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EASTON, N.H. -- Honda made significant improvements, including better fuel economy, when it redesigned the Acura MDX for 2014. In part, the advances are a result of the new model's shift in strategy -- dispensing with the fantasy of an MDX-borne family fording streams and boldly clambering over rough terrain -- transforming it into a reality show.

"Virtually no one buys an MDX for any sort of off-roading," Jan Moore, senior product planner for Acura S.U.V.'s, said.

This is not shocking news, and sales are unlikely to suffer because the vehicle has less ground clearance and can't tackle off-road ascents and descents as well as its predecessor, for which off-road prowess was never a strong point anyway.

Reality is served in other ways, too: for the first time, the MDX is available in a front-wheel-drive version. Earlier models came with standard all-wheel drive, a feature that buyers in Sun Belt states were not always eager to pay for. The front-drive 2014 model saves them $2,000 compared with the all-wheel-drive model.

That means the least expensive MDX is now a front-drive version, priced at $43,185 for a well-equipped model with features including leather upholstery. The most expensive, amenity-laden all-wheel-drive model starts at $57,400.

The MDX I tested had all-wheel drive and the Technology package. Its window sticker came to $49,460 with features including a navigation system, upgraded stereo, lane-departure warning, collision warning, blind-spot detection and rain-sensing wipers.

The MDX is the first vehicle to be built on Honda's latest global light truck platform, which will eventually underpin new versions of Honda's Pilot utility vehicle and Odyssey minivan. From the outside, though, it is unlikely that anyone but MDX cognoscenti will be able to tell just how much is new.

Close observers might note the new LED headlights, and a few minutes with a tape measure would provide further clues. The 2014 model, at 193.6 inches long, has grown two inches, and the wheelbase has increased by 2.8 inches. As one would expect in an Acura, the interior has an upscale look, the better to compete with vehicles like the Audi Q7, BMW X5, Buick Enclave and Mercedes-Benz M-Class.

More noticeable are the controls for the heating, cooling and sound systems, now easier to find and use. There are far fewer buttons, and intuition usually replaces the owner's manual. Voice commands reduce the need to look at a touch screen.

Because reading text messages while moving is considered to be antisocial, if not death-defying, all MDXs have a feature that can link to a smartphone to read incoming text messages aloud through the audio system. There are six preset factory messages available for response, offering short replies like "yes" or "no" as well as a cautious "talk to you later, I'm driving."

The second row of seats slides fore and aft 5.9 inches. That's a new feature that lets legroom adjust to the needs of the occupants du jour. But for the second-row occupants to have the same amount of legroom as last year, that row must be pushed all the way to the rear. Doing so means the third row has 2.5 inches less legroom than before, a significant loss.

Ms. Moore, the product planner, says the loss of third-row legroom is not a big deal because owners say that row is not used for everyday seating. Indeed, the seat cushions are short and close to the floor, making it best suited for the usual occupants -- children.

Passengers banished to the back row will find entry is simple, though, because the second row flips forward easily. Acura says the "foot-entry" opening to reach the third row is now 4.5 inches wider, which it classifies as a child-friendly feature.

Acura describes the MDX as having luxurious seven-passenger seating, but depending on ages and physical dimensions the seven may be cozy if not cramped. The luxury ideal would be four occupants, allowing plenty of legroom (even for four adults) and 45 cubic feet of cargo space, slightly more than last year.

Since its introduction as a 2001 model, the MDX has been marketed to drivers who want a large, practical vehicle that is still entertaining to drive. Indeed, on a weaving mountain road like Route 118 in the White Mountains near Warren, N.H., the 2014 MDX showed that was a realistic goal.

Body lean is nicely controlled, even when pushing hard through the turns. Considering its size, the MDX changes direction quickly, aided by a steering whose ratio has been revised to react 9 percent more quickly. Also pitching in is a feature that Honda calls Agile Handling Assist, which briefly applies braking to a wheel on the inside of a turn to sharpen cornering.

The solidity of the MDX's body on a rough surface -- a benefit of a significant increase in the use of high-strength steel -- is also impressive. The suspension suppresses the big-league whacks, but there is some moderate jostling, a price the passengers pay for the driver's fun.

The assist level of the new electrically assisted power steering can be selected from a choice of three settings, which also adjust throttle response, the all-wheel-drive system and the interior noise control. The first setting is called Comfort, possibly because Loosey Goosey was too long. Next, the Normal setting adds some weight, but still feels too light. Moving to the Sport setting adds more weight yet, but there is still a disconcerting lack of feeling, or road feedback, through the steering.

"People have very strong feelings about steering. We wanted to give them three clear choices," said Mark Pafumi, an engineer at Honda's research and development center in Ohio.

More successful is the new 3.5-liter V-6 engine that replaces the 3.7-liter engine. While smaller, it is more sophisticated, with direct fuel injection and the ability to shut off three of its six cylinders under light loads. It comes with a carry-over 6-speed automatic.

The 3.5-liter is rated at 290 horsepower and 267 pound-feet of torque. That compares with 300 horsepower and 270 pound-feet of torque for the 2013 model. That loss might appear to be a setback, except that the 2014 model, weighing roughly 4,270 pounds for my test vehicle, was about 280 pounds lighter than the 2013 model -- a huge reduction.

Working with the quick-thinking automatic, the 3.5-liter provides more than adequate acceleration: zero to 60 m.p.h. in 6.4 seconds, according to Car and Driver.

There is a big improvement in fuel economy, according to federal estimates. One reason is a transmission that conscientiously works to keep the engine speed below 2,000 r.p.m. Also, Honda says, aerodynamics have been significantly improved and rolling resistance has been reduced.

The all-wheel-drive model is rated at 18 m.p.g. city and 27 m.p.g. highway. That is two miles per gallon better in town and six more on the highway than last year, and premium grade is now recommended, not required, so the overall savings are noteworthy. The fuel economy of the all-wheel-drive MDX now equals the five-passenger BMW X5 and Lexus RX 350, and is superior to the seven-passenger Enclave and the gasoline Audi Q7 (and almost as thrifty as the diesel Q7).

But it is well behind the 30 m.p.g. city and 28 highway of the Lexus RX 450h hybrid. There isn't much of a fuel-economy benefit to be realized by skipping all-wheel drive and choosing a front-drive MDX -- two m.p.g. city and one highway.

"What you are seeing is just how efficient the 4-wheel drive system is," Jim Keller, chief engineer of the MDX, said.

With almost 51,000 sold last year, the MDX is Acura's best-selling model, accounting for almost a third of its sales. It would be surprising if the improved fuel economy in a vehicle that marries the odd couple of fun and function doesn't continue that success.

autonews

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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