If you’re staring in awe at all of the three-row SUVs cluttering your nearest parking lot, you have the Acura MDX to thank for that.
Or not, if you’re the sort of person who likes to swear at vehicles of this kind. In any case, the MDX is one of the great successes of Acura – successes there have been far too few of in recent years.
Amid a lineup of milquetoast sedans, Acura clings to the staple of upscale households who demand seven actual seats to go with a premium, but not pompous, image. It’s a balance the MDX has skillfully navigated for nearly two decades.
Yes, the new grille is big and, no, I’m not used to it yet. I suppose it’ll look better on some smaller Acuras coming up (like the facelifted TLX) but it’s a little intimidating on the big MDX. Not Lexus RX “I’m going to eat you” scary, but, still.
Given the 2017 MDX is a light remodel and not a full re-do, the rest of the car is fairly anonymous and doesn’t completely fit in with the wide smile of a grille up front. Out back, the biggest news are the two cutouts for the exhaust. Notice them? I didn’t either at first.
The interior hasn’t changed too much either, save for a few details. Get the top Advance Package and the leather is a little nicer and the wood has a new matte finish. The second-row can also be had as either a split-folding bench for three people or a set of captain’s chairs for two with a fixed console in the middle. Don’t think the individual chairs are thrones, however. They sit too low to the ground and force adults to stare at their knees too much if they look even slightly towards the floor.
Overall, the MDX remains a spacious and comfortable rig for upper class parents and children resembling the cast of Big Little Lies. Fitting of the place in the Honda hierarchy, the inside of the MDX is mostly nice, definitely more upscale than a Pilot, for example.
But it’s all starting to feel outdated in terms of ambiance as Acura’s sterile feel inside is no match for the techy feel Lexus has suddenly cultivated in the RX. Those looking for the infotainment features found in an Audi Q7 or the visual panache of the Volvo XC90, the MDX is severely lacking in this regard.
A new Acura infotainment system can’t come soon enough, as the controls for the audio system and navigation are needlessly complicated and inconsistent in their responses. There’s no way to add Apple CarPlay or Android Auto (as pretty much every Honda has now) and the navigation’s map graphics look as if they were inspired by some twisted combination of a Lite-Brite and an Etch-A-Sketch. More than once, too, audio would cut out while the radio was switched on and the only way to regain the sounds of Anderson Cooper was to shut the car off for a couple minutes and restart. It’s not the first Acura I’ve had this problem in, either.
But what the MDX has in spades is usefulness, from the space provided to the logical cubbies and cupholders dotted around the cabin. It’s all self-explanatory, easy for kids to figure out and the sort of thing you could live with every day.
I’ve just given away what I think of the MDX to drive, but you probably weren’t expecting it to be a hot hatch by looking at the outside, right?
The sticks with the 3.5-liter, 290 horsepower V6 it got in the 2014 redesign, along with the 9-speed automatic it picked up last year. There’s also a stop-start system on top Advance models that was so smooth, I never felt it kick on or off in roughly a week of driving. It was so smooth, in fact, I’m not convinced it actually engaged at any point while I was driving the car, regardless of which of the three driving modes (Comfort, Normal and Sport) I dialed in.
For all-wheel drive MDXs, as most are, the “SH” means “Super Handling” – Honda-speak for its torque-vectoring all-wheel drive system. I’ve driven the Sport Hybrid variant of the 2017 MDX and those impressions will be out soon.
But for now, the gasoline 3.5-liter V6 is a reminder this continues to be one of Honda’s best engines for all the reasons people fell in love with Honda engines. It’s so smooth and energetic, it begs to be left in Sport all of the time. The fact it’s saddled with roughly 4,300 lbs. of Acura to lug around dulls things a bit, but it copes as well as rivals with horsepower ratings well into the 300s.
The trouble is really from the automatic transmission, the same 9-speed unit I was ambivalent about in the Pilot, too. It doesn’t stay in ninth gear long enough to make you forget about all of the other gears it passed up to get there, and is indecisive if you aren’t perfectly smooth with the accelerator pedal. Your passengers may not notice it, but it gets a little jerky in daily driving. This might be fine if the MDX SH-AWD did better than 20 mpg in mixed driving, but that’s the best I could coax from it.
Then there’s the steering and suspension, which are fine for a big SUV, but dull for anything with a trick torque-vectoring all-wheel drive system. Acura wants you to think it’s injected some sport into this sport-utility vehicle, but even in its most aggressive settings, it only raises your pulse when turning the wheel doesn’t really communicate the car will get you around the corner. As pillow-soft as the ride is, it’s at least controlled over bumps and unlikely to make your kids in third-row seats sick.
On the face of it, the MDX is something of a bargain among luxury three-row SUVs. At a tick over the $45,000 mark, it comes in where most mainstream three-row SUVs are still sticking you for more options. Yet even the base MDX comes with leather upholstery, a sunroof, seven seats and the AcuraWatch suite of driver assistance technologies (lane departure prevention, forward collision prevention, adaptive cruise control) – which may sway parents right over to it. My Advance Pack’d model with all-wheel drive, captain’s chairs and a better surround view camera and audio system came in at less than $57,000 – also a relative bargain against the likes of a modestly optioned Q7 or XC90.
But you pay for this in another way. My main issue with the MDX doesn’t concern the styling or the steering feel or the dowdy interior or maddeningly complex audio/navigation/whatever controls, but with somewhat stale aura. There isn’t anything interesting about the overall package to grab you or somehow fool you one day you’re not driving a people mover.
As a people mover, however, the MDX nails the mission. It’s useful all the time in all sorts of situations and can be a faithful companion for many years – at which point you might be glad you didn’t spend $15,000 more for an Audi because the dog will just eat all of the seats anyway.
The Acura MDX may not have the flash of its rivals but it knows it’ll win over people in the end.
Photos: Zac Estrada/Carscoops