2014 Acura MDX

PORTLAND, Ore. — While Acura trimmed some significant weight from the latest version of its best-selling MDX crossover it also cut horsepower and only subtly advanced the design. This may sound like playing it too safe with the all-new third-generation, but we discovered that Acura actually took a solid step forward. The proof is in the details — and the driving.

Perhaps the biggest change is that the MDX no longer rides on the Honda Pilot platform. The argument that the MDX is just a rebadged Pilot — and that was actually not a bad thing — is over. The 2014 MDX uses an all-new purpose-built platform and it's evident in its more refined driving dynamics and interior solitude.

The new MDX is a little rounder with nip and tucks here and there, and it has a more aggressive look. We certainly don't fault Acura was retaining the MDX's basic appearance. Owners like it. Critics generally like it. It's distinctive and proclaims proudly to the world that this is perhaps the personification of what a luxury sport utility is supposed to look like.

By the numbers, the 2014 MDX measures 2 inches longer than the previous-generation and has a 2.8-inch longer wheelbase. Vehicle height has been lowered by 1.5 inches, and rear step-in height is lower by 1.8 inches compared to the outgoing model. This translates into more interior room and easier entry and exit.

Yes, the new 3.5-liter V-6 in the 2014 MDX has less horsepower than the outgoing 3.7-liter V-6  — 290 vs. 300 — but it feels stronger. We know because we drove both models back-to-back. Acura says this is due to an 8 percent improvement in low-end torque that cuts a half-second off 0-to-60 time. While we can't attest to that figure because we were using our experienced seat-of-the-pants measuring device, the 2014 model did feel more energetic, probably in the low six-second range.

The bottom line is that the last-generation MDX had respectable performance that was the equal of its competition including the Audi Q7, BMW X5 and Lexus GX460. And the pace set by the new edition has not slowed, and in all likelihood future instrument tests will show it has quickened.

The benefits of the new direct-injection engine will be felt in a big way at the gas pump. It's rated in front-wheel drive — yes, the MDX can be had with the less-expensive two-wheel drive — at 20 mpg city, 28 highway and 23 overall. The Super Handling AWD is rated at 18/27/21. The outgoing engine is EPA-rated at 16/21/18.

Some of the mileage savings — and perceived performance enhancement — come as a result of a healthy diet that has led to the shedding of 275 pounds from several areas including the structure and interior components, and a 16-percent gain in aerodynamic efficiency.

The MDX has an athletic feel on the road, something we have come to expect in an Acura crossover. Acura has become known for its handling prowess and the new edition lives up to the billing. Drivers can tailor the vehicle to their driving tastes through the use of three dynamic modes — Sport, Normal and Comfort. These settings will change steering effort, throttle response, all-wheel drive settings, and even noise cancellation for different tastes or diving conditions.

Inside, the MDX is attractive and generally more user friendly than the outgoing model. Instrumentation is easy to read and Acura has eliminated the myriad of buttons found on the center stack of the outgoing model, which is mostly a good thing. But this means that more controls are now buried in a seven-inch touch screen that sits below the navigation screen.

Hard buttons are still available for controlling temperature, navigation and radio volume. We miss the easily accessed radio preset buttons found in the last generation MDX. Now one must go into the screen functions to access radio functions, a nuisance when hurtling down the interstate at 75 mph.

Acura has done a commendable job creating a more passenger friendly interior. The second-row seats slide six inches for and aft, and a new one-touch control folds and slides them forward for easier entry and exit to the third row. Storage has also been increased and includes a handy underfloor compartment in the rear cargo area and a center console large enough to fit a laptop or purse.

Acura has done a good job holding the line on pricing. And the new front-wheel drive model allows would-be buyers to get into the MDX for $42,290, nearly $1,000 less than the 2013 model. The popular MDX with Technology Package is priced at $46,565 in two-wheel drive. The top model, MDX SH-AWD Advance with Entertainment Package comes in at $56,505. These prices do not include the $895 destination charge.

While the new MDX retains the styling of the outgoing model, we found it upgraded and definitely improved in all areas — a noteworthy advance in luxury SUV design.

— Jim Meachen