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Quick Spin: 2014 Acura MDX

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    Acura

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Last week, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) cautioned states about allowing cars featuring self-driving technologies on public roads. The federal agency recommending that licenses for such vehicles be limited to prototypes operated by specially-trained test drivers, at least for the next few years.

Funny thing is, on the same day that announcement came out I was in a car that was cruising down the road with no input from the person in the driver seat, controlling its speed and steering all by itself. Starting next month, you’ll be able to buy one for yourself.

Guess that cat’s out of the bag.

The 2014 Acura MDX looks about as much like the car of the future as the old MDX did, which it resembles quite a bit. But the updated luxury crossover is packing some impressive new driver assist technology under its familiarly-styled skin.

First, there’s its optional adaptive cruise control system, which uses a radar to maintain a set distance to the vehicle you are following, even as its speed varies. A lot of cars on the road today have something like this, but Acura’s includes a Low Speed Follow function that can bring the MDX to a complete stop and return to the original cruising speed with a tap of the Resume button on the steering wheel when traffic starts moving again.

Meanwhile, a camera mounted at the top of the windshield scans the road ahead looking for potential obstacles, and the MDX will fire off an audible and visual warning, or trigger the brakes autonomously if it sees trouble ahead. But it’s that camera’s second function that really drives the MDX into Tomorrowland.

By keeping its eye on the lane markers, it enables both a Lane Departure Warning and Lane Keeping Assist System that uses the electric power steering to keep the car between the lines. As with the cruise control, several other automakers, including Lincoln, offer similar systems, but the one on the MDX is so aggressive that you may wonder why you’ve even bothered to sit in the driver seat.

On a very windy road along the Hudson River Valley, my partner on a recent test drive was shocked when it engaged, taking his hands off the wheel as we sat there, amazed at how effectively the MDX was managing itself at speeds over 50 mph through a series of tight-radius curves that you wouldn’t want to take any faster if you were in control.

Granted, the system is only as good as the lines on the road are visible – it won’t pick them up if they’re too faded or covered in dirt – and some turns were simply too sharp for it to handle, but combined with the cruise control, on a relatively straight, well-kept highway, it seems that you could easily sit back, relax and enjoy the trip a good portion of the time; something one of the Acura representatives on hand said is exactly what he’s been doing his morning commute these past few weeks in the also-new RLX sedan that shares the technology.

He didn’t say it too loudly, though, and you won’t see Acura advertising the vehicles as “hands and feet free.” Lawyers, they’re still not comfortable with this sort of thing, and as good as it is, it’s still not perfect enough that you don’t need to keep an eye on things. But in a segment where technology is quickly becoming a key selling point, someone from Acura should be on a roof somewhere shouting about it.

If they won’t, I will, and look forward to happily surrendering to our electronic overlords. At least during my next boring commute.

At other times, the MDX is quite good to drive, especially for a minivan in disguise. The suspension features two-mode shocks that eat up the little bumps, but offer excellent body control; the sport mode on the six-speed transmission is plenty sharp; the steering is quick and nicely weighted, at least if you keep it out of comfort mode, which was added because some customers apparently need their steering so light that they can use one finger on the wheel; and you’ll hear no complaints about the 290 hp V6.

Front-wheel-drive is now available for Sun Belters, and good for 28 mpg highway, but Acura’s excellently-named Super Handling All-Wheel-Drive will make up the bulk of sales for just 1 mpg less. Fitted with a few more driver aids, like torque vectoring and something called 

Compared to the outgoing MDX, there’s additional legroom throughout and significantly more cargo space behind the third row. The design of the dashboard is standard issue Acura: quiet, handsome, but slightly underwhelming for a $43,185 car that can be optioned up into the $60,000 neighborhood.

The centerpiece of it is a touchscreen display that takes the place of 32 physical buttons on the control panel, leaving just 9. Unfortunately, it could use a few more. Functions as simple as turning up the fan or adjusting the volume now require navigating several screens. I’d have to spend a lot more time with the MDX to tell you if it gets better the more you use it, but it is infuriating and distracting at first try.

Good thing the MDX can take care of some of the driving while you figure it out.

Just don't tell NHTSA.

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2014 Acura MDX

Base Price: $45,185

Type: 5-door, all-wheel-drive 7-passenger crossover

Engine: 3.5L V6

Power: 290 hp, 267 lb-ft torque

Transmission: 6-speed automatic

MPG: 18 city/27 hwy