Well-to-do families who want a premium, pampering sport-utility vehicle that’s large enough to transport the Little League infield can have a hard time finding one that’s not a truck.
Among SUVs equipped with the three rows of seats essential for such tasks, the largest ones are derived from pickups, and you don’t have to look hard to see the relationship.
In the luxury-car class they include the Cadillac Escalade, the Lincoln Navigator and the Infiniti QX80. The Escalade is derived from the Chevrolet Silverado pickup, the Navigator comes from the Ford F-Series pickup, and the QX80 is built upon the framework of the Nissan Titan light truck.
Oh, sure, the luxury brands that sell those super-sized SUVs load them with comforting amenities, equip them with top-notch technology, trim them in premium materials, and contour their bodies to disguise their truck-cab origins. But you still see their ancestry in their high-riding upright posture, their steeply slabbed sides and their enormous bulk.
A lot of people find the sleekly styled and adeptly driving Acura MDX a more desirable alternative. When marketing the model, Acura advertises that the MDX reigns as the top-selling luxury sport-utility with three seating rows. Tallying sales through the model’s history, Acura says it has outsold every other luxury offering in its category. After topping its competitors in popularity last year, the MDX is on track to lead the pack again in 2019, according to Acura – the luxury-car division of Honda.
True, if you really need maximum passenger capacity all of the time, the over-sized, pickup-based sport-utilities are likely to serve you better. Their cabins are more expansive, and their third-row seats are typically more generously sized – for adult bodies especially.
How often does anybody really transport the entire Little League infield? You’re more likely to haul maybe just a pitcher, catcher and shortstop, and perhaps add a first baseman at most. For families with no more than three children – the easy majority of families – the third-row seat in an SUV is used only occasionally. More often than not it’s in reserve, with its seat-backs folded forward to expand the rear cargo floor.
That helps explain why so many drivers select the Acura MDX as their three-row luxury SUV. It meets larger-scale transport needs, without excessively exceeding them.
At the same time, the MDX avoids any awkward associations with trucks. It looks dashing, dapper, and also athletic. Although it is large and well elevated above the road, the wagon’s rounded flanks, the low rise of its windshield and smooth arch of its roof give it a streamlined appearance.
It maneuvers with sure-footed authority that makes the MDX entertaining to drive. In motion it feels more nimble, adroit and fast-acting than sport-utilities standing on truck frames. That’s partly because the MDX is built using crossover body structure rather than pickup-truck structure. As a crossover, it’s composed more like a fast-on-its-feet automobile, and therefore it behaves more like one. Acura carefully engineers its large wagon to quickly and accurately respond to steering-wheel commands. It tailors the suspension of the MDX to sit tight in turns, so the SUV stays well tucked and avoids any drift.
Road-holding prowess is especially apparent in the all-wheel-drive version of the MDX, which is the variation I evaluated for a week. Acura engineers the four-corner power system not only to help maintain road grip on snowy roads, but also to give the wagon a dynamic edge when rounding curves and scooting over corners. I found that the road-holding reflexes of the MDX transformed ordinary travel in a family hauler into an enthusiastic and engaging driving experience.
Acura calls its all-wheel-drive system “super-handling all-wheel drive.” It adds $2,000 to the $45,395 starting list price of a standard MDX that uses front-wheel drive. On other vehicles, all-wheel-drive set ups typically split power between front and rear by sending an equal amount to both front wheels and an equal amount to both rear wheels. Acura’s “super-handling” arrangement makes an additional power split at the rear, so that during turns the outside wheel – which is traveling a longer distance than the inside wheel – receives a greater share of power. That sharpens the vehicle’s response around corners, making it track with greater certainty and authority.
Acura aims to enhance that effect in the highest priced MDX version, the MDX Sport Hybrid, which starts at a list of $53,895. It replaces the 290-horsepower V6 engine in a standard MDX with a gasoline/electric power system that combines a smaller V6 and three electric motors to share propulsion duties. Two of those three electric motors power the rear wheels, one left and one right, while the gas engine and the third electric motor together turn the two front wheels. With a separate electric motor dedicated to each of the two rear wheels, the system apportions power between left and right sides to make the vehicle hold the road more effectively.
Hence the name MDX Sport Hybrid, with the “sport” denoting the car’s engaging and entertaining character. The hybrid version also possesses more power, with its gasoline engine and three electric motors delivering a combined 321 horsepower, about 10 percent more than the standard gas engine. What’s more, the extra power is available without hesitation, so that the MDX Sport Hybrid launches more rapidly. Electric motors deliver their peak output instantaneously, while gasoline engines need to rev to higher rates before they reach peak power.
At the same time, the hybrid is more fuel efficient than the standard, gas-only model. The Sport Hybrid’s fuel-use estimate is 27 miles per gallon in combined city/highway driving, compared to 22 mpg for a regular MDX with super-handling all-wheel drive.
Still, I don’t think a luxury shopper looking for a three-row hauler will feel disappointed by the standard MDX. It’s loaded with the frills, flourishes, gear and gadgets that distinguish upper crust cars. And it readily performs the varied transport tasks that make models its size popular.
My evaluation model loaded youngsters easily for school drop-offs and pick-ups. Later, when my wife wanted to purchase a tall kitchen hutch at the RE-Store salvage shop in Lawrence, we whisked out the kids’ seats, folded down the backs of both the second- and third-row seats, and carried the hutch securely in the back. We didn’t need a pickup or a pickup-based SUV to do it.
Jeffrey Zygmont is an author of fiction, non-fiction and poetry books, and a long-time auto writer. Contact him at www.freepeepub.com.
2020 Acura MDX
Vehicle type: 4-door, 6- and 7-passenger, front- and all-wheel-drive luxury sport utility vehicle
List price: $45,395 to $60,645 (plus options)
Warranty: 4 years/50,000 miles basic warranty; 6 years/70,000 miles powertrain warranty; 6 years/unlimited miles corrosion warranty; 1st and 2nd free schedule maintenance
Base engine: 3.5-liter V6
Power: 290 horsepower at 6,200 rpm; 267 lb.-ft. torque at 4,700 rpm
Base transmission: 9-speed automatic
Fuel economy: 19 mpg city; 26 mpg highway (with AWD)
Wheelbase: 111 inches
Length: 196 inches
Width: 78 inches
Height: 67 inches
Weight: 4,032 pounds
Fuel capacity: 19.5 gallons
Turing circle: 38.7