These days, a luxury experience doesn’t always come with a luxury badge. This applies to everything from cars and clothes, to hotels and restaurants. This is good news for the masses, but it also puts heat on luxury brands to build extra value into products. Otherwise, all you’re really getting is a fancy badge.
So what happens when Acura gently revises the redesigned MDX crossover while Toyota pulls out the stops redesigning its Highlander? You get two vehicles that are surprisingly close to each other, except in price.
The 2014 Acura MDX has been given an updated exterior. It’s attractive, though we think the Toyota Highlander has a bolder overall look to it.
On the outside, the Acura and Highlander look very different. The Acura’s design is all-new, but it looks similar to last year’s model, though with the edges smoothed over. To tell it from the 2013 MDX, you have to know what to look for – if you see a thin row of LED headlamps or horizontal, light-pipe tail lamps, you’re looking at the 2014 model. From a design standpoint, Acura played it safe.
The 2014 Highlander’s price ranges from $30,000 for the basic LE trim level, to $42,000 for the Highlander Limited model (hybrid-powered Highlanders can crest the $50-grand barrier, however).
The 2014 Toyota Highlander, on the other hand, is virtually unrecognizable as a Highlander. And that, as Martha Stewart might say, is a good thing. The last model’s dowdy styling is replaced by square-jawed good looks, with its 2.7-inch longer body creating more room inside. The tall front end has a bold grille, giving a semblance of big-rig authority.
The base Acura MDX starts at around $42,000, or roughly where the non-hybrid Highlander models top out. A fully-loaded MDX, with the Advance and Entertainment option packages, costs approximately $56,000.
The overall look is elegant and impressive, especially for the normally quite conservative Toyota brand. For exterior design, the handsome Highlander wins.
Like the lobby of a high-end hotel chain – think W or Andaz – the interior of the Acura MDX is overtly modern. There are crisp metallic surfaces, understated wood inserts on the dash and doors, and a space-age, multi-screen dash certain to appeal to gadget fans. Thing is, like the outside, there’s little that feels massively different about the new one versus last year’s model.
The Acura MDX features a split-screen layout in the center of its dashboard.
The Highlander’s interior, while more low-key, is similarly fresh and contemporary. The Highlander boasts tons of storage space, including a broad shelf running the length of the dashboard, from the steering column to the passenger door. This is perfect for stashing cell phones, pens, tissues, gum, or whatever else you like to stuff inside your vehicle. Both trucks came with padded and top-stitched interior surfaces and unexpected (on the Toyota, anyway) rear door sunshades for an extra layer of privacy.
The 2014 Toyota Highlander cabin is clean and functional. We love the extra long storage compartment that runs along the bottom of the dash.
The MDX (with the Advance package) really shines in seat comfort, however. Covered in super-soft leather, the MDX’s front seats are fabulous. In comparison, the Highlander’s perforated leather seats—heated and cooled as they may be—feel hard and flat. Our Highlander featured second-row captain’s chairs versus the MDX’s bench seat, making it easier for little ones to climb back into the third row.
The rear seat in the 2014 Acura MDX offers room for two.
Both vehicles are skimpy on knee-room in the far back, but the Toyota can technically seat three versus the Acura’s two, meaning that if you ordered the second-row bench, the Highlander holds up to eight people. The cabin battle goes to Toyota, by a hair.
As tested, there’s not much daylight between the Highlander Limited with the Driver Assistance package and the MDX in terms of safety and interior technology; both feature the latest connectivity systems and mobile app syncing. Acura’s optional Rear Seat Entertainment package includes an excellent surround sound audio system, and extra-wide 16.2-inch rear seat entertainment screen.
The 2014 Toyota Highlander offers space for three (small) passengers in its third row.
The Highlander also arrived with rear seat entertainment, with a smaller 9-inch drop-down screen. The Acura and Toyota were equipped with rearview cameras, pre-collision braking, emergency notification systems, radar-based adaptive cruise control, and blind spot and lane departure warning systems. The Acura also brought standard LED headlamps and lane keeping system that keeps the vehicle from drifting out of its intended lane. When the tech is tallied, the Acura comes out slightly ahead.
In terms of polished driving behavior, the 2014 Acura MDX easily comes out ahead.
In addition to being slightly lighter in weight, the 290-horsepower MDX is more powerful than the Highlander, and surprisingly, more fuel efficient on the highway. Brakes and body control are also quite mannerly for a seven-passenger crossover, and the steering is more direct. If you were ever to take the MDX on a track (and let’s face it, 99.9% of buyers won’t), the torque-vectoring all-wheel-drive MDX would shock you with its dexterity.
The Highlander is available with a 2.7-liter 4-cylinder, or optional 3.5-liter V-6 engine. Customers can also choose between front and all-wheel-drive.
The Highlander is hardly a wimp when equipped with its optional 270-hp V-6 engine. Unfortunately, the engine emits a drone at around 2,000 rpm, which tends to be right where the revs fall during gearshifts. The steering is also numb by comparison to the Acura.
In normal driving circumstances, these vehicles are roughly as good as each other. But when you’ve gotta get a move on, you’ll want the MDX.
It doesn’t have a glamorous badge, but the 2014 Toyota Highlander is big on luxury (and value).
The Winner: 2014 Toyota Highlander Limited
The big story here is not that one of these cushy crossovers is vastly superior to the other; indeed, that they’re so close is what’s remarkable! Both are very nice looking, and each of them holds lots of people and things. They’re also remarkably well-mannered on city streets or on the open highway. With than in mind, however, the Highlander seems like an MDX with $12-grand on the hood.
The Acura MDX is very good, but that level of cash savings goes a long way for most of us. Despite the mainstream badge, the 2014 Toyota Highlander scores a high-content and high-value win.