The most family-friendly crossovers are essentially big boxes on wheels. They focus on maximum interior space for the money, the smoothest possible ride, and tons of safety features. Most best-selling seven-passenger crossovers — like the Honda Pilot, Toyota Highlander and Chevrolet Traverse — are functional and thoroughly unexciting.
If you’re looking for something with a bit more spice, we recently tried out two slightly pricier models that trade some functionality and value for a higher dose of luxury.
The newly updated 2020 GMC Acadia combines more flavor of a traditional truck-based SUV while still delivering everyday comfort, quietness and fuel economy. And the 2020 Acura MDX brings high-end features and sportier handling. And while both cost more than the most popular seven-passenger crossovers, they still undercut a similarly equipped BMW X5 or Audi Q7 by $10,000 or more.
While Acura is a luxury brand (the upscale sister to Honda), GMC is best known for its trucks. And the Acadia’s base price doesn’t immediately suggest that it’s a relatively premium option in its segment.
At $30,995, the base Acadia SL undercuts the base price of a Pilot or Highlander. But the base Acadia has a smaller engine and few available safety features compared to the class leaders, so most buyers pay thousands extra to get a vehicle with now-common features like automatic emergency braking, all-wheel-drive or more than 200 horsepower. Getting all that costs a minimum of $45,000 (though you get other excellent features by the time you’ve spent that much, too).
The Acadia’s handsomely blocky styling — newly updated this year — helps it stand out from the crossover crowd. If you’re drawn to crossovers because you like how SUVs used to look, its looks alone could win you over. And GMC backs that up with a pleasant driving experience and a comfortable cabin, with an improved infotainment system, more storage space and a better overall ambiance this year.
The 2020 Acadia also gets better gas mileage than last year’s model. A new nine-speed automatic transmission improves mileage on both the base four-cylinder engine and the uplevel V6. Best of all, a new turbocharged four-cylinder is quicker and quieter than the base engine, yet also more efficient. At up to 24 mpg in mixed driving, it’s one of the more efficient seven-passenger crossovers. Even the least-efficient Acadia configuration, the all-wheel-drive V6, has an EPA rating of 21 mpg in mixed driving. Our favorite engine is the new turbo unless you need to tow; it can manage a skimpy 1,500 pounds, versus a more respectable 4,000 pounds for the V6.
For pure functionality, the Acadia can’t even beat its own Chevrolet Traverse cousin — a more roomier vehicle that shares many of the Acadia’s mechanical components. But the GMC’s more distinctive style will win more hearts. And some buyers will also appreciate that the Acadia feels (and is) smaller than the big Chevy.
Acadia fans should be aware that other models offer more space and safety features for similar or lower prices. The Kia Telluride offers perhaps an even better “luxury crossover disguised as an SUV” experience.
The Acura MDX, meanwhile, was the first seven-passenger luxury crossover on the market. The original 2001 MDX, derived from the Honda Odyssey minivan, provided the driving experience of a minivan, some of a van’s functionality, and a posh interior. But ever since the second-generation MDX debuted in 2007, a powerful V6 engine and agile handling have been part of the MDX experience.
Not everyone will prefer the MDX’s light, agile character over the more vault-like feel of a more expensive BMW or Audi. Nor does the Acura match those models for interior opulence or cutting-edge technology. And like the Acadia, it has less room than models like the Pilot and Traverse, particularly in the third-row seat.
The 2020 model starts at $45,525, with even the base version coming loaded with luxury features; there’s no stripped-down base model like the Acadia or other competitors that aren’t from traditional luxury brands.
The MDX’s closest competitor is the similarly spacious but less sporty Infiniti QX60. Buyers interested in the MDX for its luxury-on-a-budget flavor could also consider the less spacious Lexus RX 350L or even the five-passenger Lincoln Nautilus. However, neither is as sporty as the MDX. For fun-to-drive character, the Mazda CX-9 is another great option, and it’s fancier-feeling than you’d likely expect from a non-luxury brand.
Brady Holt is a member of the Washington Automotive Press Association.