First Drive: 2014 Acura MDX (Video)
The RDX may have supplanted the MDX as Acura’s best-selling model, but Acura hopes to put the their mid-sized crossover back on top with the all-new 2014 MDX. To show us how they plan to do that, Acura invited us to Oregon to sample the new MDX for a day around Newberg. Even without the snazzy trip it’s easy to see that regaining the Acura sales crown shouldn’t be difficult. After all, the current MDX is Acura’s second best-selling vehicle and despite being seven years old (ancient in the auto biz) the MDX is still the best-selling 7-seat luxury SUV in America and the second best-selling mid-sized SUV/crossover period. How does one redesign success? Carefully.
You’d be forgiven for thinking little has changed by just glancing at the MDX, and that’s the way Acura shoppers like it. That statement makes me scratch my head just a little, because the 2014 model still sports the Acura “beak,” the most controversial style decision Acura ever made. We have to keep this in perspective however: nothing about the MDX is overdone, the only reason anyone complained about the beak in the first place is that Acura is known for conservative design cues. This love for conservative, evolutionary design is why the MDX is instantly identifiable as an Acura despite riding on an all-new MDX-exclusive platform and sharing little beyond some transmission parts with the outgoing model.
Bringing the MDX’s signature shape up-to-date we have standard full-LED headlamps which (if I am not mistaken) will make the MDX the least expensive vehicle on the road with the snazzy beams. Since we only had a limited time with the car in the day I can’t say how they perform at night, but the color temperature of the lamps is a pleasing neutral color and not the harsh blue light LED lamps are known for.
Although the 2014 looked wider to my eye, it’s lost 1.3 inches in overall width and 1.4 inches of track up front, 1.2 in the rear. Perhaps it’s the loss of 1.5 inches in height over last year that creates the illusion of width? One thing’s for sure however, the MDX is longer and looks longer, gaining 2 inches overall in length and an important 2.8 inches in wheelbase, helping out that tight third row seat.
The MDX is notable for being a mid-sized crossover with seven seats. This size difference is important to keep in mind because comparisons to the likes of the Infiniti QX56, Mercedes GL, and Lexus GX seem everywhere. The more appropriate cross-shops are the Infiniti JX35 (now the QX60), Buick Enclave, Volvo XC90 and maybe the Lincoln MKT. (If you watch the video, pardon the lack of MKT comparisons, it slipped my mind, as I’m sure it slips the minds of most luxury shoppers.)
Acura continues to stick to their formula of traditional injection molded dashboards and plenty of convincing fake wood. I would be interested to hear your opinions on this choice, so be sure to sound off in the comment section below. While I like the look and the materials are premium in feel, it can’t match the visual impact or feel of a stitched leather/pleather dash, something that the refreshed Buick Enclave does incredibly well. The MDX continues to do have a very uniform feel with perfect seams and gaps and a consistent quality level throughout, something that Buick’s CUV continues to struggle with (the lower dash and door plastics in the Enclave are still a bit cheap.)
The MDX’s front and middle thrones still sport the Acura hallmark “ Lady Gaga horny shoulders,” a design cue frequently imitated but never duplicated to the same effect. Like Lexus and Infiniti, Acura still hasn’t discovered seats that more in more than the same basic 8-10 ways as any $25,000 family sedan. Despite having only half the “ways” as BMW’s sport seats, I find the MDX’s redesigned thrones to be among the most comfortable in the segment for my body shape.
Most of the MDX’s length increase has gone where current owners wanted it: the cargo area. That means the passenger area is smaller than last year with a drop in headroom ranging from more than an inch up front to two-tenths in the back. Legroom stays largely unchanged but Acura altered the middle seats to slide further forward/rearward allowing either more middle leg room than before or more third-row room than before (not both at the same time.) That third-row is best left to the kids or your mother-in-law, although it’s not as cramped as the Infiniti JX’s rear accommodations. Helping you get back there is a new push-button middle-seat folding mechanism that worked well but reminded me the Infiniti has middle seats that can slide forward to allow ingress while a child seat is strapped in.
The cargo area stretches by 2.75 inches from the third-row seat hinges to the tailgate and 5.88 inches from the third-row headrests to the rear glass. That’s the difference between fitting a 20-gallon cooler and 7-people in your SUV and not. There isn’t much daylight between the Infiniti or Acura and the MDX when it comes to stuffing bags behind the third row, all three beat the old XC90 by a wide margin and all hold considerably less than the Buick Enclave.
Honda’s two-screen infotainment/navigation system has filtered up from the 2013 Accord to the RLX and now to the MDX as standard equipment. The logic behind the twin screens is: the lower screen is for your media devices while the upper screen is for navigation. In practice, the lower screen allows you to select sources, skip to a different album and change tracks, but in order to browse or search playlists, songs, change treble, bass, and surround processing, you have to use the upper screen and the rotary control knob. In essence this is the same software as before with a snazzy color touchscreen remote that handles some of the functions. The result is a system that could have been more elegant but the execution seems half-baked. Put it back in the oven and let me know when it’s done.
Although out time with the MDX was limited, I was able to sample my usual audio selection from my iDevice and didn’t notice too much difference between the base 8-speaker audio system, the 501-watt 10-speaker or 529-watt 11 speaker systems. They all exhibit the same balance I have come to expect from Acura: neutral with a somewhat limited range but excellent fidelity for a $42,000-$56,000 vehicle. The Logic 7 systems in the BMW are better, but they are also spendier. If you’re one of the 10 Acura customers that latched on to DVD audio, it’s time to sell those discs on Ebay, DVD-A is dead.
Now is as good a time as any to talk pricing. The FWD MDX starts almost a grand lower than the 2013 AWD model at $42,290 and is only available in four flavors. $46,565 adds the “Technology package” and included rainsense wipers, lane departure warning, collision warning, a color display between the dials, 19-inch wheels (not sure how that’s a tech item) and links your climate control to your GPS position. $48,565 adds on the “Entertainment package” which is a 16.2-inch wide-screen rear entertainment system that allows either a single wide picture or will display two things side-by-side. The system brings two extra speakers, a 110V power outlet, wireless headphones and HDMI in to the party. If you want lane keep assist, full-speed-range radar cruise control, remote start, auto dimming mirrors and parking sensors, you need to pony up $54,505 for the “Advance package” which cannot be had without the rear seat entertainment system for some reason. Want AWD? add $2,000 to those prices. That places the MDX in the middle of the pack with the Enclave delivering similar bang for less buck and the Acura and Infiniti very similarly priced.
For 2014 Acura has swapped the 3.7L V6 for the new 3.5L “Earth Dreams” mill with direct-injection and “Variable Cylinder Management.” (VCM allows the V6 to drop to a 3-cylinder mode on the highway.) To quell vibrations, the MDX gets unique active engine mounts which generate vibrations opposite to what the engine produces to cancel them out. (Think Bose noise cancelling headphones.) Despite the DI treatment, power is down from 300HP to 290 and torque takes a small drop from 270 to 267 lb-ft as well. To counter the power loss, Acura put the MDX on a diet and 2014 sees 275lbs shed. The weight loss and improved low-end torque mean that performance is up, even with the power down.
Perhaps the bigger change is not the engine, but which wheels spin. For the first time since the MDX rolled onto the scene there is a FWD model. While I think this dilutes the MDX “brand” because it has been associated with AWD system since its debut, the rational can’t be dismissed: fuel economy and sunbelt sales. According to Acura’s research, the southern states love their 2WD crossovers and while the 2WD RDX compact crossover did eat into sales of the AWD model, combined RDX sales were up some 90% when they added the FWD model. Go figure. We didn’t get our chance to drive a FWD MDX, as none had made it across from the factory in Alabama, but Acura is promising a class leading 28 MPGs on the highway and 20 in the city – one more highway MPG than the recently announced Infiniti JX35/QX60 hybrid model (25/27 MPG). When equipped with AWD, economy drops to 18/27 MPG, still a huge bump from last year’s 16/21 score.
Because the MDX has a transverse engine and a transaxle under the hood, weight balance isn’t as ideal as the Audi Q7 or BMW X5 (Acura thinks the X5 is their prime competition). Aside from the fact that Honda/Acura doesn’t have a RWD drivetrain to borrow, the benefit is improved interior packaging evident in the ginormous center console (positioned right where the X5 keeps its transmission). On the down side Acura is two-cogs shy of Audi and BMW with their revised 6-speed transaxle. Before you discount Acura, we must discuss SH-AWD.
“Super Handling All Wheel Drive” may not have been the best name for the system, but it is arguably the best AWD system you can tack onto a transverse FWD platform. The systems used by Infiniti, Lexus, Volvo, Lincoln and just about everyone out there that had an AWD system tacked onto a transaxle has no center differential. Instead the power flows from the final gearset of the transmission to the front diff and the rear diff via gears at a fixed 1:1 ratio. Between this gear arrangement and the rear diff is a clutch pack that allows the car to connect, disconnect or have a varied connection between the transmission and rear axles. When fully connected the power is split 50/50 assuming all wheels have traction.
SH-AWD also uses the same arrangement but adds a unique differential unit in the rear that does two things. First, it has a gearset to “speed up” the rear wheels so that when they are connected, they spin 1.7% faster than the fronts. Next it has a torque vectoring unit that is capable of slitting power 100:0/0:100 left to right. In a straight line, “overdriving” the rear wheels gives the MDX a more RWD feel than otherwise possible and in corners the system is capable of sending up to 70% of the power to the outside rear wheel helping the MDX’s cornering manners and masking the “plowing” tendencies normal in a front heavy car. For 2014 Acura took this a step further and uses a system to brake wheels selectively to improve neutral handling. This is beyond stability control because the system is always active rather than active only when things are going pear-shaped.
Thanks to SH-AWD, the Acura is almost the X5’s dynamic dance partner, unfortunately you can’t completely hide the MDX’s extra nose weight. Still, despite Acura’s insistence I can’t see than many X5 shoppers stopping by Acura’s lot. Instead the MDX shines against the Infiniti with a more refined and better performing drivetrain. The JX hybrid is likely to get better combined MPG numbers, but with only 250 ponies on tap and no “sporting” changes, it’s unlikely to be half a hoot, let alone a hoot and a half. Encore shoppers looking for a more premium brand and some handling cred won’t be appointed and Mercedes ML shoppers will find a better value than on the German lot.
How does that FWD model compare? You’ll have to wait for that review as Acura didn’t have any examples on hand. I can posit an opinion however: the driving dynamics will be disappointing. Remove SH-AWD and you have a front-heavy front driver just like base Buick Enclave models. I know that Acura is sure to sell lots of these, but please TTAC readers, check that AWD option box.
- One more MPG on the highway than the Infiniti JX35/QX60 hybrid and the same highway economy as the RX450h.
- Oddly enough, “Super Handling” really does describe the AWD system.
- I’m not sure what radar cruise and parking sensors have to do with rear seat DVD players. Why are they only sold together?
- The two-screen infotainment system seems half-baked, put it back in the oven and let me know when it’s done.
- Fake wood was so 1980s Oldsmobile.
Acura flew me to Oregon, stuffed me with poached salmon and craft beer and set me loose on the streets of Oregon for this review (but not in that order necessarily).
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>>For 2014 Acura has swapped the 3.7L V6 for the new 3.5L “Earth Dreams” mill with direct-injection and “Variable Cylinder Management.” (VCM allows the V6 to drop to a 3-cylinder mode on the highway.) To quell vibrations, the MDX gets unique active engine mounts which generate vibrations opposite to what the engine produces to cancel them out.
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