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Are you in the market for a spacious new third-row SUV? If so, you might have added the Honda Pilot and Acura MDX to your list of vehicles to test-drive. And you would certainly be well within your right to try either one. The 2021 Honda Pilot is a strong seller. Although the Acura MDX is on a year-long hiatus, the existing 2020 model is a solid contender too. (Of course, we think the upcoming 2022 overhaul will be downright exciting.)
With that being said, we will use this review to compare the 2021 Honda Pilot and 2020 Acura MDX. Both vehicles have a lot of good things going for them, but if you are going to invest your hard-earned money, you need to know which one is the better deal. We will tell you right now that we tend to give that privilege to the Pilot. But let us explain.
The 2021 Honda Pilot now comes with the mid-tier Special Edition (or simply SE for short) trim level, which boasts a hands-free liftgate and wireless phone charging. All Pilot trim levels are equipped with a standard 9-speed automatic transmission, and the base LX now comes with a dual-zone automatic climate control system. The cabin is roomy and packed with a ton of versatile elements that make it easy to stash your small items. All of these storage compartments are well placed and appropriately sized. The ride quality remains smooth and compliant given just about any road condition. On top of all of that, the Honda Pilot offers a stellar fuel economy: an EPA estimated 22 miles per gallon on the all-wheel drive variants and a real-world showing of about 25 miles per gallon combined. Not bad for this segment.
There are, however, a few drawbacks. The biggest downside is the narrow access to the third row. The third row is kid-friendly, but adults will have trouble navigating their way back there since the walkway is so slender. The only other problems you will have to deal with are adaptive cruise control and the collision mitigation system being overly vigilant with their warnings. This is annoying, yes, but far from being a deal-breaker.
So, how does the 2020 Acura MDX stack up? And just what does the 2022 line-up have in store, change-wise? The 2020 line-up did not feature too many changes since the MDX was going to be on a year-long hiatus in lieu of the new generation being introduced in 2022. The 2020 has a huge list of standard driver aids and infotainment features for the price tag. The optional SH-AWD system provides enhanced traction control and handling for the MDX. The cabin remains well-muted and calm in almost any circumstance. Also, the V6 engine gives a good amount of power for the vehicle to accelerate.
But the MDX's cabin does not quite look as sophisticated as some of its corporate counterparts. The double-screen infotainment system can be somewhat confusing to use, especially when it comes to its odd array of controls. Add to that adaptive cruise control being somewhat slow to respond to your commands.
We do have to let you in on a little-known secret: Acura is the corporate counterpart of Honda. So the Acura is basically a more luxurious version of the Pilot. As for the 2022 line-up, expect the MDX to dazzle buyers with a new 12.3-inch infotainment system, higher scale interior materials, and the high-horsepowered Type S trim level (which was swapped in while the Sport Hybrid was swapped out). You will get ample cargo space and a ride quality that balances a comfortable ride with a sporty performance.
Which SUV will be the right choice for you? It all boils down to which features you really must have. We think that the 2021 Honda Pilot will satisfy the average buyer. However, we must further explicate as to why that is the case. Hang in there with us as we go over these vehicles' powertrains, drivability factors, and safety features.
Let's talk powertrains, since these can make or break the driving experience. The 2021 Honda Pilot is powered by a standard 3.5-L V6 engine that generates a power output of 280 hp and 262 lb-ft of torque. The 9-speed automatic comes equipped with this engine and delivers power to either the front two wheels (FWD) or optionally all four wheels (AWD). AWD does come standard on the Elite and Black Edition trim levels, which sit at the top of the Pilot's line-up.
The 2020 Acura MDX is powered by a 3.5-L V6 engine as well. This engine serves up 290 hp and 267 lb-ft of torque. A 9-speed automatic gets paired up with either FWD or SH-AWD. The 2020 line-up still has the Sport Hybrid, which is powered by a 3.0-L V6 engine and three electric motors for a total of 321 hp and 289 lb-ft of torque. A 7-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission (DCT) comes standard.
What makes a vehicle drivable? Drivability is a term we use to describe how well a vehicle performs overall: how well it accelerates, how it brakes, how it handles, how it steers, what its ride quality and comfort are like, and even how functional its tech features are known to be. That being said, let us take a look at what makes these two third-row SUVs drivable.
The 2021 Honda Pilot is up first. The Pilot is a strongly capable performer. In fact, it can sprint from 0 to 60 miles per hour in just 7 seconds flat, which is a surprisingly quick time for a third-row SUV. When you need to apply the brakes, you can easily maneuver them, as they have a consistent feeling to them in any situation. Panic stops can be made in a respectable distance for this segment (129 feet). Winding mountain roads can easily be navigated due to the Pilot's nimble handling capabilities. Steering does not offer much road feel, but it is precise. While the SUV's AWD system is capable at handling slick wintery road surfaces, the lack of ground clearance makes it unideal for off-roading.
Comfort is a genuine highlight on the Pilot. The body motions it makes are well controlled, so body roll is very minimal. The suspension can dispatch little bumps without any issue. The front seats have perfectly padded bottoms, and the seat-backs provide plenty of support too. Hardly any wind or road noise makes its way into the cabin, and the V6 is pleasantly mute. The tri-zone climate control works efficiently too.
The Pilot's cabin is all about efficiency. Everything is designed for practicality, and the first two rows are certainly spacious. The third row has narrow access, which is the cabin's one big drawback, but you can fit a couple of kids in the third row. The third row is not quite as spacious as competitors like the Volkswagen Atlas or Kia Telluride. Finding a driving position is easy, although taller drivers might want a little more adjustment behind the wheel. Still, you get a nice, commanding view from the driver's seat since there is plenty of glass surrounding the vehicle and slender roof pillars.
The Pilot's infotainment touchscreen system is relatively easy to use, even if you are not a tech-savvy user. The built-in navigation system is quick to respond and delivers some clear graphics, and the 10-speaker sound system you can get provides concert-like sound quality. The higher trim levels get Wi-Fi hot-spot connectivity, and the Honda CabinControl app can connect to the in-car Wi-Fi, allowing you to control things like your music playlists and the rear cabin temperature.
The 2020 Acura MDX is a comfy mid-size luxury SUV, and its torque-vector SH-AWD allows the MDX to corner like a small crossover SUV. Confident and calm, you can switch it over to Sport mode for heftier steering that bulks up at higher speeds for a thrilling driving performance. The V6 engine is able to accelerate quickly, getting up to 60 miles per hour in just 6.8 seconds. While this is snappy, a lot of competitors have optional V8 engines or even turbo V6 engines that are quicker.
Even if you choose to equip the large 20-inch wheels, you still get a comfortable ride quality on the MDX. The seats are padded for max comfort, day in and day out. The cabin gets relatively little in the way of wind and road noise coming in, keeping it tranquil at most any speed. The faux suede upholstery on the A-Spec trim level is firm yet pliable and remains well ventilated on warm days. The seating ventilation system itself is not that strong though, and the climate control system is rather disappointing overall.
Versatile in its design, the massive cabin feels comfy. The third row can fit shorter adults and is kid-friendly, and you can push a button to slide the second row of seats forward to get back there. The driver's seat is highly adjustable, as is the tilting and telescoping steering wheel. The gear shifter is not that intuitive though, and the infotainment screen set-up is difficult to use. You will have to look at the upper half of the system for smartphone app integration, which renders the bottom half useless when you use it.
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Safety is, of course, paramount for Honda and Acura, as is reflected by their continuously good safety crash test ratings. But their set of standard driver aids really help make them effective at providing safety for all occupants.
The 2021 Honda Pilot comes with the standard Honda Sensing suite of driver aids. This suite includes adaptive cruise control (which works down to 20 miles per hour and sets a safe following distance from the vehicle in front of the Pilot), forward collision warning with automatic emergency braking (which warns you of a potential frontal crash and applies the brakes), lane keep assist (which gently steers you back into your lane when it detects the Pilot has strayed over the line), and automatic high beams. The EX adds a blind-spot monitoring system with rear cross-traffic alert.
The 2020 Acura MDX comes with a similar array of features. It has adaptive cruise control, forward collision mitigation with automatic emergency braking, lane departure warning, and road departure warning. Adaptive cruise control does have a tendency to accelerate and brake rather suddenly in heavy traffic. Sometimes it might come to a complete stop, then accelerate even when the vehicle in front has not.
Which Has the Best Value?
If you are looking to keep things affordable, the 2021 Honda Pilot is the way to go. It provides many of the same features found on the 2020 Acura MDX, and their base V6 engines offer roughly the same amount of power. The Pilot is just as spacious and possibly even more comfortable than the MDX.
Which is Better?
While we are looking forward to the 2022 Acura MDX, the 2021 Honda Pilot is still our top pick among all of these vehicles. The Pilot is a strong performer with a massive list of standard infotainment and safety features that work relatively well. Comfort is a high point, and you get a respectable fuel economy from this third-row SUV.