DETROIT – The ’14 Acura MDX goes on sale midyear, and the Honda near-luxury brand gives media a sneak peek with today’s debut of the prototype MDX at the 2013 North American International Auto Show here.

The concept version of the 7-passenger cross/utility vehicle is a “strong indication” of the design direction of the next-gen MDX, which will replace the current generation on sale since summer 2006.

“Our goal is to advance on MDX’s already great dynamic performance while improving fuel economy and luxury comfort,” Mike Accavitti, vice president-American Honda national marketing, says in a statement.

New for ’14 will be a front-wheel-drive version of the MDX, brought about by requests from customers in warm-weather states, Acura says. The all-wheel-drive variant remains.

Also new is the vehicle’s engine, a direct-injected 3.5L SOHC V-6, the same mill slated for the new ’14 RLX flagship sedan going on sale in March.

Acura doesn’t detail horsepower or torque specs for the engine in the MDX but has said the RLX will generate 310 hp. The current MDX’s non-DI 3.7L V-6 makes 300 hp and 270 lb.-ft. (366 Nm) of torque.

Acura projects class-leading levels of fuel efficiency in the ’14 MDX, without citing numbers.

While Acura’s signature “power plenum” shield-style grille isn’t totally gone, it is downsized for the ’14 MDX prototype, as it was for the CUV’s midcycle refresh in 2010.

However, the grille shown on the ’14 prototype in photos has a contoured, rather than flat, fixed bar at the top, with the lower half of the MDX’s nose once again a mesh.

Acura’s “Jewel Eye’ light-emitting-diode headlights are used on the prototype, which is aerodynamically sculpted for improved airflow over the surface of the vehicle.

Acura says the new MDX will be 16% more aerodynamic than the outgoing ’13 model, thanks to development testing at Honda’s new Raymond, OH, wind tunnel.

The roofline of the prototype model is reduced 1.5 ins. (3.8 cm) from ’13, but Acura says the cabin will be more spacious for passengers despite the seeming reduction in headspace. Second-row legroom and improved third-row access are made possible by a longer wheelbase.

Acura isn’t ready to show the new MDX interior, but brand Chief Designer Jon Ikeda says to expect improved cabin and cargo-area functionality, plus increases in luxury content, comfort and levels of quietness, for ’14.

A more rigid but lightweight chassis also is expected for the next-gen MDX, as are new front and rear suspension designs, and a 5-star overall vehicle score from the National Highway Traffic Safety Admin.

A variety of advanced safety technologies also will be available on the ’14 MDX, including forward-collision and lane-departure warning, as well as blind-spot information and lane-keeping assist.

A next generation of the AcuraLink cloud-based connected car system will be in the ’14 MDX, as will Pandora, SiriusXM satellite radio, SMS text messaging and Aha by Harman streaming audio.

Honda already has announced the MDX will switch production locales for ’14, from its longtime home of Alliston, ON, Canada, to Lincoln, AL, where the auto maker builds other light trucks such as the Honda Odyssey minivan and Pilot CUV.

Sales of the current MDX have been relatively robust throughout its nearly seven years on the market.

While it fell shy of the all-time record 59,054 units sold in 2004, the current MDX came close with 58,606 deliveries in 2007, WardsAuto data shows.

Last year, the CUV tallied 50,854 units, up 17.5% from 2011 and making it the leader in WardsAuto’s Luxury Large CUV segment, almost double the sales of the No.2 model, the Mercedes-Benz GL.

cschweinsberg@wardsauto.com