Newberg, OR – Rarely is the question “how much can you improve on a good thing?” so aptly applied as it is with the 2014 Acura MDX. It’s the third generation of Acura’s brand-defining luxury SUV, a car that has been the brand’s bestselling model since ‘07; last year, over a third of all Acura sales in Canada were MDXs, and the manufacturer is predicting the same for this latest model, calling for a 6,000 unit sell-rate for the new model’s first year.
Those are some mighty shoes to fill—does the ’14 MDX have what it takes?
A few important changes required
As well as the MDX drives—and as we’ll see later, it does drive very well—Acura felt that more needed to be done in an effort to appeal to our more luxurious tastes.
With that in mind, they’ve simplified the centre-console—I’d forgotten how convoluted and button-rich the old car’s was, but after spending a few minutes in it, that all came rushing back—replacing most of those buttons with a dual-LCD screen interface (the button count has dropped from 41 to 9). The upper display houses your navi, the lower display controls for your HVAC, infotainment and so forth. The touchscreen is nice and responsive and the buttons are nice and big, but I did find the graphics a little old-school compared to competition in the form of Chrysler’s UConnect system (one of my favs) or BMW’s iDrive. There are also no knobs or buttons for controlling your HVAC; having to rely on the touchscreen for this is a little annoying.
Also added to the top-spec trim level is real Olive Ash wood trimming, whose matte look is a very nice touch that recalls options on offer from other top luxury brands like Land Rover or Mercedes-Benz. It’s reserved only for the top Elite trim, however, as is a new infotainment system with an ultra-wide 16.2-inch display that can be split; if one kid wants to play a video game (the system features an HDMI port) and the other wants to watch a DVD, then they can both have their wish. Also smart are the steering wheel-mounted scroll wheels for your volume and trip computer controls. Unlike other manufacturers, whose controls look like scroll wheel but are, in fact, just buttons that can be pressed up or down, Acura’s have an action much like that of a computer mouse.
The Elite also features the top-spec (of four) audio systems that gets you 12 speakers and 546 watts of power. The other three systems give you 8, 10 and 11 speakers, and 432, 501 and 529 watts of power. Taken together, these features really do make for a luxurious experience at the Elite level.
The bread-and-butter trim, however, is the all-new $54,690 Navi trim, which sits one level above base. With it, you get navigation, leather seating, hard drive-based storage and a 10-speaker Panasonic ELS audio system.
After the improvements to the MDX’s luxury chops, next on the list was to make the vehicle more accessible and more livable both for the adults sitting up front, and the kids in the two rows behind them (Acura is expecting the MDX’s buying population to be younger, affulent families going forward).
For the passengers up-front, and for the driver especially, more high-tensile steel has been used for the body, meaning less steel overall was needed. This makes for a roomier interior, and a much better view out, two things you’ll experience—as we did—as soon as you switch out of the ’13 model, and into the ’14.
It’s much roomier in the ’14, airier even though the car is actually narrower and lower than the outgoing model.
It’s also easier to access the third row of seating thanks to a new touch-sensitive system; just brush a button mounted low and on either side of the second row seat and it tumbles and slides forward; it’s so simple and light that the kids will probably be able to do it themselves. It’s not quite as intuitive as the Infiniti JX35’s fold/tilt/slide system, but it’s a mighty step up over the outgoing model. The way the “seat fold” button glows at night, meanwhile, is another nod to the new emphasis on luxury being championed by Acura.
Once folded, those clambering into the back (and it will still be a bit of a clamber, new folding seat or not) will be happy to know that Acura has crafted a step-down system, making entrance and egress that much easier.
Front seat passengers also benefit from a newly-designed centre console that looks more complex than anything I’ve experienced before, but is fairly intuitive when you spend some time in the car. Included is a total of three levels, which combine to essentially provide three separate storage bins. The deepest bin is big enough for small bags or iPads, the next level slides fore and aft, is finished in wood and has a set of rubberized strips mounted atop, making for a perfect landing area for your mobile device (we placed an iPhone there during a set of sharp curves, and it hardly moved at all) while the topmost level is perfect for sunglasses or wallets.
Gone are the days where all you had to do was craft a storage bin big enough for CDs; Acura says that its market research has shown that folks are carrying a variety of objects with them, and with those objects, a variety of shapes and sizes. Me? I’m just happy I no longer have to waste a cupholder by filling it with a phone, which is what I almost always end up doing in cars these days.
Other creature comforts include a hidden underfloor storge area behind the third row, which is nice as you’re going to sacrifice storage with the third row deployed (leaving you with 447 litres of cargo space, which actually isn’t that bad), as well as a Canada-only smart climate control system that ensures that as soon as the car is started after being unlocked with the keyfob, the ambient temperature will be set to seven degrees Celsius, through clever manipulation of the heated steering wheel, heated front seats (these are ventilated on the Elite trim level, a feature unavailable elsewhere in the range), heated windshield and climate control system. The auto temperature can also be adjusted.
Super-Handling AWD on all trims, with less to haul around
Weight has been cut by 131 kilos for 2014, through the use of 35 per cent more high-strength materials in the frame and chassis of the MDX. Also new–not just for the MDX, but for the industry as a whole–is the use of hot stamping for the frame, a process that adds less weight than traditional automotive welding practices.
The seats are lighter. Some steering components are fabricated with light-weight magnesium and even the HVAC system has been tailored for less weight. It’s not quite a Mazda SKYACTIV-like transformation, but it is nonetheless a comprehensive re-imagining of what Acura’s biggest model—both in size and sales–is all about.
The MDX has always been surprisingly nimble for its size, but the ’14 takes things up a notch, evidenced by some time we spent on a tight autocross track. This is an SUV that feels even more like a car, thanks to smart use of torque-vectoring (the brakes are automatically applied to the rear wheels to keep things copasetic through turns) and a surprisingly lively and light steering rack that is good and would be great, if it weren’t for a distinct lack of feel.
Then again, on-track performance is not really what the MDX is all about, and in keeping with the luxury focus, Acura took steps to reduce noise levels within the cabin, which were bad in the first gen, got a lttle better for the second gen and continue to improve here.
The suspension dampers have been tuned to better reduce noise thanks to the addition of an extra valve within the damper, and a new multi-link rear suspension set-up takes noise dispersal a step further.
Another noise-causing factor that plagues the SUV world is drag and the associated wind noise, which Acura has reduced by crafting a more aerodynamic front end that includes a new grille and aerodynamically-shaped headlights, a fascia that is becoming a staple of the brand. The roof has also been lowered, and a functional rear spoiler completes the package.
The result is the quietest-riding MDX yet; even under hard acceleration, you’d have to strain your ears to really hear the engine.
Part of Honda/Acura’s new Earth Dreams concept, the new engine is a little smaller, a little down on power than the outgoing model (300 hp on the ’13 plays 280 on the ’14) but the switch to gasoline-direct injection, and the fact the new car is so much lighter, mostly makes up for the power discrepancy. You do, however, feel a bit of that power gap higher in the rev band.
Of course, I’d bet dollars to Dunlops that most MDX drivers aren’t going to be wringing the neck of their MDX so as to ever reach the upper rev band, so they’d probably be more interested in knowing that technologies like cylinder deactivation and direct-injection will be lowering their fuel costs; Acura is claiming 11.2 litres per 100 kilometers in the city, and 7.7 on the highway.
As does the re-engineered six-speed automatic transmission which gets a self-shift option via wheel-mounted paddles (the MDX’s closest competition in the form of the JX doesn’t offer this) and Acura’s Integrated Dynamics System; with a button mounted just ahead of the shifter, three drive modes can be selected, each one changing how much engine noise enters the cockpit, how heavy the steering feels, how quickly the throttle responds to driver input and how invasive the torque vectoring is.
In the end…
For the duration of our drive, we kept it in spot mode because as far as I’m concerned, that’s how an Acura should feel.
Thanks to underdog supercars like the NSX, and hot-selling tuner specials like the Integra, Acuras have always been the sporty ying to the complacent-luxury-above-all yang of so much of the competition. It’s an image that has been fading a little lately; Acura’s sportiest model is arguably the ILX, but it doesn’t sell all that well, at least not as well as the CSX or even the RSX before it did.
With the MDX and its starting price of $49,990 (Navi, Tech and Elite trims start at $54,690, $59,990 and $65,990, respectively), there’s a chance for Acura to make good on its claim that younger buyers, buyers that are looking for a little more from their luxury SUV than simply a way to easily transport the hockey team, are going to turn to the MDX.
Early first impressions suggest that if I were them, I would look very closely at this car before jumping into a JX or even a BMW X5.
Look for our full Review and Road Test of the ’14 MDX later this summer.