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2016 Acura MDX review: 2016 Acura MDX: More gears, less handling and seven-passenger capacity

Acura opted for a mechanically adaptive suspension system in its third-generation MDX SUV, taking away some of its handling acumen, but the ride is comfortable and the the transmission boasts nine gears for the 2016 model year.

Wayne Cunningham Managing Editor / Roadshow
Wayne Cunningham reviews cars and writes about automotive technology for CNET's Roadshow. Prior to the automotive beat, he covered spyware, Web building technologies, and computer hardware. He began covering technology and the Web in 1994 as an editor of The Net magazine.
Wayne Cunningham
7 min read

Cornering ability isn't something I expect from a seven-passenger SUV, but the MDX surprised me by holding itself flat in the turns and using its torque vectoring all-wheel-drive to dance around the apexes. That, however, was the 2010 Acura MDX , the second generation of Acura's largest SUV that complemented its Super Handling All-wheel drive with a magnetic adaptive suspension. The 2016 Acura MDX retains the all-wheel-drive system, but went to a fixed suspension in its third-generation revamp.


2016 Acura MDX

The Good

The 2016 Acura MDX offers reasonable access to its third row seats and delivers a comfortable, quiet ride. Efficient lLED headlights come standard and an adaptive cruise control system takes the stress out of long road trips. Super Handling All-wheel-dirive employs active torque vectoring to improve handling.

The Bad

The infotainment interface is a confusing hodgepodge of duplicate controls using differing control schemes. Kick-down on the transmission lags at speed and the idle-stop feature feels rough when the engine fires up.

The Bottom Line

The 2016 Acura MDX fits a useful niche, offering a choice between seven passenger or ample cargo capacity good for those who only occasionally need either. Its high-tech highlights are a bit quirky, though, and may be too much to satisfy some drivers.

Although that was something of a step backward, Acura makes up for it with LED headlights, adaptive cruise control and, new for the 2016 model year, a nine-speed automatic transmission.

The MDX shows off smooth bodywork, befitting its premium aspirations. Up front, corporate styling means a shield-shaped grille with a single, badge-embedded bar establishing a common identity among all new models in the Acura line-up, from the small ILX to the big MDX. And more than just technically forward and efficient, the standard LED headlights, Jewel Eye in Acura parlance, further establish that brand identity.

That look is so strong, I wanted to smile and wave at every other Acura driver on the road, maybe even start a cult.

2016 Acura MDX
The MDX measures the same size as many five-passenger SUVs, but actually holds seven. Wayne Cunningham/CNET

And though the MDX comes with third-row seating, the visual impression is more five-passenger SUV. In fact, the MDX is only half an inch longer than the BMW X5 . I found access to the third row seating reasonable, with plenty of space to step through between the second row and C-pillar. However, don't expect to pack your spouse and five kids into the MDX for a two-week road trip, as that third row takes up most of the cargo area, leaving a bare 14.8 cubic feet open.

Pricing for the MDX starts at $43,785 with destination, but that is for a front-wheel-drive model. Bump it up to $45,785 to get Acura's excellent Super Handling All-wheel-drive system. The example I drove came loaded with the Advance package, bringing in driver assistance features, the Tech package, adding navigation and other infotainment features, and the Entertainment package, bringing in a wide-screen rear seat entertainment system. Total price for this one comes to an even $58,000.

Honda, Acura's parent company, doesn't currently make the brand available in the UK or Australia.

2016 Acura MDX: Seven passengers in a five-passenger-sized SUV (pictures)

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Two displays too many

One area of current Acura design I don't like is the infotainment interface, on full display in the MDX. This interface makes use of a touchscreen, a jog dial and an LCD. With this system, I could control the stereo on both the touchscreen and the upper LCD simultaneously, but the two displays showed audio information in entirely different layouts. Talk about cognitive dissonance.

2016 Acura MDX
In the MDX, you can enter street and city names with onscreen keyboard and rotary dial, two distinctly different formats. Wayne Cunningham/CNET

The lower touchscreen offers some convenient features, such as six presets for locations, phone numbers and audio. And it can show a keyboard to aid in address entry, but this whole system would be better if Acura eliminated the dial and associated switchgear, using the touchscreen for all infotainment control. In fact, the most recent Honda Accord shows something like this, so I would expect that new system will roll out to Acura eventually.

Beyond the clunky interface, I like the MDX's navigation system, which shows clear, easy-to-read maps. As with most nav systems now, it actively avoided bad traffic based on data brought in through its satellite radio connection, and I was impressed to see extensive live traffic information, covering many surface streets in downtown areas. Entering street or city names could be a bit tedious, as the MDX employs a predictive system which very slowly fills in letter after letter based on previous input.

The MDX's stereo includes all the audio sources I could want, from Bluetooth streaming to a USB port to Pandora to an onboard hard drive. Very conveniently, I could browse my iPhone's music library using the car's interface over a Bluetooth connection. However, that capability did not work for an Android phone I tested. Because this MDX came with the Entertainment package, I could also use its DVD player for audio. That package adds two ceiling-mounted speakers to the ELS premium audio system, bringing the total up to 12. I liked the immersive quality of the system when listening to music, and appreciated its strong clarity.

The widescreen rear-seat entertainment system includes an HDMI input and dual-screen capability to please discerning young passengers. However, a set of tablets for the kids might be a better investment when aiming for peaceful road trips.

2016 Acura MDX
Rear seat entertainment systems seem a bit obsolete, but this is an impressive one. Wayne Cunningham/CNET

Automatic driving

Making for more comfortable road trips, the MDX's Advance package brought in adaptive cruise control, lane keeping assistance and a collision warning system. Together, adaptive cruise control and lane keeping handle braking and a bit of steering. After setting my speed, following distance and activating lane keeping, the MDX automatically braked for slower traffic ahead, matching speeds at whichever distance I set, while the steering wheel reacted to a camera tracking the lane lines.

The cruise control software felt like it could use some refinement, as it reacted too quickly to other traffic. For example, it felt like it was always on the brake or accelerator when following other cars, when it should have allowed some coasting, driving in a more human-like fashion. Lane keeping is a type of technology I've used in many cars now, which moved the wheel under my hands to help maintain the MDX's position in the lanes. It is pretty geektastic technology, but unlike adaptive cruise control, I've never found it a feature I would miss.

2016 Acura MDX
The MDX includes three driving modes: Sport, Comfort and Normal. Wayne Cunningham/CNET

The MDX is essentially a front-wheel-drive platform, so the 3.5-liter V-6 under the hood sits transversely, the crank better positioned to supply power to the front wheels. Direct fuel injection and variable valve timing combine to crank output up to 290 horsepower and 267 pound-feet of torque, not the most anyone has pulled from an engine of this size but adequate to move the MDX's 4,169 pounds. That power goes to the wheels through a new nine-speed automatic transmission with a push-button drive selector and steering wheel paddles for manual gear selection.

A button labeled IDS, for Intelligent Dynamics System, lets you choose from Sport, Normal and Comfort settings, affecting throttle response and steering heft, while the transmission also included a sport mode.

I liked the low-speed throttle response -- the MDX felt like wanted to be first off the line at every stop light. Putting the power down, the engine sounded off with an aggressive roar. With nine gears to choose from, I felt the transmission shifting frequently, responding to my throttle changes. At speed, the power delivery was less promising. Readying for a passing maneuver on a two-lane highway, I floored it and had to wait through a significant lag before the transmission shifted down and let the power run up.

As a fuel saver, Acura gives the MDX idle-stop, letting the engine shut down when you stop for a red light. I certainly appreciate not wasting gasoline at stop lights, but it feels a little rough when the engine kicks back on. I've experienced smoother in other cars with equally sized engines. I could turn off this feature at the push of a button, useful for stop-and-go traffic where it would really become intrusive.

2016 Acura MDX
The MDX comes with a push-button controller for drive selection, and paddles for manually shifting its nine-speed transmission. Wayne Cunningham/CNET

Generally though, the MDX runs quiet and smooth, the suspension giving it a comfortable, competent ride. Unlike the softly-tuned suspensions of SUVs from Lexus and Mercedes-Benz, the MDX exhibits the firmness of a BMW, and deals well with rough asphalt, quickly damping out the bumps. Well-insulated from noise, I occasionally had to check the tachometer to see if the idle-stop feature had shut down the engine, or it was just quietly idling.

However, I missed the magnetic adaptive suspension from the previous generation. Acura replaced it with two-stage mechanical dampers, which automatically adjust to handle body roll. These dampers don't quite have the same effect. Tackling a twisty road at speed, I wanted to feel the Super Handling All-wheel-drive system do its thing, actively vectoring up to 70 percent of engine torque across the rear wheels, putting more power into the outside rear wheel in a turn.

But the amount of body roll was too much to inspire confidence. Before I could feel that torque vectoring kick in, I was backing off the accelerator so the MDX's body would settle flat.

Seven passengers, occasionally

By their nature, SUVs don't handle well, so it would be unfair to expect the 2016 Acura MDX to corner like a sports car. I can't fault it for that, although its suspension doesn't truly take advantage of the excellent all-wheel-drive system. It does manage a very comfortable ride, a more important feature in a seven-passenger SUV.

2016 Acura MDX
There isn't much cargo space with the third row seat up. Wayne Cunningham/CNET

That three-row seating, compared to its size, makes it an odd fit among the competition, but might also make it perfect for some buyers. With a family of four, it can handle road trips well, but also has the seating capacity for those occasional times when you need to cart around a few extra people.

Average fuel economy in the low 20s many not be anything to write home about, but it is quite good for an SUV of this capacity. The driving character is generally very good, although I was disturbed by the slow kick-down on the transmission when attempting a passing maneuver.

Adaptive cruise control, although a little jerky, works great for most highway trips, while the lane keeping system is marginally useful. And while I like the navigation and stereo systems, I just can't get over the infotainment interface, no matter how many times I've tried it.

Tech specs

Model 2016 Acura MDX
Trim SH-AWD with Advance and Entertainment packages
Powertrain Direc injection 3.5-liter V-6 engine, nine-speed automatic transmission
EPA fuel economy 18 mpg city/26 mpg highway
Navigation Standard with live traffic
Bluetooth phone support Standard
Digital audio sources Internet-based streaming, onboard hard drive, Bluetooth streaming, iOS integration, USB drive, satellite radio, HD radio
Audio system ELS 12-speaker system
Driver assistance Lane keeping assist, adaptive cruise control, blind-spot monitor, rear-view camera
Base price $43,785
Price as tested $58,000

2016 Acura MDX

Score Breakdown

Performance 7Features 7Design 7Media 5