Hybrid SUVs are nothing new, especially in the luxury segment, but battery-boosted people movers you'd actually look forward to driving are something else entirely. Sensing a chasm in the market between placid fare like the popular Lexus RX 450h and more exotic options from BMW (X5 xDrive40e) and Mercedes-Benz (GLE 550e 4MATIC), Acura has expanded its lineup to include the 2017 Acura MDX Sport Hybrid, a model that has the unusual brief of delivering both excitement and frugality to commuters.
When I arrived in Seattle, Washington last week for my chance behind the wheel of the Sport Hybrid, I wasn't entirely sure whether the customer Acura was after—someone who needs that third row of seating, but also wants to use their electrons to occasionally rub sand in the face of sports sedans at a red light—actually existed. After a day of winding the newest member of the MDX family through the mountain roads that lead out of the Northwest's largest metropolis, however, I came away with a better understanding of what Acura has been able to accomplish with its new flagship SUV.
Mean and green
A big part of the MDX Sport Hybrid's appeal is the normalization, rather than fetishization, of the hybrid drivetrain at its core, a trait that the sport-utility vehicle shares with both the RLX full-size sedan and NSX supercar (each of which feature variations of a similar battery-assisted design). Instead of anchoring the Sport Hybrid's cachet to its fuel-sipping ways and relying on the 25% improvement in efficiency it lords over the gas-only version of the MDX, Acura has made sure to plunk the model at the top of the MDX pyramid in terms of price, performance and poshness.
It's here that the separation between the Sport Hybrid and its would-be Lexus and INFINITI premium hybrid competitors truly makes itself known. It would be difficult to make the case that either the 450h or the QX60 Hybrid is a match for the electrified version of the Acura MDX in terms of driving dynamics or even of design philosophy. The Sport Hybrid, which features a trio of electric motors working together with a gas-powered 3.0L V6, relies on its 1.3-kWh battery pack not just to kick in the rear wheels when traction is at a premium, or float gently away from a stop on a cloud of silence, but to inform its every move out on the road by way of the brand's SH-AWD system.
More than a gimmick
“Super-Handling All-Wheel Drive” might be a mouthful, but it's more than just marketing, especially when considering how much of an impact it has on the Acura MDX Sport Hybrid's ability to consume corners. By carefully controlling the pair of electric motors nestled in the same housing at the rear of the vehicle, SH-AWD works together with the MDX's hybrid controller to brake the inside wheel while turning at speed, and at the same time sending the outside motor spinning much more rapidly in an effort to pivot the truck as gracefully as possible. Not only that, but the kinetic energy absorbed from the braking action actually powers the motor's opposite number, in effect disproving the lament that there are no free thermodynamic lunches.
Combined with the MDX's rigid chassis and wide stance, the hybrid SH-AWD system gave me a fair amount of confidence while piloting the Acura, even on rain-slicked Washington roads that frequently offered more surprises than straightaways. Under the moss-coated canopy leading up to Snoqualmie, the MDX Sport Hybrid was eager and capable of delivering its full 321 horsepower and 289 lb-ft of torque without any drama at all, its seven-speed dual-clutch automated manual gearbox (with an electric motor of its own latched onto the output shaft) executing rapid and nearly imperceptible shifts.
Equally smooth was the MDX's transition between gasoline and EV operation, a state that flipped back and forth on the regular while cruising at steady speed. When left in Normal drive mode, the Acura manages to temper its thirst for fuel to a level well below that of its less-powerful standard MDX sibling (9.0L/100km on average), and when the button is pushed for Sport+ mode it leaves its less-gifted family member in the dust with an impressive burst of straight-line speed.
As muscular and athletic as the 2017 Acura MDX Sport Hybrid feels, I'd be remiss if I didn't point out that its ability to quickly cover ground coincided with a calm cabin environment that felt decidedly upscale. Sure, the dual-screen LCD infotainment system offered by the MDX is a little difficult to master when trying to input radio stations or navigation points, but the seats and interior trim are well-designed and very competitive for the mid-size class. This is particularly true of the second row captain's chairs and center console, a new feature made available when the entire MDX family was refreshed for the 2017 model year. The third row of accommodations—something you won't find on the Lexus RX—are best labelled as “adequate,” as long as you don't try to trap any six-footers back there.
Acura has also stuffed the Sport Hybrid with a bewildering array of available active safety features, including lane-keeping, adaptive cruise control, and blind-spot monitoring. While pricing has yet to be released for the Canadian market, in the U.S. the model retails for just $1,500 more than a similarly equipped gasoline edition of the SUV, giving hope for a similarly appealing window sticker up north. [UPDATED: Acura Canada has just announced a base MSRP of $69,990.]
A lingering impression
Perhaps the strongest praise I can give the 2017 Acura MDX Sport Hybrid is that it managed to make an impression. So many sport-utility vehicles—particularly hybrids—are forgotten the minute you hit the lock button on the remote, victims of their own quiet competence and, indeed, their frequent classification as family-focused appliances designed to elicit no more emotional response than a dishwasher. If the Maytag repairman ever managed to get anywhere near the Sport Hybrid, however, there's a good chance you'd have to fight him to the death to get the key fob out of his hands.