Acura made its name on upscale sedans and coupes, but its MDX crossover has quietly become the meal ticket for Honda's luxury division.
Last year, the MDX made up about a third of Acura's sales in the U.S., and it has been the brand's biggest seller since 2010. So the automaker took the task of redesigning the upscale mid-size hauler quite seriously.
It shows. The 2014 version is a ground-up reboot that balances luxury, utility, safety and value better than most of its peers. It solidifies the MDX as the best thing Acura makes, and it's worth a long look by anyone shopping for luxury crossovers.
Pegging the MDX's competitors isn't an easy task. BMW's new X5 is more upscale, but its base price is almost $10,000 more than that of the Acura's $43,185 price tag. The MDX also loses the luxury fight to the Mercedes-Benz ML350, but the Benz is notably smaller and more expensive.
This Acura doesn't quite seat seven real adults like an Infiniti QX60, Buick Enclave or Dodge Durango. It's bigger and more expensive than the Lexus RX and shares almost nothing in common with the Lexus GX 460.
Yet instead of making this crossover a confused outlier (such as Acura's flagship RLX sedan, for instance), the unique market positioning of the MDX appeals to a wide variety of buyers.
Parents who draw the short end of the Little League carpool stick will like this Acura's size. As with the previous MDX, this model has a foldable third-row seat. But for 2014, getting in and out of those seats is easier because the middle-row seats slide forward at the touch of a button. Both rows also quickly fold flat when not in use.
As helpful as those bonus seats may be for shuttling kids, it's best not to put adults you like back there. Although the middle row can be positioned forward, legroom is still too tight in the last row for grown-ups.
Curiously, passenger space is down by almost 10 cubic feet from the earlier MDX — even though this 2014 model is longer by 2 inches. The trade-off is a bit more cargo space behind the second row of seats.
The rest of the cabin is packed with useful storage cubbies and bins, and plenty of comfortable room for adults. As with other Acuras and Hondas, the MDX takes a more stark, tech-oriented approach to luxury than rival models, which lean more toward pampering.
The dashboard is oriented around a pair of screens; the larger navigation screen sits atop a touch screen that controls functions such as climate control and stereo. This is generally a useful setup, since it minimizes the number of times you need to use the large rotary dial below the second screen. But some basic stereo functions are overly complicated.
Not all models come with navigation, mind you. The front-wheel-drive model does without. It does, however, include treats such as heated leather seats, multi-view backup camera, moon roof, power tailgate and seven air bags. An MDX with navigation will cost at least $47,460.
This is the first MDX offered with front-wheel drive since Acura launched the model in 2001. The move is aimed at customers in warmer states who are looking to save a little coin. All-wheel drive is now a $2,000 option on all models.
Our top-dollar AWD test model came with all three available option groups for a total of $57,400. It takes the tech-heavy approach to the extreme, with a high-end stereo, a wide-screen rear seat entertainment system, cooled front seats, a collision-mitigating braking system, adaptive cruise control, blind spot monitoring and lane-keeping assist.
That last quartet of options work together to turn the MDX into a semi-autonomous driver on par with anything else on the road today, including those north of $100,000.
On a drive from L.A. to San Diego on the 405 Freeway in moderate traffic, the MDX was able to steer and drive itself almost the entire way down (though after 10 seconds of performing air guitar, the driver is sternly reminded to put those hands back on the wheel). The active-lane-keeping assist and cruise control system — which also can follow vehicles down to a complete stop in traffic — are among the most intuitive in the industry.
When drivers are ready to take control of the MDX, a capable power plant awaits, though the handling is a bit muted from the earlier generation.
Acura and parent company Honda Motor Co. have long proved adept at bolting together an impressive engine. The only one available on the MDX is also in the RDX sedan, and it's a good one. In the MDX, this 3.5-liter V-6 makes 290 horsepower and 267 pound-feet of torque.
It's paired with a six-speed automatic transmission, and uses direct injection and cylinder deactivation to boost efficiency. This MDX also has lost 275 pounds, thanks to an all-new light-truck platform and a body that uses plenty of high-strength steel, aluminum and magnesium, Acura said.
The AWD model is rated at 18 miles per gallon in the city and 27 mpg on the highway. During 400 miles of testing, including more driving on the highway than in the city, we averaged 21 mpg.
Acura boasts that this engine is half a second quicker in a zero-to-60 mph run than the 3.7-liter engine in the previous MDX — and then declined to say what that time was. Car and Driver tested an all-wheel-drive version and recorded 6.4 seconds.
Should things get hairy when you run your own acceleration tests, know that it's a safe place to crash. The MDX has a five-star rating from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, and a Top Safety Pick Plus rating from the independent Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
With any luck, you won't have to experience its safety measures firsthand, because the 2014 MDX is worth keeping in one piece. This crossover splits the uprights in terms of luxury and value, comfort and practicality. It's the best thing Acura makes, now even better.