Costco runs, after school sports, family road trips. These are just some of the common activities that are shared amongst many who are toying with the idea of owning a 3 row crossovers. SUVs with 3rd row seats have continued to be one of the most popular types of vehicles on the road.
Honda/Acura was one of the companies who jumped onboard the trend relatively early on with their Honda Pilot/Acura MDX models. With the current generation originally launched in 2014 and facelifted in 2017, the MDX is now in its third generation.
As before, Acura has essentially taken the practicality and user-friendliness of the Pilot and added a more premium image, bolder styling, nicer cabin materials, and of course, a higher price tag.
For years, the upscale MDX has been a popular choice in Canadian suburbs so much so that it doesn’t draw too much attention on the street these days. It’s not difficult to see why as it is still rather conservatively styled, comes with Japanese brand reliability, and carries over Acura’s “fun to drive” reputation.
When it was redesigned for 2014, Acura introduced a lighter-weight body structure that was a whopping 700 lbs lighter than its predecessor. Impressive given that the new design also added new reinforcements to help the MDX score well in the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety’s (IIHS) new small-offset front crash test.
What’s new for 2020
Not much changes for 2020 with the MDX carrying over its appearance, mechanical components, and available features. My test vehicle was the A-Spec model, which joined the regular MDX and MDX Sport Hybrid model in 2019.
Since the MDX is Acura’s bread and butter, leading the company’s sales for years on end, it made sense for Acura to add a sportier trimmed model much like its sedans. The revised “diamond pentagon” schnoz that replaced the odd-looking Acura “shield” grille has aged well and looks cleaner and less bizarre than the beak that it replaced.
As cool as the A-Spec may sound though, the trim level doesn’t go too far beyond unique exteriors colour, wheels, and badging. The MDX wears it well though, as the attractive package helps it to stand out from the rest of the line-up.
I particularly liked the A-spec-only Apex Blue Pearl colour which certainly adds some excitement compared to the drab white/silver/black colours that most vehicles seem to be painted in these days.
The half-inch-wider 20-inch grey aluminium wheels wearing lower profile 265/45R20 tires are rather fetching when matched with larger (real) exhaust tips, body-coloured rocker panels, and a unique A-spec front fascia. Body coloured rocker panels and gloss black and dark chrome exterior trim finishes off the package.
Inside, the seats are wrapped in either perforated red or black leather with black Alcantara inserts. I found the front seats a little bit short on thigh support but were otherwise very comfortable. My vehicle was fitted with the Alcantara trim with contrast stitching, which makes it pop out nicely.
Other interior goodies include A-Spec red gauges, A-Spec-badged door sills, black Alcantara door panels, and even a wonderfully perforated thicker-rimmed steering wheel with paddle shifters. There is also red ambient lighting to match and a red engine start/stop button.
My A-spec tester came particularly well equipped with a blind-spot monitoring system with rear-cross traffic alert, rain-sensing wipers, parking sensors, as well as the whole Acura Watch suite of driver assist features. The MDX’s semi-autonomous driver aid systems, once cutting edge, are getting a bit long in the tooth on though, and cannot keep the vehicle in the lane in sharper corners.
Compared to the previous Acura MDX which I drove several years ago, the infotainment system has been updated to include Apple CarPlay and Android Auto functionality.
Alas, what you cannot get on the A-Spec is the Entertainment package, with a rear-seat entertainment and comfort package. Nor can you get the Tech Plus package’s second-row heated captain’s chairs, surround-view camera, and active dampers. The A-spec makes do with the standard vibration-reducing amplitude reactive dampers.
Price-wise, the A-Spec is actually the mid-model in the range at an MSRP of $59,690 versus the Tech at $58,090 and the Elite at $66,190.
What is it like to live with?
The MDX’s 290 horsepower, 3.5-litre V6 with 267 lb-ft of torque offers more than sufficient power that most drivers will expect in a crossover SUV. With variable valve timing and lift (aka VTEC), direct injection, and cylinder deactivation, Acura has designed the V6 for efficiency.
The naturally aspirated V6 does need a bit of time to get to power, but its strong and the engine note is pleasant. There is even a bit of an unexpected snarl higher up in the rev range.
Is it as torquey as other SUVs on the market (particularly from the Germans) with their turbocharged engines? No, certainly not. You’ll have to go for the MDX Sport Hybrid and its additional torque and power for that.
Nonetheless, the regular MDX A-Spec can still tow 5,000 pounds when properly equipped, so the engine has been tuned with family hauling duties in mind.
The new 9-speed automatic transmission works well, for the most part, and typically starts off in second gear for smoother take-offs. Flooring the throttle does result in it stepping down to first gear for maximum trusts. There is also a selectable “dynamic” mode, which holds the gear changes till higher revs and is also more aggressive with the engine mapping.
The ride is satisfyingly firm but not harsh and the MDX’s accurate steering rack continues to be a strong point.
What exactly is SH-AWD?
Acura heavily advertises that the MDX comes with SH-AWD; the acronyms short for “Super Handling All-Wheel-Drive. Since the majority of SH-AWD Acuras are based on front-engine, front-wheel-drive platforms, up to 90 per cent of the power is initially directed to the front wheels.
Under hard acceleration, or upon slippage, sensors detect rearward weight transfer and can alter clutch engagement to direct up to 45 per cent of power to the rear wheels for better acceleration.
The way that SH-AWD gets its so-called “Super Handling” characteristics is by the rear differential being able to vector torque (aka the power balance) between the rear wheels.
Depending on the cornering forces, up to 70 per cent of the engine torque can be sent to the rear axle, of which 100 per cent can be directed to the rear outside wheel, helping to push the vehicle forward. This inward yaw moment gives the feeling of rotation through a corner, reducing the need for steering input and allowing power to be applied sooner.
The system noticeably works, and you can really feel it in more aggressive corners where it helps to minimize understeer or oversteer. It was certainly more evident on snowy surfaces, such the week where I had the MDX, and performed flawlessly in poor road conditions.
Just don’t expect the MDX’s system to act as dynamically aggressive as the Acura NSX sports car’s system, as it is still set-up for safe understeer if you go into a corner too hot. Entertainingly, a small display in between the speedometer and tachometer displays a live view of where the torque is going side-to-side.
Tell me more about the interior
It’s easy to see why the MDX has been a popular choice. The cabin is well-rounded and does most things well, such as keeping noise at bay. Better sealing and insulation along with thicker acoustical glass quiet the cabin nicely.
Although it has been around for a couple years now, Acura’s clever one-touch button function to fold the second row seats forward is still rather unmatched for ease-of-use and speed. There are actually two buttons, one on the back of the seat and another on the side, cleverly both are lit at night.
Press either one and the second row can be slid all the way forward on tracks that permit the fore-and-aft adjustment. The system is so easy to use that kids can climb aboard unassisted. When fully folded, the middle and rear seats form a flat cargo floor for maximum utility. There is some cargo area behind the third row, but it’s best saved for a few small backpacks or grocery bags.
The MDX’s third row is perfectly ok for children and smaller adults, even on longer trips. However, due to the limited legroom, average sized adults will likely start grousing after the 45 minute mark. A flat floor, both in the second and third row footwells, maximises as much foot room as possible. Kudos to the engineers for packaging things very efficiently.
Perhaps the areas in which the Acura shows its age the most is in certain interior plastic quality (such as the turn signal stalk and window switches), as well as the dual-screen infotainment system and gauge cluster (no virtual cockpit here).
Yes, I do concede that it is a bit unfair to compare the MDX’s interior with those of posh European competitors since the Acura does cost quite a bit less. Nonetheless, even the MDX’s domestic rivals have caught up.
The infotainment system splits duties by having a lower touchscreen for certain inputs, and a upper display unit that is primarily controlled by the physical knob on the dash. HVAC operation from the dash is intuitive enough, thanks to the physical buttons, but the multifunction knob and the complex menu structure is cumbersome to live with.
While you do get used to it in time, changing radio stations or turning on the heated seats can be a multi-step process.
It’s also a bit weird, and slow, to control Apple CarPlay with the knob as CarPlay seems to really be designed for touchscreens. Acura’s new trackpad infotainment system, on their latest RDX crossover, is significantly easier to use.
Like the Acura brand, the MDX continues to occupy a sort of middle ground in the automotive world. While the brand aspires to be true luxury, it sometimes doesn’t fit the bill but yet is certainly far above mainstream brands.
Despite its jack-off-all-trades-master-of-none positioning, the MDX remains competent, practical, and surprisingly fun to drive for a seven-passenger crossover. The A-spec trim just adds a bit of pop to a recipe which Acura hasn’t messed too much with due to its success.
If you’re looking for a mix of technology, handling, value, reliability and more luxury than the typical mainstream brands, the MDX continues to fit the bill as a fine choice for a family crossover.
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