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The 2022 Acura MDX.

Mark Richardson/The Globe and Mail

Acura wants to regain its reputation as Honda’s performance brand, not just its luxury brand. That means its engineers put a lot of work into lending some excitement to the new MDX.

It’s no mean feat to make a large and heavy three-row SUV fun to drive, but that will be the main reason buyers choose the MDX over the Honda Pilot or other competitors. The chassis is new, stiffer and no longer shared with the Pilot, while the previous strut front suspension is replaced by a double-wishbone setup, with a multi-link system in the rear and adaptive dampers all round.

There are five separate electronic drive modes, and when you select Sport over Comfort, Snow or Normal, the steering tightens up and the new 10-speed automatic transmission holds the gears higher toward the red line. The active noise-cancellation is even reduced to make the engine sound louder. The Individual drive mode lets you set the parameters however you like them.

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I took the fourth-generation MDX from Toronto to Ottawa to see how it handled the winding back roads of the rocky Canadian Shield. My test vehicle was the Platinum Elite edition, the top-of-the-line version that costs $11,000 more than the most basic edition. It was very comfortable, as you’d expect at this price, and the 12-way power-adjustable front seats of the less expensive vehicles were upgraded to 16-way with an extended front cushion and real leather trim.

The steering wheel is now a little smaller and chunkier than before, and the gears can be shifted with paddles that are fitted to all versions. The main transmission selector is a collection of buttons on the centre console. I rarely used the paddles, however, even through the tightest of turns, because the transmission was very intuitive in finding the right gear.

The last time I drove this route was late fall in the new Genesis GV80, which is an outstanding (and more expensive) SUV in its own right. The GV80 also has a Sport drive mode, and it’s also a large and powerful vehicle, but the MDX was more fun to drive. It held flatter around the corners with very little of the roll that my wife complained about in the Genesis, which has multi-link suspension at both front and rear.

Acura set out to make the MDX fun to drive, and largely succeeded.

Mark Richardson/The Globe and Mail

The new MDX uses the fourth generation of Acura’s Super Handling all-wheel-drive system, which in this vehicle is designed to give bias to the front but will always provide at least 10 per cent of its push to the rear wheels. When needed, it will automatically send up to 70 per cent of the power to the rear, though its true talent is in being able to send all of that power, if needed, to either one or the other of the rear wheels. This “torque-vectoring” is most noticeable in snow, but sports cars also use it for digging in around corners. On the sandy back roads of the Ottawa Valley, it added confidence to the curves.

The actual performance of the engine is little different from before, using the same 290 hp V6 of the previous generation. If anything, it’s a bit slower, owing to an extra 135 kg or so of weight, but it doesn’t feel lacking. The engine is relatively thirsty, too. The claimed average fuel consumption is 11.2 L/100 km, but my own lead-footed average was 12.7 L/100 km.

Tech specs

  • Base price/As tested: $56,405 / $67,405, plus $2,075 Freight and PDI
  • Engine: 3.5-litre V6
  • Transmission/Drive: 10-speed automatic / All-wheel drive
  • Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 12.6 City, 9.4 Hwy., 11.2 comb.
  • Alternatives: Lexus RX, Hyundai Palisade, Buick Enclave, Mazda CX-9, Genesis GV80, Volvo XC90, BMW X5, Mercedes-Benz GLE

Looks

The MDX got a visual refresh that didn't go overboard.

Mark Richardson/The Globe and Mail

The hood is longer and the grille is larger, but Acura’s not gone overboard with its design. The new MDX looks up-to-date without alienating anyone. The headlamps are also longer, pulled back onto the fender and adding to the stretched impression, and all but the most basic trim have 20-inch wheels. It’s an attractive mix of rounded curves and edges, with thin black accent lines on the sides and rear to enhance the colour.

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Interior

The comfortable interior has ample space in the front and second rows, though passengers in the rear may be cramped.

Mark Richardson/The Globe and Mail

The cabin is comfortable and spacious with reasonable headroom, increased from the previous generation thanks to a wheelbase that’s 70 mm longer and an overall length that’s increased by 55 mm. Passengers in the second row will be happy, but passengers in the very back will still be cramped. They at least will be able to get in and out easily, with a one-touch button that retracts the second-row seats for better access.

All trim levels include an impressive panoramic moonroof that can raise its front half for fresh air, which adds to the feeling of spaciousness inside.

Performance

The 290 hp engine is quite adequate, and its 267 lb-ft of torque is good for towing up to 2,268 kg (5,000 lbs) if you pay an extra $3,195 for the towing package. There’ll be more power available later this year when the Type S edition is released, which will be fitted with a 355-hp twin-turbo V6.

Technology

The MDX's active cruise control and lane-guidance assist are easy to use and work well.

Mark Richardson/The Globe and Mail

On the positive side, pretty much whatever you want for driver’s assistance and connectivity is available, and you can bet that a new Acura is one of the safest vehicles on the road. Active cruise control and lane-guidance assistance are switched on and off with a pair of simple buttons on the steering wheel, and they work very well indeed. The gauges are fully digital and adjustable, while the head-up display that comes with the Platinum Elite edition is clear to read through polarized sunglasses. (Why can’t Mercedes and BMW figure this out?)

The touch pad on the centre console is awful to use.

Mark Richardson/The Globe and Mail

But – and this is a very, very big but – the centre display screen is not touch-sensitive. It is controlled by a small touch pad on the centre console, and it is just awful. It is, quite literally, a deal-breaker. You must move your finger around on the pad to direct all the controls on the main screen, which include the radio and the heat and all the many apps, but the pad does not even have the haptic “stickiness” of the Lexus touch pads, which are also awful. It is not intuitive to use, and it is far too easy to slide over controls and activate the wrong thing.

Do you want to zoom in or out with the map? You must slide your finger on the pad to the plus or minus buttons, and then tap the pad until you’re happy. If there are bumps on the road, this is next to impossible. As well, the system is sluggish when it is cold: I tried to set the Navigation by typing an address after a night of -10 C temperatures but gave up. It was happy to find my destination with voice prompts, but the touch pad was just frustrating.

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Cargo

Dropping the seats allows for plenty of cargo space.

Mark Richardson/The Globe and Mail

Fold the seats flat, and there’s 2,021 litres of space behind the front row, or 1,107 litres behind the second row, while the regular cargo space behind the third row is a fairly generous 461 litres. There’s some extra space beneath the cargo floor for hidden storage.

The verdict

I very much enjoyed driving the MDX, and it’s good value for money compared to the competition, especially the over-priced Germans. However, if I owned one, I would curse the central touch pad every single day. You can bypass most of it with voice commands, but you shouldn’t have to. When Acura figures out a better system, like those on all of its competitors, the MDX will be a real winner.

The writer was a guest of the automaker. Content was not subject to approval.

Shopping for a new car? Check out the new Globe Drive Build and Price Tool to see the latest discounts, rebates and rates on new cars, trucks and SUVs. Click here to get your price.

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