The three-row SUV segment is awash with competitors. Ranging from entry-level family haulers destined to be filled with runny noses and spilled Cheerios all the way to uber-lux machines in which one needs to wipe their shoes before entering, there is no shortage of choice in this arena.
Two choices appear from under the same umbrella. Honda and its corporate cousin Acura put forth the Pilot and MDX, respectively. The vast House That Soichiro Built has the financial reserve and development strength to engineer a pair of three-row SUVs that may share many mechanical components but are designed to appeal to very different sets of customers. As Honda’s luxury brand, Acura is the fancier sibling while Honda is the more family-focused brand, but both SUVs have a lot in common.
Which one is right for you? Let’s figure it out.
Honda Pilot vs Acura MDX
Honda Pilot: Just over 40 inches of headroom is available in both the front and middle rows of the 2019 Honda Pilot. Models equipped with a moonroof shave about half an inch off that figure. Legroom is a vast 40.9 inches up front, 38.4 inches in the second row, and an elfin 31.9 inches in the third row of seats. Practical touches like bag hooks and tie-down anchors line the interior, a nod to families. The Pilot is available with second-row captain chairs or a traditional bench-style seat and can fit up to eight people, depending on the seating configuration you pick. Access to the third row is easy, as the second row can be pulled forward with an available one-touch system.
Acura MDX: Space for noggins is about the same in the MDX as it is in moonroof-equipped Pilots. Popping for the more expensive Acura rewards buyers with an extra half-inch of front-row legroom but second- and third-row measures are roughly the same. The MDX is an inch narrower overall, however, contributing to a slightly tighter three-wide seating experience. Like the Honda Pilot, the Acura MDX is available with either second-row captain chairs or a bench-style seat, however only has seating for up to seven people (only fits two people in the back row), down one from the Pilot’s maximum of eight. Acura also has a one-touch system that allows the second row to slide forward to allow access to the third row.
Bottom Line: If your travels frequently involve packing the second and third rows to capacity with kids resembling future wrestling stars, the Pilot does offer a smidge more width that’ll help prevent unwanted elbow-rubbing. The Pilot can also be configured to hold a maximum of eight people, where the max in the MDX is just seven. However, families whose headcount measures no more than four will appreciate the Acura and its extra front-row legroom.
Honda Pilot: A total of 16.5 cubic feet of room greets Pilot owners when they open the hatch and try to stuff items behind the third-row seat. Flipping the third-row into its flat position reveals 46.8 cubic feet as measured by the industry standard test. We mention this because Honda sometimes quotes this figure as 55.9 cubic feet, a number arrived at if one generously counts available floor space between seating rows and with all passenger seats in an uncomfortable bolt-upright position.
Acura MDX: Every version of the Acura MDX offers the same amount of cargo space, regardless of the number of driven wheels. Behind the third row, owners will be able to pack an even 15.0 cubic feet of gear. Folding that seat opens things up to the tune of 38.4 cubes, a measure which can be stretched to 43.4 if one scoots the sliding second row of seats ahead slightly.
Bottom Line: Thanks to styling, which takes more cues from a T-square than the slinkier MDX, the Pilot has more cargo capacity in every measure.
Honda Pilot: A raft of tech finds its way into the Pilot for 2019, including 4G LTE wifi and, finally, a physical volume knob! It also adopts the Honda Sensing suite of advanced driver-assistive and safety technology as standard on all trims — this includes stuff like adaptive cruise control, collision mitigation braking, lane-keep assist and more. CabinTalk is included on the top three trims and allows front row occupants to use the Bluetooth mic to amplify their voice through the Pilot’s rear speakers so any ungrateful whelps seated astern can hear you yelling at them. It even works through the car’s wireless stereo headphones. Cross-traffic monitoring, blind spot monitoring, Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, wireless phone charging, power tailgate, and a rear seat entertainment system are also available.
Acura MDX: All manner of safety nannies such as lane keeping, collision mitigation braking, and adaptive cruise control are standard on every 2019 Acura MDX. Luxury appointments ranging from power seats with upteen adjustments to a killer ELS Premium Audio System all serve to ratchet up the level of tech afforded to Acura customers. Real-time traffic updates, blind spot monitoring, rear cross traffic monitoring, Siri Eyes Free, Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, a rear seat entertainment system, fast-charging USB ports, power tailgate, auto highbeams, and more are also available. It doesn’t appear to be available with wireless phone charging and it still uses a sometimes-confusing two-screen infotainment setup where the bottom screen is a touchscreen and the top screen is controlled via a little rotary knob.
Bottom Line: Each machine brings an impressive level of tech to the party but caters to different types of customer. The gee-whiz features in Pilot, such as CabinTalk, are focused on families and their unique needs. On the other hand, Acura’s snazzy tech like the ELS Audio are definitely targeted at those seated in the front row, or at least a family with grown children.
The two SUVs are very equally matched, however, and in some cases, the Pilot actually offers more/better tech and we very much prefer its more user-friendly infotainment system. This makes it more difficult to recommend the Acura over the Pilot if a driver is looking for the most/best tech. If this is the case and you want the most up-to-date tech, go for the Honda Pilot. The Pilot has just been refreshed for 2019 and that’s why it has newer tech, but expect the Acura MDX to follow suit soon enough.
ALSO SEE: Honda Pilot Review
Honda Pilot: No matter how much cheddar you splash out on a 2019 Honda Pilot, one will find the same 3.5L V6 engine under the hood. Making 280 horsepower and 262 lb-ft of torque, it is teamed with a 9-speed automatic is high-spec Touring and Elite trims. Everything else makes do with a six-cog unit. Direct injection and active noise cancellation do their part to help the VTEC kick in, yo.
Acura MDX: Stop us if you’ve heard this one, but the MDX is powered by a … 3.5L V6 engine hooked to a 9-speed gearbox. In this application, engineers found 10 extra ponies to push total output to 290 hp. For 2019, there is a Sport Hybrid option in which one will find this V6 mill paired with twin electric motors creating a total system output of 321 horsepower.
Bottom Line: The Acura makes more power in every trim and spec than its Pilot brother. The inclusion of that 9-speed transmission in all versions of the more expensive MDX (save for the hybrid which gets its own unique seven-cog unit) speaks to the premium feel it brings to the table. The Hybrid is also the sportier option, so if you wanted something with more oomph and was also more fuel efficient, the MDX Sport Hybrid is the way to go.
Honda Pilot: It is important to remember this machine is offered with a choice of transmissions, dictated by the car’s trim level. Two-wheel drive, six-speed Pilots earn ratings of 19 mpg and 27 mpg on the city and highway cycles respectively; give yourself a 1 mpg deduction if you add all-wheel drive to this powertrain. The extra ratios inside the optional nine-speed transmission improve front-wheel drive fuel economy fortunes to 19 mpg city but sticking at 27 mpg on the highway. Again, piling AWD on the options list exacts a 1 mpg penalty.
Acura MDX: Front-wheel drive versions are rated by the EPA at 20 mpg in city driving and 27 mpg on the highway. Adding power to all four wheels subtracts a single mpg from both figures. Hybrid versions have also earned a 27 mpg rating for its highway cycle but does much better in the city at 26 mpg. For reasons known only to Acura engineers, it is recommended that owners feed the MDX a diet of 91 octane fuel.
Bottom Line: The Pilot and MDX largely mirror each other in terms of fuel economy and share a gas tank capacity of 19.5 gallons, so a family will be able to travel equally far in either rig before they have to stop for fuel. However, Acura’s odd recommendation of more expensive 91 octane fuel – despite sharing a powertrain with the cheaper Pilot, which apparently runs fine on the regular stuff – tilts this round in Honda’s favor.
Honda Pilot: Measuring ground clearance in the 2019 Honda Pilot is easy, since they all have 7.3 inches of it, no matter if it is front- or all-wheel drive. Towing capacity is capped at 3,500 lbs for Pilots featuring power going only to their front wheels and an even 5,000 lbs for AWD machines. Approach and departure angles hover around 20 degrees across the board.
Acura MDX: As a function of riding on the same mechanical platform, non-hybrid MDXs have exactly the same amount of ground clearance as the Pilot – 7.3 inches. Maximum towing figures are the same, too. Thanks to different styling and packaging choices, the MDX gives up quite a bit when it comes to approach and departure angles, measuring just 14.9 and 17.4 degrees respectively. Take care when approaching snowbanks and concrete parking lot dividers.
Bottom Line: Straight up, the Pilot is a better choice for customers who may find themselves trying to punch their way through a January snow drift on their way to work or seeking to park their ride a bit closer to the shoreline on a summer’s day. Barring those specific examples, however, both machines are closely matched for everyday driving duties.
Honda Pilot: Grafting the Honda corporate grille, flanked with headlights featuring a boomerang of LED mascara, onto the Pilot creates a blunt but handsome face that should age well. Freshly tweaked for 2019, it casts a typical 196.5-inch two-box shadow. It won’t offend the neighbors but it won’t set anyone’s heart aflutter, either.
Acura MDX: With a bold and expressive grille, snazzy Jewel Eye headlamps, and flamboyant wheel designs, the MDX is an extroverted foil to the stoic and boxy Pilot. Selecting the A-Spec trim unlocks a palette of bright colors to pair with a set of exhaust tip finishes the size of sewer cannons. A rear diffuser of questionable necessity adds visual theatre.
Bottom Line: Stylistically, the MDX wins. No contest. The Pilot is decidedly chunkier and it barely has any style at all.
Honda Pilot: Base LX trims start at just $31,450 plus destination, a competitive price in the cutthroat three-row SUV segment. Adding all-wheel drive pads the tab by $1,900. Models with leather seats and a rear entertainment system for the kiddos easily surpass the $40,000 mark. Selecting the top-dog Elite trim nudges the pricetag uncomfortably close to $50,000.
Acura MDX: The cheapest model – simply called MDX, how creative – rings the bell at $44,300. This is just $735 north of the least expensive Pilot equipped with the nine-speed automatic, a transmission which is standard equipment in the Acura. Adding all-wheel drive at any point in the pecking order adds $2,000. The dearest MDX will hoover $60,050 from your bank account.
Bottom Line: At the lower end of its pricing scale, the MDX is attractive when compared to a nine-speed Pilot. Beyond that specific example, however, the Pilot reliably offers more practicality for less cash.
ALSO SEE: 2019 Honda Passport Review and Video
The Verdict: Honda Pilot vs Acura MDX
Scientists tell us that the left-hand side of our brains is responsible for linear and analytical thought. This allows humans to make rational and sensible decisions. The right-hand side of the brain though? That part is said to be more subjective and enjoys things that provide a good emotional reaction.
Given that information, it doesn’t take a genius to infer which side of the brain would theoretically prefer the stoic but sensible Pilot and which side would like the expressive MDX. Your author, an unapologetic extrovert, chooses the latter.
Going back to the left brain here, it gets difficult to recommend the MDX because it offers pretty much the same stuff as the Pilot, except for more money — call it a tax for more style and fancier materials. But besides that, the MDX simply feels like a fancier Pilot: the way they drive, the tech they offer, and even their powertrains are so similar and the Pilot is so remarkably good that we wonder sometimes why the MDX even exists. Add in the fact that the Pilot is more affordable while also having a better infotainment system and more family-friendly features, and it seems like a clear winner.
Check out our video review of the Honda Pilot:
Check out our video review of the Acura MDX. The video was shot with a refreshed 2017 model, but it’s the same car, as nothing has changed for 2019:
We also have a video review of the Acura MDX Sport Hybrid: