Everything but the Electronics: The 2017 Acura MDX

Acura has been the luxury brand of Honda Motor Company since 1986. The brand has become known for its luxury appointments and comfortable ride, a “practical luxury” line of vehicles that compete effectively against others in its class. The secret strength is that the Acura vehicles are also built upon both the reliability and low maintenance cost of the entire Honda line.

Somewhere along the way, however, Acura stopped keeping up with the rest of the industry and while the vehicles are comfortable to drive and luxurious in appearance, a week with the 2017 Acura MDX AWD “Advance” proved more frustrating than delightful. In fact, I found the entire electronics system, from design to display to usability, one of the most frustrating I’ve ever experienced in a vehicle.Talking to other Acura MDX owners suggests that it’s just part of the ownership experience with this particular vehicle and has been going on for years, rather to my surprise.

But let’s start with the positives: the 2017 Acura MDX in “White Diamond” is a beautiful vehicle:

2017 acura mdx awd exterior

It’s a very distinctive design featuring a satisfyingly aggressive front grill and lots of nifty touches, like side view mirrors that automatically tilt in when the vehicle is off, and flip back out, ready to keep you safe and aware when restarted.

The beautiful design doesn’t stop on the outside either. Open the car door and the inside is gorgeous. This vehicle was equipped with the “Ebony” Interior,though I’d describe it as a mocha. Whatever you call it, a glance shows that the MDX is quite comfortable and luxurious both:

2017 acura mdx interior ebony

Notice that the second row seats have their own fold-down arm rest, storage space and two cupholders. There’s a third row of seats too, but as is typical in this sort of SUV design, that third row is really designed more for children than full size adults. Plus it’s a bit of wiggling to get into the seats in the first place. 🙂

Keeping with the luxury theme, the back seat passengers have access to an entire environmental control system too:

2017 acura mdx back passenger climate control

Notice, however, that there are no audio controls. No separate audio controls, no headphone jacks, no recognition that even a luxury SUV has kids in the back who probably hate the music you and I play. Then again, the stereo is really lovely sounding and fills the entire interior with lush, rich sound. All well and good, except you can’t enjoy the entertainment system without actually using the interface and that’s where things start to break down.

Consider the following screen. This is the main view of the audio system:

xm radio in 2017 acura mdx

So messy, so confusing. The current channel is barely shown any bigger than anything else on the screen (it’s BBC World Service on Sirius XM), and this is the only vehicle I can think of that doesn’t shown channel or track art. I have no explanation why this screen is so ugly, but it really turned me off after enjoying the modern interface of so many other cars in the last few months.

But the chaos of the digital system doesn’t stop there. The navigational system voice recognition was so poor that I gave up using it for directions after a dozen attempts to speak a destination address. Much easier to just talk to my iPhone and let it navigate instead (and no, there’s no CarPlay or Android Auto feature in the Acura).

The dashboard looks really cool with its heavy use of blue on the various screens:

2017 acura mdx front dashboard interior

Complicated, but I got used to it after a short while, though the gear mechanism is quite unique to Acura and takes a bit of figuring out:

gear control system, 2017 acura mdx

You push in to get reverse, and the drive button lets you quick switch between drive and sport modes. The button below it labeled “Dynamic Mode” lets you step between comfort, normal and sport modes too. How do the two relate? It’s part of the “integrated dynamics system” and you can change your shift points for a more responsive drive or change the overall ride and handling of the car. My preference when I wanted to maximize fuel efficiency was “drive” and “comfort”, but sport/sport gave the vehicle a surprising amount of pep for an SUV.

The 2017 Acura MDX AWD is powered by a big 3.5 liter SOHC 24-valve engine putting out 290hp, featuring an impressive 9-speed automatic transmission. Most notably, this makes for a really quiet, comfortable drive at highway speeds. And that fuel efficiency? Well…

2017 acura mdx - main dash gauges

The vehicle is rated  19/26, but I found that I had to really drive consciously to get it up above 22mpg. In the above, you can see I attained 23.1 mpg. Also note the”S” with the red swatch behind it: that color bar changes colors to show what dynamic mode you’re in, and “S” becomes “D” if you’re in regular drive mode. Cool. I like subtle feedback systems like that.

Nonetheless, the overall experience of driving the Acura MDX was frustration. It’s a lovely, elegant car, but hobbled by a digital user experience with the entertainment and navigational systems that proved impossible to overcome. It’s clearly time for Acura to either license a third party entertainment operating system or completely redesign its own, but in 2017 there were too many problems for an SUV at this price.

AS DRIVEN: 2017 Acura MDX AWD Advance in White Diamond with Ebony interior, including Acurawatch features, but otherwise a stock MDX Advance. As configured: $57,340.

Disclosure: Acura loaned me the MDX for a week for the purposes of this review. My opinions are quite clearly my own.

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