Another year, another gold star for the Lexus RX, the midsize luxury SUV sales valedictorian. Solid interior. Solid reliability. Solid performance. Ho hum. Enough about Goody Two-shoes.
Let’s talk about the brash wannabes.
The Cadillac SRX and Acura MDX — Nos. 2 and 3 with 56,000 and 53,000 in sales, respectively — are rungs below the RX’s staggering 100,000-plus sales score. But with their distinct looks, earth-pawing power, and loaded interiors, these two outsiders are turning heads.
The wannabes can be quirky, sure — especially in the navigation screen department — but Lexus has also veered from plain Jane fashion with its polarizing, inverted-trapezoid upper and lower grilles (now that’s a mouthful). It has not dissuaded buyers, but the pinched-cheek look is an opening for the far prettier faces of Caddy and Acura, especially if their performance features rival the teacher’s pet. And often, they do.
Those details can be game-changers. Take the Acura’s third-row, fold-into-the-floor seats, a crucial feature that moves the MDX to the top of my shopping list. It will attract family buyers accustomed to the roominess of bigger SUVs and minivans but who want the cachet and performance of a luxury brand. This is a game-changer for soccer moms like my wife who demand all-wheel-drive performance as she ferries our young hellions and their pals.
Geometry, art, gym. These superb vehicles excel in most subjects. The report card, please:
If adding a third-row seat pays dividends for the MDX as a sporty family hauler, the addition of a second center console screen does not.
A central 7-inch touch screen controls infotainment while a separate, 8-inch navigation screen hovers at the top of the dash. In theory, the two screens mean the driver can multi-task between navigation and media without having to change screens. In practice, the nav screen is mediocre with no-touch capability and a limited interface, which makes it hard to discern where traffic is snarled or what street you’re on. Acura’s excellent haptic-feedback touch screen should be enough — especially since thumb scrolls on the steering wheel allow drivers to navigate some options without their hands ever leaving the wheel.
Cadillac also pushes the console envelope with its CUE system. The Droid-like screen’s haptic feedback, movable icons and swipe-menu capability mimic today’s smartphones. But CUE, too, can be maddening as its haptic volume controls are inconsistent. Better to integrate them into a bigger touch screen (see the Tesla Model S) or make them redundant rotary controls as in the Acura.
Both the MDX and SRX get an A for effort, but a C in execution.
In terms of comfort and utility, however, both the MDX and SRX are at the head of the class. Both are wrapped in luscious leather. Their interior lines are pleasing with generous portions of wood trim. Lift gates float upward at a touch of the key fob, and control stalks execute turn signals and wiper commands with a crispness that screams luxury car.
Both vehicles feature adaptive cruise control, a self-driving system with real world safety applications. If you’re doing anything distracting — eating, cruising the radio, umpiring a child squabble — then set the cruise control and the vehicles’ radar will monitor traffic in front of you, braking when necessary. It’s remarkable. Acura’s collision avoidance system is also notable for locating its warnings on the A-pillars. They illuminate when a vehicle is in your blind spot (huge in all SUVs), instantly catching your eye since they are at the edge of your vision rather than outside on the mirrors (as in most luxury vehicles, Caddy included).
The Acura and Caddy have spent time in front of the mirror and it shows. Acura’s edgy styling has been a freak show in recent years with its sedans alternatively looking like bottle openers or sharp-beaked parrots. The popular MDX’s looks have always been less severe, but the SUV’s pointy corners have been softened to exude more elegance.
Most striking, however, is the Acura’s handsome use of horizontal cues to give the tall SUV a crouching appearance. At the vehicle’s business end, five LED main beams in each headlamp structure combine with symmetrical lower air vents to create a wide, athletic stance. It’s no Audi, but it’s more artful than most.
Not to be outdone, the SRX boasts its own headlight science project with adaptive lamps that turn in the direction of the front wheels. But if you’re looking for sculpted good looks, the SRX is your baby. Whereas most midsize SUVs are immediately identifiable by their height, the SRX’s sloped curves, low shovel grille, and huge headlights make the car’s pose look more cat-like than horse-like. “Seemingly sculpted from a solid block of steel” hypes Caddy’s press materials. But that steel comes with a price — the SRX is 100 pounds heavier than the MDX.
The vertical lights and sharp creases of Caddy’s “Art & Science” design language have always looked more natural on the taller, heftier SRX with this year’s CTS sedan just catching up to its prettier ute sibling.
Could you survive a Michigan winter without all-wheel drive? The MDX and SRX both come with snow-churning, road-gripping AWD systems. The MDX adds a base front-wheel-drive option in a bow to the federal mpg gods.
On its third generation, Acura divorced the MDX from its truck brethren and has built the SUV on its own unique, uni-body chassis. With a new multi-link suspension and generous use of lightweight materials like aluminum and magnesium, the result is a fun-to-drive SUV. With a nimbleness belying its high center-of-gravity, this ute tore through Detroit’s snowy landscape, taunting me to turn off the traction control and let the big dog drift through corners.
Acura (and parent Honda) have spent a lot of time on the track and that experience shows. The big ute has run with the sports cars on Germany’s famed Nurburgring, with the new MDX besting the previous generous by a healthy eight seconds. The Caddy makes no such boasts, but it’s hardly a boat. What it lacks in handling, it makes up in typical American style — with brute force. Its 308-horsepower V-6 gulps highway fuel at 18 mpg. Turn you off? The Acura’s smooth 290-horsepower V-6 will get you Lexus-like 21 mpg fuel economy (speaking of Lexus, both of our wannabes leave the 270 horse RX in the dust).
Acura and Caddy buyers might gulp, however, when they see the bill for all this sophistication. My fully-loaded MDX and SRX sticker for $57,400 and $56,465, respectively — on par with a similarly-equipped Lexus though south of perennial class beauty queens BMW and Audi.
Are they worth it? Excellence comes in different packages. The jewel-eyed MDX and sculpted SRX are runners up and trying harder.
2014 Acura MDX
Vehicle type: Front-engine, AWD, seven-passenger, five-door, sport utility vehicle
Price: $42,290 (base), $57,400 (as tested)
Power plant: 3.5-liter V-6 with direct-injection
Power: 290 horsepower, 267 pound-feet of torque
Transmission: 6-speed automatic
Performance: 0-60 mpg, 6.8 seconds (Autoweek), 123 mph top speed
Weight: 4,332 pounds
Fuel economy: EPA 18 city/27 highway (21 mpg combined)
Highs: Top-drawer electronic safety controls; third-row seat
Lows: Two center console screens are too much; pricey
Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at email@example.com Twitter @HenryEPayne