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2016 Acura MDX Test Drive Review
Safety, athleticism, and refinement are the primary selling points of the 2016 Acura MDX. Plus, it is a “luxury” model, whatever that means.
Normally, when a car company takes steps to improve a vehicle, the goal is to make people like it more and not less. Somehow, each time Acura improves the MDX, I like it less and not more. That’s true for 2016, thanks to a new 9-speed automatic transmission and the existence of a redesigned Honda Pilot.
Look and Feel7/ 10
For 15 years, Acura has dominated the luxury 3-row crossover SUV segment. In fact, through June of this year, the Acura MDX was the fourth most popular luxury model in America, slotting behind the Lexus RX, Mercedes-Benz C-Class, and BMW 3 Series in terms of sales made to consumers (instead of fleet operators such as rental-car companies).
Spend some time in an Acura MDX, and it's easy to understand why so many people choose this model. Plus, buying an MDX is easy. Decide whether you want the Super Handling All-Wheel Drive (SH-AWD) system or not, and then determine which option package you’d like. Prices start at $43,785, including the destination charge of $920, and rise to $58,000 even for my test car, the MDX SH-AWD with Advance and Entertainment option packages.
When Acura redesigned the MDX for the 2014 model year, it softened the previous model’s angular profile and swollen wheel arches. New Jewel Eye LED headlights debuted along with a more tasteful rendering of Acura’s trademark shield grille, and to ensure a sleek silhouette the rear quarter windows adopted a triangular rather than trapezoidal shape. While the result is an unmistakably tailored appearance, the MDX is also more conservative and less remarkable.
Inside, Acura sought to simplify the previous MDX’s array of buttons and knobs by switching to a dual display screen arrangement. This change certainly eliminated much of the switchgear for a cleaner appearance, but it also makes the MDX’s cabin appear simple and plain.
Furthermore, because Acura’s parent company is Honda, and because Acura exists in only a handful of global markets, it uses similar technologies, materials, and approaches, to the point where the value proposition for selecting the Acura is unclear.
Indisputably, though, from how the doors sound when they’re closed to the look and feel of the interior’s materials, the Acura MDX exudes a sense of quality, imparting the impression that it will last a good, long time.
Robustly powered and refined in character, a 3.5-liter V6 engine sits under the Acura MDX’s hood, generating 290 horsepower and delivering quick, satisfying acceleration accompanied by a pleasantly aggressive yet appropriately muted exhaust note. This is a terrific engine, and it provides this family-size crossover with the ability to thrill its driver.
For 2016, the V6 is paired with a new 9-speed automatic transmission with Drive and Sport modes, a change designed to make the MDX more fuel-efficient. Acura has also done away with a traditional shifter, replacing it with push buttons and a Reverse gear switch arranged on the center console next to the cupholders.
Engine power is transferred to the MDX’s front wheels unless you order the SH-AWD (super-handling all-wheel drive) system, which adopts a new twin-clutch rear differential design for improved torque-transfer performance. Acura has also installed a new Idle Stop feature for MDX models equipped with the Advance option package, which shuts the engine off while the SUV is idling, such as in traffic or at an intersection, automatically re-starting the engine when the driver lifts off the brake pedal and steps on the accelerator.
In my opinion, these powertrain changes reduce rather than enhance the MDX’s appeal. I understand that automakers are under a significant amount of pressure to improve fuel economy in order to meet federal mandates. Unfortunately, and the problem is not limited to Acura and the new MDX, the result is a less satisfying driving experience.
From the new shifting mechanism on the center console to the way the powertrain behaves, the 2016 MDX is not as enjoyable to drive as last year's version.
In Drive mode, I experienced frequent delays in downshifts when requesting extra power for passing or hill climbing, combined with occasionally unexpected lurches forward when accelerating from a stop and unanticipated gains in speed when the transmission freewheeled between gears on downgrades. In Sport mode the transmission simply holds revs too high and for too long. Also, note that if you park the MDX or shift gears on a hill, the SUV rolls more than expected, so use extra care.
Paddle shifters should provide a more satisfying driving experience, but they don’t. Engage them, and there are too many speeds to cycle through in order to find the one you want, creating distraction. When you tire of using them, depending on how you’re driving and which transmission setting you’ve selected, it can be unclear how to get the transmission to switch back to automatic mode.
Idle Stop technology is the best argument against choosing the MDX’s pricey Advance option package, though doing so means you’ll need to live without the MDX’s outstanding sport ventilated front seats. Bummer.
When Idle Stop shuts off the engine, it causes the MDX to shudder slightly. When Idle Stop responds to the driver lifting his or her foot off the brake, it takes a moment for the engine to restart, and in my experience my foot was usually already pressing down on the accelerator pedal.
To compensate for the delay, it appears that Acura has designed the system to automatically rev the engine to a level corresponding to how far the driver has pressed the accelerator, which can, depending on how the MDX is driven, mitigate the effect of the delay. However, in my experience, it often resulted in uneven acceleration from a standstill.
In summary, I’m not a fan of the new transmission or the new Idle Stop feature. Acura provides a button on the center console that gives the driver the option of turning off Idle Stop, but there’s no swapping out the transmission for last year’s 6-speed automatic.
What’s the net gain in terms of fuel economy? Apparently, according to the EPA, there isn’t one, unless you get the Advance option package, use Idle Stop, and spend lots of time driving in the city.
Last year, the EPA expected the 2015 MDX SH-AWD to get 18 mpg in the city, 27 on the highway, and 21 in combined driving. This year, the EPA rates the 2016 MDX SH-AWD for 18 mpg in the city, 26 on the highway, and 21 in combined driving. If you have the Advance package and activate Idle Stop, those ratings rise to 19 in the city and 26 on the highway, for 22 mpg in combined driving. I averaged 19.9 during my week of driving.
Boy, would it be nice to just get last year’s 6-speed automatic back. My family and I took a long road trip in a 2015 MDX, and that transmission was terrific.
Part of that trip was on California’s Pacific Coast Highway, where the road twists and turns from Carmel to Hearst Castle. The MDX was genuinely fun to drive on this long stretch of coastal highway, thanks in part to the Integrated Dynamics System (IDS) with Comfort, Normal, and Sport driving modes. The IDS adjusts steering feel to all three settings, and in Sport mode it quickens throttle response and more aggressively transfers torque to the rear wheels when the MDX is equipped with SH-AWD.
For this test of a 2016 MDX, my favorite setting was Drive for the transmission and Normal for the IDS. With both components set to Sport mode, the MDX adopts a frenetic personality, one that contrasts sharply with its otherwise refined and tailored character. In Drive/Normal, the MDX is more relaxed and less responsive, but also more enjoyable and predictable to drive without losing its athletic demeanor.
In Normal mode, the steering is a joy to use, displaying perfect levels of heft and quick, accurate response at all times. Agile Handling Assist is standard for the MDX, tightening the SUV’s cornering line by automatically braking an inside wheel to tuck the Acura closer to the inside of a curve. This, combined with palpable torque vectoring courtesy of the SH-AWD system, makes the MDX lots of fun to drive. Unfortunately, on a hot testing day in California’s Santa Monica Mountains, the brakes faded slightly with heavy use in the high-heat conditions.
The MDX’s suspension does a great job of controlling body squat, roll, and dive, and while the SUV always feels solidly connected to the pavement, it nevertheless is very comfortable to drive over long stretches of Interstate highway. My wife commented upon how quiet the MDX is at speed on local freeways, though I’ll attest that traversing rougher pavement textures can create more road noise than might be expected of a luxury SUV.
Despite my misgivings about the MDX’s new transmission and Idle Stop technology, I wouldn’t allow them to deter me from buying one. That’s because I enjoy the trip to the destination as much as the destination itself, and otherwise the Acura MDX is fantastic to drive.
Form and Function7/ 10
Sit inside an Acura MDX and you get a palpable sense that someone at Acura was sweating every single one of the details when selecting materials to make sure things operate with a sense of refinement.
I’m not a fan of Acura’s dual-screen approach to its infotainment technologies, though. The bottom screen is touch-sensitive, and works similar to a tablet computer or a smartphone screen. It handles radio and media functions, as well as secondary climate functions such as seat heating and ventilation.
The top screen is not touch-sensitive, requiring the driver to use a center control knob surrounded by primary and secondary menu selection buttons, which are located underneath the bottom screen on the dashboard. The primary menu selection buttons have a glossy appearance, and glare often makes their markings difficult to discern.
When I’m driving the MDX and want to adjust something or reference information, I often find myself looking at the center control panel with a blank, glazed expression, trying to remember which screen does what, and whether I need to touch a screen or use a button or knob. As you can easily deduce, this is incredibly frustrating, not to mention distracting.
Maybe I’m the only one suffering from this problem, but last year, having piled well over 1,000 miles on an MDX, I still hadn’t gotten the hang of things. To fix this ergonomic mess, I’d strongly recommend that Acura devise a single widescreen solution, one employing more buttons and knobs for accessing the most commonly used features.
Comfortable seats go a long way toward helping me forgive Acura for the dual-screen control setup. My test vehicle, equipped with the Advance package, contained special sport seats wrapped in premium leather and featuring seat ventilation that proved quite effective during a heat wave that saw local temperatures hitting 100 degrees. During a family get-together, my dad got into the MDX and promptly proclaimed the front passenger’s seat the most comfortable one he had ever experienced.
The MDX’s second-row seat is comfortable, too. My kids had plenty of space, and my wife fit between their child safety seats for a ride to a restaurant. They slide forward and back, too, maximizing legroom when the third-row seat is not in use, and increasing third-row legroom when the MDX is carrying a full house of passengers.
As is true of most vehicles with third-row seats, those in the MDX are not particularly hospitable to adults, and they place children close to the vehicle’s rear crush zone, which could be a problem in the event that another driver slams into the Acura while it is Idle Stopped at an intersection. As the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) recommends, the safest place for kids is in the second-row seat.
Cargo space behind the third row measures 15 cubic feet, stacked to the roof. That’s not much more than a grocery-shopping trip’s worth of space. Fold the third-row seat down to enjoy 38.4 cubic feet of cargo room. With all rear seats folded, the MDX swallows up to 68.4 cubes of cargo.
Tech Level8/ 10
When it comes to technology, Acura focuses on providing the features you’re most likely to need and appreciate—Idle Stop excepted, of course.
All MDX models gain Siri Eyes Free compatibility for 2016, making it easier for iPhone users to perform a variety of functions once they’ve paired their smartphone to the SUV’s Bluetooth system. Most MDX buyers, however, upgrade to the Technology option package at a minimum, which adds a navigation system with real-time traffic reports, a premium sound system with HD Radio, and a solar-sensing climate control system that is GPS-linked to help ensure everyone is as comfortable as possible.
This package also provides several safety-related technologies, discussed below, as well as access to subscription-based AcuraLink services, which includes SOS emergency assistance, automatic collision notification, stolen vehicle tracking and recovery, remote access to various vehicle features, thousands of media channels to stream, personal assistant services, and more, depending on the level of service you subscribe to.
The Advance Package adds Idle Stop as well as remote engine start capability, ventilated front seats, heated second-row seats, and a set of front and rear parking assistance sensors.
An Entertainment Package is available with the Technology and Advance option packages, and it adds a rear-seat entertainment system and a 110-volt power outlet. With the Advance Package, the entertainment display screen grows from 9 inches to 16.2 inches for widescreen viewing.
The one thing missing from the MDX is Wi-Fi hotspot access. In a world where even an entry-level Chevrolet Spark provides this technology, Acura needs to step up to the plate, like, yesterday.
For 2016, Acura debuts a new AcuraWatch Plus option package that is available on any version of the MDX.
AcuraWatch Plus adds adaptive cruise control with forward-collision warning and automatic emergency braking, a lane-departure warning and lane-keep assist system, and a road-departure mitigation system. To get a blind-spot warning system with rear cross-traffic alert, you need to get the Technology or Advance Package, both of which also include rain-sensing wipers.
Should a collision occur, know that the MDX can protect you and your passengers like few vehicles can. Weighing a minimum of two tons, the MDX earns 5-star crash-test ratings from the federal government in every single assessment, accompanied by a 4-star rollover resistance rating.
The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) gives the MDX top ratings across the board, plus an Advanced rating for the SUV’s ability to avoid a frontal-impact collision in the first place. The result is a Top Safety Pick rating.
For 2016, Honda has debuted a redesigned Pilot, putting its popular family-size crossover on the same platform as the Acura MDX. At the same time, a new Pilot Elite model debuts, delivering heretofore-unknown levels of luxury and technical sophistication to the Honda while undercutting an MDX with similar equipment by more than $10,000.
This situation makes it harder for Acura to sell the MDX. Sure, the Acura is a little bit more powerful, a little bit more sophisticated, and offers a handful of exclusive upgrades that are unavailable for the Pilot, but I can’t figure this strategy out. Ford does the same thing with Lincoln, effectively strangling its luxury channel.
In any case, the MDX is expected to retain a big chunk of its value over time, which allows Acura to offer appealing lease deals on this luxury crossover. Historically, the MDX has been very reliable. In recent years, however, advanced technologies have caused a downgrade in consumer perceptions of quality and overall appeal.
Reportedly, the costs associated with ownership of the MDX are average, no doubt in part due to the premium to be paid over the Pilot. It sure doesn’t help that Acura recommends premium fuel to achieve the MDX’s slight horsepower and torque gains over the Honda.
Don’t get me wrong. I like the Acura MDX. I would seriously consider buying one. But my dissatisfaction with the new transmission, combined with the debut of the new 2016 Pilot Elite, makes it harder for me to recommend it. With that in mind, safety, athleticism, and an extra dose of refinement are the primary selling points of the 2016 Acura MDX.
Plus, it is a “luxury” model, whatever that means.
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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