PORTLAND, OR – Back-to-back driving of the outgoing and incoming MDX models shows how much Acura has smoothed out the ride and handling of the large cross/utility vehicle.

Not that the exiting version is bone-rattling. It offers refinement one would expect from Honda’s luxury brand. It’s just that the new MDX is so noticeably improved.

The driving dynamics are suave, agile and quiet. Acura engineers spent a lot of time addressing those things. The effort has paid off.

The third-generation 7-passenger CUV also comes with plenty of creature comforts and technological wizardry that keep the occupants safe, entertained and connected.

The original version of the MDX was a breakthrough vehicle when introduced 12 years ago. It won 2001 North American Truck of the Year honors. “It helped define a segment that used to be body-on-frame,” says Art St. Cyr, Acura’s vice president-product planning and logistics.

The centerpiece of the ’14 MDX is an all-new purpose-built body and chassis. The vehicle is Acura’s first developed from the ground up using the new platform.

It makes the vehicle stronger and safer, yet weighs 275 lbs. (125 kg) less than the previous generation, says project leader Jim Keller.

“We did an all-out attack on weight,” he says, noting how that was done throughout the vehicle. “For example, we took 44 lbs. (20 kg) out of the seats.”

The trimming down results in better fuel economy and makes the vehicle more nimble.

“While the second-generation MDX remains competitive, we decided to up the ante” with the new model, Keller says.

That includes an increased use of lightweight materials, such as high-strength steel, aluminum and magnesium. Such body materials account for 59% in the new model compared with 25% in the ’13 MDX.

“We’ve achieved both outstanding strength and weight reduction,” Keller says.

The new body also is 16% more aerodynamic, with a 19% reduction in vehicle- running resistance. The CUV can coast for more than 1.5 miles (2.4 km) from 70 mph (113 km/hr).

The MDX’s torsional body rigidity is up 12.4%, aiding the cause of improved dynamic response and better isolation of road noise. That is done in a variety of ways, from added insulation, thicker carpeting, insulated glass and a new rear-suspension system that reduces noise paths into the cabin.  

All-new suspension componentry includes a strut-type front suspension with triple-path damper mounting system, and a more compact and efficient multilink rear suspension.

The MDX platform accommodates the new 2-wheel-drive model. The previous model offered only all-wheel drive.

“People in southern states don’t want AWD to the extent people in snowbelt states do,” Jan Moore, MDX senior product planner, tells WardsAuto. Offering a 2WD version widens the shopper base and improves fuel economy, she adds.

It also allows Acura to reduce the base price. The ’14 MDX goes on sale in July starting at $42,290 for the 2WD model, a $990 reduction compared with the outgoing AWD-only offering.

On the other end, the new MDX with AWD as well as technology and entertainment packages tops out at $56,505. Add to that an $895 destination and handling charge. 

Customer and dealer feedback accounted for product-development decisions on  many matters, ranging from body size to interior configurations.

The vehicle is 2 ins. (5 cm) longer to enhance ride quality and interior spaciousness. But it also is 1.3 ins. (3.3 cm) narrower to aid both aerodynamics and so-called garage-ability.

“Customers told us they wanted a narrower vehicle,” Moore says. “They didn’t want a blown-up version that was hard to squeeze into parking spots.”

Acura also reconfigured the interior to accommodate families, she says. “They wanted it better organized and with more places to put their stuff.”

A deep and long center-console storage compartment is big enough to put “iPads, purses and things you want to secure but not take with you,” Keller says. Product developers increased rear cargo space after customers said more room was needed back there.

“Customers told us the space behind the third-row seats was almost big enough but not quite,” Keller says.

Acura says it developed the MDX based on the image of an “executive family jet.” Yet, the auto maker tried to cut down on cockpit clutter by reducing the number of buttons and knobs on the center-stack console.

“The previous generation’s took a lot of criticism, and some of it was deserved,” Keller says “So we reduced the number of hard buttons from 41 to nine.”

That was done by moving many controls to the display screen. The result is a cleaner-looking center stack. But the new system requires more touchscreen, menu-down buttons that can exacerbate driver distraction.

On the other hand, Acura interior engineers say the infotainment system is intuitive and largely voice-activated.

The new MDX’s 3.5L V-6 engine is smaller than the 3.7L in the previous generation. Despite the downsizing, powertrain engineers say the engine, similar to one in the smaller RDX cousin, delivers more refinement, fuel efficiency and lower-end torque.

It produces 290 hp and 267 lb.-ft. (361 Nm) of peak torque with about 8% more torque below 2,750 rpm.

Due to improved operating efficiency, horsepower output per liter is up 2% and torque output-per-liter is increased 4.4% compared with the previous engine. The enhanced engine performance particularly is noticeable on the back-to-back test drives of the ’14 and ’13 models.

The engine is mated to a reengineered 6-speed automatic transmission with Acura’s Sequential Sport Shift, reduced friction and smoother gear changes. On AWD models, power to the wheels is managed by Acura’s Super Handling All-Wheel Drive system, which automatically metes out torque between the front and rear axles and the left and right rear wheels

Variable Cylinder Management switches between 3- and 6-cyl. modes, depending on engine load, varying engine displacement to match driving conditions and to save fuel. New technology allows the vehicle to run on 3 cyl. in more driving situations.

The new MDX gains an impressive 17% in fuel efficiency. The 2WD version gets the most: 20-28 mpg city/highway (11.7-8.4 L/100 km).

“In fuel economy, we moved from a relatively also-ran position to top-of-class,” Keller says, referring to competitors such as the Lexus RX 350, Mercedes-Benz ML350 and BMW X5. “Before, fuel economy previously wasn’t a top MDX attribute. Now, it is.”

Acura is pitching the MDX to Generation X families. When the MDX debuted 12 years ago, Baby Boomers made up 73% of new-family car buyers. Gen X accounted for the rest. Now Gen X makes up 68% of that group. Generation Y accounts for 20%. Boomers have dropped to 12%.

Acura sold 50,854 MDXs last year, according to WardsAuto data. The high-water mark was in 2004 with 59,505 deliveries.

The auto maker isn’t announcing sales targets for the new model but expects volumes to increase, says Jeff Conrad, the division’s vice president and general manager.

“We think the market will accept substantially more than we are selling now,” he tells WardsAuto. “We’ve taken a vehicle that was the gold standard of the SUV market and raised the level of refinement, sophistication and luxury. We’re not sitting on our laurels.”

The vehicle’s incubation occurred at Honda’s research and development center in Ohio. A plant in Lincoln, AL, will build the MDX.

sfinlay@wardsauto.com

’14 Acura MDX
Vehicle type Large CUV
Engine 3.5L gasoline direct-injection V-6
Power (SAE net) 290 hp @ 6,200 rpm
Torque 267 lb.-ft. (362 Nm) @ 4,500
Bore x stroke (mm) 3.5 X 3.66 in. (89 X 93 mm)
Compression ratio 11.5:1
Transmission 6-speed automatic
Wheelbase 111.0 in. (283 cm)
Overall length 193.6 in. (491.7 cm)
Overall width 77.2 in. (196.1. cm)
Overall height 66.7 in. (169.4 cm)
Curb weight 4,025 lbs. (1,825.7 kg)
Base price $42,290 (LTZ)
Fuel economy 20-28 mpg city/hwy est. (11.7-8.4 L/100 km)
Competition BMW X5, Audi Q7, Lexus RX, Mercedes-Benz ML
Pros Cons
Efficient V-6 Visually undaring
Gadgets galore $14,215 base-loaded price difference
Wonderfully quiet Bye-bye buttons