2016 Acura MDX SH-AWD Review
For the MDX's third generation, Acura kept the updates subtle, adding refinement where it was needed but generally leaving well enough along. Two years after the current MDX's introduction, Acura has continued that gradual refinement with a new nine-speed automatic transmission and other subtle additions. But have the improvements resulted in a better crossover?
The nine-speed transmission is standard on both front- and all-wheel-drive MDX models and is available with a stop-start system for 2016. Despite the 3 extra gears over the outgoing model's six-speed automatic, the 2016 MDX's EPA ratings fall 1 mpg on the highway to 19/27 mpg city/highway for front-drive models and 18/26 mpg for all-wheel-drive models. Front-drive models also lose 1 mpg in the city. The new stop-start feature, which comes on models equipped with the Advance package, softens the mpg blow slightly, bumping city fuel economy to last year's 20 mpg for front-drive models and raising it 1 mpg for all-wheel drive. Our own Real MPG test results back up the loss in highway fuel economy. Our fully loaded 2016 SH-AWD tester with the Advance and Entertainment packages scored 19/24.6 mpg, compared to 17.9/25.6 mpg for a 2014 SH-AWD model. When asked about the drop in fuel economy, an Acura rep told us, "Although there is a marginal mpg loss on the EPA label, the dynamic benefits to the driver will be apparent."
So fuel economy aside, how does the nine-speed perform? About the same, surprisingly. Though Acura claims 0-60 mph acceleration has improved by around half a second, the 2016 MDX did the deed in 6.4 seconds in our tests, identical to our previous long-term 2014 MDX SH-AWD. The quarter-mile time was also unchanged at 14.9 seconds at a nearly identical trap speed of 92.5 mph. All other numbers show no improvement over its predecessor. But the test results only tell half the story. From behind the wheel, the MDX does feel better than the crossover it replaces. Shifts are practically seamless when left in Normal mode, and the transmission does a good job of choosing the right gear all by itself. The engine never lugged at low speeds like in some other vehicles with high cog counts. When you use the paddle shifters, gear changes are carried out instantaneously on command, making the task of getting up to speed with the rest of traffic enjoyable rather than a chore. The stop-start system isn't too jarring, though it's noticeable when the engine cuts out and switches back on. Power output is unchanged for 2016 at 290 hp and 267 lb-ft of torque from a 3.5-liter V-6. You might think that the 4,264-pound MDX would be on the sluggish side with just a naturally aspirated V-6 to motivate it, but you don't feel the weight much in normal driving.
The MDX's interior is just as cozy as ever, with nicely thought-out ergonomics and soft surfaces virtually anywhere your body touches. The high seating position offers a commanding view of the road, and the front seats are supportive and comfortable enough for long drives, especially with the optional heated and cooled seats our tester had. The MDX's cushy ride and quiet, isolated cabin also encourage you to hit the road for long periods of time.With the nine-speed automatic comes a new push-button gear selection scheme. Though I normally don't like push-button transmissions, this center console-mounted setup was intuitive with a recessed switch you have to pull back to engage reverse. This makes navigating the shifter by feel much easier, giving you a point of reference instead of just a strip of identical buttons. However, you will need to take your eyes off the road to find Drive the first time you try to do a three-point turn. Pushing that button twice engages Sport mode, which increases throttle and transmission response and tightens up the steering. It works, too. Sport mode makes the crossover noticeably more engaging and really lets the grippy SH-AWD system shine in the turns.
In Normal mode, the steering feel is just right for a luxury SUV, requiring little effort, but it's not overboosted and doesn't feel lazy. The MDX uses Acura's dual-screen infotainment setup, and the system works fairly well. After years of complaining about Acura's infuriating control knob, I'm glad to see you can input a destination using a touchscreen keyboard in the MDX. If you still want to use the knob, you can do that, too. Most of the HVAC controls are located on the bottom touchscreen, and they're easy to use. Would it be easier to simply turn a dial rather than tap the screen twice to adjust fan speed? Maybe. But at least the screen is responsive and the controls aren't hidden in some hard-to-find submenu.
The second-row seats offer plenty of legroom when slid all the way back, but if you need to fit people in the third row, the rear passengers will have to sacrifice some knee space. As with many other three-row crossovers, the MDX's rear seats are best suited for small children. Adults can squeeze back there in a pinch, but rides lasting longer than 10 minutes may cause claustrophobia. Access to the rear seats is narrow, requiring larger adults (myself included) to contort their bodies to get out. The best part about the third-row seats is that they disappear quite easily. A pull of a lever on the back folds them down, providing generous cargo space. Storage with the seats in place is good enough for a small to medium payload of groceries. If you need more space, the false cargo floor has a compartment underneath that's good for keeping valuables out of sight.
The MDX is a luxurious, well-equipped vehicle, as it should be with an as-tested price of $58,000. Keep in mind, however, that our tester came with everything you can possibly get on the SUV. If you can live without the stop-start, rear DVD entertainment system, AcuraWatch Plus suite of advanced safety features (which allow the car to practically drive itself), navigation, and a few other conveniences, you can get away with an all-wheel-drive MDX for just under $46,000. A comparably equipped Infiniti QX60 is slightly cheaper and offers more interior space - especially in the third row - but it wouldn't be as fun to drive. The new Volvo XC90, Audi Q7, and Lexus RX might pose a threat when they arrive, but right now the MDX is the three-row crossover to beat when it comes to driving dynamics.
The 2016 MDX and its new nine-speed don't offer any measurable benefits over last year's model, but it's still a solid crossover blessed with the same blend of comfort, utility, and driver enjoyment we loved when it was new in 2014. Although the phrase "new and improved" isn't entirely accurate in this case, the 2016 Acura MDX is "new and still good." Acura probably won't say that in its ads.