2014 Acura MDX SH-AWD Advance review: This SUV is one small step for self-driving cars

The MDX's platform may be a front-driver, but our example was equipped with Acura's optional Super Handling All-Wheel Drive (SH-AWD) system, which can send as much as 70 percent of available torque to the rear wheels when extra grip is needed or as little as 10 percent when cruising. The "Super Handling" portion of SH-AWD comes into play when cornering when rear axle torque vectoring can shuffle torque between the two rear wheels, sending power to the outside rear wheel to help rotate the vehicle when accelerating out of a corner. You can watch all of this torque shifting and shuffling between the four wheels on an LCD in the MDX's instrument cluster.

The IDS button that tweaks the power steering also adjusts the SH-AWD's programming when equipped. So, selecting IDS Sport not only firms up the steering, but it also lets the all-wheel-drive system be more aggressive in sending power to the outside wheels when cornering. Drivers can also set the IDS Sport mode to automatically engage the transmission's Sport mode or opt to control the two systems separately.

Twice the screens, twice as good?
Even without all of its packages and options, this is an SUV that covers its tech bases with a list of standard infotainment and audio features that are punctuated by the standard USB connectivity with iPod integration and Bluetooth hands-free calling with audio streaming that we like to see. Staples such as AM/FM radio, Sirius XM satellite radio, CD playback, and a Pandora and Aha radio app controls flesh out the list of standard audio sources. The dashboard tech is controlled via a combination of steering-wheel controls and an odd dual-screen dashboard interface.

Acura MDX dashboard
You'll find two screens in the MDX's dashboard with two different control schemes. Josh Miller/CNET

The two screens stack one above the other on the MDX's center stack. The lower screen, the On-Demand Multi-Use Display (ODMD), is touch sensitive and is used to display and control the audio playback, source selection, and to command the climate control system. As a nice touch, every tap to the ODMD's screen is confirmed with a bit of haptic vibration.

The upper display is slightly larger, is not touch sensitive, and is controlled by physical control knob at the base of the center stack to choose between commanding the hands-free calling system, navigation (if equipped), audio sources, and vehicle settings. If you're looking at audio sources on the lower display and request control with the top display, the lower display will automatically change to display climate controls, so it's not necessarily possible to redundantly display your music info twice, but that doesn't change the fact that you must now wrangle two screens, and a control knob.

Fortunately, the learning curve is pretty shallow and I can see what Acura/Honda is trying to do here. The ODMD only shows a simplified interface, essentially replacing what would be a large bank of buttons in the center of the dashboard with a reconfigurable bank of virtual buttons that are more relevant to the driver's needs and are larger and easier to hit while driving. Meanwhile, the top screen is free to do standard infotainment tasks. It's not a particularly pretty or elegant solution, though your tastes may vary, but the system had grown on my by the end of my testing. I liked that I didn't have to leave the map screen while navigating to see what song was currently playing over Bluetooth or to quickly pop into a different audio source.

Our MDX was equipped with the top-tier Advanced package, which rolls in all of the dashboard and safety enhancements of Acura's midtier Technology package. This includes the hard-disk-based navigation system, which features traffic data and cleverly ties into the climate control system, automatically adjusting the temperature to compensate for the sun's position relative to the vehicle. I've said before that Acura's infotainment system's interface looks unattractive and rather dated, but I was pleased to see that at least the quality of the maps have greatly improved with this generation. Lines representing streets were smoother, text more legible, and animation smoother. It's nowhere near as eye-pleasing as those of BMW and Audi's current infotainment options, but any improvement over the jagged lines of the old system is still good.

Voice command is also added to the mix with the Technology package, giving the driver the ability to choose a song from a connected USB device, such as an iPod, with the touch of a button and a few spoken commands. Navigation destinations can also be input via voice, but after attempting to do this a few times, I just gave up and used the manual input methods. The voice address input simply puts too many prompts between the driver and navigation, requiring pauses for city, street name, street number, etc. The system also rarely understood me on the first attempt and required my clarification almost every step of the way. Competitors' superior voice input systems will let drivers input complete addresses in one go and are considerably less frustrating.

Back on the positive side of the Technology package, it also updates the MDX with the ELS Studio Premium Audio System, a 10-speaker surround system upgrade to the standard 8-speaker rig. Drivers around the cabin are upgraded and a subwoofer and center fill are added to the mix; the resulting audio sounds quite good. Opt for the Entertainment package and that speaker count grows to 11 or 12 speakers, but we'll discuss this more shortly.

Along with better sound, the ELS system also adds HD Radio to the list of digital audio sources.

Rear-seat entertainment
The MDX is available with not one, but two possibilities where rear-seat entertainment systems are concerned, which is odd in a time where a pair of iPads or Nexus 7s is probably a much more cost effective option for entertaining kids in the back seat. However, the Acura DVD Rear Entertainment System has a few tricks up its sleeve to differentiate itself from other flip-down DVD players.

Folding down from the cabin's ceiling is a 9-inch full VGA screen that can receive DVD video from the infotainment system in the dashboard. The driver can exercise control over this system or the rear passengers can with a wireless IR remote. Audio can be played through a pair of included IR headphones or through the surround-sound audio system, which gains an additional center channel speaker in its ceiling, bringing the total speaker count to 11.

On the back of the center console, rear passengers will find an RCA video input and a 110-volt AC power outlet for plugging in an external video source. Meanwhile, the outboard seats on the second row gain heating elements to match the front. The center seat and the third-row passengers still must make due with cool buns.

Rear monitor
The Advance package's rear monitor can display two video sources at the same time or one really wide source. Josh Miller/CNET

Drivers who have opted for the Advance package will find their Entertainment package upgraded as well. Out comes the 9-inch screen and in goes a 16.2-inch ultrawide screen that can display wide-screen content natively or can be split to display two different sources side-by-side. The system also gains yet another center ceiling speaker, bumping the total count up to 12 drivers, and gains a digital HDMI input alongside the analog RCA.

With HDMI and 110V power, I was able to plug my Xbox 360 into the Acura's flip-down system to play a few quick rounds of Forza Horizon and a bit of Grand Theft Auto 5, which would be interesting on a road trip, but for around-town driving, I still think that tossing a tablet to the kids in the back would be a less clunky, more cost effective option. But that doesn't really matter because Acura's packaging pretty much forces you to take the Entertainment package if you want the Advanced package.

2014 Acura MDX
In spite of a rocky start, I enjoyed my time with the MDX. Josh Miller/CNET

Pricing and packaging
Pricing the 2014 Acura MDX is fairly simple because all of the options are bundled into just a few trim levels. The MDX starts at $42,290 and adding the Technology package knocks that price up to $46,565. The next steps are up to the $48,565 Technology and Entertainment package bundle, and then up to the $54,505 MDX Advance. Acura's SH-AWD system is pretty much the only other option, adding $2,000 to each of those trim levels, which means that our fully loaded 2014 Acura MDX SH-AWD Advance rolls off of the lot at an MSRP of $57,400, which includes a destination charge of $895.

At that price, the angular MDX stands eye-to-eye with the curvaceous Infiniti QX60 ( formerly the JX35 ) with similar power, performance, dashboard, and safety tech. The Infiniti's infotainment system is just a bit easier to live with, giving it a slight edge over the Acura where Car Tech's scoring is decided, but the Acura felt more planted around a bend with better steering feel. And where the Acura will jiggle your steering wheel with its Lane Keeping Assist, the Infiniti's EcoPedal with Intelligent Brake Assist will push back against your foot with the gas pedal. I'm not sure which type of haptic feedback is weirder.

Tech specs
Model 2014 Acura MDX
Trim Advance with Entertainment package
Powertrain 3.5L V-6 with direct injection and Variable Cylinder Management, 6-speed automatic transmission, SH-AWD
EPA fuel economy 20 city, 28 highway and 23 combined mpg
Observed fuel economy 25.5 mpg
Navigation Optional Acura HDD navigation with traffic and voice command
Bluetooth phone support Standard with voice command
Disc player Single-slot CD/DVD
MP3 player support Standard analog 3.5mm auxiliary input, USB connection with iPod control, Bluetooth audio streaming
Other digital audio SiriusXM satellite radio, optional HD Radio, 15GB HDD storage, Pandora and Aha app control
Audio system Optional 12-speaker ELS Surround system (with Advance and Entertainment packages)
Driver aids Standard: Rearview camera
Technology package: Blind-spot monitoring, lane departure warning, forward collision warning
Advance package: Lane keeping assist, forward collision mitigation, front/rear proximity sensors, adaptive cruise control
Base price $42,290
Price as tested $$57,400

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