These things are getting really good.
We're talking about the big guys: pickup trucks, sport utility vehicles and crossovers that can handle almost anything. They can tow a trailer, haul a family with all its stuff, and still deliver an enjoyable driving experience -- often with the comforts and conveniences once the exclusive province of luxury cars.
The focus here is on the luxury crossover utility as realized in the 2014 Acura MDX. It competes in a category of vehicles that come from such venerated manufacturers as BMW, Lexus, Mercedes-Benz, Lincoln, Land Rover, Infiniti, Audi, Jeepand Cadillac.
There are so many now it's difficult to believe that luxury sport utility vehicles have only been around for about 15 years. The first, in 1998, was the five-passenger Mercedes-Benz ML320.
Four years later, Acura introduced the MDX as the first seven-passenger luxury SUV. Today it is called a crossover because it was -- and is -- built with a unit body that makes it more of a car than a truck-based SUV, which is built with a body on a separate frame.
The MDX, from the luxury division of Honda (its sibling is the sturdy and popular Honda Pilot), wasted no time insinuating itself into the affections of critics and buyers alike. In its first year, it earned Truck of the Year honors from an independent cadre of automotive journalists.
An improved second generation version arrived in 2007 and, right on schedule, the third generation arrives as a 2014 model, loaded with improvements and enhancements.
Though it bears a strong family resemblance to its predecessor, the MDX comes with an all new body and chassis with aluminum components -- including the hood -- that shaves 275 pounds from its weight.
Acura claims it has the lightest weight and best fuel economy among its competitors, including five-passenger as well as seven-passenger crossovers like the Audi Q7, Lexus RX350, Infiniti JX35 and Mercedes-Benz ML350. The all-wheel-drive MDX gets 18/27/21 mpg on the EPA's city/highway/combined cycles, while the front-drive model achieves 20/28/23.
There is only one power train: 290-horsepower, 3.5-liter V6 engine linked to a slick six-speed automatic transmission with a manual shift mode controlled by paddles on the steering wheel.
The MDX also boasts new independent front and rear suspension systems that are tuned to provide a supple, comfortable and quiet ride along with precise handling. On twisting roads, the MDX feels soft and malleable while also clipping corners with the aplomb of a smaller vehicle tuned for sporty handling.
Acura brags that it tested the new MDX on Germany's famed Nurburgring, which is more than 16 miles long with 170 turns and is considered by some to be the most challenging race course on the planet.
Abetting this behavior is Acura's Integrated Dynamics System, which provides adjustable settings for steering effort, throttle response and, on all-wheel drive versions, torque vectoring to tighten handling. The settings are labeled Comfort, Normal and Sport.
The neat thing is that the settings are plugged into the memory system and key fobs, so when mom unlocks the car she gets the dynamic setting she wants along with her adjustments for the driver's seat, mirrors and radio stations. Pop gets his favorites with his key fob.
On the outside, the new MDX features super bright LED headlights but the taillights still use standard bulbs. The exterior design, though refined from the previous model, still has so many familiar MDX cues that the styling doesn't attract attention.
Inside, the redesign -- with a new touch screen -- reduces the number of buttons on the center stack to nine from 41 on the previous model. A clever design of the center console provides a useful slide-out tray with friction strips to hold a cellphone. Underneath is a cavernous compartment that can hold -- and hide -- a large purse or gadget bag.
The second row seat slides six inches, which helps provide knee room in the third row, and the touch of a single button on either side of the second row flips the seat forward for third row access. Though an adult can squeeze back there, the third row should be reserved for nimble youngsters.
The MDX with front drive starts at $43,185, but an array of options packages with such amenities as entertainment and navigation systems, adaptive cruise control, and premium perforated leather with automatic heating and cooling, easily drive the price higher. The tested MDX, with a full load, had a sticker price of $57,400.
Model: 2014 Acura MDX four-door crossover utility vehicle.
Engine: 3.5-liter V6, 290 horsepower.
Transmission: Six-speed automatic with manual shift mode and all-wheel drive.
Overall length: 16 feet 2 inches.
EPA passenger/cargo volume: 132/16 cubic feet.
Weight: 4,332 pounds.
EPA city/highway/combined fuel consumption: 18/27/21 mpg.
Base price, including destination charge: $45,185.
Price as tested: $57,400.