A few years ago, as gas prices were starting to increase again, the hottest competition was in the compact crossover segment. Consumers wanted better mileage but weren't yet embracing compact, subcompact or micro cars.
Now small cars are selling well, thanks to the selection of affordable, well designed and well equipped models. But perhaps surprisingly, the hottest crossover segment is suddenly midsize models with three rows of seats. Practically every manufacturer seems to be offering at least one crossover that's not too large but still seats seven or eight people.
The appeal is obvious for families. Not so long ago, if you needed to haul more that four or five people very often, you had to buy a large truck-based SUV like a Chevy Suburban or Ford Expedition. Although they got the job done, they were challenging to drive downtown and got terrible gas mileage.
Now you can carry as many people in a vehicle that is much shorter and gets a lot better mileage. And if you want all-wheel-drive, it's available as an option.
One of the best mid-size, seven-passenger crossovers right now is the all-new 2014 Acura MDX. Although it looks a lot like last year's model, it is completely redesigned from stem to stern, including a new chasis, interior and engine a 3.5-liter V6 that produces more torque but gets better mileage than the 3.7-liter V6 it replaced.
And it is available with Acura's oddly-named but impressive Super Handling All-Wheel- Drive system, or SH-AWD for short.
Although it competes in the luxury crossover market, the Acura MDX is not the fanciest or most expensive one out there. With a starting price in the low $42,000's for a front-wheel-drive version, it is thousands less than some European ones. But it drives well, handles with precision, and can be loaded up with enough options to please the most discriminating buyers.
There are less expensive midsize crossovers with three rows of seats, of course, including several from American manufacturers. Most lack Acura's refinement, however.
Late September turned out to be a perfect time to test the 2014 MDX for a week. Sunny skies occasionally gave way to the first heavy rains of the summer, which created slippery roads. But our SH-AWD-equipped version handled the changes without missing a beat.
The new V6 proved itself more than adequate throughout the week. Although having only a single engine choice might seem like a limitation, the MDX has three driving modes that give it a greater range. Comfort offers a soft ride and steady acceleration. Normal is firmer and makes the throttle more responsive. Sport is firmer and more responsive still, encouraging harder driving than might seem responsible in a midsize crossover.
Regardless of which mode we chose, the interior was quiet and comfortable, living up to the standards we think most buyers expect in a luxury crossover. The front leather seats were a little on the firm side, suggesting that Acura thinks the MDX will appeal to younger buyers.
Some have called Acura interiors austere, but in fact, they have been overrun with complicated controls in the past. For 2014, the MDX eliminates many of the confusing buttons by moving the management of climate, entertainment and other systems onto a second dash-mounted control screen. The result is a much cleaner dash and center console, an accomplishment we hope to see in other button happy vehicles.
Speaking of cleaner, Acura has responded to its critics by shrinking the size of the corporate grill on all models. The result on the MDX enhances the crisp styling, which is an evolutionary not revolutionary change from last year's model. But it looks both handsome and purposeful, which should hopefully please everyone now.
Squeezing a third row of seats into a midsize crossover requires some compromises, of course. One is access to the last row, a problem Acura addressed by allowing the second row to slide forward or back almost six inches with the touch of a button. Although the last row of seats is still best for children, at least they can get to it easier than before.
Storage space behind the third row of seats of relatively limited when they are up. But folding them flat creates an impressive amount of space, which should prove useful for weekend chores.
My test ride included both the Tech Package and Entertainment Package, which loaded the MDX up with more gizmos than I could possible use, including a DVD system for back seat passengers. But they also included an upgraded stereo system and premium leather seats, which enhanced my motoring experience considerably.
Until families are willing consider minivans and station wagons again, midsize crossover with three rows of seats will likely be their preferred mode of transportation. As the competition continues to heat up, the 2014 Acura MDX has to be considered one of the top contenders.
Facts and figures (all models)
Model tested: 2014 MDX AWD ADV ENT.
Class: Midsize crossover.
Layout: Front engine, front and all-wheel-drive.
Style: Five-door SUV.
Engine: 3.5-liter V6 (290 hp, 267 ft-lbs).
Transmission: Six-speed automatic.
Fuel Economy: 20/28/23 (FWD); 18/27/21 (AWD).
Price: Starting at around $42,000 ($57,400 as tested).