Acura's MDX sport utility evolves into attractive 2017 edition

By Peter Hubbard

(July 8, 2017) When it comes to the mid-size luxury crossovers, Acura is not exactly a newcomer to this “card game.”  After all, they’ve been players in this market with 3-seat, 7-passenger models since 1996.  Well, to be fair, the first model they offered — the 1996 Acura SLX — was actually a rebadged and thinly disguised Isuzu Trooper. 

But you have to hand it to Honda for having the foresight and marketing savvy to see where the market was headed 20 years ago. With the launch of the Land Rover, and popularity of bigger luxury SUVs in the late 70’s like the Jeep Grand Wagoneer, Chevy Tahoe, GMC Denali and the Ford Expedition, Honda was smart to jump in at the time, even if they didn’t come to market with their very own vehicle until 2001.

While Honda couldn’t hide the fact that its buyers were driving a de-facto Isuzu, they could offer a few benefits that Isuzu could not.  The primary advantage was Acura’s Total Luxury Care (TLC) package. Their TLC “concierge services” included a roadside assistance program, emergency lock-out service, trip interruption expense benefits, and computerized trip routing and map services, a good 12 years or so before most vehicles came with built-in GPS and route navigation systems.

Acura was clearly attempting to attract buyers looking for a luxury-oriented SUV capable of blending car-like comfort and conveniences with truck-like ruggedness and utility.

While the SLX (pictured at right) had the truck qualities nailed, thanks to Isuzu’s history with such vehicles, it lacked the kind of genuine comfort and sophistication the emerging upscale SUV market required.  As a result, the suspension on the SLX, including full-coils and double wishbones up front, with a four-link live axle in the rear. 

Frankly, a set-up better suited to taking on back-road ruts than it was dealing with the less severe road imperfections that SLX owners were likely to encounter out in suburbia, or in runs to either Sam’s Club or the country club.  The ride and handling were simply not very supple.

Another area where “badge engineering” hurt the SLX was in interior design. There were a number of positive aspects, including abundant room and impressive comfort. Swathed in rich leather, the Premium variant was particularly inviting. But the SLX’s dash and switchgear layout paled in comparison with, for example, that on the less expensive Ford Explorer. But with pricing in the $35,000 to $40,000 range, the SLX found its share of buyers.   

However, Acura's marketing research suggested that as many as 25 percent of Acura customers were not really satisfied with the “faux Acura,” and went looking for genuine SUVs in other showrooms. Something had to be done.

Fast forward five years, and Honda’s Acura division introduces its first-generation MDX in 2001. Their first “very own” SUV was received with open arms by the market. Employing the very popular Odyssey minivan as a foundation and using the same Alliston, Ontario assembly plant to build them, it featured a capable 3.5-liter VTEC V-6 engine generating a creditable 270 horsepower.

And while it sacrificed some towing capacity and boulder-crawling capability, the increase in luxury and creature comforts were just what the market was craving.  Granted, the Lexus RX300 had something of a head start, but Honda was finally on track with a competitive vehicle of its own.  And with a starting ticket of around $34,000, it gained its share of buyers. 

Working on seven or eight-year cycles, a redesigned MDX arrived in 2007, followed by the current third-generation model in 2014.  Reviewers agreed the design of the 2007 Acura MDX helped elevate the vehicle’s competitive position.  Not only did it fare well against models from other luxury brands such as Infiniti, Lexus and Cadillac, it also proved quite capable when compared to such pricey upscale competitors as the BMW X5 and Porsche Cayenne — offered by companies better known for long histories of building outstanding sports cars, not necessarily outstanding sport utilities.

2017 Acura MDX

Across the board, reviewers were generally impressed with its exterior and performance improvements. 

"Comparing the performance of an Acura MDX to that of a BMW X5 3.0i or a Porsche Cayenne V-6 might seem ludicrous. And it would have been until now," said a reviewer from Edmund’s.

In fact, the MDX was so well-liked that Edmund’s named it the "Most Wanted SUV Under $45,000."  It also won a coveted Consumer Guide magazine "Best Buy" designation.  And in a comparison test, Car & Driver magazine rated the MDX Sport the best in a field of eight other luxury SUVs.†Finally, IntelliChoice gave the MDX a value rating of "excellent" for its predicted five-year total cost of ownership, compared with other vehicles in its class.

With that kind of solid history, the MDX is now well established in the market.  So let’s take a closer look at our test vehicle — a silver 2017 Acura MDX Advance with the “Entertainment,” or ENT option package. The MDX comes in only one trim, but there are three option packages available  — the Technology Package, the Sport Package, and the Entertainment Package (which requires one or both of the other packages) – which all tack on a few thousand dollars. Base price on our sticker reads $56,400 — $57,340 when transportation and handling fees are added. Ours was the front-drive model. The AWD model will cost you a bit more.  A new hybrid MDX model also makes its debut for the first time this year.

Under the hood we still find Honda’s 3.5-liter, 24-valve VTEC V-6, but now tuned to 290 horsepower and 267 lb. ft. of torque.  The EPA city/highway fuel economy is listed as 20 city/27 highway for our front-wheel drive version with Auto Idle Stop.  Elect the AWD model and your mpg drops slightly to 18 city/26 highway but jumps back up to 19/26 mpg with Auto Idle Stop.  Last year Acura upgraded the back end of the drivetrain by adding a silky 9-speed automatic transmission.

The MDX Sport Hybrid released just this spring uses a 3.0-liter V-6 combined with an electric motor, routed through a 7-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission developed from the NSX supercar's 9-speed.  In the rear on the Sport Hybrid are two electric motors, one for each rear wheel. The V-6, mated to the electric motors, generate a combined 321 horsepower and 289 lb. ft. of torque. The EPA city/highway fuel economy is listed at 26 city/27 highway mpg.

Compared with other mid-sized crossovers, fuel economy for the MDX ranks in the “very good” category.  The MDX has some advanced engineering to thank for that. Acura’s engineering team have equipped it with what’s called a Variable Cylinder Management unit which shuts down three of the six cylinders during cruising and deceleration. While it’s not novel, since Cadillac pioneered the technique in its V-8s back in the 1980’s, it is much more refined and effective.

Our MDX test driver was shod with meaty 20-inch wheels and tires – 245/50R20’s to be exact. They fill up the wheel wells nicely, and give it the kind of grip that puts a smile on your face. 

The engine is powerful enough to provide all the forward mobility you’re likely need in every circumstance – except for a race track.  Also, the handling and road manners for the MDX are quite agile for a crossover. 

As you’d expect with a luxury model, priced well above 50 Large, you get all the latest electronic driving aids, plus the comfort, security and luxury features buyers in this market have come to expect. When it comes to the driving aids, the MDX provides Vehicle Stability Assist, ABS brakes, Agile Assist Dynamic Braking, tire pressure monitors, a voice recognition navigation system, the AcuraLink communication unit that includes real-time traffic updates, and heated “smart mirrors” with blind spot warning, plus the expected rear back-up camera, which includes a cross-traffic monitor. 

Added to that laundry list is Honda’s AcuraWatch cluster, which bundles together the adaptive cruise control, collision mitigation braking, road departure and lane departure warnings, plus a forward collision warning systems. Just about all the features you’ll need for a self-driving car in the very near future, but without the Auto Pilot! 

The Acura MDX gets a nice facelift for 2017, making it even more aerodynamic and slippery than it already was. The wide miniature shield-shaped grille is a bit bolder and pronounced, flanked by a headlight cluster featuring five LED mini-beams and amber turn indicators. From there on back you get the basic flowing oval shape that’s been the hallmark of luxury crossovers from day one.  

Inside are luxurious leather-lined thrones, easily fit for kings and queens, as was equally luxurious perches for the young princes and princesses in rows two and three. The front seats are heated and vented, of course, and the driver gets a 10-way adjustable bucket seat with memory feature.  There’s also a GPS-linked tri-zone climate control with filtration system

Like all vehicles these days, the MDX comes with a video touch-screen display screen that handles all the infotainment functions. Unfortunately, I found the menus a bit confusing, making it difficult to navigate.  Would be nice if the techies at Honda could work on it a bit more … so it’s not quite so confusing for the “average” non-techie consumers. 


The 2017 Acura MDX is the first production model to sport Acura's new face, a shield-shaped pentagon grille that replaces the former model's nondescript little snout.  Honestly, it looks much stronger and more cohesive. The hood, front fenders and "Jewel Eye" headlights have been refreshed, as has the rear bumper. The sporty, dual exhaust outlets now feature a bright exterior finish.

The MDX's sloping window frame gives the rear of this crossover SUV much more of a coupe-like look, and in the process provides for a bit more interior space. Finally, a cap-less fuel filler opening means no more unscrewing (and possibly losing) your gas cap.


Most of the MDX's standard 3-row interior carries over from last year, with the exception of the Advance, which features a pair of captain's chairs in the second row and a center console – as opposed to the usual 3-across bench. Realistically, this decreases seating capacity to six rather than seven, but makes for top-class accommodations for the two passengers in the second row.

The Advance grade also features genuine open-pore wood trim, which is new, as well as Italian Milano leathers. Lower trims still sport premium appeal with less sumptuous leather interiors, a power moonroof and upper and lower console displays. Also, note the lack of a traditional gear selector and parking brake; they're controlled by buttons instead, which frankly requires a conscious mental adjustment. 

However, our test model came with the The Entertainment package, which restores the 2nd -row bench seat and seating for seven, then adds a wide video screen, wireless headphones, rear-door sunshades and heaters for the 2nd-row seat.  Note that this package is not yet available on Sport Hybrid models.

To continue, the audio/entertainment unit up front comes with an 8-speaker AM/FM/CD system with multiple USB ports and Bluetooth connectivity. Finally, the MDX features Siri Eyes Free compatibility for iPhone users, but no CarPlay or Android Auto yet – sorry. 


The 2017 Acura MDX has power aplenty to complement this luxury SUV's sporty-yet-comfortable driving manners. Acura has also updated its 9-speed automatic, all but erasing the minor balkiness noted by reviewers of last year’s model.  The standard MDX is even capable of towing up to 5,000 pounds.

Frankly, I was more than a bit irritated by the standard Auto Idle Stop system, which truly comes as a surprise on that first test drive.  The first few stop-light launches had me very confused.  Since I wasn’t driving a “stick,” I knew I hadn’t killed the engine.  Then the light bulb came on. Thankfully, it can be defeated with the press of a button,  which I promptly pressed after reviewing the owner’s manual.

However, I found the AcuraWatch system quite commendable. It includes features of Acura's excellent semi-autonomous driving features.  When engaged, the system can steer, accelerate and slow the vehicle with minimal driver input, a boon for long highway commutes. Also be aware that the new MDX Sport Hybrid uses technology developed for Acura's NSX supercar to enhance the way this SUV handles. Using its two†rear-mounted electric motors – one for each wheel – the MDX Sport Hybrid can custom tailor power delivery for optimum grip, enhancing its cornering ability.


The new 2017 Acura MDX surprisingly well equipped.  It’s also quite handsome and offers great versatility, has a reputation for reliability and holds its resale value like all Honda products.  So it's easy to see why is one of the top-selling 3-row luxury SUVs on the market.  Acura certainly has done its very best to hold onto its position in what has become an extremely competitive field. 

This new third generation MDX offers an impressive interior, supple suspension and a host of semi-autonomous driving features with its AcuraWatch suite. Fuel economy is above average, too  But for those wanting more, there’s now the new MDX Sport Hybrid. 

So in the increasingly competitive world of  luxury midsize SUVs, the Acura MDX retains its standing as a family-friendly, fuel-sipping option that’s among the best in the class.

It also earns some of the highest fuel economy estimates in the class as well as class-leading cargo space. 

All that said … it’s not setting the world on fire yet.  According to a recent survey by editors at US News & World Report, the MDX ranked just 11 out of 22 luxury midsize SUVs.  Frankly, I’m not all that surprised. Having recently driven the Mazda CX-9, the Infiniti QX60, Lexus RX350 and others, in some ways they’re all starting to blend together. 

While the Acura is a great crossover, it’s really doesn’t stand out, or excel in any one area. Not only that, there are many well-equipped 3-row crossover SUVs on the market that compare favorably to the MDX — and cost considerably less. While we can genuinely recommend the Acura MDX to luxury crossover buyers, it faces some stiff competition. 

Simply put, it’s not the only “player at the table,” and while it boasts a very strong hand … others do as well.