the acura mdx gets its third consecutive year of updates for 2019, signaling the importance to acura both of this class and of suvs in general. the mdx competes against premium and luxury three-row mid-size suvs like the audi q7, buick enclave and infiniti qx60. compare it with those models here.

changes abound for the refreshed mdx, including a needed update to its nine-speed automatic transmission, upgraded interior materials and a more seamless used engine stop-start system. all that adds $100 to the mdx's base price, so it now starts at $45,295 (including destination). compare the 2019 mdx with last year's model here.

also new for 2019 is an a-spec variant, which happened to be the model i tested. it slides into the middle of the mdx lineup, which doesn't have traditional trim levels but rather a series of packages. the first package that can be added to the base model is the technology package, and the new a-spec can be added on top of that. the advance package has the highest sticker price and the most features. there's also an entertainment package that can be added to the technology package and advance package, but not to the a-spec.

what you get on the a-spec

the a-spec splits the technology and advance mdx models in price, starting at $55,795. it's the most aggressively styled of the mdx models, with 20-inch shark grey alloy wheels, a revised front bumper, gloss-black trim pieces, a rear spoiler and two giant exhaust pipes. a family suv might feel like a weird place for this kind of aggression, but i find the a-spec to be the most attractive of the mdx models; it's a good-looking suv.

inside, there are red or black leather seats with alcantara inserts for the first two rows, a thicker steering wheel with paddle shifters, and a few other garnishes that spruce up the styling inside.

also noteworthy is that the a-spec is the only mdx to come with acura's super handling all-wheel drive standard; all other models come with front-wheel drive standard, and sh-awd commands a $2,000 premium.

how it drives

under the hood of every mdx is a 290-horsepower, 3.5-liter v-6 that makes 267 pounds-feet of torque and comes mated to a nine-speed automatic transmission. this is the same powertrain found in the honda pilot, and it was a weak point when we last reviewed the mdx in 2017. the problem doesn't lie with the used engine , which makes plenty of power — it was the laggy transmission that bogged down the driving experience.

that has changed somewhat for 2019. acura says the transmission now prioritizes 2nd-gear starts for smoother launches, and it has revised mapping up top for more responsiveness. i did notice the change while driving it, and it's for the better, but i don't think acura went quite far enough; when driving in normal mode, i still wanted the transmission to react more quickly to accelerator pedal motion. somewhat making up for this is an aggressive sport mode, which ended up being my preferred way to drive the mdx. it holds lower gears longer, keeping the mdx in the used engine 's power band for a longer stretch of time and making the whole vehicle feel more in tune with what i wanted to have happen.

ride quality and comfort are still quite good. though the mdx looks sporty, it doesn't come with any kind of sport suspension, and that's a good thing. an adaptive suspension that automatically varies shock absorber firmness is available with the advance package, but i didn't find myself wanting it; a comfortable ride matches the mdx's aims well.

fuel economy estimates for the mdx give it a slim edge over the competitors mentioned above. fwd gets an epa-estimated 20/27/23 mpg city/highway/combined, dropping to 19/26/22 mpg with awd. the a-spec is slightly behind that at 19/25/21 mpg. driving in sport mode, as i preferred to do, is bound to lower observed mileage somewhat.

mixed interior

inside, things get a little murky. the first two rows of seats are great; my test vehicle had the optional red leather upholstery with black alcantara inserts, and the seats were the right mix of loud, comfortable and luxurious. the second row has the same quality of materials as the first, plus plenty of passenger room with good visibility out the large side windows.

when you move back farther, however, it's disappointing. the third-row seats are covered in plain black upholstery. more than that, there isn't much legroom to speak of even if you move the second-row seats forward. the bigger issue, though, is headroom: i couldn't sit up straight without my head hitting the ceiling (i'm 5-foot-11). there are handy buttons to slide the second row forward for third-row access on either side of the mdx, but the opening isn't big enough for adults to easily climb back there.

the technology offerings and center console controls also leave something to be desired. you might look at it and think two screens are better than one, but that isn't the case here. only the bottom is a touchscreen; the top screen is controlled solely by a large knob and the buttons around it below the bottom screen. the problems with the upper screen are twofold: one, it's low-resolution when using native applications like navigation or phone functions. two, using the knob to control it isn't intuitive.

you might think two screens are better than one, but that isn't the case here.

the top screen's saving grace is that it can be used for android auto or apple carplay, both of which come standard. and it's a good thing you can throw those up there, because otherwise the display would cover the lower screen's ill-advised climate and seat controls. functions like changing fan speed, seat heating and ventilation, and directing airflow would be better off as buttons; having to jump into a touchscreen submenu to change the air direction or fan power gets frustrating.

in-between price, solid value

the final price tag for the a-spec i tested, which came with no options, was $55,795. that puts it in sort of a middle ground between the price of a luxury-optioned q7 on the high end and premium offerings like the enclave. with the mdx's interior and technology shortcomings, this seems like the right place for it to be. the materials and look of the first two rows are arguably luxury grade; the disappointing third row is not.

acura does include a lot of features in the mdx that give it solid value, especially in the base model. tri-zone climate control, a power liftgate, five usb ports and powered, heated front seats come standard. this is also true of safety features, including standard acurawatch, which includes forward automatic emergency braking, lane keep assist and adaptive cruise control. a blind spot warning system and a 360-degree camera system are optional.

even with its warts, the mdx drives well enough and comes with enough equipment to make it a viable option in this class, especially as an alternative for those not looking to pay a full luxury price.

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