Test Drive: 2017 Acura MDX

My first trip in the 2017 Acura MDX was to the grocery store, about a 15-minute drive from my house. As soon as I got out, a man walking by stopped me and said, “I’m thinking about getting one of those next week. Is it any good?” For most vehicles, 15 minutes is enough to start to form a decent impression. Sure, I don’t know the ins and outs of the infotainment system yet, but it should be enough time to decide “I like it, it’s good” or “It’s not great”, or even “It’s good, but it rubs me wrong.” But in the MDX I couldn’t answer his question. In my 15 minutes, it had failed to leave any impression on me at all.

It did little wrong, but neither did it give me the feeling a luxury SUV should.

Instead of an insightful reply, all I could muster was some hemming and hawing before giving up and saying I’d only been driving it for a few minutes, so I wasn’t sure. Hardly the expert advice I had expected to hand out, but the more time I spent in the MDX, the less that changed. It did little wrong, but neither did it give me the feeling a luxury SUV should.

The three-row crossover MDX has gotten a facelift for 2017 and lost the controversial Acura “beak” grille. In its place is a mesh grille with a chrome surround that much more resembles Superman’s logo than the old styling. It’s a big improvement. Apart from that, it is a very small facelift. The front bumper has received some tweaks and chrome, but the sides and the rear remain as they were when the MDX launched for the 2014 model year. Even the headlights look the same as before, with Acura’s five-element “Jewel Eye” full LED headlights (even on the base model) prominently displayed.

Under the hood is the carryover 3.5L V6 that produces 290 hp and 267 lb-ft of torque. The V6 is smooth and powerful, and it gets the MDX up to speed surprisingly quickly for something this size. The engine also features variable cylinder management that can shut off cylinders to save fuel when cruising, and Elite trim models, like my test car, come with automatic stop-start that shuts off the engine when you are stopped, in an effort to save even more fuel around town. The system works well, and the engine restart is barely noticeable.

The MDX’s nine-speed transmission has a very low first gear that helps to quickly get the SUV moving from a stop. Once you’re moving, that transmission shifts smoothly, with far less hunting for gears than most nine-speed transmissions on the market. It’s not perfect – you can catch it out of sorts on occasion, plus the paddle shifters do not respond quickly – but it does the job well.

Official fuel economy estimates for the MDX are 12.6 L/100 km city and 9.0 highway, with the stop-start system of the Elite improving the city number to 12.2. That said, in my week of mostly rural and highway driving I averaged 13.1 L/100 km according to the onboard computer. A disappointing number, especially as pricier 91 octane fuel is recommended.

Acura’s Super Handling all-wheel-drive system sends power front and rear, but also side to side in order to move the power around in ways that help not just traction but reduce understeer and improve handling. The system can divert up to 70 percent of power to the rear, and can send all of that to either the left- or right-side wheel. There’s a neat little display on the gauge cluster that shows you how the power is being moved around in real time.

The MDX also comes with Acura’s Integrated Dynamics System, giving you a choice of normal, comfort or sport modes. It changes the dynamics of the vehicle depending on your choice. Sport firms up the steering, quickens throttle response, and sends more power to the outside wheel in corners. Comfort softens the steering and throttle. In real-world use, the difference between the three modes isn’t noticeable, aside from sport mode being overly twitchy when you open and close the throttle.

Despite all the trick electronics the MDX still rolls heavily, and transitions into tire-squealing understeer at lower speeds than I expected. It’s a comfortable ride and a competent highway cruiser, and it always remains well composed, but the Super Handling doesn’t encourage you to take it down a twisty road.

Inside, the seats in the first two rows are very comfortable, with good headroom and plenty of legroom in the middle row. The third row, as in most three-row SUVs, is too tight for most adults, with little cargo room behind it. The seats are leather with contrasting white stitching and have the neat detail of the headrest shape matching the new grille. The wood trim on the dash, center console, and doors is real wood. It looks the part, having a very pleasing colour and grain.

On my Elite trim tester, both the front and middle rows are heated with ventilation for the front seats. The heated steering wheel was my favourite part of the interior, and a real treat. Many cars now have a heated wheel, but this is the only one I’ve experienced that really got hot. Within a minute of turning it on, the entire wheel was hot; at least on the –10 degree morning where I had the pleasure of using it.

As nice as it is though, the interior of the MDX fails to feel as premium as the $65,790 price tag would suggest. It’s nice, and it’s comfortable and quiet, but it lacks the style and ambience of competitors like the Lexus RX. It doesn’t feel like much of an upgrade over its sibling Honda Pilot Touring, and actually lacks some cargo capacity next to the Pilot.

The infotainment system is also somewhat disappointing. There are two screens, an upper screen that is a display only (and where the navigation system is normally displayed) and a lower screen which is a touchscreen used to control the ventilation system, stereo, and navigation. The system responds quickly, but the menu system is complicated. There are also no redundant buttons, so if you want to adjust the heat while you’re driving, prepare to either take a few tries at finding the right buttons on the screen to press, or risk taking your eyes off the road for longer than is a good idea. The stereo is a 546-watt system with 12 speakers, but it didn’t deliver the audio quality I expect from this level of vehicle. It was tinny and slightly harsh despite significant time spent adjusting settings.

Rear-seat entertainment is via a very wide 16.2-inch screen that can split to show two different videos side-by-side. The system works well but requires some head-turning that could lead to a sore neck on long drives. Having two videos on the same screen can also be somewhat distracting.

Acura’s Acurawatch active safety suite comes standard even with the base MDX. That includes adaptive cruise control, forward collision detection with automatic braking, lane guidance, and blind-spot warnings. Elite models add parking sensors front and rear with a surround-view camera system. The lane-keeping assist system seemed to have trouble with rural roads. It tries to keep you in the center of the lane, but roads in my area are narrow and can lack lines and the system seemed to get confused by accumulations of road salt, or even crack filler that it thought formed a line. On the highway it seemed to pinball back and forth between the lines, making it appear that I was weaving back and forth. I ended up turning both the lane-departure warning and lane-keeping systems off for most driving. The surround-view cameras worked very well, making parking the MDX much easier. A button press allows you to scroll through the various cameras if there’s a certain obstacle you’re more worried about.

So after a week in the 2017 Acura MDX Elite, how do I feel about it? It’s still not an easy answer. It does most things well, but just does not feel premium or special enough. The base MDX comes with nearly the same interior, including leather seating, and most of the active safety features for $53,690. That seems much more reasonable for what you’re getting, and puts it closer to a Highlander Limited or Mazda CX-9 Signature – vehicles it seems more comfortable next to than the Lexus RX or Volvo XC90 that are closer to the MDX Elite’s $65,990 MSRP.

2017 Acura MDX Elite
Engine Displacement: 3.5L
Engine Cylinders: 6
Peak Horsepower: 290 hp @ 6,200 rpm
Peak Torque: 267 lb-ft @ 4,700 rpm
Fuel Economy: 12.6/9.0/11.0 L/100 km city/hwy/cmb
Cargo Space: 447 L/2,575 L rear seats down
articles_PricingType 2017 Acura MDX Elite
Base Price $65,990
A/C Tax $100
Destination Fee $2,045
Price as Tested $68,135
Optional Equipment None
Optional Equipment
10 0
Scoring breakdowns 6.9
7 Styling
8 Powertrain
8 Quality
8 Comfort
8 Practicality
7 Drivability
6 Usability/Ergonomics
5 Fuel Economy
7 Features
5 Value