► Acura’s MDX SUV driven in the States
► Sporty but comfy, practical but plush
► Can it manage all of those traits at once?
Explore Honda UK’s SUV line-up and you’ll find relatively affordable and frugal practicality is the order of the day rather than sporty crossovers expressly designed to make premium brands quiver. Nothing wrong with that, but in the US things are rather different, thanks to Honda luxury division Acura.
Introduced in 1986 and focussed mostly on the US market, Acura has previously put its name to Stateside versions of the NSX and Integra, and also has a long history with the MDX, a seven-seat premium SUV with a five-metre-plus footprint.
With more than a million examples sold since the first generation debuted in 2001, Acura bills the MDX as the ‘best-selling three-row luxury SUV of all time’. This fourth generation continues to give the Japanese maker a premium answer to the likes of the BMW X5, Audi Q7, Volvo XC90 and Lexus RX.
A recent trip to California gave CAR a chance to jump behind the wheel to see if we’re missing out…
Presumably there’s Honda DNA not far beneath the surface…
Yes there is, but the Honda Pilot underpinnings will not be familiar to Brits and – just like the Pilot – the Acura MDX was designed in California and developed at the company’s North American R&D bunker in Raymond, Ohio.
The MDX line-up kicks off at $49,850 with a 3.5-litre naturally aspirated V6, front-wheel drive and double-wishbone front/multi-link rear suspension featuring coil springs all-round but we’re testing the range-topping MDX Type S Advance.
Type S highlights include full air suspension, Brembo four-piston brakes and the fourth-generation of Acura’s Super-Handling All-Wheel Drive – aka SH-AWD, which can divert up to 70 per cent of torque rearwards, and send 100 per cent of each axle’s maximum to just one of its wheels.
The Type S also gets a 3.0-litre turbocharged V6 engine with 350bhp and 354lb ft (nope, it’s not related to the NSX engine, the most obvious tell-tale being a 60-degree vee, not the 75 degrees used for the hybrid supercar).
At $73,500 the Type S goes toe-to-toe with the BMW X5 40i, Audi Q7 55 TFSI and Genesis GV80.
How does the MDX Type S drive?
On its standard air suspension, the Type S rides with a nicely judged mix of pliancy and control that shrugs off fractured Californian asphalt, absorbs compressions beautifully and still feels eager to carve corners when you up the pace.
Variable-ratio steering adds energy to this five-metre long SUV’s handling, feeling quick and consistent where similar set-ups can be strikingly non-linear and unnatural as a result. The all-wheel drive system also impresses, combining the sure-footed traction you’d expect with surprising dexterity through corners – you can feel it quickly shifting torque distribution around, powering from the rear but also adding extra to the outside rear wheels to tuck you into a tight corner. A spirited run up Highway 1 was like riding a centrifuge.
It took us a little while to adjust to such prompt brake pedal response (the electro-servo is borrowed from the NSX) but the stoppers certainly proved effective.
How does the powertrain stack up?
It’s the weaker link. Performance is pretty middling for something wearing a Type S badge, the soundtrack somewhat gravelly and lacking aural excitement and the ten-speed auto can be both a little dim-witted and somewhat clunky. It’s more workmanlike than poor, but no question something like the X5 40i does it better.
What’s the MDX like inside?
Our toppy Advance spec carries a near $5k premium over the regular Type S, with upgrades including heated, ventilated massage seats with 16-way adjustment that are trimmed in full Milano Premium leather (fantastic they are too), a 25-speaker ELS Studio 3D Signature Edition audio system and heated seats for the outer seats in row two.
The dash layout is smartly designed and overall quality feels high thanks in part to open-pore wood trim, perforated leather and slick piano-black surfaces.
Shame the infotainment system is clunky. Two 12.3-inch screens are standard, with the central display controlled by a ‘True Touchpad Interface’ (it is not a touchscreen). You have to keep your finger pressed down on the trackpad while navigating, and while we did get used to it, we’d always choose a rival system first. Plus the voice control was off (we used real American people to test it just in case).
It must be practical…
Certainly is, especially with seven seat/three-row seating as standard. The row-two seats slide forwards and back so you can flex room in row three and/or luggage space, but I was able to sit in row three while having rows one and two set for six-foot-one tall me – it wasn’t exactly generous back there, my head was brushing the roof and my knees were bunched, but I could definitely manage.
Rows two and three were also quick and easy to fold flat manually, and a push of a button slides and tilts row two forwards so you can climb into row three (though there is a bit of a pinch-point as you climb up and in).
Verdict: Acura MDX Type-S
The Acura MDX is a good if imperfect SUV. We rated it highly for its ride comfort and engaging handling, felt pampered by its luxurious cabin and found more than enough room inside for people and luggage thanks to the seven-seat layout and generous boot. This is also a pleasingly sharp design that appears more compact and sporting than five-metres plus perhaps suggests.
The powertrain proved less impressive (more soul, more performance and more finesse would be on our to-do list), and we struggled with the touchpad infotainment, but overall the Acura MDX Type S gives its Honda parent a convincing foothold in America’s lucrative large premium SUV market where it remains absent in the UK despite the niche’s ever-growing popularity.