2017 Acura MDX Sport Hybrid Review: Nailing Performance, Trailing in Luxury

Hybrid tech from the NSX supercar can't fully compensate for pedestrian design and godawful infotainment.

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Acura would like to talk about the technology in the MDX Sport Hybrid—and that's a conversation that could take a while. See, this Acura MDX basks in the green halo of the NSX supercar, adopting a version of its AWD hybrid system that cranks out a combined 321 horsepower. That translates to fairly impressive performance for a three-row luxury SUV. 

But Christ, would a little style hurt? Could Acura designers be given fulfilling work in the House of Honda, aside from bending a frumpy fender here, adding a strip of fake metal there? 25 years ago, these guys were building Legends. Today’s Acura “stylists”—the word used loosely, much like at Supercuts—seem to be restricted to endless trimming and fussing over the corporate grille, the latest version of which is called a "diamond pentagon." Even there, the grills have ranged from the inexplicable—the notorious chicken beaks and gladiator shields of recent years—to the now-merely acceptable.

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Acura MDX feels spry with 321 electric-aided horsepower

These glum thoughts hit me when I stride from a Shop Rite in East Hartford, Connecticut to find the MDX awaiting, my shapeless Hausfrau, in its natural habitat of suburban errands and anonymity. The MDX drapes itself awkwardly over its wheels, even on optional 20-inchers, with too much “dead cat space” between the tires and fenders.

2017 Acura MDX Sport Hybrid convoys to Connecticut 

I had driven the MDX Sport Hybrid from Brooklyn to Connecticut with my colleague Benjamin Preston to adopt an old Mazda Miata—a well-kept 1991 model that The Drive intends to transform into a budget racer. On this road trip, the MDX was the elephant to the Mazda’s mouse. But compared to a standard-issue MDX, with its 291-horsepower, 3.5-liter V-6 and largely front-biased AWD system, this elephant can actually dance, harnessing electricity to juice acceleration and goose handling.

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Battery under front seats ensures no loss of passenger or cargo space

As mentioned, total system output rises to 321 horsepower. This gas-electric MDX also boosts EPA city fuel economy by 45 percent over the ICE-only version, from 18 to 26 mpg. (At 27 mpg on the highway, its 1-mpg gain is more negligible). Versus the standard MDX, the gasoline V-6 shrinks, dropping to 3.0 liters and 257 horsepower. But that i-VTEC engine is supplemented by a 57-horsepower electric motor that powers the front axle, integrated into the seven-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission. The transmission, which includes a pair of useful paddle shifters, feels more direct and engaging than the CVTs found on most hybrids. Yet Honda's corporate-console shift buttons, which replace a traditional shift lever, remain fussy and awkward. 

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Compact Twin Motor Unit sends electric jolt to rear wheels

Things get even more trick out back. A pair of compact, clutched electric motors sends up to 72 horsepower to either or both rear wheels—the Twin Motor Unit that powers front wheels in the $156,000 NSX. Yes, it’s the latest evolution of Acura’s Super Handling All-Wheel-Drive system. Hyperbolic name aside, it really does work. And compared with the mechanical torque vectoring on the standard MDX—which can only split power between rear wheels during cornering—the MDX hybrid’s electric motors can generate torque at either wheel in any driving situation, based on wheel slip, g-force and other sensor feedback. The system, Acura says, delivers sharper turn-in, less plodding understeer, and a boost in lateral grip and stability. Throw in adaptive, driver-adjustable dampers, and the MDX feels sharp where its Japanese hybrid rivals—the Lexus RX450h and Infiniti QX60 Hybrid—feel soggy. 

On the challenging, serpentine Merritt Parkway, the MDX easily kept pace with Preston’s buzzing Miata, charging through the Merritt's tricky nighttime curves with real pace and confidence. Steering is precise and smoothly weighted, though as in most family-sized SUVs, there’s not a ton of feedback. The Acura is also adept at shutting down its engine when it’s not needed, whether coasting at highway speeds or around town using its stop/start system. Light throttle keeps the hybrid soundtrack in Muzak territory, but things get a bit more metallic when you summon all 321 horsepower. To its credit, the V-6 sails to a nearly 7,000-rpm redline, but at that point the electric-aided powertrain sounds like a dozen Waring blenders, all set to frappe.

Acura MDX Sport Hybrid: Solid performance, so-so mileage

Among four selectable driving modes, Sport Plus adds a notable burst of electric oomph. With all systems go, the MDX can zip from 0 to 60 mph in 5.7 seconds. Yet like so many hybrid systems that purport to lift both performance and fuel economy, you can’t have your high-speed cake and eat it, too. Babying the Acura’s accelerator en route to Hartford, I managed to keep highway mileage at 29 mpg for the first hour— solid mileage for a six- or seven-passenger SUV. But when I got bored and decided to keep up with traffic and spur those electrified rear wheels to life, the Acura’s mileage plunged. I ended up seeing 23 mpg on both legs of the roughly 120-mile trip, no better than what I’ve managed in an Audi Q7, Volvo XC90, or other conventional three-row hauler. City and suburban mileage were also disappointing; the Acura hovered around 21 mpg, well below its official 26-mpg rating.

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Seats pivot and slide in a nifty one-touch operation

Inside, it wouldn’t be an Acura (or Honda) without some clever engineering and packaging. And it wouldn’t be an Acura without a bland, tarted-up-Honda interior, middling craftsmanship, and hair-pulling user interfaces. Smart stuff includes the 1.3-kilowatt-hour battery pack that packages under the front seats, without detracting a whit from passenger or cargo space. A clever one-touch operation slides the second-row seats—dual captain’s chairs, in this version—back and forth. 

The MDX packs oodles of useful storage, too, include bisecting center consoles front and rear. The third row is something more than a toddler’s pen, something less than full-sized adult accommodations. If you’re anywhere near six feet tall, you won’t be happy there. But you know the drill in this segment: Shoppers will head elsewhere if there’s no third row, whether they really need it or not.

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MDX interior shows its pedestrian Honda roots

Yet despite the first-ever genuine wood trim in an MDX—albeit only on the top-shelf model, which comes fully equipped for $58,975—the Acura doesn’t always read like a luxury SUV. My deluxe model enjoyed upgraded "Milano" leather; yet those seats lack the myriad adjustments offered on many rivals, and their squishy bolsters aren’t great at keeping driver and passenger in place in faster curves. 

But the real Scarlet Letter—in this case, it's an “S” that stands for “sucks”—is Honda’s hand-me-down infotainment system. Instead of a single center screen that’s essentially useless...you get two. It’s a crazy quilt of impenetrable displays, nanny-ish bottlenecks disguised as help, and rabbit holes of menus and lists. Sample dialogue in any MDX, even in Mormon households: “For fuck’s sake, I just want to change the radio station!”

The system’s rotary dashboard controller reminds me of those pedestrian signal-control buttons at busy intersections: Mash the button all you like, but nothing much is going to happen. In another infuriating hiccup, the MDX refused to connect my passenger’s smartphone media, whether over Bluetooth or with a physical USB connection. Honda has introduced an all-new, radically superior Android-based infotainment system in its 2018 Odyssey minivan, which will begin migrating to other models in the two brands’ lineups. But for now, this unit is the lamest of lame ducks.

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The infotainment system from Hell, but with more scary levels

If you can keep your foot off the gas, Acura does help keep the price in check. The MDX Sport Hybrid starts from $52,935, or $58,975 with the deluxe Advance Package. Compared with a conventional MDX, the Sport Hybrid charges a very reasonable $1,500 premium for its fuel-saving tech, adaptive dampers, and electric torque vectoring. Further easing the sting, Acura figures the Sport Hybrid will save the typical owner about $350 to $450 per annum in fuel, enough to pay back its hybrid premium in about four years.

You could do worse than the MDX Sport Hybrid in the three-row luxury sweepstakes. You could also do better. The Audi Q7 and Volvo XC90 spring instantly to mind when I daydream of vacations in a villa-sized SUV. The MDX’s hybrid system admirably boosts performance and mildly ups the mileage. But for me, the lack of any design distinction, along with the half-hearted cabin and incompetent user interfaces, sends the luxury fantasy crashing down. It’s like Cinderella checking her watch and realizing she’s been pushing a pumpkin all night. If you prefer your luxury SUV to make a royal entrance, it won’t matter what performance the magic mice up front can deliver.

Lawrence Ulrich, The Drive’s chief auto critic, is an award-winning auto journalist and former chief auto critic for The New York Times and Detroit Free Press. The Detroit native and Brooklyn gentrifier owns a troubled ’93 Mazda RX-7 R1, but may want to give it a good home. Email him at Lawrence@thedrive.com.