2014 Acura MDX Expert Review:New Car Test Drive
New Car Test Drive
Total redesign with impressive engineering.
The 2014 Acura MDX is the third generation of this seven-passenger luxury crossover with high performance. For all its years until now, the unibody MDX was built on Honda's Global Light Truck platform. The 2014 model is the first ground-up MDX, and boy is it ever ground-up. Everything is new, everything mechanical is better. And it was very good, before. For this new MDX, engineers focused on three areas: fuel mileage, comfort and safety.
Compared to the previous version (2007-2012), the 2014 MDX has quicker acceleration, better fuel mileage, more room and comfort inside, tighter dimensions outside, nimbler handling, shorter stopping distances, and improved ride.
The 2014 MDX is two inches longer, on a wheelbase that's 2.8 inches longer, than the previous-generation MDX. It's 1.5 inches lower and 1.4 inches narrower at the nose; 1.8 inches lower at the sides, 1.3 inches at the hips, and 1.2 in the tail. Longer, lower, narrower. Driven by aerodynamics, driven by fuel mileage. Win-win.
Here's an MDX first: front-wheel drive. For years, we've been hearing about Super Handling All-Wheel Drive. Has Acura lowered its Super standards? No, don't forget about Texas. We used to think you didn't need all-wheel drive in Florida too, but that was before the floods.
The front-wheel-drive MDX is EPA-rated at 28 mpg Highway, numbers apparently worth stealing the power from two wheels for. That's 23 mpg Combined city and highway, compared to the SH-AWD at 21 mpg Combined. Texans, you're good with FWD. Unless the droughts turn the streets to sand. We recommend getting the all-wheel drive for most people, however. It seems a shame not to have all-weather capability on an SUV.
The all-new 2014 Acura MDX is 275 pounds lighter than before, like a 120-pound person losing eight pounds. The weight dropped from the best place, the core, now with 64 percent high-strength steel, aluminum and magnesium. That plus the 16 percent improvement in aerodynamics, and the 19 percent reduction in rolling resistance, and we're talking real gains. Now the car weighs about a football player more than two tons.
The body of the 2014 MDX was developed using a new 40-percent-scale wind tunnel laboratory at Honda's U.S. R&D facilities in Ohio. With a rolling ground plane and computer modeling, engineers worked on the underbody and airflow through the engine compartment, as well as the skin, to get the coefficient of drag down.
For sharper response and isolation of road noise and vibration, the torsional body rigidity is up 12.4 percent. The new electric power steering ratio is quick. The new suspension, struts in front and multi-link in rear, is attached to lighter and more rigid subframes, with suspension mounting points 67 percent more rigid. The shock absorbers are fancily called Amplitude Reactive Dampers, because they use variable damping rates depending on the terrain and speed. It all makes for a more solid, comfortable and in-control ride.
Of course the gains move to the engine. The new 3.5-liter V6 is Acura's first direct-injected engine, incorporating a new i-VTEC valvetrain with two-stage Variable Cylinder Management, cutting the fire to three cylinders at times. The engine architecture comes from racing, specifically the LMP2 class Acura prototypes that took first and second in the 2103 American Le Mans Series, including a sweep at the 12 Hours of Sebring.
The 60-degree aluminum V6 is single overhead cam, with 24 valves. It makes 290 horsepower, 10 less than before. The peak torque of 267 foot-pounds drops a bit too, but there's more torque below 2750 rpm. Bottom line is you'll never feel the loss, but will feel the gain. The outgoing engine was 3.7 liters, so the new 3.5-liter engine makes more horsepower and torque per liter. The engine is mounted transversely, which improves balance enormously.
There's a reengineered 6-speed automatic transmission with three modes and paddle shifters, smooth gear changes and reduced internal friction. There's Acura's Super Handling All-Wheel Drive, moving torque between the front and rear axles, and the left and right rear wheels, to deliver all-weather traction and control. The SH-AWD gets an EPA-estimated 18/27 mpg City/Highway, or 21 miles per gallon Combined. Premium gasoline is recommended. Direct injection engines manage fuel in a precise manner, but their higher compression ratio wants the best gas.
The MDX body uses Acura's Advance Compatibility Engineering (ACE) structure, to absorb and deflect frontal crash energy, isolating the cabin from it. Acura designed the ACE structure in 2007 with the second-generation MDX. The new 2014 MDX features the world's first ultra-high strength hot stamped steel, one-piece stiffener ring for the driver and front passenger front door areas, from the A-pillar to roof rails to B-pillars to lower frame members.
Acura expects the 2014 MDX to earn a five-star Overall Vehicle Score from the National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), and a TOP SAFETY PICK+ rating from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), including the highest rating of GOOD in the Institute's stringent new small overlap frontal collision test.
The 2014 Acura MDX ($42,290) comes standard with front-wheel drive. MDX SH-AWD ($44,290) adds all-wheel drive. (All prices are Manufacturer's Suggested Retail Prices, which may change at any time without notice, and do not include $895 destination charge.)
Acura MDX ($42,290) comes standard with leather upholstery in the first two rows, three-zone climate control, power heated front seats with driver memory, power windows, power locks, power mirrors, power tailgate, console, cruise control, rearview camera, message center, trip computer, AM/FM/CD/MP3 sound system, XM satellite radio, Bluetooth, auxiliary audio input, and split-folding rear seats. Front-wheel drive is standard.
MDX with Technology Package ($46,565) adds hard disc navigation with VGA screen, AcuraLink communications, real-time weather (with climate-control link) and traffic, 410-watt 10-speaker Acura ELS surround sound system, multi-view rearview camera, USB port; MDX with Technology and Entertainment Packages ($48,565) adds to this a Rear Entertainment System that includes a motorized 9-inch VGA screen DVD rear-seat entertainment system, heated second-row seats, and 115-volt AC power outlet.
MDX with Advance and Entertainment Packages ($54,505) includes the Technology and Entertainment Packages and adds an active damper system, adaptive cruise control with collision mitigation braking system, blind spot information system, ventilated front seats in perforated Milano leather, and 19-inch wheels.
MDX SH-AWD ($44,290) adds all-wheel drive to the MDX features. Equipped identically as above, MDX SH-AWD is available with Technology Package ($48,565), Technology and Entertainment Packages ($50,565), and Advance and Entertainment Packages ($56,505).
Safety equipment includes two-stage frontal air bags and active head restraints, two-stage driver and front-passenger knee bolsters, front-seat side-impact air bags, and three-row side-curtain air bags with rollover triggering. Active safety features, designed to help the driver avoid accidents in the first place, include all-wheel-drive, electronic stability control, and anti-lock brakes (ABS) with electronic brake force distribution and brake assist for panic stops.
Acura MDX was completed redesigned for the 2014 model year. The overhang in front has been reduced by less than one inch, but the new nose looks stubby, in an attractive way. We wish there were less chrome in the grille, but that big silver subtle-vee band is the Acura cache, and anyhow we wish there were less chrome in every grille.
The front fascia openings under the grille are tidy, and the LED headlamps, five bulbs in each, are sleekly designed. Acura calls them Jewel Eyes. They are super bright. Not quite like daylight as Acura suggests, but way excellent, extending the beam by 75 feet and safety by a lot.
The nose has been carved between the grille, to slope down from each side to the bumper. It works well, to give definition to the bumper, which on so many cars is flat and ugly for being shapeless. (When we say bumper, we really mean the body plastic that hides the steel bumper underneath.)
The sides don't have any fancy styling, and the rear looks like any other SUV, with a small spoiler on the roof. Since so few designs actually score when they try to make distinctive sides and rear ends on SUV styles, we say nondescript might be just fine.
The soft interior materials are of a high quality all around, as should be expected in any car with this price. They've always been good with Acura. Premium Milano leather is standard for the first two rows, while satin and simulated wood-grain trim accents the cabin. The steering wheel is stitched leather.
The instrumentation is well laid out, and the display screen is shaded and easy to read. The gauges are beautifully backlit with LED lighting, while LED lamps with programmable brightness are used on the center console and front foot wells.
One major change and improvement for 2014 is the center stack, now with 9 buttons where there used to be 41. The layout saves significant space, now used for storage forward of the shift lever.
Center console storage space has more than doubled in size, thanks to repackaging of the HVAC system; it's under a sliding leather armrest. It can easily hold a purse and tablet computer, maybe both. Big SUVs and pickup trucks have center consoles like this, but not many luxury crossovers.
Front seats are on the roomy side, we'd prefer more bolstering, especially with a car that boasts Super Handling. And the A-pillar gets in the way of forward and downward visibility.
All three rows of seats are more than one inch lower, which not only improves ingress and egress, but reduces body roll. Except in the case of the driver, you'll want to crank the seat up so it gives that command-of-the-road position of a big SUV.
The longer wheelbase and more compact rear suspension allow for entry to the rear seats that's 4.5 inches wider, and 1.8 inches lower at step-in when compared with pre-2014 MDX models. It's a relative delight to get in and out. The second-row seatbacks have five reclining positions, and six inches of travel to make maximum legroom; snooze time on road trips.
The second row flops down with a touch of one button located in three places, so it couldn't be much easier to reach the third row. Acura calls it One-Touch-Walk-In, and it is.
Cargo space is vast, 90.0 cubic feet, with both rows folded easily flat. And with them up, there's a lot more room than before, 2 inches more floor space and 6 inches more at the top of the seatback, yielding 15.8 cubic feet, a good-sized sedan trunk. There's a cargo lid with room for things you might want to hide, and it flops open 180 degrees with the third row seat folded, to provide maximum utility.
The cabin is quieter than ever, thanks to more foam in the roof pillars and new insulating materials under and behind the second and third rows, and a new seal at the rear door sills. All the glass is acoustic, a sandwich of tempered glass around sound insulation. The engine is so silky anyhow, you know you're in a luxury car when you're in the back seat of the MDX.
Now for the hard part. Working the electronics. Radio: fail. We couldn't tune it decently, and neither could the other journalist with us. Voice command: fail, like them all. The Acura lady can't even begin to understand plain English. We tried and tried, didn't do anything wrong, and not one time did she get it right. It was only after that, that we resorted to name-calling, knowing of course that that never works.
Best part of the 2014 Acura MDX is the powertrain, no doubt. We say that about a lot of BMWs, too. Handling is crisp. The faster you drive the new MDX, the better it feels. Despite having a bit less horsepower and torque, it accelerates a bit quicker. Redline is 6700 rpm, and the engine eagerly sprints there, no screaming when it's there. On the racecar, the engine screams.
The 6-speed automatic with paddle shifters and a sport mode is flawless, or at least no flaws appeared during our shared one-day test drive. It's super smooth and quick shifting. We liked that when you use the paddles, it doesn't automatically go into sport mode, it shifts while staying in Drive. We also liked that it's not programmed to out-think you, it does what it's told and no more (although it upshifts at 6500 to out-think your idea of blowing up the engine). In sport mode, the shifts get more aggressive. Another thing that happens is the exhaust note is programmed to growl a bit. Woohoo.
The new rear suspension delivers an excellent ride, we found no jagged spots. The rear dampers mount directly to the rigid rear frame, as opposed to the more flexible rear wheelhouse on the previous model; this allows softer bushings, without sacrificing handling. The MDX platform is prepared for the new two-wheel-drive model, with the engine lowered 1.2 inches.
Acura's IDS, Integrated Dynamics System, uses three modes: Comfort, Normal and Sport. The modes try to give you what you want, by balancing steering effort, throttle response, torque to the wheels, and, to enhance the fun, Active Noise Control. In sport mode you get a rumble, from microphones under the hood and in the tailpipe, enhanced by a subwoofer and wired to a speaker in the headliner.
Suspension settings are not a part of IDS because the shock absorbers already respond to conditions. We found the ride never too stiff and never too soft, challenged over a curvy patchy road. We felt the steering stiffen and quicken, in IDS sport mode, making it easier to keep the vehicle pointed true, in corners and on ripples.
The brakes in the 2014 MDX deliver better stopping distances. They're very big, 12.6-inch vented discs in front, and 13.0-inch solid discs in rear, with all the electronic assistance.
Meanwhile, you've got Agile Handling Assist going on. Standard on the 2014 MDX, it uses the brakes to improve corner tracking, by applying them to individual wheels, which puts turning forces on the car. In the direction you want. This is all in addition to Vehicle Stability Assist (VSA), which throws out all the stops to maintain control in dodgy situations.
Rolling resistance is a force that carmakers are looking at closely, because it's important to fuel mileage. An Acura engineer invented his own test, to see. In a 70-0 mph coast-down, the 2014 MDX rolled 1600 feet farther than a 2013, an improvement of 19 percent.
The MDX improvement comes from new low-drag brakes, a lightweight low-drag hub and wheel bearing, and reduced rolling-resistance tires. And the improved aerodynamics, of course, including airflow over the low-profile 19.5-gallon fuel tank, that's got more than 500 miles of driving it. On Premium gasoline, so it'll be $80 fill-ups.
We've saved the worst for last. The good news is it's an option. In the safety package, besides the annoying Lane Departure Warning and Adaptive Cruise Control, there's Forward Collision Warning, upping the bar of capability. When Volvo invented the system, it prevented low-speed rear-enders and hitting pedestrians. Now in the MDX you can drive in 30-mph stop-and-go traffic without using your feet at all.
We did just that. It's true, you can. You just won't want to, because it's so jerky, and the lag time will have all the cars behind you mad at you for not closing the gap. It works by radar, maintaining a set distance behind the car in front of you, so basically that guy has his foot on your throttle and brakes. So you'll keep turning it on and off, and if you forget it's off and, being accustomed to expecting it to save your butt, it won't, and you might more likely crash than if you never had it in the first place.
Don't expect these systems to go away. Expect cars to come with black boxes so your driving can be monitored, like your phone calls, emails and web surfing. You'll get tickets by mail, and if you don't pay them the black helicopters will come for you. That is, if you're allowed to drive your car at all.
The all-new 2014 Acura MDX improves on the previous version in every way: Brilliant powertrain. Better acceleration and fuel mileage, more room and comfort inside, tighter dimensions outside, nimbler handling, shorter stopping distances, smoother ride. Get it without the packages for the best value. Our pick is the base MDX SH-AWD.
Sam Moses filed this NewCarTestDrive.com report from the Pacific Northwest.
Acura MDX ($42,290); MDX SH-AWD ($44,290).
Options As Tested
Acura MDX SH-AWD ($44,290).
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