Just last year, Acura’s MDX midsize crossover entered its third generation, and as it returns for 2015, it continues to be one of the best offerings in the premium crossover segment.The seven-passenger MDX arguably is one of the most family-friendly vehicles on the market, making it a great choice for everyday chores and weekend jaunts, or as we used it, for a long-distance vacation trip to the beach.I confess to having some personal bias in favor of the MDX – not because anyone paid me to promote it, but because I just happen to have one of the previous generation in my own stable of vehicles.It wasn’t that I just decided to go out and buy an MDX; I happened upon a good deal on a like-new used one, and because I’d always liked the vehicle anyway, I went ahead and bought it. It’s been a great vehicle for us, especially when we have the grandkids visiting and need a roomy, comfortable family hauler.Ours also has four-wheel drive, which makes it great for limited off-road driving in state and national parks and forests, something we always enjoy.While our earlier-generation MDX still fills our needs perfectly, I could see upgrading to the newer generation somewhere down the road. I’d probably wait until I wear mine out first, though, and since this is a Honda product, that could take a while.This is the most-popular three-row luxury sport utility on the market; since its introduction in 2000, Honda has sold nearly 700,000 of them in the United States. Sales through the first six months of 2014 are up 68 percent from last year.With last year’s upgrade, there is more passenger and cargo space. The new model is two inches longer than before, and has a wheelbase 2.8 inches longer.For 2015, MDX prices start at $42,565 (plus $895 freight) for the base front-wheel-drive model, and range as high as $56,780 for the fully-equipped all-wheel-drive version with Advance and Entertainment packages – basically everything that can be added to the vehicle. (This is the one I tested.)In between are the front-drive model with the Technology Package ($46,840); front-drive with Technology and Entertainment ($48,840); front-drive with Entertainment and Advance packages ($54,780); base all-wheel drive ($44,565); all-wheel drive with Technology ($48,840); and all-wheel drive with Technology and Entertainment ($50,840). As you can see, the trim levels are determined by the options packages added to them. All four levels are available either with front drive or Acura’s Super Handling All-Wheel Drive, bringing the total to eight choices of models. The $2,000 extra cost for all-wheel drive is maintained throughout the lineup.Under the hood of all MDX models is a new direct-injected 3.5-liter V-6 engine rated at 290 horsepower and 267 foot-pounds of torque. That’s down slightly from the 300 horsepower and 270 foot-pounds of torque in the previous model’s 3.7-liter V-6.But performance actually is better than before because the new model is 275 pounds lighter and the engine is more efficient.The engine is connected to a new six-speed automatic transmission with Sequential Sport Shift for manual shifting. We never tried the manual-shift feature, preferring to let the gearbox do the work for us. But shifting was always smooth and sure.EPA ratings are 20 mpg city/28 highway/23 combined for front-drive models, and 18/27/21 for all-wheel drive. During our test, with a majority of open interstate driving, our all-wheel-drive MDX averaged 22.9 mpg.Even at the base price, the MDX is well-equipped. Leather upholstery is standard on the first- and second-row seats, and the front seats are heated. Also included are interior LED lighting; an Extended Slide second-row seat with One-Touch Walk-In for access to the third row; an eight-inch driver-information system with touch screen; an expanded-view outside driver's mirror; and acoustic glass front windows and windshield.The acoustic glass helps keep the interior very quiet even at interstate highway speeds and mild off-road jaunts on gravel, dirt and sand (the beach!). We had the first and second rows full of passengers during much of our vacation, and conversations were easy at normal voice levels.Other standard features include keyless entry (front doors and tailgate) and pushbutton start, a 432-watt audio system with eight-speakers, 18-inch alloy wheels, and Acura’s "Jewel Eye" LED headlights.Adding the Technology Package brings 19-inch alloy wheels, keyless access for all four doors, the Acura Navigation System with Voice Recognition, a 501-watt Acura/ELS Studio audio system with 10 speakers, Forward Collision Warning, Lane Departure Warning and the Blind Spot Information System.The Entertainment Package adds a 529-watt Acura/ELS Studio audio system with 11-speakers and HD Radio, a DVD rear entertainment system with nine-inch display, rear-passenger window sunshades, and more.At the top of the line, the Advance and Entertainment model has the key Technology package items, and adds even more, including some upgrades not available in the other packages.Advance extras include unique seven-spoke, 19-inch alloy wheels; a 605-watt Acura/ELS Studio audio system with 12 speakers; an Ultra-Wide Rear DVD Entertainment System with 16.2-inch display; perforated Milano leather first- and second-row seats; heated and ventilated front seats; front and rear parking assist; remote engine start; Lane Keeping Assist System; Collision Mitigation Brake System; and Adaptive Cruise Control with Low-Speed Follow.My brother-in-law, who rode with me on several day trips during the vacation, was impressed with the adaptive cruise, which automatically maintains a safe distance between the MDX and the car in front. It also flashes a red BRAKE warning on the dash if a car gets too close in front. My sister was even more impressed, telling my brother-in-law that he needed this technology on his car to keep him from tailgating (I kept my mouth shut on that issue).A trailer-towing package (hitch and transmission cooler) allows towing of trailers up to 5,000 pounds.On our weeklong vacation trip to the East Coast, we found the MDX to be perfect for such a long family outing. The front and middle seats were quite comfortable, but even with the One-Touch Walk-In feature for third-row access, that seat is better left to kids or young, nimble adults.The middle row’s slide feature allows it to be moved forward or backward up to six inches, but to keep the third-row knee- and legroom suitable for adults and teens, it can’t be pushed all the way back. Passengers in the middle row enjoyed the extra room the seat gave them when it was in its rearmost position.Up front, our bucket seats were equally pleasant for the long drive, and even in the driver’s seat over a whole day’s trek I never felt uncomfortable. The route took us over the Great Smoky Mountains – twice – and there was plenty of power from the V-6 engine, although on the way back I was driving by myself, so the vehicle was lighter than on the trip out.I enjoyed my own music playing from my iPhone connected to the great audio system, but the kids on board were able to watch movies and listen to them on the provided wireless headphones, with no interference from my music up front.The MDX comes with a standard Integrated Dynamics System that lets the driver choose a driving mode -- Comfort, Normal or Sport. We kept it on comfort most of the time to keep the ride cushier for all on board.Also standard is Agile Handling Assist, which Acura says "uses the vehicle's brakes to improve corner traceability and impart confident handling feel." It operates seamlessly, I suppose, because I never detected it working, even on the curvy mountain roads.We filled up the cargo area with our gear, but had the third-row seats folded down to allow room for everything we needed to carry on our trip.There is 15.8 cubic feet of cargo space behind the rear seat, about the same as the trunk of a midsize car. But that expands to 45.1 cubic feet with the third row folded down, and to nearly 91 cubic feet with both rows of rear seats folded.Up front, we enjoyed the large center console between the front seats. It has a comfy leather armrest on top, and inside, it’s roomy enough to keep purses, a laptop and other electronics and valuables out of sight. There are numerous cubbies and storage spaces throughout the MDX cabin, a hallmark of Honda/Acura family vehicles.MDX comes with the newest generation of the AcuraLink system, which links to the Internet through a connected smartphone. The system also has lots of features similar to GM’s OnStar, including collision notification, remote unlocking, stolen-vehicle tracking and traffic information, all through a built-in cellular connection (with subscription fees).For safety, the MDX uses Honda’s Advanced Compatibility Engineering (ACE) body structure. There are seven air bags, including a new driver's knee bag. The MDX received the highest safety rating from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety – the "Top Safety Pick Plus" designation.The manual says premium fuel is "recommended," but unlike its predecessor, not required. On our trip, we just opted for regular gas, as it was already expensive enough. I never noticed any loss of performance.
The automotive columns of G. Chambers Williams III have appeared regularly in the Star-Telegram since 1994. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @gchambers3.