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2019 Acura MDX Test Drive Review
Some things get better with age. You can count the 2019 Acura MDX among them thanks to a continuous program of improvement.
Slowly but surely, Acura is picking itself up and dusting itself off after a decade of wayward product development and marketing decisions took Honda’s luxury division off-track. Through it all, though, the MDX midsize 3-row crossover SUV has propped the company up, selling in great enough quantities and at high enough profit margins to ensure Acura’s survival. Now in its sixth year since a complete redesign, is the 2019 MDX still worthy in a battle against newer competitors?
Look and Feel
Inexplicably, luxury automakers have allowed Acura to dominate the midsize, 3-row crossover segment for well over a decade.
Until 2018, there were few competitive alternatives to the Acura MDX: The Audi Q7 (more expensive), the Infiniti QX60 (droning drivetrain), and the Volvo XC90 (more expensive). Lexus, the sales champ among luxury SUVs, didn’t get around to cramming a third row into the RX until last year. (And in reality, the third row is so cramped, the RX L qualifies as no more than a 2.5-row crossover.)
Change, however, is in the air. From the upcoming BMW X7 and Cadillac XT6 to the Genesis GX80 and Lincoln Aviator, a new battalion of luxury 3-row SUVs is on the way. And with Lexus finally getting a clue with the RX, and Mercedes-Benz offering a third-row seat option for the redesigned 2020 GLE-Class, there will be no shortage of competition for the next-generation MDX.
Meanwhile, Acura offers the 2019 MDX for your consideration. The MDX has been on a program of continuous improvement since 2017, when Acura introduced the excellent Sport Hybrid version to the lineup and gave it a facelift to rid the SUV of its infamous silver "beak" grille.
Last year, Acura upgraded the infotainment system, and for 2019, the MDX gets a racy new A-Spec Package trim level, improved interior materials, an adaptive damping suspension with the Advance Package, and transmission modifications that resolve one of the most irritating of the SUV’s traits: unpredictable and sometimes senseless shifting.
My test vehicle arrived in A-Spec trim with the required Super Handling All-Wheel Drive (SH-AWD) system and carried a price tag of $55,795 including the $995 destination charge.
Painted white, my MDX had all the A-Spec visual goodies present and accounted for, including a unique front bumper design, Shark Gray 20-inch wheels, a mix of dark chrome and gloss black trim elements, and darkened lighting elements. Fatter exhaust outlets poked out of a redesigned rear bumper, giving the MDX a more aggressive look and, I’m told, sound.
Inside, the A-Spec has heated and ventilated front seats, upholstered in red leather and black Alcantara suede. There's also an A-Spec steering wheel with paddle shifters, metallic pattern trim with metal accents, and red instrument panel illumination.
Normally, I’m not a big fan of blacked-out appearance packages. They remind me of childhood visits to Pennsylvania's Amish country, where the few Mennonites who owned cars would get them in black and then paint all the chrome black in an effort to reduce ostentation. Weird, judged my 10-year-old, Protestant, middle-class, suburban self.
But, I have to admit that the MDX A-Spec looks good. By using a mix of dark gray metallic paint on the wheels, dark chrome for some trim elements, and flashy Acura emblems and polished exhaust outlets, the A-Spec treatment avoids the spray-painted-at-home look of those 1970s anti-chrome barges I witnessed in Pennsylvania.
Acura employs a dual-cowl approach to the MDX’s dashboard design, with controls residing on a waterfall-style center panel equipped with dual infotainment screens. Quality materials are evident throughout the cabin, and the A-Spec Package’s special red leather and black Alcantara seats look great. The result is a serious interior with a bit of colorful whimsy and Japanese practicality.
The 2019 Acura MDX comes standard with a 3.5-liter V6 engine, making 290 horsepower and 267 lb-ft of torque. It powers the front wheels through a 9-speed automatic transmission. The Technology Package installs 20-inch aluminum wheels with 245/50 tires, while A-Spec and Advance Package versions get 20-inch wheels with 265/45 tires.
If you like to drive, I strongly recommend the optional SH-AWD system ($2,000, and required for the A-Spec Package). Not only does it equip the MDX with torque-vectoring AWD that can send up to 70 percent of the engine’s power to a single rear wheel, but it also equips the SUV with thicker front and rear stabilizer bars while improving the front-to-rear weight distribution.
Beyond this, if you really like to drive, I vehemently urge you to get the MDX Sport Hybrid—a separate model that effectively includes SH-AWD along with a delightfully satisfying 7-speed dual-clutch automated manual transmission and an adaptive damping suspension.
Based on the same technology found in the NSX and RLX, the MDX Sport Hybrid pairs a 3.0-liter V6 engine with three electric motors (one at the transmission and two at the rear axle). Total system output measures 321 horsepower and 289 lb-ft of torque, and the Sport Hybrid returns much better city fuel economy.
What a riot the MDX Sport Hybrid is to drive. But here, we’re talking about the MDX A-Spec, which is nearly as enjoyable to pilot regardless of the situation.
During my testing, the MDX A-Spec proved itself mighty quick and sounded terrific as the engine revved. Transmission changes for 2019 solve all my complaints with the ZF-sourced 9-speed automatic's past issues. The MDX offers a Sport mode to go along with Integrated Driving Dynamics' Comfort and Normal modes. The steering is nicely weighted, too, feeling solid in your hands and providing accurate, predictable response.
While hustling the 4,275-pound MDX down a favorite mountain road, the brakes started to rumble as they heated up. Nevertheless, they brought the MDX to a reasonably short panic stop accompanied by lots of smoke escaping from between the wheel spokes.
Ride quality is firm but not uncomfortable, and while there is some dive, squat, and body roll in the MDX, none of it detracts from the fun. Besides, you can always upgrade to the Advance Package or the Sport Hybrid model for a superior adaptive damping suspension.
Notably, the MDX A-Spec returned 19.7 mpg on my testing loop, just a tenth of a mile per gallon shy of what I squeezed out of a smaller, turbocharged 4-cylinder RDX A-Spec on the same route a week prior. And while the MDX fell short of its official EPA rating of 21 mpg in combined driving, the RDX A-Spec missed the mark by a whopping 6.2 mpg.
As much as I love turbocharged 4-cylinder engines, in more than 20 years of driving this test loop, I've rarely found them to get the fuel efficiency advertised. Larger engines don’t work as hard, helping them get closer to what’s promised.
Again, though, the Sport Hybrid is superior when it comes to conserving gas. A couple of years ago, one returned 23.2 mpg on the testing loop.
Have I mentioned that you really ought to get the MDX Sport Hybrid?
One reason I implore you to get the MDX Sport Hybrid, or, at the very least, an MDX with SH-AWD, is because I personally own a 2017 Acura MDX with the Technology Package and front-wheel drive.
Trust me, you don’t want front-wheel drive. You want SH-AWD. You want torque vectoring. You want thicker stabilizer bars. You want superior weight distribution. And you want the wider tires and shorter tire sidewalls that come with the A-Spec and Advance Packages.
These seem like little things, especially when you’re looking at their impact on lease payments. But they add up to significantly greater satisfaction every single time you sit behind the steering wheel.
Form and Function
Having lived with an MDX for a while now, I can attest to its exceptionally comfortable and practical interior.
The front seats are fantastic, providing proper cushioning and support at all times, along with a wide, plush center armrest that slides forward for improved comfort. The GPS-linked triple-zone climate control system makes our kids happy, and the second-row seat is great for both adults and children. Storage is everywhere, especially if you get the Advance Package and its second-row captain’s chairs.
Third-row seat comfort isn’t great. The second-row seats slide forward to make extra space, but this area is not suitable for everyday use. In fact, we leave the one in our MDX folded down in order to maximize cargo space. I think we put some people back there once, when out-of-town relatives were visiting.
When the third-row seat is folded, the MDX can carry 38.4 cubic feet of cargo. There is a handy covered storage bin under the cargo floor, too. Fold the second-row seats down to enjoy 68.4 cubic feet of space. But, if you really need to carry seven people, prepare to have just 15 cubes behind the third-row seat.
Last year, Acura upgraded the MDX’s infotainment system. While I appreciate the addition of Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, along with improved graphics and responsiveness for the lower display screen, I still think the MDX’s dual-screen approach is a mess.
The top display screen is used for navigation, smartphone projection, and vehicle settings. You operate it using a collection of buttons and a knob on the center of the dashboard, and you can use the MDX’s voice-recognition system for certain functions.
The bottom touchscreen is used for the radio and secondary climate system functions. There is a power/volume knob, but no tuning knob. Tuning requires multiple stabs at the screen—a hit-or-miss effort. You can cycle through pre-set radio stations and control the volume using steering wheel controls. After you’ve owned an MDX for a while, this becomes the preferred method of operation.
Primary climate controls for temperature, fan speed, and defogging are separate from the screen. If you want to use the heated and ventilated seats, you have no choice but to use the screen.
With this as background, let's consider the system's flaws.
First, the screens are too small for a 2019 model year vehicle in the midsize luxury SUV segment, and the upper display’s resolution gives a yester-tech impression.
Second, the voice-recognition system is awful. It doesn’t recognize natural commands, and it frequently doesn’t recognize any commands at all. In our own car, the MDX’s regular misinterpretation might draw plenty of laughter from my family, but it's ultimately very frustrating.
And third, while I will admit that the issue fades after owning an MDX for a while, I often have trouble remembering which screen provides what function. But hey, I’m old.
Most likely, when the MDX gets its next redesign, Acura will install the same True Touchpad Interface infotainment system that you’ll find in the 2019 RDX. It’s a big improvement, but as George Kennedy noted in our review of the RDX, the touchpad setup (which works differently from a laptop computer’s track pad) takes some retraining of your brain.
One of the reasons I bought an Acura MDX was for its impressive crash-test ratings. I upgraded to the Technology Package to ensure that our family vehicle had all of the driver-assistance and collision-avoidance systems. In 2019, the AcuraWatch suite of safety systems is standard on all MDX trims, but you still need to get the Technology Package to equip the SUV with a blind-spot monitoring system and rear cross-traffic alert.
The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) has changed its requirements for a Top Safety Pick+ rating since I bought our MDX. Now, the SUV gets a Top Safety Pick rating due to merely Acceptable ratings in terms of headlight performance and child safety seat anchor accessibility.
Here’s what I can tell you about Acura’s Jewel Eye LED headlights: They’re fantastic, and they include automatic high-beam activation, although they do not adapt to curves.
Here’s what I can tell you about AcuraWatch: The systems lack the refined operation you’ll find in many of the latest luxury vehicles, especially in terms of the adaptive cruise control system. Often, with this engaged, the MDX will brake too sharply, accelerate unevenly, and demonstrate uncertainty on anything but a straight section of road. Again, the next redesign is likely to resolve this, if the performance of AcuraWatch components in the 2019 RDX is any indication.
Every 2019 MDX includes a free 90-day trial of AcuraLink Connect services. Highlights include automatic collision notification, SOS emergency calling, and a car-finding function in case you forgot where you left it. AcuraLink does not, however, offer any kind of safe teen-driving functions or a rear-seat reminder feature like at least one of its competitors does. After the trial period, Connect costs $159 annually.
The Acura MDX shares a platform with the Honda Odyssey minivan and the Honda Pilot SUV. When I bought our MDX, I asked the salesperson: “What does Acura offer that I can’t get next door at the Honda dealership? Do I get a loaner car when I bring my MDX in for service? Do you have a nicer waiting room with fancier coffee and cookies? That kind of thing.”
“Oh, when you bring your car in for a scheduled maintenance appointment, we get you out of here fast,” he responded. “And we have a very nice waiting room. Would you like to see it?”
We didn’t get the Honda Pilot for a specific reason: We wanted a blind-spot monitoring system, but we did not want a backseat entertainment system. Back in 2017, to get a blind-spot monitoring system on a Pilot you had to get the entertainment system, because it was offered only on the top-shelf Elite trim.
Plus, we’re not fans of the Pilot’s styling. But I digress.
My point is this: If Acura's going to gussy-up a Honda Pilot and charge more for it, that extra charge ought to include loaner cars, a premium waiting-room experience, and other benefits that make life easier.
At least Acura heavily subsidizes MDX leasing programs. Even now, as I write this, you can get a base MDX with SH-AWD with nothing out of pocket for around $510 per month plus tax. Unfortunately, though, when we got our SUV, Acura did not offer similar deals on the Sport Hybrid, which is what we really wanted. As a result, the payment for a Sport Hybrid cost substantially more each month.
Maybe that explains why you never see them on the road.
A 2019 Acura MDX SH-AWD with the A-Spec Package looks like a great deal when compared with other midsize luxury SUVs like the Audi Q7, BMW X5, Mercedes-Benz GLE, or Volvo XC90. The real competition comes from the Buick Enclave and Lexus RX L.
Given a choice between the Acura, the Buick, and the Lexus, I’d get the MDX all over again. But this time around, I’d get SH-AWD for sure.
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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