Aging favorite. Since first debuting in 2001, the Acura MDX has represented the brand at its finest: logical, comfortable, well-built, and, as a bonus, relatively athletic for its size and shape. It's ability to wear all of those hats so well has made it Acura's best seller year after year after year.
The 2020 Acura MDX, however, isn't quite the hands-down winner it used to be. The reason is time – and how much of it has passed since this three-row crossover last received a full redesign.
The 2020 model dates back to 2014, and despite getting a new grille, new transmission, and new technology over the past few years, it's not enough to keep up with the breakneck pace of the segment in general. The competition has moved ahead, and it's left Acura playing catch-up.
Dated dashboard, lackluster infotainment and interior. It doesn't matter the trim level or the interior color, the dashboard is a loud and convoluted amalgam of screens, scallops, and sculpting. Perhaps this look may have been impressive back in 2014. But when compared to the sleek, minimalist, horizontally-oriented dashboards found in the competition, the Acura MDX comes off as dated and unattractive. Even mainstream products such as the new Ford Explorer are now trumping the MDX in interior design.
Further muddling things inside is the dual-screen center stack. The upper screen, manipulated by a dial located on the console, sits recessed into the dash and is tasked with displaying the navigation and some limited vehicle information. The lower touchscreen is primarily on radio duty.
Neither screen particularly wows users with its graphics or interface, but haptic response for the touchscreen is immediate and the learning curve isn't very large. Apple CarPlay and Android Auto come standard and manage to make this older system feel a bit fresher than it is.
The infotainment could be seen as a microcosm for the interior at large. Sure, the materials are nice, the seats are comfortable, and high-end models get all the usual luxuries like heated and cooled seats, a 10-speaker audio system, memory seats and mirrors, and so forth. But the stale design and lack of pizzazz keep it from ever feeling truly luxurious, even in the $57,145 Advance model.
Well-sorted mechanicals. The standard powertrain, and the one which accounts for the brunt of all Acura MDX sales, is a 3.5-liter V6 that makes 290 horsepower and 267 pound-feet of torque. It's enough grunt to hustle the MDX along with a quiet confidence. There's a refined smoothness even when you put your foot in it – just hope that the nine-speed automatic transmission will know how to react to such a quick surge of power. We noted more than one occasion when it stumbled about looking for the right gear.
Though front-wheel drive is standard, Acura's excellent all-wheel-drive system is worth the upgrade. Their Super-Handling All-Wheel-Drive, or SH-AWD, has collected reams of well-deserved praise over the years. A purely mechanical system, SH-AWD can send up to 70% of the power to the rear axle and up to 100% of the power to either the left or right wheels.
Hustle the MDX through a few corners, and the big crossover will surprise with its agility as SH-AWD quietly does its thing. One of the selectable menus found in the driver information center keeps you privy to how power is being distributed at any given time.
Efficient and safe. The AWD-V6 combination doesn't have the Acura MDX constantly hitting the 91-octane sauce. The EPA has rated it good for 19 miles per gallon city, 26 mpg highway, and 22 combined. These numbers are right on par for the class and hold their own in a sea of tough competition. Said competition includes the Buick Enclave, BMW X5, and the new Lincoln Aviator, all of which get 18 mpg city. The Audi Q7 and Volvo XC90 match the Acura's 19 mpg city rating.
The available Sport Hybrid powertrain trumps these numbers handily thanks to dual electric motors and a hybrid battery that augment its 3.0-liter, 321-horsepower V6. Fuel economy is rated at a very impressive 26/27/27 mpg (city/highway/combined).
It's also as safe as it is efficient. The IIHS has given the 2019 model – which is nearly the same as the 2020 – a "Good" rating for all their crash testing. The NHTSA has issued the MDX their own five-star overall safety rating. Keeping accidents from happening in the first place is a whole roster of standard active safety and driver-assist equipment, including automatic emergency braking and adaptive cruise control.
Final thoughts. Despite getting on in its years, there's no doubt the 2020 Acura MDX is a good vehicle. But a luxury vehicle cannot only be good – it must be superlative. Mercedes-Benz does this through opulent interiors; Audi through technology and minimalist design; even Lincoln is now doing this through their Black Label line. But how is Acura doing this? What's the secret sauce that makes an MDX special?
The issue is that there is no secret sauce – just the usual off-the-shelf ingredients that, on paper, make a fine luxury car. In the real world, this is a letdown. There's no experience to write home about, nor any lingering feelings that make you turn back and give this people-hauler a last look after walking away. More than its age or its outdated interior design, this Acura makes the cardinal sin of being too ordinary.
You won't regret buying an MDX. But you won't be raving about it, either. And that's the problem.
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