focus on the cars people actually buy rather than the cars about which people dream, and emphasizes the importance of fuel economy and safety as much as how much fun a car is to drive. Chris is married to an automotive journalist, is the father of four daughters, and lives in Southern California.
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