2017 Acura MDX SH-AWD
3.5-liter V6, SOHC, direct injection (290 horsepower @ 6,200 rpm; 267 lb-ft @ 4,700 rpm)
Nine-speed automatic, all-wheel drive
19 city / 26 highway / 22 combined (EPA Rating, MPG)
12.2 city/9.0 highway/10.7 combined (NRCan Rating, L/100km)
15.7 mpg [15.0 L/100km] (Observed)
Base Price: $44,890 (U.S) / $55,835 (Canada)
Price: $59,340 (U.S.) / $67,935 (Canada)
Prices include $940 destination charge in the United States and $2,145 for PDI and A/C tax in Canada.
With remarkable consistency, the Acura MDX has remained exceptionally popular for more than 15 years, through three generations, and in the face of increasing competition.
Vital to the fortunes of American Honda’s upmarket brand, the MDX is consistently Acura’s top-selling model, earning more than one-third of all Acura U.S. sales in four of the last seven years. No premium-badged three-row utility vehicle now sells more often in America.
But why is it so popular? And does it deserve to be such an automatic choice for nearly 5,000 buyers per month, for more than 835,000 American SUV buyers since its launch in 2000?
Refreshed styling for the 2017 model year joins key mechanical upgrades from the 2016 model year to create this fully optioned $59,340 Acura MDX: all-wheel drive, entertainment package, technology package, advance package.
With distinctly wintry pre-winter conditions and six occupants aboard, we spent one week with a 2017 Acura MDX and came away with few heartfelt compliments and few serious complaints.
Is nine enough?
Most apparent among the updates for 2017 is the comprehensively altered front fascia. But the MDX’s biggest change over the last two model years relates to the way power from the 290-horsepower 3.5-liter V6 is sent to the wheels. The six-speed automatic is gone. The MDX’s V6 is now linked to a nine-speed automatic, and the odd electronic shift pad that comes with it.
There’s no denying the abundant power in the MDX, nor the transmission’s ability to snap off shifts when you’re driving with added aggression. When dawdling along at lower revs or slower speeds, however, part-throttle inputs are met with the strong sensation of a hefty 4,292-pound MDX that’s fitted with an unresponsive transmission. The MDX knows how to go fast and it knows how to go slow — finding middle ground is not the nine-speed’s strength.
Expect a 0-60 time of under six seconds if you outright demand it. Expect an MDX that feels like its V6 generates 200 horsepower — not 290 — when partial demand permits the nine-speed to hang on to a gear too tall; when the V6 manifests a decidedly naturally aspirated nature.
As for the nine-speed’s accompanying shifter, there appears to be no purpose served besides initially looking cool. Push down for park, pull back for reverse, depress a bubbled button for neutral, squash a circular concave button for drive, avoiding the dynamic select button. Enjoy slow engagement and all-around inconvenience when parallel parking.
Increased exposure to this shifter — which I’ve now operated in a Pilot, TLX, and this MDX — does it no favors.
Quiet … all-wheel drive
Just as the MDX’s powertrain exhibits divergent characteristics, so too does its ride and handling. At first, the MDX allows just a bit too much impact harshness to enter your domain, particularly because of this heavily optioned model’s 20-inch wheels. Yet the level of overall firmness is appropriate given the MDX’s desire to reside at the sportier end of the family crossover spectrum.
Weighty steering, relatively flat cornering, and damping that limits more significant rear end rises and falls don’t make the 2017 MDX a hoot to drive; the near-4,300-pound MDX simply feels too much like a 5,000-pound brute to be fun. But it’s entirely competent.
Despite the wintry conditions we experienced for much of the week, we opted to drive our own long-term Odyssey (on winter tires) and not the all-season-clad MDX when the roads were covered by ice or snow. The MDX’s all-wheel drive, known as SH-AWD in Acura speak, is a $2,000 option that drops city and highway fuel economy by a single mile per gallon.
Of course, the MDX must accelerate and turn, but a failure to succeed as a family vehicle would be its undoing. For a minivan owner such as myself, the MDX’s comparatively poor second and third-row space, awkward third-row access, and limited cargo room behind the third row are unforgivable shortcomings.
Relative to its rivals, however, the MDX does not fall short.
We spent much of our time with this Honda Canada-supplied tester by filling the MDX with people: four adults, including two lanky men, two adult women, one front-facing child seat in the third row, and another rear-facing seat in the middle row. Loading the three-year-old into the third row seemed best achieved from the opposite side to his seat; adult knelt on the floor behind the second row to buckle the child in. This isn’t bad.
(Note: there are lower LATCH anchors across the second row, not the third. Also, the MDX can be equipped as a six-seater.)
One can move the seats about with one-touch buttons, though there’s no power-folding from the rear of the vehicle. Headroom in the two rear rows is unimpressive but likely not a factor for families that only send kids back there. There’s room for a family’s load of groceries, if artfully packed, behind the third row.
Acura claims 15.8 cubic feet of cargo volume with all seats up and 132.7 cubic feet of total passenger volume. The means by which all automakers calculate these figures leaves much to be desired.
Sufficiently quick and sufficiently spacious it may be, the MDX is not sufficiently user-friendly. Loaded with tech at its $59,340 as-tested price — expect a similarly equipped BMW X5 to cost around $75,000 — the MDX is by no means short on features. But many of these so-called “features” are intrusive safety items: a hyperactive blind-spot information system, a supremely paranoid rear cross traffic monitor, lane keeping assist that isn’t great at keeping lanes, rain-sensing wipers that can’t stop sensing, and a surround view camera lacking clear views.
Meanwhile, the Acura’s navigation system — and even its heated seats and fan speed and countless other functions — are controlled through a slow and arduous infotainment cluster. As the owner of a 2015 Odyssey, I’m perfectly accustomed to Honda’s unnecessarily convoluted two-screen layout (a layout you could live without in the MDX’s Honda partner, the less costly Pilot.). But in the MDX, so much more must be done through the touchscreen or the high-mounted screen that’s controlled by a knob below the lower screen.
It all points to age. Old age.
Vehicle development takes years. With the 2017 Acura MDX now nearly four years removed from the current generation’s launch, and even further removed from its core development stage, this crossover does not feel new.
Not only does the interface appear historic and not futuristic, there’s too much engine and road noise, the window sunshades rattle in their mounts, the driver’s lumbar support is only a two-way unit, and there’s no available panoramic sunroof.
Given the two weeks we spent with a 2014 Acura MDX that travelled 24 miles per gallon, we’re inclined to forgive this week’s 16-mpg result.
Six passengers, temperatures consistently below the freezing mark, numerous remote starts, mostly city driving: it wasn’t a time for hypermiling. The Environmental Protection Agency rates the 2017 MDX AWD at 19 mpg in the city and 26 on the highway, one better in each case than the six-speed MDX was in 2014 and 2015.
Acura expects the upcoming 325-horsepower MDX Sport Hybrid to achieve 25/26 ratings on the EPA’s city and highway scales.
Regardless of the criticism levelled against the third-gen MDX in its fourth model year, there nearly always seems to be an effective counterpoint.
It’s not gobsmackingly fast, but it’s suitably quick when you call for quickness.
Though not particularly athletic, there’s a level of responsiveness here that’s missing in the Infiniti QX60, Lexus RX, and Volvo XC90.
The MDX offers no expansive living room, but seven can come aboard.
Not all of Acura’s tech is particularly well-integrated, but there is a ton of features.
Clearly the MDX’s limitations are of little consequence to Acura buyers. With production improvements, MDX supply is increasing and sales are once again on the rise. Since August, Acura has reported a 12-percent increase in MDX volume after 18 consecutive months of decline.
Removing the old shield grille probably hasn’t hurt.
[Images: © 2016 Timothy Cain/The Truth About Cars]