It's been fun to watch Acura become a sporty brand again. After years of making fine but uninspiring cars, Acura is injecting some personality into its lineup. The latest model to benefit from this reinvigoration is this, the 2021 MDX.
The MDX is ubiquitous. Acura is proud to point out that this is the best-selling three-row luxury crossover on the U.S. market, over 1 million sold since the MDX debuted back in 2000. It's one of those cars you see everywhere without noticing.
This fourth-generation MDX rides on an all-new platform that, at least for now, is unique to the model. Like the TLX sedan, the SUV has a double-wishbone front suspension and an expansive dash-to-axle that gives the MDX stately rear-drive proportions. It looks and feels like a different species compared to its predecessor, handsome and understated, with a more cab-rearward profile and neater integration of Acura’s signature diamond-shaped grille.
Acura’s newfound interest in sportiness strikes you the moment you’re on the move. This top-of-the-line Advanced model, with its adaptive dampers, had a firmer ride than I was expecting. This is no glorified minivan—it’s got a genuinely sporty feel. Acura engineers say the front subframe is more stiffly mounted than before for better steering response, and I have to imagine this contributes to the taut ride. Over potholes and frost heaves, the way the car deals with larger road-surface changes is excellent.
The handling is pretty great, too. I took the MDX out to my usual country roads north of New York City mainly to find some nice backdrops for photography, but I found myself enjoying the drive far more than I expected. The way this crossover handles winding country roads reminds me of a Porsche Cayenne—not the full physics-defying Cayenne Turbo with active anti-roll bars, rear-wheel steering and air suspension, but the sweet, sharper-than-expected base model. Like the Porsche, the MDX is engaging without compromising comfort. The steering is accurate, with good natural weighting in Normal mode, though as with so many other cars, steering effort is too light in Comfort mode and too heavy in Sport.
My example also had Acura's Super Handling All-Wheel Drive, which is capable of real torque vectoring across the rear axle. Getting on the power early mid-corner overdrives the outside rear wheel and cuts power to the inside rear wheel. The sensation is unusual at first, but it's fun to play with. Using the throttle to modify your line in a three-row SUV is an unexpected delight. And when you're not driving enthusiastically, the SH-AWD system falls into the background.
My only real dynamic complaint is with the brake pedal. Like so many new cars, the MDX uses an electric brake booster. The pedal feels unnaturally light, offering almost no resistance. That’s a shame, because we know Acura can offer great braking feel and modulation—the pedal in the TLX sedan is just about perfect.
Where the MDX has a clear edge over the TLX is in the engine bay. When I was first reading the specs, I was a bit disappointed to find that the new MDX uses the same 3.5-liter naturally aspirated V-6 found in so many Honda products. This J-Series engine is old, dating to the mid-Nineties, and it’s been found in all three previous generations of the MDX. Initial trepidation aside, it’s the right engine for the job, as smooth as ever and far more characterful than the turbo 2.0-liter four-cylinder in the TLX. Acura engineers went with the 290-hp, 267 lb-ft V-6 for its smoothness, and found that the six got better fuel economy in the MDX than a smaller turbo engine would. The 10-speed automatic is a willing partner, never lost among its many ratios, with quick responses from the paddle shifters.
The interior is thoroughly modern, with a new digital instrument cluster. Thankfully, the old dual-screen infotainment setup is gone, replaced by the newest version of Acura’s trackpad-controlled infotainment system that debuted with the RDX. Finally, an Acura interior that compares favorably to the luxury competition. You don’t get the wow-factor design of a Mercedes, Volvo or Genesis here, but everything feels high-quality, with a lot of thought put into everyday functionality. There’s a wireless phone charger under the palm rest for the trackpad, and cordless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto integration is standard.
The infotainment system also offers Amazon Alexa voice assistant integration. It’s brilliant, a rare system where voice control actually works well to control functions outside your smartphone. (It’s also a little creepy, for those of us who’d prefer not to invite Jeff Bezos into the privacy of our automobiles.) The trackpad interface presents a learning curve, and the display is not touch-sensitive, but once you get up to speed Acura’s system works far better than the similar trackpad setup found in Lexus products. One quirk: The trackpad gestures are different for Apple CarPlay than they are for Acura’s native software, so switching between the two can be frustrating.
All in all, the MDX is a pleasant thing to drive, defying what you likely expect from a three-row crossover. There's an inherent, refreshing sportiness here, one that doesn't compromise daily drivability.
And it seems to be quite a good value. The base front-wheel drive MDX starts at $48,000, with this loaded all-wheel drive Advanced-spec car ringing in at $62,700.
There's something encouraging about the new MDX. Acura likely would have sold them by the truckload even if it wasn’t this sporty, this handsome. There’s a glimpse of classic Honda in the fourth-generation MDX: Built for everybody, but with a bit more verve than you’d expect. It makes us all the more excited for the upcoming MDX Type S, which will bolster all the base model’s goodness with 355 horsepower.
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