2017 Acura MDX Sport Hybrid First Drive Review - Power to the Little People
2017 Acura MDX Sport Hybrid
You might look at the 2017 Acura MDX Sport Hybrid and think, “Hmm … maybe it’s just me, but that looks a lot like the normal 2017 MDX.”
But don’t be fooled. This seven-passenger midsize SUV is just an incognito NSX; a tiger in Montessori parking lot camouflage. Hey, sometimes you have to ferry around the kids — and, holy God, have you ever tried hauling groceries in a two-seater? Those multiple trips eat into “you time.”
Okay, maybe that’s a bit of a stretch, but that’s what Acura wants you to think. Honda’s luxury division is in the midst of overhauling its image, and it’s doing so by injecting a little NSX into its products — both spiritually and mechanically. While that supercar, reborn as a hybrid last year following a decade’s absence, might seem totally removed from Acura’s popular — and tastefully refreshed — MDX, some familiar DNA appears beneath the new Sport Hybrid’s sheetmetal. (It also appears in the RLX sedan, if you weren’t aware.)
Oh, you’ll get better fuel economy with the MDX Sport Hybrid, but don’t talk to your friends about that. You bought it for the power. Capisce?
When it shows up on dealer lots later this month, Acura expects the MDX Sport Hybrid to woo a small but not insignificant number of buyers with the promise of guilt-free performance. Rather than following the tried-and-true route — shoehorn in a larger engine, or maybe strap on a turbocharger — Acura went a different direction. Why not use technology you already have on the shelf?
More specifically, why not use glitzy hybrid technology borrowed from a highly marketable mid-engine supercar?
That’s more or less what Acura has done here, only with the drivetrain configuration reversed. Instead of a gasoline engine and electric motor powering the rear wheels, with dual electric motors providing power to the front, it’s the opposite. The setup quickly sends torque to all four wheels, while boosting the power quotient well above a stock MDX. Combined fuel economy grows 28 percent over the gasoline-only all-wheel-drive model. Again, the all-but-invisible RLX Sport Hybrid boasts the same setup, albeit with a larger gas engine.
The question you might be thinking is, “Why bother?” All this hardware adds cost, and the MDX remains an exceptionally stable sales performer. Hybrids aren’t the easiest sell, either. Meaningful styling updates, on the other hand — like swapping out the much-loathed “shield” grille for a newly corporate “diamond pentagon” mouth for 2017 — seem like an easy way to save a seven-passenger SUV from wallflower status.
For the most part, yes. But the Sport Hybrid’s role is twofold. Foisting go-faster electrical bits aboard existing models might help Acura craft (or rekindle) a high-tech, high-performance image, but it also gives it an entry in a fledgling segment. One simply can’t leave the higher-end hybrid SUV field to Lexus, Infiniti, Volvo and zee Germans.
“In the premium segment, especially family SUVs, this is an emerging segment,” explained Gary Robinson, Acura’s product planning chief. “In one year, the size of the market has effectively doubled.”
Robinson’s referring to the likes of Lexus’ RX450h, Infiniti’s QX60, BMW’s X5 Xdrive 40e, Mercedes-Benz’s GLE 550e, and Volvo’s top-rung XC90 T8.
The automaker’s marketing eggheads are pretty sure they know exactly who’ll shell out for a MDX Sport Hybrid — affluent, young folks (in the premium SUV sense of the term) with one or two precocious offspring; the type who demand the kind of prestige that’s only delivered by technology, with those extra miles per gallon serving a lifestyle image first, and bank accounts a distant second. The added grunt serves any driver’s ego, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
“It’s not so much about puppies coming out of the third row seats,” said Jon Ikeda, Acura vice president and general manager, about the ads lined up to tout the Sport Hybrid’s performance prowess.
Even premium buyers aren’t immune to nickel and diming. Putting on its Hyundai hat, Acura figured a lowest-in-segment price might sweeten the pot — hopefully making the Sport Hybrid “the vehicle people think of,” said Robinson.
At $51,960 (plus a $975 destination charge), the vehicle’s base MSRP sits just $1,500 higher than the AWD gas model. The gap’s the same when both vehicles are outfitted with the ultra-lux Advance Package, and hybrid fuel economy gains could potentially erase that premium after a few years of ownership.
More importantly, this ute rings in at more than one-thousand clams below its Japanese competition, and five figures below its European rivals. Young Brayden and Brittany’s college fund applauds.
So, after flying us out to Seattle, Acura allowed us to stretch the MDX Sport Hybrid’s legs in the highly variable topography of the Pacific Northwest. First, we played spot the difference, drinks in hand, at a rave-like dining venue (you’re so trendy, Seattle). Minus the new grille, the meaner, creased face, the elegantly integrated tailpipes and interior wood — “crafted” wood, we were informed — there’s little to give away the hybrid system’s presence save for slightly more aggressive side sills, sport pedals, and small “Hybrid” badges borrowed from the RLX.
I suggested to Ikeda and Robinson that if the performance angle of the new powertrain is what Acura wants to flaunt, perhaps the model’s full name should appear on the fender — instead of the eco-weenie label of “Hybrid.” (I’m sure industry types just love this kind of advice.)
There may have been murmurings of what seemed like agreement from both men — for whatever reason, the badge was kept off the NSX after the RLX Sport Hybrid bowed — before a helpful PR manager quickly intervened to avoid any juicy quotes.
“We want the whole brand to be about performance,” said Acura’s PR head Matt Sloustcher. “The hybrid just brings things to a new level.”
The drive up to a Snoqualmie Ridge country club provided ample opportunities to test the vehicle’s electrically bestowed torque vectoring, or so it should have, had slow-moving farm vehicles and torrential rain not turned the twisty roads into opportunities lost. Oh well, Washington State remains a charming place.
That’s not to say the triple-motor hybrid system didn’t do its job. It did, but it did so with a seamlessness that made it go unnoticed to the driver, which is what all engineers hope for.
Crawling away from a stop up an Everest-like incline in downtown Seattle, the twin motor unit driving the rear wheels brought us up the grade under oh-so-gentle throttle pressure; its combined 72 horsepower and 108 lb-ft of torque providing a gentle push. You could expect greater distance on flat ground, with the twin motors (connected via a one-way clutch) drawing as much range as throttle input will allow from the 1.3 kWh battery pack — “Intelligent Power Unit” in Acura parlance — located under the front seats.
While cruising down the I-90 back to the city, we noticed the tach needle suddenly fall to zero at speeds below 55 mph, with no impact on forward momentum. It’s small interventions like these where the Sport Hybrid makes its economy gains. Rated at 26 miles per gallon city, 27 highway and 27 combined, the hybrid MDX tops its gas-guzzling sibling by 8 mpg in the city, 1 mpg in the city, and 5 mpg combined. We hit 26 mpg for the trip.
If you’re curious to see where all that juice is flowing in real-time, simply bring up the power delivery schematic on the SUV’s upper media screen.
Strap on a lead boot (like when passing slow-moving farm vehicles), and everything joins the party. The 47 hp electric motor built into the seven-speed dual-clutch transmission — which works as the starter — comes online, along with a 3.0-liter V6 that’s smaller and lighter than the stock MDX’s 3.5-liter unit. Gas-only power equals 257 hp and 218 lb-ft.
In an all-motor dance, the Sport Hybrid taps a combined 321 hp and 289 lb-ft. Compare that to the stock rig’s 290 hp and 267 lb-ft, saddled with all the power delivery delays inherent with gasoline engines and automatic transmissions (in this case, a nine-speed).
There is one significant drawback to this vehicle, though it’s easily solved by purchasing a stock all-wheel-drive MDX. The Sport Hybrid won’t tow. Sorry, ecologically sensitive, power-hungry boaters. (Acura claims less than 8 percent of buyers in this segment ever bother to hitch up, so it’s not likely to break many deals.)
Throughout the drive, power and responsiveness felt natural and substantial, and the cross members straddling the vehicle’s battery and power control unit (PCU) lend extra stiffness to an already well-composed structure. It’s just a pleasant-riding vehicle. Road craters and fissures, while harder to find in this temperate region, didn’t overtax the Sport Hybrid’s active damping system, which Acura claims boosts ride comfort to the tune of 25 percent. Having an extra 220 lbs of gear below the floorboards also lowers the vehicle’s center of gravity, improving balance and handling.
Make no mistake — you’re not likely to see a 39-year-old family man drifting this rig through the Bed Bath and Beyond parking lot anytime soon. Still, there are four soft-through-sporty driving modes to choose from, including Sport+, should that father of two (or one) feel like stiffer steering, more damping and maximum power delivery. In Sport+, the engine stays on continuously to feed the battery. As Ikeda told me, sometimes your wife is driving, and sometimes you’re driving.
Age and responsibility has a way of taming the urge to cut loose, but that button remains just aft of the push-button shifter should those rebellious feelings arise. Meanwhile, you’re just riding in a top-rated premium midsize SUV with plenty of comfort, extra power, and greater fuel economy. Even if that fender badge doesn’t scream it, you’ve reached a good spot in your life.
[Images: Steph Willems/The Truth About Cars; Honda North America]
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Friends of mine have a 2015 loaded MDX after trading in their Mercedes 2008 GL450. The things they like about the Acura are the efficient space utilization and the comfortable ride, but the convoluted technology (two screen interface, overly aggressive chimes and warnings from all safety tech) have them turning in their lease early to go back to Mercedes. Do people actually want all of these safety systems that seem to just anger the owners? Of course the systems can't be permanently turned off. I think luxury brands are now struggling to justify the premium price with technology since many mainstream brands offer similar tech on lesser vehicles. If you want a loaded premium brand vehicle you now have to struggle with all of the safety aids that come along with the price.