The MDX was the first luxury brand crossover to offer three rows of seating, and Acura was rewarded accordingly. For its tenth model year the second-generation MDX has received a refresh. But is there enough here to maintain Acura’s position in an increasingly crowded segment? Much of the Acura MDX’s exterior remains the same with the 2010, with the front end receiving the most noticeable changes. With the 2007 Acura introduced its first highly controversial front end. The grille opening was largely filled with a faux-metal shield that no other Acuras received. Instead, their grilles have sent owners in search of especially large blocks of cheese in need of grating. For 2010 the MDX’s shield has been replaced by the cheese grater. A pair of chrome-ringed openings have also been inserted in the upper half of the bumper, above the gray fascia that houses the fog lights. The overall effect, also found on the related ZDX, is more aggressive than the previous nose, and it looks better here than on Acura’s cars. The rest of the exterior remains clean and well-proportioned, it’s only fault being a lack of distinctiveness. If there have been any changes to the Acura MDX’s interior for 2010, they aren’t readily apparent. A mild high-tech vibe continues with the various metallic trim bits, countered a bit by the wide band of faux wood that spans the dash and covers the top surface of the center console. The wood at least looks real. The metallic plastic looks and feels less than premium. Sadly, the interior door pulls, the first point of contact when getting into the car, are composed entirely of the stuff. The switchgear might be good by the standards of a decade ago, but the target has been moving upwards. The overall fit and finish of the interior (or lack thereof) is clearly second tier among premium brands. The door-to-dash panel fit is downright awful. Even GM’s interiors are more tightly and precisely constructed lately, and the new SRX looks and feels much nicer inside than the latest MDX. Then again, the SRX also costs quite a bit more. The MDX probably competes more directly with the Buick Enclave, which it continues to lead in interior quality. The best thing about the interior: the front seats. Large and amply bolstered, they provide both comfort and lateral support to such a degree that I wonder why so many front seats clearly make tradeoffs between the two. The driving position provides very good forward visibility and doesn’t place the various controls too far away. A wide center console contributes to a somewhat sporty ambiance, but might leave larger people wishing for more space. Putting three rows of seats inside a 191.6-inch long vehicle tends to compromise rear legroom and cargo room, and this is certainly the case in the MDX. Legroom in the comfortable second row is adequate, if not outstanding. Adults won’t want to spend much time in the third row. But then most people will use it for kids, anyway. There’s less cargo space behind the third row than in longer competitors. So when traveling families with have to either pack very light, fold the third row, or add a rooftop luggage carrier. Beyond-sufficient power continues to be supplied by a 3.7-liter V6 that sounds a little less sporting and a little more truck-like than the related unit in the Acura TL. Honda has yet to announce its first direct-injected engine for the U.S. market. The big powertrain news with the 2010 MDX: while other luxury car makers are introducing seven- and eight-speed automatics, Acura is introducing its first six-speed. Remember when Honda was a powertrain innovator? Since it’s so late to the party, hopefully the new six-speed is at least solid. Honda’s past record with transmissions for its larger vehicles has been spotty. Time will tell. The new transmission’s shorter first gear (14.3:1 vs. 12.2:1 when multiplied by the final drive) translates into more punch off the line. The top gear overall ratio, little changed, makes for an EPA highway rating of 21. What could a taller top gear do? The quicker, heavier 2011 BMW X5 manages 25. When I drove the 2007 MDX three years ago, with the optional auto-adjusting shocks set to “Sport,” I thought it handled well for a 4500-pound crossover. Partly because I drove the base model this time around, the 2010 felt large, with excessive understeer in hard turns despite the trick SH-AWD system and a disjointed overall feel that borders on clumsy. Here as with the interior I felt as if I were driving a domestic car from five years ago. The steering, overly light at low speeds, never provides much feedback. Other manufacturers have been making major improvements in the handling of their large crossovers, and Acura has some catching up to do. With the standard, non-adjustable shocks the ride is less floaty than with the optional shocks set to “Comfort,” but still absorbs pumps pretty well. The problem here is a traditional one for Honda: road noise. There’s more of it here than in the typical luxury crossover. Pricing for the Acura MDX is commensurate with its interior ambiance. You’ll spend much less for it than any three-row crossover wearing a European badge—even a Volvo XC90 V8 (the base I6 doesn’t provide competitive performance) lists for about $6,000 more. But the MDX seems little if any more upscale than a Buick Enclave or even a top-level Mazda CX-9. The Buick is priced about even with the MDX, but the Mazda is about $5,000 less than either, based on comparisons run using TrueDelta’s car price comparison tool. Both the Buick and the Mazda provide more space in both the third row and for cargo behind it. And yet both also handle better than the more compact Acura. Overall, with the 2010 refresh Acura hasn’t done enough to keep the MDX competitive. The Acura brand image calls for tighter, more precise handling. The interior ambiance positions the Acura between the mainsteam and luxury brands rather than as one of the latter. But then the pricing isn’t at luxury brand levels, either. The third row seat is a match for those from BMW and Volvo, but cannot compete with those from Buick and Mazda. IN the end, we have a good vehicle for people who want a slightly upscale vehicle with an occasional-use third row. People who want a crossover that handles especially well, that has a truly luxurious interior, or that can handle six people AND their luggage will be better off elsewhere.
Michael Karesh owns and operates TrueDelta, an online source of auto pricing and reliability data.