Acura has spent much of the past decade dealing with an identity crisis. Decades ago, the brand made its mark among North American luxury buyers by combining parent company Honda’s engineering acumen with a stable full of sporty fun that made it a legitimate alternative to the dominant German metal of the era. In recent years that energy has almost entirely evaporated; aside from the techno-marvel that is the Acura NSX supercar, its original slate of offerings have been replaced by models that often struggle to differentiate themselves in terms of features and feel from their more affordable, and increasingly upscale Honda counterparts.
Cognizant of its difficulty in distinguishing itself against a cutthroat premium crowd, Acura has revived the Type S badge, a marking that from 2001 to 2008 denoted the hottest members of the automaker’s line-up. Affixed to last year’s TLX sport sedan, for 2022 it finds itself adorning an SUV for the very first time.
The Acura MDX Type S is in a tough spot to gain traction in a world where hot rod sport-utility vehicles are now commonplace, raising expectations among high-end shoppers in terms of handling and horsepower. In many ways, the newest model MDX indicates that Acura is coming around to what helps a hauler stand out among its gifted peers, but it also hints at a dilution of the Type S standard before it’s even had a chance to make an impact.
Bye-Bye Battery, Hello Turbo
The MDX has always been a strong seller for Acura. Although dwarfed by the juggernaut that is the Lexus RX (which doubles the out-the-door numbers of its next-closest mid-size rivals), Acura has largely been able to match Mercedes-Benz (the GLE-Class) and BMW (the X5) in terms of units, thanks in part to more affordable pricing and a strong reputation for reliability.
Much of its marketing has avoided any attempt at bravado, ceding the muscle truck lane to the more gifted (and considerably more expensive) top tier editions of the silver star and roundel-wearing set. In fact, the last time Acura made a move to excite with the MDX it took the form of the Sport Hybrid, a unique, short-lived, but reasonably quick battery-assisted edition that made excellent use of its off-the-line torque on launch.
The MDX Type S abandons electrification in favor of turbocharging, delivering 355 horsepower and 354 lb-ft of torque from a 3.0-liter V6 that’s essentially identical to the mill found under the TLX Type S sedan’s hood. That’s about 65 ponies more than are found in the base MDX, and it’s matched with a 10-speed automatic transmission and all-wheel drive, each of which are standard across all other versions of the SUV. In addition to its engine, the Type S stands out by way of its adaptive suspension system as well as air shocks that can adjust the vehicle’s ride height when selecting between its several (including Sport and Sport+) drive modes, and a set of Brembo front brakes.
It’s important to inject a little context here: while the MDX Type S represents the apex of Acura’s three-row SUV in terms of power, it barely crests the base BMW X5 40i in terms of output (checking in at an underrated 335 horsepower) and falls behind the similarly-priced Mercedes-Benz GLE 450 (362 horsepower) and Genesis GV80 3.5T (375 horsepower).
With the accelerator pinned to the floor, you can feel that difference in terms of real world acceleration. The bulky MDX hustles to highway speeds in roughly 5.6 seconds, a figure that keeps it competitive with its peers but doesn’t overly impress in the way that its Type S nomenclature might suggest. The new turbocharged engine is perfect for the daily drive, but lacks the kind of personality expected from the sportiest member of Acura’s SUV portfolio.
The word ‘adequate’ is perhaps the best encapsulation of what the turbo V6 brings to the table, fettered as it is by the generous heft of the MDX’s overall package. That same mass informs every aspect of the Type S’ efforts at navigating corners at speed, reminding you that, even with the 0.6 inch ride height drop offered by Sport+, you are still behind the wheel of an automobile that was designed to comfortably cart around the entire family.
There are also indications that the Acura isn’t quite at the same level of refinement as one would expect from a vehicle with a $66,700 starting price. Numerous times, the engine start/stop system jerked the steering wheel from my hands upon shutting down its cylinders at a stop light, and more than once the MDX’s air suspension underwent an unasked for ride height adjustment while sitting in traffic.
A True Looker
With a driving experience that is pleasing, but several rungs removed from that of an M, S, or AMG-branded machine, one area where the Acura MDX Type S truly excels is its design. My tester was finished in a bright, striking red, which did an excellent job of enhancing its bold (read: enormous) pentagram grille, with a subtle intercooler peeking out from behind the lower valance. The MDX’s monocolor palette and black accents do much to conceal just how large the vehicle truly is, and alongside the gorgeous lines of the Genesis GV80, it’s one of the most attractive sport-utilities in its class.
The Type S’ cabin isn’t quite on the same level, presenting a perfectly fine but not altogether interesting arrangement of premium-level materials and looks. Acura’s biggest bugaboo has long been the interface between driver and vehicle, what with its unusual push-button gear shift (with different sizes, shapes, and angles leading to occasional confusion), the large drive mode knob that juts expectantly out from the center stack, and its difficult-to-use infotainment system, which relies entirely on a touchpad that draws much-needed attention away from the road to operate.
If you’re merely riding in the MDX, your experience will be less complicated and more enjoyable. The second row is quite generous in nearly every dimension, and while the third row is, like most mid-sizers, intended primarily for children, keeping it flat reveals useful cargo space that challenges class-above crossovers in terms of volume. Speaking of volume: it’s worth singling out the Advance Package model I drove’s ELS stereo system, which was excellent in all aspects of reproducing whatever music I digitally demanded via its wireless Android Auto interface.
Not Enough S
It’s disappointing to realize that the 2022 Acura MDX Type S is primarily a branding exercise rather than an all-out assault on the performance SUV establishment. Better to drive than the base model, the Type S nevertheless fails to rise above the standards set by less-extroverted luxury options operating outside of the expectations engendered by exhuming a once-proud paragon of speed.
The most difficult question is where does Type S go from here? Having set a relatively modest ceiling for a subset of vehicles that should truly dazzle in terms of delivery makes it difficult to understand Acura’s strategy. Why revisit the most salient aspects of an automaker’s sporty past only to limit its potential on a well-established playing field? Consider, too, that the Advance Package vehicle I drove featured a price tag that pushed past the $72,000 mark (at which point ridiculously quick versions of several rival sport-utilities start to emerge), and it becomes even more difficult to pin down which buyer the Type S is after.
As a strong mid-tier option, albeit one that’s a priced a bit past its britches, the MDX Type S makes sense. As the leading edge of Acura’s heritage-inspired, performance SUV approach, it’s more difficult to fathom.
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