The Acura MDX and Lexus RX are two of the OG luxury crossovers. The MDX debuted in 2001 and the RX just a few years earlier in 1999. They’re mainstays in the hotly contested segment and have been kicking it before crossovers were cool.
Both crossovers have become well known for offering stellar reliability and the soft, cushy comfort that luxury shoppers are looking for. Both CUVs are available as regular gas-powered models and hybrid versions, and although the MDX comes standard with a third row, the RX is now available in a long-wheelbase version that also offers an additional row of seats, so the two are even closer than ever.
Last year, the MDX sold 51,512 units in North America but the RX sold 118,547, which is a huge difference. Does the Lexus deserve to outsell the Acura by that much? We brought both CUVs together to find out.
The Lexus we have here is the hybrid model, the RX450h. A fairer comparison would have brought out the Acura MDX Sport Hybrid, but it wasn’t available, so we have the regular non-hybrid version to compare. Still, the two compete and are often cross-shopped, even if their propulsion is slightly different in these testers we have. The similarities are still there and the comparison must go on!
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I’ve always appreciated the Lexus RX after my family and I drove across the country in one when I was a kid. It was smooth, comfortable, reliable, fuel efficient, and stylish. Although the one we took on that road trip was a few generations of RX ago, the current RX still has all those attributes and as soon as you get in and drive, it’s immediately obvious why so many luxury crossovers buyers flock to the RX.
The RX has a track record of high resale values and reliability, thanks to its Toyota parent company. And although the platform is used on the Toyota Highlander, it doesn’t feel like a Toyota — it has its own distinct character and there’s little overlap in terms of what your eyes see and your hands can touch. The RX feels luxurious with top-notch materials and a tight build.
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The RX comes as a hybrid and a conventional gas-powered model, but if I had to choose, the gas-powered model would be my pick. The 450h hybrid model runs on premium gas and weirdly sounds coarse when the gas engine fires up while toggling between EV and regular driving modes. It’s unbecoming of a luxury car and it should be both smoother and quieter.
I would also try to stay away from adding the F-Sport package to the RX in either form because it makes the crossover’s suspension unnecessarily stiff and crashy, which also takes away from the cushy, luxurious feeling we expect from a Lexus. The F-Sport package gets a sportier suspension setup along with bigger wheels, which might improve handling, but the tradeoffs, in this case, don’t really justify the add-on in this application.
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Even without the F-Sport package, the RX drives more car-like than the MDX, which feels more like a minivan. The RX feels lighter, nimble, and easy to place. The steering is quite vague, but that’s a quality that’s the status quo in this segment. The Lexus RX350 is powered by a 3.5L V6 that outputs 295 hp and 268 lb-ft of torque and uses an eight-speed automatic transmission. The hybrid adds an electric motor and bigger battery for a total system output of 308 hp and uses a CVT.
The RX brings a lot of safety tech as standard equipment: pre-collision system with pedestrian detection, lane keep assist, lane departure alert with steering assist, automatic high beams, and all-speed adaptive cruise control are all standard. It all works well enough, but the adaptive cruise control system leaves too much space between you and the car in front, which means people will often cut you off, resulting in the car slamming on the brakes. There are other systems out there that feel more natural and smooth. I also appreciated that the RX has buttons to fold down the rear seatback both in the trunk and next to the seats itself.
Although the RX has a clearly luxurious and well-crafted interior, the design is aging quickly and the infotainment system is truly awful — we genuinely think it’s one of the worst systems in the industry. There is no touchscreen (though we like the wide display screen), so drivers are expected to use a little joystick-like mouse to navigate around the menus and settings on the infotainment screen. The joystick is far too sensitive and erratic — it jumps around everywhere, so it takes forever to get things done, and it’s very distracting to use, especially while in motion. This is made worse by the fact there’s no Apple CarPlay or Android Auto support. This interface is not at all user-friendly and is incredibly frustrating to use.
Since its inception, the Acura MDX has always been a “large and in charge” luxury crossover, and in that sense, not much has changed. Based on the Honda Pilot, the Acura MDX is far more floaty and more softly sprung than the RX and drives much larger as well, feeling more like a minivan than a crossover. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, as we found the MDX to feel confident with its size, and we appreciated how it ironed out rough roads, making the ride smooth and comfortable.
The MDX we had was powered by a V6 that outputs 290 hp and 267 lb-ft of torque. It was hooked up to a nine-speed automatic that always felt like it was in the right gear. The Sport Hybrid model gets a seven-speed dual clutch transmission and a total system output of 321 hp and 289 lb-ft of torque.
Being larger and based on the Pilot, the MDX is definitely more family-oriented than the RX, with more room for cargo and more back seat amenities like fast charge USB ports and cubbies for storage. The third row is tight and it’s not the easiest to get back there, so it’s best saved for emergencies and short trips.
Style-wise, the MDX is much more conservative than the RX and we think it will help the MDX age more gracefully, though some people will say it’s boring and prefer the Lexus’ more daring design. Inside, the MDX definitely doesn’t feel as luxurious as the RX, as Acura uses a lot of hard plastics. Where the Lexus doesn’t at all feel like a Toyota, the Acura definitely has shades of Honda showing through.
ALSO SEE: Acura MDX Sport Hybrid Review
The MDX’s infotainment system is better than what’s offered in the Lexus, but it still isn’t a great system. The MDX has a two-screen setup — the top screen is controlled by a rotary knob and the bottom screen is a touchscreen. Splitting things up this way just makes it confusing to toggle between two different interfaces. Making things worse, the top screen is used to display Apple CarPlay and Android Auto when connected, so having all that nice touchscreen functionality that makes them so user-friendly is taken away by having to use the rotary knob to use it.
On the technology front, the MDX offers much of the same safety and driver assistance features as the Lexus, though we found it to feel more natural and easier to use.
The Lexus RX450h is much cheaper than it was last year, by about $7,000, but it also doesn’t have as many standard features, so there’s definitely a tradeoff. Both of the two CUVs start at around the same price, $44,000. The RX450h F-Sport with AWD we have here goes for about $51,000, while the Acura MDX Sport Hybrid is $52,000.
The Verdict: Acura MDX vs Lexus RX Comparison
In the end, the Acura MDX just ended up feeling like a fancier Honda Pilot and we didn’t think it justified the higher price point over its corporate cousin because it’s essentially the same thing but with slightly older tech and more style. That said, if you often drive with passengers or need more cargo capacity, the MDX is the better pick, as the passenger seats have more amenities and the crossover is more family-oriented and comfortable than the Lexus RX.
The Lexus felt more luxurious and better to drive, and although we hate the infotainment system and wouldn’t get the F-Sport package because we think it takes away the cushy comfort we expect from Lexus, the RX is the better all-around luxury crossover, and we think it’s working harder for your dollars. An informal survey of our friends and family also showed us that Lexus also has better luxury brand cachet than Acura, so the Lexus wins this comparison, if only by a small margin.