On the Road Review: Two for One: Acura MDX and Toyota Tacoma

This week, we take a second look at two returning visitors — the Acura MDX midsize crossover plus Toyota’s top-selling Tacoma small pickup. We’ll tee up the Tacoma first.

In the small/midsize pickup segment, Toyota has dominated sales for years with its Tacoma rarely receiving significant updates like other vehicle lines are forced to do. Last year, Toyota recognized that the Tacoma was getting long in the tooth — the previous model was 11 years old — and forged a newer Tacoma. For veteran owners, the changes were welcome updates — stiffer chassis, smoother engine, better overall powertain. Against the new competitors in the class, the improvements were modest.tacoma-2

Perhaps tougher than a box of hammers, the Tacoma’s reliability reputation hasn’t been dinged any, yet the polish and grace of the new products from GM and Honda indicate that there is more to a compact truck than what Toyota has been offering. The GM twins — Colorado and Canyon — offer more comfort, greater on-road handling, plus more fuel efficiency than the Tacoma. The GM trucks even offer optional diesel power, for greater mileage and towing ability.

And then there is Honda’s new Ridgeline, the “car” of pickups. Except that is almost slanderous, as the Ridgeline does many work tasks better than any conventional pickup, without compromise, fitting the active lifestyles of suburban America quite efficiently. Initial sales support this theory.tacoma-3

With Ford warming up a new Ranger/F-100 series pickup, again, (including another Bronco SUV) there is life in the “small” truck class. The Tacoma isn’t quaking in its boots yet; sales are so good, that Toyota is looking at maximizing the San Antonio assembly plant for more trucks, while also planning on some production in Mexico.

While the Tacoma impresses with its honest-to-goodness toughness and stubborn reliability, the truck still aggravates in ways that seem, well, unnecessary. The seat sits low, splaying your legs out with little thigh support. The tilt/telescoping steering column offers a negligible range of adjustments, while the lower corner of the dash took a bite out of my shin every time I twisted my body to enter. Lacking a power seat (with a sticker price over $40,000!), the Tacoma is just not as user-friendly as its recently designed rivals.tacoma-4

Tacoma pricing starts around $23,000 for 2WD Access-Can models with a five-speed manual and 2.4-liter engine, while trucks like our Double-Cab sample, with 3.5-liter V-6 and six-speed automatic can sticker for upward of $44,000.

Tacoma fans will be undeterred. They apparently like the Tacoma’s design, which feels like a Jeep — with a pickup bed. Come to think of it, Jeep will have a pickup model in 2018 — another rival for the Tacoma. I doubt that Toyota dealers are worried; this truck just keeps on selling no matter what trends populate the market.tacoma-5

Honda debuted its luxury car division, Acura, in the United States in March 1986 — an aggressive position since Honda had only been selling cars here for 13 years at that point. The first offering was the midsize Legend sedan, a stellar four-door that upset the existing luxury car market. Next came the Integra compact series, a very competent small coupe and sedan that seemed entirely different from the Civic platform upon which it was based.

By 1990, Acura was outselling both Mercedes and BMW, by wide margins, while Lexus and Infiniti were just getting off the ground. And then Acura rolled out the NSX sports car, a premium performance car that rivaled Ferrari. Acura was on a roll, the darling of the industry.acura-1

Less than 10 years later, the bloom was off the rose. Acura sales were falling, as other automakers jump-started their engineering to beat the Asian-invasion. Acura changed the names, and content, on its best-selling cars and buyers seemed to lose interest with cars called Vigor, TL and RL — not quite the cache of Legend. The brand sputtered — for a long time.

Today, Acura sells almost twice as many crossovers as it does cars. Now, a new Acura NSX electric-hybrid supercar is returning to market — more than triple the price of the original. It would be easy to question what the heck is going on for product planning at this brand, as sales slide again this year.acura-4

Dealers are, however, quite thankful for the MDX, a shining star in the lineup since its debut. A competitive and competent three-row crossover, Acura claims that the MDX shares little with the Honda Pilot, but it seems prudent to assume otherwise as these two very similar wagons have much more in common, than not.

The Acura’s strengths lie in its driving composure, easily besting the Pilot in steering feel, handling and ride dynamics, as well as general agility and grace down the highway. The cabin is relatively serene — sometimes not a Honda/Acura attribute — while packaging efficiency remains a virtue all too often not copied. With luxury rivals like the Infiniti QX60, Audi Q7 and new Volvo XC90 close in size, performance and features, the Acura distinguishes itself as a happy driver.acura-3

Criticism arises when using the convoluted center info panel — two screens, with multiple layers of touch-action necessary for simple acts — and the strange electric shift transmission. Four separate buttons, with four different shapes, feel and actions, constitute park, reverse, neutral and drive/sport. It is not at all intuitive, it is not convenient for eyes-free shifting, and totally seems like the result of a deranged experiment. Change for the sake of change does not result in improving a design.

The MDX’s interior earns good points for efficient access to both rear rows of seating and a wide, flat cargo hold. The MDX loses a point for its aggressive forward braking system; the radar beam regularly detected on-coming traffic as approaching in my driving lane, flashing the brake warning lamps in the dash and too frequently actually starting to vigorously brake the car itself. This is disconcerting, and not embraced.acura-2

Other earned points: the calmed down grille uses Jewel-eye LED lamps for daytime running lamps, while sporty 20-inch wheels complement the sleek black body of our Advance-trimmed MDX nicely. The MDX looks smaller than its rivals, and drives like it, too, yet still offers useable interior room.

MDX pricing starts at around $44,000 for front-drive models, zooming past $58,000 for well-equipped Super-Handling AWD versions. A hybrid model comes next year.

EPA mileage estimates are 19/26/22 mpg, with our realized economy bouncing between 23 and 25-mpg. The MDX is built in Lincoln, Ala., now, but may move to East Liberty, Ohio, as Honda/Acura builds more of its vehicles in the USA.

Tim Plouff

Tim Plouff

Columnist at The Ellsworth American
Tim Plouff has been reviewing automobiles in the pages of The Ellsworth American weekly for nearly two decades.

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