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When I drove Acura's MDX SUV in 2010, its adaptive suspension and active torque vectoring made for amazing handling. But subsequent versions dropped those components, making the MDX just another SUV. Now, Acura brings back that performance with the 2017 Acura MDX Sport Hybrid.
Yes, it's a hybrid, and yes, it deserves the "Sport" moniker.
At an Acura-sponsored event in Seattle, I took the wheel of the MDX Sport Hybrid and was suitably impressed with the smooth, level acceleration and turnability. Pinning the throttle, this three-row SUV didn't pitch upwards, as its all-wheel-drive system balanced torque between the front and rear wheels. And slamming through a few turns, the adaptive suspension minimized roll while its twin electric motors put extra power to the outside rear wheel, creating precise torque vectoring.
The MDX Sport Hybrid follows last year's launch of the standard MDX, which sports a new grille signalling a new performance era for Acura cars. As an Acura spokesman told me, the new MDX is "all new from the A-pillars forward". That means dashboard, seats and main body remain unchanged from the third generation, launched in 2013.
However, the MDX Sport Hybrid shows off more significant changes under the skin. Up front, a 3.0-liter V6 engine drives the front wheels through a seven-speed dual-clutch transmission that also integrates an electric motor. Twin electric motors drive the rear wheels up to 84 mph, above which it's all front-wheel-drive. Acura developed that hybrid system for its RLX Sport Hybrid, modified it for the new NSX, and now brings it to the MDX.
Given the combination of engine and electric motors, the MDX Sport Hybrid boasts an interesting mix of power. To simplify things, Acura gives a combined output of 321 horsepower and 289 pound-feet of torque for the SUV. Combined city/highway fuel economy of 27 mpg falls behind the Lexus RX 450h's 30 mpg, but the MDX Sport Hybrid seems more focused on performance.
Maneuvering through a parking garage at the start of my drive, the MDX Sport Hybrid drove quietly under electric propulsion, but with just a little more throttle, the engine smoothly kicked in. The powertrain delivered an incredibly refined driving experience through downtown Seattle and onto the freeway.
I cycled through the four driving modes, Comfort, Normal, Sport and Sport Plus. Everything, from steering to suspension, felt a little loose in Comfort mode, while Normal and Sport didn't differ too much. In Sport Plus, under full throttle, the MDX Sport Hybrid accelerated with convincing power, but it didn't slam me in the back. More impressive was how level this SUV felt under maximum acceleration due to the torque balance controlled by engine and rear electric motors.
While I could play with drive modes, and manually change gears using the paddle shifters, the MDX Sport Hybrid also let me relax. Focusing on the point A to B type of driving that most people do, this SUV delivered an easy, put-it-in-drive-and-go experience. The refinement of the drivetrain, despite its complexity, makes the task of driving second-nature.
However, faced with a twisty road, I couldn't help but dive into the corners at speed. Given the size of the MDX Sport Hybrid, it took some real daredevil effort to feel the electric torque vectoring rotate the car. Instead, that technology revealed itself in making this SUV feel like a much smaller car in the turns, nimble and quick rather than heavy and lumbering.
Although I was very happy to see Acura bring back this level of performance to the MDX Sport Hybrid, I wasn't as pleased with the unchanged dashboard electronics interface. As with the previous model year MDX, Acura uses two screens, an LCD at the top and a touchscreen below. The top LCD shows navigation, phone and stereo information, with a dial and set of buttons to control it. The touchscreen shows audio and phone information, but not navigation.
The two big problems come from the fact that the top LCD and the touchscreen use different graphic interfaces, so learning how to use one doesn't really apply to the other. And second, the dial and buttons controlling the top LCD sit below the touchscreen, further creating confusion.
As to the navigation system, audio and phone controls, those remain pretty much unchanged from five years ago. In software terms, that's prehistoric. Forget about Apple CarPlay or Android Auto support.
Acura sells the MDX Sport Hybrid in two trims, MDX with Technology Package and MDX with Advance Package. Both come standard with the AcuraWatch set of active safety technologies, including a forward-collision-warning system, automated braking to prevent collisions, lane-departure warning and adaptive cruise control, which automatically matches speeds with slower traffic ahead. Both also have a rear view camera, although the Advance package adds surround view and a head-up display. What might be the deciding factor between the two trims, however, will likely be the seating. The Advance Package replaces the middle row bench with two captain's chairs, going from a seven-seater to six.
The 2017 Acura MDX Sport Hybrid hits dealers this month, priced at $51,960 for the lower trim Technology Package and $58,000 for the Advance Package. And given that Acura mono-specs its trims, that's about all you're going to pay.