“There's a lot to like about Acura's hybrid family hauler, but the competition offers more.”
- Plenty of power
- Good gas mileage
- Comfortable ride
- Functional interior
- Bland design
- Unimpressive interior materials
- Doesn't feel sporty
If you want to know the cause of the glut of luxury crossovers clogging Starbucks drive-throughs and soccer field parking lots, look at Acura. The original Acura MDX was one of the first family luxury utility vehicles, giving style-conscious parents a more fashionable and upscale alternative to minivans.
The MDX remains a bestseller in its segment, but rivals are catching up. The Lexus RX recently added a third row, while the Cadillac XT6 and Lincoln Aviator are completely new entries. Meanwhile, Acura has tried to keep the MDX competitive with hybrid power and one of the most sophisticated all-wheel drive systems in the business. But the Honda luxury brand’s solid reputation for reliability and buyer inertia are more likely to keep customers coming back to Acura showrooms.
With so many new options out there, does it pay to be predictable? To find out, we borrowed a 2020 Acura MDX Sport Hybrid. The all-wheel-drive hybrid model starts at $53,895, compared to $45,395 for a base, non-hybrid model with front-wheel drive. Our test car was also a fully-loaded Advanced model, with a price tag of $60,645. Acura is certainly charging luxury-car prices for the MDX, so what do you get for your money?
Trying to please everyone
Acura has struggled to come up with distinctive styling that doesn’t repel customers. The automaker has taken some styling risks over the years, only to receive pushback from customers and critics. That’s led to some overcorrection in the form of boring and anonymous designs. The 2020 MDX represents what Acura views as a happy medium.
Acura could have done more to make the MDX stand out, even if it meant annoying a few customers.
From the front, the MDX is immediately recognizable as an Acura. It wears the same pentagonal grille and bug-like LED headlights as the TLX sedan, as well as the smaller RDX crossover. This is Acura’s signature look, and it was applied to the MDX as part of a refresh for the 2017 model year. That gives the MDX a handsome face, but it looks like Acura’s designers put down their pencils there. The rest of the MDX looks flabby and anonymous. Acura could have done more to make the MDX stand out, even if it meant annoying a few customers.
A stylish exterior is one perk of buying a luxury crossover instead of a more mainstream model, but passenger and cargo space are what it’s really about. The MDX is decent in both areas, but not class leading. The Lincoln Aviator has the most spacious front row in this segment, while the Infiniti QX60 offers the most legroom for second- and third-row passengers to stretch out. The Acura’s third row felt a bit more cramped than some competitors’, and we think it’s best reserved for children.
Cargo space is above average, but not class leading. We did find it easy to move the seats around in order to fit more stuff, though. Unlike most competitors, the MDX has a sliding second-row bench seat that can be scooted back to increase legroom in that row, or forward to increase cargo space. The third-row seats are lowered and raised with a simple latch that’s easy to use, but we think a vehicle this costly should have a power-folding option.
Practical but unremarkable
The MDX’s interior is practical, but it’s fairly unremarkable in terms of design and tech. Naturally for a luxury car, you get leather upholstery and a smattering of wood trim, but the latter seems like an afterthought. A bit too much plastic is mixed in with the fancier materials as well. The monochromatic color scheme and bland overall design would be fine on a top-spec version of a mainstream car, but it doesn’t say “luxury.”
Acura also took a conservative approach with the infotainment system, but at least it’s easy to use. You won’t find anything to rival the Lincoln Aviator’s elaborate digital instrument cluster or the Volvo XC90’s portrait touchscreen here, but you at least get standard Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. The MDX doesn’t have the touchpad-based controller from the smaller Acura RDX either, but we didn’t miss it. A big, centrally-located knob is used to navigate screen menus, and we found that to be a better solution. Acura also included an all important volume knob. The click wheels on the steering wheel that let you scroll through menus are a quality touch as well.
The infotainment controls may be good, but Acura fumbled with the controls you actually use for driving. The pushbutton shifter is ugly to look at and takes up too much space. We still prefer buttons to electronic shift levers, which sometimes leave the driver unsure if the car is in drive or reverse, but this version is poorly executed. Acura could learn a lot from Lincoln’s stylish and functional arrangement.
Luxury, not sport
The full name of this vehicle is 2020 Acura MDX Sport Hybrid, but that’s misleading. The MDX is a genuine hybrid, but nothing about it is sporty. That doesn’t mean the MDX is bad to drive, it’s just a case of false advertising.
Acura isn’t the first automaker to exaggerate the sportiness of a vehicle, but we really did have high hopes for the MDX Sport Hybrid. After all, what other family haulers can you name that have raced at the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb? Acura also knows plenty about making sporty hybrids from developing the NSX supercar. The specs looked fairly promising, too.
The MDX is quicker than its size might suggest.
The Sport Hybrid uses a 3.0-liter V6 coupled to a seven-speed dual-clutch transmission, with three electric motors configured in a hybrid-specific version of Acura’s Super Handling All-Wheel Drive (SH-AWD) system. One motor powers the front wheels, while the other two power the rear wheels. It’s a sporty-sounding setup. The dual-clutch transmission can shift quicker than a conventional torque converter automatic, and the two rear motors are set up for torque vectoring, sending precise amounts of torque to each wheel individually to improve handling. Total system output is a respectable 321 horsepower and 289 pound-feet of torque.
You definitely feel that power from the driver’s seat. The MDX is quicker than its size might suggest, and those electric motors provide plenty of low-end grunt when pulling away from a stop. Overtaking on highways is a no-drama affair, too. But the MDX delivers its power with the refined surge of a traditional luxury car, not the ferocious onslaught of a true performance vehicle.
Nothing else about the driving experience comes close to feeling sporty. The steering is lazy and, even with the trick hybrid all-wheel drive system, the MDX never felt eager to go around corners. Sport and Sport Plus modes held the V6 engine at higher rpm, but didn’t change the way the car felt.
The MDX excels in more important areas, though. Most buyers probably aren’t looking to nail every apex with their three-row crossovers, but they do appreciate quiet and ride comfort. The MDX delivers on both counts. Refinement is right up there with the best vehicles in the segment. We didn’t have the chance to road trip this car, but over a solid day of highway driving, the MDX never stopped feeling as comfortable as a good sofa.
Gas mileage: Good, but not good enough
The main reason to get a hybrid is better gas mileage, and the MDX does deliver better mileage than a typical crossover of this size. The Acura is rated at 27 mpg combined (26 mpg city, 27 mpg highway), and our lead-footed driving achieved an average 24.1 mpg, according to the car’s trip computer.
The Acura may be good, but the competition is better. The hybrid Lexus RX 450h L is rated at 29 mpg combined (29 mpg city, 28 mpg highway), while the Lincoln Aviator and Volvo XC90 are both available with plug-in hybrid powertrains that allow limited all-electric running.
The practical stuff
Acura puts most other luxury brands to shame when it comes to standard driver-assist tech. The AcuraWatch suite of driver aids includes: forward collision warning, autonomous emergency braking, lane departure warning, lane keep assist, road departure mitigation, blind spot monitoring, and adaptive cruise control. Only the Lexus RX offers a comparable array of features as standard equipment. Most other luxury brands make you pay extra for adaptive cruise control, for example.
Acura offers a four-year, 50,000-mile, basic warranty and six-year, 70,000-mile, powertrain warranty. Like parent Honda, Acura has a good overall reputation for reliability. But reliability ratings for the current-generation MDX are mixed. The MDX got a fairly high rating from J.D. Power, but a below average rating from Consumer Reports. Reliability was previously Acura’s trump card against European and American luxury brands, so that’s a major blow for the MDX.
The MDX received the top “good” score in all Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) crash tests, and the top score for its front crash prevention system. However, the Acura’s headlights and child seat anchors were only received an “average” rating. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) gave the MDX a five-star overall rating.
How DT would configure this car
Our ideal MDX would closely resemble our test car. We would stick with the Sport Hybrid, which delivers better gas mileage and more power than the non-hybrid MDX for what we feel is a reasonable price premium. We would also check the box for the Advanced package, which includes a surround-view camera system, USB ports for the third row, heated front seats, and 20-inch wheels.
It’s easy to see why so many shoppers end up with an Acura MDX in their driveways. The MDX is comfortable and quiet, and the hybrid powertrain offers both power and good gas mileage. Acura also nailed the things buyers will really notice in daily use, giving the MDX intuitive infotainment controls and an interior that easily switches from passengers to cargo. If this was the latest Honda Pilot, that would be enough. But Acura is a luxury brand, and that means it needs to deliver more.
Acura nailed the things buyers will really notice in daily use.
The competition is doing just that. The Lincoln Aviator and Volvo XC90 not only trump the MDX Sport Hybrid with available plug-in hybrid powertrains but, inside and out, they look and feel both upscale and distinctive. If you want a dose of sportiness in your three-row crossover, the Audi Q7 is much more engaging to drive than the Acura. All of these vehicles give you a reason to spend that extra money on a luxury model, instead of something from a more mainstream brand. Acura doesn’t.
Should you get one?
No. The MDX is a good family car, but it’s not a great luxury car.
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