Pretend you’re at Acura and your assignment is to reinvent the brand’s money-maker and the one vehicle buyers most associate with Acura: the MDX sport-utility vehicle. What do you do?
Before you answer, some perspective: Acura remains in a total rethink. Honda’s upscale brand is trying to reinvent itself, from customer handling to after-sales service, from improvements to the ILX compact to re-engineering and restyling the 2014 MDX.
The MDX is critical. It’s the most profitable vehicle in the lineup and a best-seller. Frankly, MDX sales have been funding the “new” Acura. At the same time, you must be true to Acura’s achievements – to the legacy Acura has established over nearly 30 years.
That is, Acura is rated third overall for reliability in the latest study from Consumer Reports. The Honda Motor assembly plant in Alliston, Ont., where the MDX is assembled, was a bronze-medal winner in the latest J.D. Power and Associated Initial Quality Study (gold went to the Toyota Camry factory in Lafayette, Ind., and silver to GM’s Oshawa Consolidated Line that does the Chevrolet Equinox and Impala).
Look, Acura is right up there with the best in any quality study. Acuras and Hondas consistently score well in crash testing, too. The previous MDX was a Top Safety Pick of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. And resale value? Both Canadian Black Book and ALG rate Acura the No. 1 premium brand. Acura, for all the sensible reasons, is a winner.
Here’s the rub. Not enough people fall in love with Acura. The J.D. Power APEAL study, a so-called things-gone-right look at brands and individual models, rates Acura about mid-pack overall and not a single Acura model is ranked among the top three in any vehicle category.
So your challenge: keep true to all the good at Acura, and remake the MDX so that more people embrace it emotionally. Buyers need to get worked up when they see it and start cheering when they drive it. Ready?
I can tell you this: I spent a week with the new MDX ($49,990 base) and I like it. This rig that went on sale in July, the third-generation MDX, is good. I might date it for a while because it’s easy to live with and safe and dependable. If I get tired of it after a few years and decide to break up, I won’t lose my shirt, either. But would I, shall we say, marry the new MDX? Don’t know about that.
What’s missing is a tug at my heartstrings, and you need that when $60,000-plus is involved. It’s not rational to spend that kind of coin on an SUV. You can put less into something that will do the same practical things and do it reliably, too. In Honda’s world, the Pilot qualifies.
I don’t want to damn the 2014 MDX with faint praise, though. The big shots at Acura have done a lot of good work here. The new Earth Dreams Technology engine – a shared architecture with the new RLX sedan – is a good direct-injected engine. It has all the latest technology for better breathing and new “two-stage Variable Cylinder Management ” that shuts down cylinders to save fuel when power isn’t needed. The 3.5-litre V-6 uses premium fuel, but it also gets class-leading fuel economy: 11.2/7.7/9.6 (city/highway/combined). I was particularly happy with the smooth responsiveness of the engine.
The package looks good, too. The old MDX was a collection of weird angles and edges topped off by a wild grille that belonged as an extra in Blade Runner. That crazy design has been tamed, replaced by something mainstream. Likeable, not loveable. On the road, the MDX is wonderfully quiet and pleasant.
And while plenty of pondering went into the new MDX, the rethink should continue.
2014 Acura MDX
Type: large, premium SUV
Base price: $49,990 (destination charge $1,995)
Engines: 3.5-litre V-6
Horsepower/torque: 290/267 lb-ft
Transmissions: six-speed automatic
Drive: all-wheel drive
Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 11.2 city/7.7 highway
Alternatives: Mercedes-Benz ML, Audi Q7, BMW X5, Lexus GX, Lincoln MKT, Volvo XC90, Land Rover LR4, Infiniti QX70.