2014 Acura MDX First Drive

The 2014 Acura MDX slims down and features up for its third generation.

What It Is
Acura's seven-passenger crossover returns for a third generation lighter, more luxurious, and more family friendly.
Best Thing
Improved interior materials, comfort, and quiet.
Worst Thing
Bland exterior styling (except for the headlights).
Snap Judgment
The 2014 Acura MDX ditches styling controversy and returns to its comfort zone as a solid, comfortable, and luxurious family hauler.


While the 2014 Acura RLX may be getting the headlines these days, the reality is that for much of the past decade the Acura MDX crossover stood as the company's de-facto flagship. A leader in sales, not just for the brand but often for the whole luxury crossover segment, the Acura MDX's formula of a luxuriously appointed, family friendly, and surprisingly fun seven-passenger hauler has won more loyalty for the Acura brand than just about any of its vehicles since the Integra.

So why mess with success? The all-new 2014 Acura MDX looks very familiar, with a similar shape and silhouette as its predecessor. It still seats seven, with an emphasis on cossetting the front two rows of passengers. It's motivated by a powerful V-6 engine driving all four wheels through Acura's Super-Handling All-Wheel Drive system. The interior offers familiar styling themes as well.

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But that's not to say that this Acura is a simple refresh of the old one. The 2014 Acura MDX rides on an all-new, lighter chassis, and while its engine is a little smaller (3.5 liters versus the older car's 3.7 liters), its advanced fuel injection gives it more low-end torque and significantly improves fuel economy. There are more luxury features, a more modern dual-screen control interface, and more room for everybody and their things. Also available for the first time is a front-wheel drive version, which eschews the foul weather and handling benefits of all-wheel drive in favor of a base price that's $990 lower than the 2013 model, and slightly better fuel economy.

Acura offers front- and all-wheel drive 2014 MDX models in four packages: standard, Technology, Technology with Entertainment, and Advance with Entertainment. Prices range from $43,185 for the base front-wheel drive model to $57,400 for an all-wheel drive Advance with Entertainment model, including the $895 destination charge. All models offer modern luxury touches that have become necessities in this market: push-button start, one-touch entry, USB connections, auto up-and-down windows, leather upholstery, and look-at-me headlights. Also standard is Acura's Agile Handling Assist, which uses the stability control system not just to prevent accidents, but to actually help guide the MDX through turns. The Technology package adds 19-inch wheels, forward collision and lane departure warning, navigation, and an ELS surround-sound audio system. The Tech Entertainment package adds--you guessed it--a rear seat entertainment system, while the Advance package gets everything else, including lane keeping assist, parking sensors, active cruise with low-speed follow, and ventilated front seats primary among the features.

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Walkaround

When redesigning a vehicle that's already successful, there's a temptation not to rock the boat. In a way, this third generation MDX goes even further, taking a small step back from its predecessor's somewhat risky exterior design. That MDX had muscular shoulders, a wide stance, and an in-your-face grille design; this new one's most standout feature is the Jewel Eye headlight treatment, similar to the new RLX. The 2014 Acura MDX has softer curves, the bold grille is toned down, and it's even a little narrower, a response to MDX owners who said the second-generation car was a little hard to park in tight spots. The upshot is that while the 2014 Acura MDX looks similar to its predecessor, and quite a bit like its smaller stable-mate, the RDX. It's not the most eye-grabbing vehicle out there, but after a few years of reaching forward with its styling it's obvious that Acura is pulling back to its comfort zone of generically attractive vehicles that trade eye-grabbing style for aging gracefully. Considering the disastrous styling of the 2009-2011 Acura TL, that's probably a good thing.

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Sitting Down

Acura's evolutionary styling changes continue inside, but here the improvements are universally for the better. Gone is the button-festooned center console, replaced with a dual-screen setup that's essentially the same as in the RLX. Is a menu-driven touch screen better than a multitude of look alike, feel alike buttons? We think so, if for no other reason than it declutters the dash considerably.

Acura also upped the quality of materials in the new MDX, with softer touch plastics everywhere, and an emphasis on reducing road noise. Active noise cancellation is standard across the board, and the new body's structure is designed to transmit less road noise to the cabin through places like the wheel wells. Opt for the Advance package, and you get even more sound deadening. The latter makes a difference, too; we noticed a significant amount more noise coming into the cabin in an MDX with the volume-model Technology package. Although even that's quieter than the second-generation MDX, it seems strange that the super-quiet cabin is an upgrade, and not standard.

On the practicality side, the MDX offers up a few notable advantages over its predecessor, and competitors. For example, the mechanism for the rear air conditioning has been moved to the front of the cabin, freeing up the entire center console area for storage. And it's big; the central bin could easily hold an iPad plus a purse, camera bag, or other large item. A nicely finished tray slides into multiple positions, and has rubber strips on top so your cell phone won't slide around. The second row seats now offer more legroom, and feature a single button to release them and slide the forward to access the third row. The DVD entertainment system is the same wide screen Honda Odyssey owners have enjoyed for the past few years, with the same HDMI inputs and split-screen capability as well. There's more room in the third row, but it's still primarily for kids, and still primarily meant as an occasional use seating area. The cargo area also benefits from improvements. There's more floor space behind the third row, and there's an expanded storage area under a hard cover that stays in place when you lift it up. A quick tug on handles flops the third row headrests forward and folds the seatbacks down, making way for larger cargo.

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Driving

Acura played it smart with the 2014 MDX, and retained the aggressive driving dynamics of the previous car. The 290-horsepower 3.5-liter V-6 engine's advanced fuel injection gives it better fuel economy and better low-end torque. The result is that the MDX, now 300 pounds lighter, feels quicker than its predecessor, despite being down a few horsepower. There are three distinct driving modes--Comfort, Normal and Sport--that change the character of the car considerably. Want a soft-riding luxury cruiser? Click Comfort. Want a sharp-steering, quick reacting sport tourer with paddle shifters that match revs on downshifts? Hit Sport, and drop the transmission into "S." For the most part, we'd spend our time in Normal, which offered enough steering response and suspension bite to stay interesting, but without being too floaty around corners or too harsh on rough surfaces. One new feature for the MDX is that the different driving modes and a bunch of other personalized settings get saved to a particular key fob. Consider them his-and-hers settings.

So the new MDX drives at least as well as its predecessor, and judging from the competitive vehicles Acura had for us to try out--an also-new Infiniti JX35 and six-cylinder BMW X5 that's nearing the end of its life cycle--it will hold its own in the marketplace when it comes to acceleration, handling, and ride comfort. But Acura offers up a number of technological additions that it hopes will give the MDX an edge against its competition. Foremost among them is the same active cruise control and lane keeping assist system that's on the RLX sedan. It's a good system, with the ability to bring the car to a complete stop and accelerate again with a touch of the cruise control's "resume" button. The lane keeping assist actually helps guide the MDX through turns, following the lines on the road. In our experience with the RLX, it works well enough, although it's more accurate and consistent when the lines are clearly visible; the more contrast the better.

As for the front-wheel drive version? Our impressions of that will have to wait, since it wasn't available for our test drive.

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Summary

A smattering of rain, which turned into a traditional Oregon drenching in the afternoon, kept us from really pushing the MDX to its extreme limits, which would be dumb on public roads anyhow. But we did get enough time to make a snap judgment: It's very good, and several steps ahead of its predecessor in luxury and refinement. Is it a class leader? That depends on what you call its class. Acura says the MDX is cross-shopped against a wide variety of vehicles, from the Toyota Highlander to the Audi Q7. For us, it splits that difference. It's nowhere near as expensive as the Q7, but obviously a huge step up from the workaday Highlander. With an upgraded and more modern interior, a much quieter cabin--especially with the Advance package--and abundant creature comforts, there's a lot to like.

Basic Specs

2014 Acura MDX SH-AWD Advance: 3.5-liter V-6, 6-speed automatic transmission, all-wheel drive, 290-hp, $57,400, 18 mpg city/27 mpg hwy

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