First Drive: Acura Makes A Case For Sport Hybrids In The New MDX

Three rows of seats and four motors to propel them, this 330 horsepower sport ute is a reasonably economical way to transport six in luxury. The MDX has been around for three generations now, and this one (the YD3) was introduced in 2014. For 2017 the car has received a styling refresh to get rid of that ‘shield grille’ corporate styling cue that pretty much everyone hated. The new grille keeps the same brand recognition, and looks far better doing it. Also new for 2017 is the Sport Hybrid model, which is the one I’ve been driving. In order to try to beat Lexus at their own RX450h hybrid sport ute game, Acura built this. The hybrid gubbins only run a 1500 dollar premium. For an idea of what it was like to drive, and what I thought of it, hit the jump. 
In the interest of full disclosure, Acura flew me to Seattle, WA, fed me nice food, and put me up in a great room with a view.  

Acura invited us up to Seattle, WA for a couple days to drive the MDX Sport Hybrid and, surprise of all surprises, the heavens parted and rain came down in sheets for most of the day. Obviously, I appreciate the opportunity to test the car with inclement weather to see how it could handle those aspects of everyday life, but it made testing the car slightly more difficult as wet roads obviously lower your limits and make everything a bit more numb. This is a 3-row SUV, so it’s not like I was looking to track down the handling limit of an MDX, but what’s the point in testing if the car isn’t really tested? Fortunately for us, the Acura’s all-season Continental tires were more than capable of navigating the wet back roads of Washington. There was a lot of standing water on the road, and we (the MDX and I) kicked up quite a lot of spray in the process. It’s a good thing the batteries and electric motors in this hybrid are contained in a weatherproof manner. 

The above is a photo of the Acura’s “Twin Motor Unit” that sits at the back of the car. There is one motor for each of the rear wheels to provide proper torque vectoring in cornering (every Acura Sport Hybrid has Super Handling – All Wheel Drive or SH-AWD). There is an additional electric motor sandwiched between the V6 internal combustion engine up front and the standard transmission. While the standard MDX receives a 290 horsepower DFI 3.5 liter V6, the Sport Hybrid cuts that down to a port-injected 3-liter V6 with just 257 horsepower. The trio of electric motors provides an additional 64 peak horsepower for a total system output of 321 horses. The front electric motor is good for 47 horsepower, and each of the rear motors are capable of 36 horsepower, but the four different sources of motivation are never working at maximum output at the same time, hence the 321 number. 

For several years I was a hybrid skeptic, and I even wrote a paper in college about the disingenuousness of using a hybrid motor to boost performance rather than economy. The only performance hybrid available at the time I went to college was the Accord Hybrid. Needless to say, I have since come around on the idea of electric motors for sporting pretense. While this hybrid only has about 30 additional horsepower over its non-hybrid sibling, there are a couple of reasons to buy the hybrid over the ‘regular’ one. First and foremost, this is Acura’s most powerful SUV they’ve ever built. The tech behind it is pretty awesome. The price hike isn’t exorbitant. It’s pretty damn nice inside. It’s pretty decent outside. Let’s break those reasons down. 
Most Powerful Acura SUV – 
Well, having driven this big behemoth of a car, I can confirm that 321 horsepower is more than enough to move it around reasonably quickly. You won’t have any problems merging onto a highway, and you should be able to get out of your own way with a simple squeeze of the throttle. The thing that irks me about this, however, is that Acura has the capability of blowing away the three-row-lux hybrid segment with power, but they chose not to. The RLX Sport Hybrid sedan, which we’ll talk more about in a future post, uses that same 3.5 liter engine as the non-hybrid MDX. Because of that extra half-liter and direct injection, the RLX Sport Hybrid makes 377 system horsepower. In case you’re playing along at home, 377 horsepower is more than 321 horsepower. If Acura had used that same system in the MDX, it would have been far and away the most powerful hybrid SUV in the game. 
I asked Acura about this, and they said that they planned to sell the MDX Sport Hybrid in markets that provide tax benefits for any car 3 liters and under (China). They need to be able to sell a smaller displacement car in beneficial markets (China) to be able to amortize the costs of developing this automobile. I said something about how Mazda manages to make a business case for installing an already-developed engine into the MX-5 specifically for the US market, and how that is a niche car while this one is very much mainstream and should sell in significant numbers. One of them looked at me and said “There’s an NSX here for you to drive if you like”, which worked well at shutting me up… More on that car in a future post as well. 

Hybrid Technology – 
The front electric motor is built into the transmission, sort of where you would imagine a torque converter to be in your mind’s eye view of an automatic. Only, this isn’t an ordinary automatic, it’s actually a 7-speed dual clutch transmission (technically there are paddle shifters, but you’d be an idiot to use them. It’s an SUV, not a damn race car. Settle down, DAD!). That front motor is 47 additional horsepower used primarily to fill in power and torque at lower RPMs. The twin rear motors can adjust between providing forward motion and providing regenerative braking to assist in getting the car through the corner, which acts as a properly independent torque vectoring system. As occasionally indicated by the in-dash display, during some harder cornering instances, the MDX was actually trail braking the inside wheel while providing full thrust on the outside wheel, allowing the behemoth SUV to rotate through the corner with a bit more nimbleness than its weight has any right to. It is partially because of this system that the tall 7-seater feels more like a sedan from the captain’s tiller.
All of that electric stuff adds about 230 pounds to the MDX, which isn’t all that much in the grand scheme of things. It’s a 4500 pound car, all told.  

Pricing – 
We’ll make no bones about the fact that this car is not inexpensive. It’s a luxury car with electric hybrid drive. There are not really any options, just two different packages and some color/interior choices. You can get your MDX Sport Hybrid in either “Technology Package” flavor at $51,960 or “Advance Package” at $58,000. At that price, this car undercuts the Lexus and Infiniti on price. The MDX isn’t quite as comfortable as the Lexus, but it is a better driving experience, and it completely blows away the Infiniti in both ideals (Acura had competitive set cars on site for us to test back to back, and the MDX is the bargain of the trio, I feel). Acura stated that they project the MDX Sport Hybrid to pull off 26 city/27 highway on the EPA fuel economy test, which is far better than the 18 city/21 highway that the non-hybrid car manages. On fuel savings alone, the Sport Hybrid will pay off its $1500 premium price in a couple years, assuming you care about $1500 when you’re buying your 60,000 dollar kid-hauler. 
Interior – 
The best part about the MX Sport Hybrid in my not-so-humble opinion is the interior. Everything you touch feels up-market, and on-par with cars costing tens of thousands of dollars more. The steering wheel is comfortable to hold on to, with a nice thick rim and some decent thumb cutouts at the 9 & 3 positions. If you must pull the paddles, they’re well within reach of your fingertips on the back of the wheel. All of the buttons and knobs are welcome in a world of shitty touch screens, and are easy to reach from the driver’s seat without leaning forward. 

The wood interior trim option is worth going into for a paragraph, so I’m going to. This isn’t a veneer, and it doesn’t have a million coats of lacquer on top of it. The wood here is proper wood with actual tactile wood feeling to it. It has grain for god’s sake. Nobody has wood with grain in it anymore, except BMW’s i3. The wood trim is probably my favorite part of this car, as it provides a gorgeous natural look to the interior, and it’s not over-wrought or overdone. With a matte-type finish, this wood looks like it was cut out of a grove, rough sanded down, and popped into your car. Very good job on this trim, Acura.  

Speaking of shitty touch screens, the dual-screen center console of the MDX is one of the major gripes I have with this thing. The capacitive touch screen is slow to react and requires you to take your eyes off the road for far longer than necessary for simple radio station changes. If you own this car, you’ll want to set the presets and control the radio exclusively from the steering wheel controls, which are actually decent. My other gripe is the seatbacks. Admittedly I am not a small man, and I understand that this seat was not built for someone of my stature. There are some sculpted elements to the upper seat back that I found quite uncomfortable as my time in the car wore on. They jutted out right where my shoulder blades mated with the seat. I didn’t notice this immediately, but after an hour or two it started to become an annoyance, and once I noticed it I couldn’t help but not notice it. Your mileage may vary, but if you go on a test drive and notice a minor fault, it’ll really piss you off five years into your 8-year finance contract. 

I am 6’2″ and I was able to barely crawl into the third row seat. It’s not particularly comfortable, but I could sit back there for a trip across town if necessary. The second row is available with either a bench seat or a pair of captain-style chairs with a gorgeous wood-trimmed center console. If you have to fit seven people in this car, the bench will have to do, however. 
Exterior – 
Oh man, the new MDX looks a thousand percent better than the old MDX. The front end sheet metal is all new, and this is the new corporate face of Acura that will trickle across their lineup in the coming launches (we’ve already seen the second one with the TLX launch at New York today). They’re calling the new grille a “Diamond Pentagon”, and I’m inclined to call it the best corporate grille currently on the market.

As for the rest of the car, it’s a somewhat awkward looking hunchbacked design that seems to work reasonably well for some reason. The front and rear overhangs aren’t too bad, but the rear quarter looks like it’s been squashed a little bit. I can’t say I hate the design, especially with the new grille it’s certainly easier on the eyes, but it’s not exactly ‘inspired’. I like it better than the Infiniti design, and it’s about on par with the Lexus, perhaps a bit better. 

Would I buy one? – 
I have no need to carry 6 people additional to myself, but if I did this would make the short list (with a different driver’s seat). It’s a comfortable driving experience, and the motors pump out enough power to keep things reasonably interesting. If you really need a three-row, and you like the idea of saving a few dollars at the fuel pump, but don’t mind paying extra for the initial purchase price, then this is the Acura you want. If you don’t need this kind of space, want a more handsome design, and need more power, check out the RLX Sport Hybrid, however. I was only in that car for about half an hour and I fell in love with it. Again, we’ll have more on that drive soon. 

[Photos: Copyright Bradley C. Brownell / 2017]

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3 responses to “First Drive: Acura Makes A Case For Sport Hybrids In The New MDX”

  1. CraigSu Avatar

    I don’t have a problem with the new grille, just the ginormous Acura symbol they’ve planted inside of it. That makes it all kinds of ugly to me. They’re clearly not going for subtle but hey, considering how poorly Acura has done sales-wise versus its competition over the years, what do they have to lose now by shouting?

  2. MattC Avatar

    We have a 2013 MDX. It is a great car and does everything wonderfully. However, it is an absolute gas hog in the slow stop and go driving.(On the highway, the MDX is quite efficient for the size) Unfortunately that is the bulk of my wife’s driving for work. This is where a hybrid version of this makes a lot of sense. When these trickle in the used market, we will be keeping an eye out for on of these. (My philosophy is that the best Acura is a slightly used Acura)

  3. salguod Avatar

    The original Acura shield grille that debuted on the MDX was a distinctive, well detailed design.
    Then, a couple years later, they dumbed it down to a simple, metalic, buck tooth slab and applied that to their entire lineup.
    Had they continued the original theme, I wonder if they would have gotten the same criticism.
    The new grille is an improvement, I guess, but it’s a pretty standard sort of grille. An opening, centered between the headlights and above the bumper, with a badge and a mesh pattern. Nothing really distinctive or especially unique.

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