Cadillac -The Standard of the World. Built Ford Tough. Mercedes-Benz -The Best or Nothing. BMW – The Ultimate Driving Machine. Audi – Truth in Engineering. Well maybe not so much on that last one, but you get my point. Successful automotive brands have an image associated with them that may or may not be entirely accurate, but that’s what marketing is all about. Honda’s premium Acura brand has always struggled with trying to determine what it’s image should be, no matter how good its products have been and they have typically been very good. The latest stab at remaking the brand image image is the 2017 MDX SUV which I just spent a week with.
The first step in developing an automotive brand image is the visual identity. This is probably where Acura has had the toughest time going back to the original Legend and Integra in the 1980s that came to market without even a logo. Eventually, the cars got an icon based on a stylized pair of calipers, but it wasn’t until 2008, that the lineup got a consistent design theme that really set it apart from the crowd. The most prominent feature of that language was the massive shield grille, often described as a beak or more derisively as the beaver tooth. Due to the model redesign cadence, the big MDX didn’t actually adopt this look until the second generation model got a mid-cycle update in 2010 and then the third-generation 2014 model got a heavily reworked version of it.
At the 2016 North American International Auto Show in Detroit, Acura debuted a new 4-door coupe concept that would preview the brand’s new design direction. The Acura Precision Concept may not ever make it to production but just months after it debuted, its new face was already being applied to a refreshed MDX for the 2017 model year. I’ll say it right here, even as a mid-cycle facelift, the so-called diamond pentagon grille and jewel constellation headlamps are a big improvement for the MDX. The rest of the exterior is largely unchanged from the three-row SUV we’ve been seeing since 2014.
Inside, Acura has added optional real wood accents and an available six-passenger layout with second-row captain’s chairs. The primary functional change for 2017 was the replacement of the traditional PRNDL transmission shift lever with the same button/switch layout used on the Honda Pilot. I understand the desire to reconfigure interiors to take advantage of the space savings made possible by replacing mechanical shifters with electronics. Unfortunately, aside from eliminating the lever, this layout doesn’t actually free up space on the console for other uses and really isn’t all that functional. It’s marginally better than many of the electronic switch levers but just. I think of the electronic setups, the rotary dial pioneered by Jaguar on the XF nearly a decade ago remains the best but designers are going to have to keep trying here.
As for the hardware actually controlled by those buttons, Honda as it usually does has done an outstanding job on the powertrain. The 3.5-liter direct injected V6 remains a great engine with 290-horsepower and 267 lb.-ft. of torque being fed through a nine-speed automatic transmission to all four wheels with Acura’s torque vectoring super-handling all-wheel-drive. At nearly 4,300-pounds, the MDX is about average for the size class but the powertrain feels strong and provides brisk acceleration.
It’s also reasonably thrifty at the pump with EPA ratings of 18 mpg city, 26 mpg highway and 21 mpg combined. During my week of mixed driving that including a trip to Detroit and hauling some stuff around as part of an ongoing house move, I saw 22 mpg.
Aside from the layout of the shift controls, I can’t really complain much about the rest of the interior, especially in the first two rows. There’s plenty of room and the seats as usual are very comfortable and supportive. Since this is a mid-cycle refresh, Honda hasn’t updated the infotainment system with its dual screen layout. The top screen is used mainly for navigation since it’s closer to the driver’s line of sight. The lower screen is for audio and climate controls and features a touchscreen with haptic feedback that isn’t really any more useful than similar systems on phones. The user interface is definitely looking dated compared to the latest system that just debuted on the new Odyssey minivan and doesn’t support Android Auto or Apple CarPlay.
With the optional entertainment and advanced packages, the MDX is the last Honda vehicle that still offers the large 16.2-inch screen that drops down from the ceiling. This ultra-wide screen can display two different programs so riders in the back don’t have to reach consensus on what to watch. Since the new Odyssey has dropped this feature in favor of in-vehicle WiFi to support tablets, the next-gen MDX will probably lose it as well.
At $59,475 as delivered with the technology, entertainment and advanced packages, this MDX isn’t inexpensive but it’s also not out of line with other premium large SUVs. The updated design is certainly less controversial, but from looking at the Acura lineup as a whole, while it’s well executed, it’s still not clear what the brand is supposed to represent. By the end of 2018, it’s likely that Acura will have at least replaced and expanded its SUV lineup with a new RDX likely this year, an MDX next year and a smaller utility based on the HR-V added. Perhaps, we’ll even see a replacement for the RLX sedan that takes inspiration from the Precision concept. Maybe then we’ll have a clearly picture of where Honda wants to go with this brand.