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Honda photo
From this angle, the 2014 Acura MDX still reminds us of its second cousin, the Honda Odyssey minivan. From behind the wheel, however, it’s a top-tier, driver-oriented crossover SUV.

“Coast-down” is something that carmakers rarely brag about. Not since the 1960s anyway, when Saab (remember Saab?) put a free-wheeling cog in the transmission so the engine could idle when the car was running downhill, to save gas. But Honda has dusted off a version of this idea. The company says its 2014 Acura MDX can glide for more than a mile and a half before coming to a stop from 70 mph. And that’s 1,600 feet farther than the ‘13 MDX could manage. Wow!

OK, maybe this isn’t macho one-upmanship, but it is significant for a biggish crossover sport-ute; it means that aerodynamic and mechanical drag have been chopped, again to boost fuel economy. Friction is but one of the enemies of efficiency; weight is another. The MDX also has lost 275 pounds this year, making it — at 2.2 tons — the wispiest luxury AWD in its class.

Overall, then, while 18 miles per gallon in town is no longer stellar, 27 mpg on the highway is, at least for a three-row, 290-horsepower vehicle that burns gas (no diesel, no electrons). It still has just six speeds in its transmission too, although 70 mph requires a mere 1900 or so RPM.

And then, while some engineers were adding lightness — whacking avoirdupois out of the suspension, the subframes, the body, the seats and the climate control (10 pounds) — others were making sure that the new MDX drives the way an Acura should. That is, swiftly, smoothly, quietly and very competently.

No matter where you live, resist all temptation to order your MDX with just front-wheel drive (an option this year). You want Honda’s SH-AWD system. Super Handling-All Wheel Drive decides from moment to moment how to divvy up power between the front and rear axles, and it delivers extra torque to the left or right rear wheel, to help pivot the MDX through corners. For 2014 the MDX also got Agile Handling Assist, which reinforces SH-AWD by braking whichever rear wheel is on the inside of a corner.

Push hard enough on a winding road and you can feel these things working, especially on snow and with the anti-skid magic. In fact, call up “Sport” on both the new IDS (Integrated Dynamics System) adjustable suspension and on the transmission, and the MDX gets unusually frisky for its size. Even the new steering is lighter, quicker and reportedly more immune to bumps.

Our example was the top-selling Tech version of the MDX, with a price tag of $49,460. Among many other things, it had blind-spot, front-collision and lane-departure alerts, a power tailgate, keyless ignition, a smart steering wheel, seat heaters and a wide-angle rear-view camera. The new Jewel Eye LED headlamps are bright and well focused. The new climate-control system is linked to the satnav — GPS determines the position of the sun relative to the front seats, and the system adjusts the airflow to suit.