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PowerSteering: 2017 Acura MDX Review

PowerSteering: 2017 Acura MDX Review

By Christian Wardlaw, November 11, 2016
Introduction
Acura is American Honda Motor Co.’s luxury car brand, positioned as an aspirational step up from Civics and Accords and Pilots, oh my. When it debuted for the 1986 model year it was the first such foray by a Japanese automaker and quickly earned a reputation for engineering excellence, unwavering reliability, and enjoyable driving dynamics.

Fast-forward 30 years and Acura is working hard to re-establish those brand values. Witness the return of the NSX sports car, which gives the company a true North Star to guide its employees and customers. Additionally, witness the stunning Acura Precision Concept, a design study pointing the way to the automaker’s future design language.

Acura’s future looks bright. In the meantime, the company is hoping that its two most popular models—the RDX small premium SUV and the MDX midsize premium SUV—can serve as the bridge that gets Acura from where it is today to where it wants to be tomorrow.

As the most popular Acura model, the MDX gets a freshening for the 2017 model year that includes a glimpse at what comes next for other models. Check out that grille. It’s called the Diamond Pentagon grille, lifted from the concept and headed to every Acura dealership near you. Few are likely to miss the old Dynamic Power Plenum grille design, also known as “the beak” and “the shield.” Additionally, the 2017 MDX benefits from new standard and optional features, new wheel designs, and revised paint color and interior color and trim selections.

For this review, our expert evaluated a 2017 MDX with Advance trim and Super Handling All-Wheel Drive (SH-AWD). The price came to $57,340, including the $940 destination charge.



What Owners Say
Before we discuss the results of our evaluation of the refreshed 2017 MDX, it is helpful to understand who bought the previous version of this SUV and what they liked most and least about it.

According to J.D. Power research data, Acura MDX buyers are younger than the median average age for the Midsize Premium SUV segment, at 52 years, compared with 57. Also, 48% of MDX buyers are members of either Gen X (born 1965-1976) or Gen Y (1977-1994), compared with 35% for the segment.

Average median household income is lower for MDX buyers, too ($178,846 vs. $188,247 segment average), and twice the number of MDX buyers identify themselves as price buyers when compared with the segment (14% vs. 7%). J.D. Power research shows that 62% of MDX buyers are men, closely aligned with the segment average of 61%.

Similarly, MDX buyer sentiments and psychographics align with the segment averages. An exception is that a larger percentage of MDX buyers agree that they avoid vehicles they think will have high maintenance costs than segment average (89% vs. 82%). Acura MDX buyers are also less concerned about driving something that stands out from the crowd, with 73% saying they like such vehicles, compared with 84% for the segment.

Buyers say their favorite things about the MDX SUV are (in descending order) the driving dynamics, exterior styling, visibility and safety, interior design, and the seats. Buyers indicate their least favorite things about the MDX are (in descending order) storage and space, engine/transmission, climate control, infotainment system, and fuel economy.

What Our Expert Says
In the sections that follow, our expert provides his own assessment of how the 2017  MDX performs in each of the 10 categories that comprise the J.D. Power 2016 U.S. Automotive Performance, Execution and Layout (APEAL) Study.SM

Exterior
Acura takes a big step in the right direction with the MDX’s new grille design, which flanks LED headlights now including automatic high-beam operation. While “the beak” always looked more appropriate on Acura SUVs, the new face of the brand is a handsome one. Updated aluminum wheel designs also give the 2017 MDX more personality.

Unfortunately, the company continues to restrict exterior paint and interior color combinations, limiting choice for luxury buyers who might expect greater variety in exchange for paying a premium.

Interior
With the addition of a new Espresso interior color, there are four different hues for the leather that comes standard in the MDX. Upgrade to the Advance trim, and second-row captain’s chairs are now standard, separated by a huge center console (a bench seat is available). This version of the MDX also has new open-pore wood trim.

The Advance test vehicle had the Espresso leather, real wood trim, and captain’s chairs. The layered ambience is appropriately upscale, and both Acura’s choice of materials and their assembly reflect quality. Buzzes, rattles, and squeaks are non-existent. A waterfall dashboard design dates the MDX, and while the clearly marked switchgear is solidly affixed and appropriately damped, it does look like it could have come from the Honda parts bin.

Seats
Acura uses deeply dished front seat cushions in the MDX. They envelope you to some degree, and in the Advance version they include both heating and ventilation functions. Both front seats offer a wide range of adjustments, and both the driver and front passenger will find soft material anywhere they’d like to rest their arms and elbows.

I found the seats quite comfortable. In fact, during a quick overnight weekend trip I fell asleep in the front passenger’s seat while my wife was driving. I rarely, if ever, can do that.

My kids enjoyed the novelty of the captain’s chairs, pretending they were flying on an airplane with first-class tickets and apparently ignoring the fact that the test vehicle did not have the optional 16.2-in. widescreen rear-entertainment system. Like the front seats, the comfortable rear seats are shaped so that you sit in them rather than on them.

If you need to carry several people, the second-row seats slide forward a bit to provide extra legroom for occupants in the third row. The power-operated, tip-and-slide second-row seats make it easier to load people, but adults won’t be particularly interested in squeezing through to sequester themselves in this part of the MDX. Dual USB ports are present, charging the devices that keep the kids quiet.

Climate Control System
Acura’s dual-screen information and entertainment displays are designed to simplify the complexity inherent in modern luxury vehicles. However, use of a touch-screen display in place of traditional knobs and buttons actually complicates matters.

When it comes to the MDX’s climate controls, the temperature settings, defog/defrost, automatic mode, and fan activation are actuated using traditional buttons and rocker switches located just beneath the touch screen. Seat heating and ventilation, temperature sync, and recirculation are located on the touch screen. While Acura wisely allows owners to set the seat heaters and ventilators to an automatic mode, this arrangement can still confuse owners and distract the driver.

A more intuitive arrangement would separate all of the climate controls from the touch-screen display.

Infotainment System
Once you’ve gone through the MDX’s owner’s manual and set up the driver information display between the gauges, the top information display screen, and the bottom touch screen to your specific preferences, interaction with all but the touch screen is minimized.

During my week of driving the MDX, I used the driver information display mainly as a trip computer, the top screen primarily as a navigation map reference, and the touch screen for music and certain climate functions. In terms of their size and graphics, none of the MDX’s three information displays meets the standards of the luxury SUV segment.

A volume knob is handy, as would be a tuning knob if Acura saw fit to provide one. A row of buttons for radio station pre-sets would be nice, too, in order to further limit interaction with the screen. Acura’s premium audio system sounds good, but isn’t revolutionary or immersive.

AcuraLink services are offered in Standard, Connect, and Premium packages. The Standard package is included at no cost for 3 years, providing real-time traffic information, access to Aha radio, Facebook, and Twitter. Because who doesn’t need Facebook and Twitter while driving?

Upgrade to Connect service for automatic emergency response service as well as stolen-vehicle recovery and live concierge service. This costs extra, adding about $10 per month to your 3-year lease payments. The Premium package adds personalized concierge service.

None of the packages includes safe teen driver features, so that means it’s time for Acura to improve AcuraLink.

Storage and Space
If you can’t find a place within the MDX for stashing your stuff, you’re not trying hard enough. Whether it’s storage you seek or cargo space that you need, the MDX provides it—especially in Advance trim with the second-row captain’s chairs and the center dividing storage console.

As is true of most midsize SUVs, cargo space behind the third-row seat is cramped. Fold it down and there is plenty of room for a family of four or five. Fold all of the seats down and the MDX will haul just about anything you might not otherwise have delivered to your home.

Visibility and Safety
Acura provides three different view settings for its reversing camera, and a top-down surround-view camera system is standard in the MDX Advance. These features, plus park-assist sensors, help make this SUV easier to wield.

For 2017, Acura makes several driver-assistance and collision-avoidance technologies standard on all MDX trim levels. They include adaptive cruise control, forward-collision warning with automatic emergency braking, lane-departure warning with lane-keeping assist, and a road-departure mitigation system designed to prevent the SUV from unintentionally leaving the pavement. A blind-spot warning system with rear cross-traffic alert is included in vehicles with the Technology or Advance trim packages.

Over the course of more than 700 miles of driving, the MDX’s blind-spot warning, rear cross-traffic alert, and forward-collision warning systems were the most useful and effective systems. The adaptive cruise control worked fine, but even when calibrated to the closest follow setting, it left too large a gap between the MDX and vehicles ahead.

I shut off the lane-departure warning and lane-keeping assist systems because they were tough to count on, occasionally misidentifying lane markings where they did not exist and ignoring lane markings that did exist. Furthermore—and I’m not quite sure which system is responsible for this vehicle behavior—the MDX would attempt to steer itself to hug the center or right lane markings instead of placing the SUV in the center of the road. Shutting the lane-departure system off cured the Acura of this tendency.

In the event of a collision, know that the MDX earns a 5-star (out of 5) crash-test rating from the federal government’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). As this review was written, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) had not yet carried forward the 2016 MDX’s “Top Safety Pick+” rating.

Engine/Transmission
With 290 horsepower and 267 lb.-ft. of torque, the MDX’s 3.5-liter V-6 engine provides responsive acceleration combined with decent fuel economy, and it both sounds and feels refined when revved.

The test vehicle had an idle-stop system that turned off the engine when the SUV sat idling at intersections and in traffic. It was sometimes slow to restart the V-6, but Acura has calibrated the technology in such a way that engine revs help to ameliorate any delay in acceleration.

A 9-speed automatic transmission is standard for the 2017 MDX, operated using a collection of buttons and switches mounted to the center console. While the driver acclimates to this arrangement in relatively short order, one can only assume that if something sticky is spilled on them they will, in turn, stick when used.

This transmission, sourced from German manufacturer ZF and used in a range of models from a variety of automakers, has elicited complaints from owners of vehicles so equipped. In my experience with the 2017 MDX, the transmission is occasionally slow to respond when asked to downshift for added power.

Furthermore, when placed in Park on my slightly angled driveway, the transmission allowed the MDX to roll enough to make me question whether I had chosen the correct transmission button. Was the MDX actually in Neutral, or what? Often, as my 5-year-old began to open her door to disembark, I had to jam my foot on the brake pedal and check.

A Sport transmission mode dissatisfies because it holds gears too high and for too long, and the paddle shifters on the steering wheel are not particularly useful. Separately, the driver can select between Comfort, Normal, and Sport vehicle calibration. Differences between the three are difficult to ascertain.

Fuel Economy
As is true of many models, MDX buyers are most unhappy with the fuel economy returned by their SUVs. According to the EPA, the test vehicle should have returned 22 mpg in combined driving. It got 20.2 mpg on the test loop.

Driving Dynamics
Based on J.D. Power survey data, MDX buyers most like this SUV’s driving dynamics. This makes sense, because most people won’t drive this Acura like they stole it. I did (as I do every test vehicle), and when pushed beyond its comfort zone the MDX rapidly erodes driver confidence. The culprits are all-season tires, brakes that fade under duress, and the finicky transmission when it is placed in Sport mode.

Realistically, few MDX buyers have discovered or will discover this on their own. As such, what they feel from behind the wheel is a large but light vehicle with excellent brake pedal response and modulation, perfectly calibrated steering, and a suspension that expertly controls body motion and filters road anomalies while delivering a taut and athletic ride.

This is what Acura does better than anything else. For the way that most people drive most of the time, an Acura just feels right (to borrow an old advertising tagline from Mazda). Whether trolling the mall parking lot for a space, chauffeuring children to school or activities, or cruising the freeway at speeds good for a multi-point ticket, Acuras steer, stop, ride, and handle exactly the way you expect them to while delivering driving enjoyment.

With bigger brakes, better tires, and a refined transmission, it might even be able to serve as a reasonable substitute for a luxury sport sedan.

Final Impressions
One of the best-selling luxury models in America, and for good reason, the MDX is appealing for a multitude of reasons, not the least of which are relatively affordable lease payments. Acura needs to consider the feedback from MDX owners, though, if it is looking to this SUV for salvation.

American Honda Motor Company supplied the vehicle used for this 2017 Acura MDX review.

For more information about our test driver and our methodology, please see our reviewer profile.

Additional Research:


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