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First drive: 2017 Acura MDX Sport Hybrid [Review]

by Byron Hurd

Acura\'s three-row gets the performance hybrid treatment.

If we ask you to name a current Acura model, your mind will probably go straight to NSX. That's to be expected. It is far and away Acura's most exciting model, with second place belonging to, well, maybe all of them and none of them at the same time, right?

It's not necessarily that people think little of Acura, it's that they simply devote little thought to Acura. And who can blame them? It has been a company lacking a coherent identity (and, let's face it, enthusiast credentials) for nearly a decade. Remember the ZDX? Well, you do now.

Progress has come in fits and starts over the past ten years, and it wasn't until the brand's 30th birthday that it seemed to finally turn a corner in a meaningful way--a fitting course correction for the millennial automaker.

Thirty somethingEasy; it's not what you're thinking. Acura has not declared itself the official (or unofficial) luxury automaker of millennials or anything like that. Rather, Acura sees itself as a millennial of sorts.

Think about it. Born in 1986. Showered with praise as a child. Still lives with its parents. Just getting over a bout of questionable style. Fancies itself deserving of more credit and recognition than it seems to receive. Wakes up every day to see its successful peers doing strange things with Sriracha on Instagram.

Yeah, we'd say that's spot-on.

All grown upLike many who find themselves entering their third decades, Acura has made yet another commitment to reinventing itself. This time, hopefully, a bit more permanently.

It started with the NSX--an iconic nameplate not just by Acura's standards, but by those of any bona fide automotive enthusiast. It was a project that Acura could not afford to mismanage. The result was nothing short of a home-run--a new everyday supercar in the true spirit of the original.

And that's all well and good, but two-seat, mid-engined exotics do not drive volume.

Did all that by the age of twenty-oneWhere to next? A new Integra? How about a Legend? These are both nameplates with heavy positive equity, and neither appears to be completely off the table. When will they return? When Acura is prepared build a car worthy of the name, we've been assured. But when will that be?

Sadly, at least for those of us who remember those cars fondly, this is not the era of the sedan; be it a sport compact like the former or an executive car like the latter, the market is simply stagnant--even hostile.

What does that leave, then? Well, when you find yourself in possession of the hottest entry in the three-row luxury game, you press the advantage, right?

Better broad, better automobileNow, If we ask you--without doing any Google research or referring back to our sales stories--to name the best-selling luxury three-row crossover in America, would you immediately spit out " Acura MDX"? Of course you would, because this is an article about the newest variant of precisely that car, and it would be contextually foolish of us to make that reference otherwise. Plus, you're clever. And attractive. Have you been working out?

We'd best end this conversation, lest we end up sparking something romantic. After all, romance can lead to love, and love leads to lovin', and enough lovin' can put you in a position where you need to purchase a large family vehicle. Perhaps a large family vehicle with three-row seating, premium appointments and a performance-oriented hybrid powertrain.

Where on earth would we find such a thing?

Got the right stockThe release of the 2017 MDX Sport Hybrid roughly coincides with the model's overall facelift. While the gasoline-powered 2017 MDX led the Sport Hybrid's launch by about six months, they're functionally part of the same roll-out. When compared to the 2016, the new MDX gets a few exterior upgrades (the new "Diamond Pentagon" grille chief among them), some new optional extras (including LED fog lights and Acura's Surround View camera system) and, in keeping with its image of family-car leadership, standard AcuraWatch (the company's suite of semi-autonomous driving and advanced safety features).

Not much sets the Sport Hybrid model apart from the regular MDX in the visual department. There's the badge, of course, and if you're particularly eagle-eyed, you may be able to spot the Sport Hybrid's slightly larger front brakes.

Under the metal, however, it's a completely different ballgame.

The right car to buyLet's get something out of the way: The 2017 Acura MDX Sport Hybrid is not your stereotypical hybrid buyer's hybrid. The Sport Hybrid is the faster, funner MDX.

It all starts with a 3.0L, naturally aspirated V6. By itself, the gasoline engine is good for 257 horsepower and 218lb-ft of torque. Up front, it's mated to a direct-drive motor which produces 47 horsepower and 109lb-ft of torque. In the rear differential (Super-Handling All-Wheel-Drive is standard), there are two more electric motors (one per side), each producing 36 horsepower and 54lb-ft of torque. Integrated with the front drive motor is the Sport Hybrid's seven-speed dual-clutch transmission.

In the grand hybrid power calculating tradition of "1+1 = Cheeto," the total system output for the Sport Hybrid is 321 horsepower and 289lb-ft of torque. That's a 31-horsepower and 22-foot-pound bump over the standard MDX. The battery and power regulation systems are located beneath the seats in the cabin to optimize the Sport Hybrid's center of gravity.

Acura didn't stop there, however. While the standard MDX is equipped with frequency-selective dampers, the Sport Hybrid gets a full-blown adaptive system which is integrated with its drive modes (Acura refers to this as the "Integrated Dynamics System."), so selecting "Comfort," "Normal," or "Sport" in the Sport Hybrid means not only changing up the powertrain's responsiveness, but softening or firming up the suspension as well. And thanks to that trick twin-motor rear differential, you get electronically controlled torque vectoring as well.

If this all sounds very NSX, that's no accident. In fact, many of the hybrid system components were lifted almost directly. You'll hear OEMs talk about "shared DNA" and such things, but this goes beyond that. By "trickling down" the NSX tech to its Sport Hybrid models (The RLX sedan is offered as one as well; that's the big one, since you probably forgot about it.), Acura is actually taking advantage of increased production scale.

In other words, buying a Sport Hybrid model makes it easier for Acura to build cool cars. You're not buying a hybrid minivan. No, you're doing your duty as a car enthusiast. And it won't even cost you that much extra; you're only spending another $1,500 to spring for the Sport Hybrid over the equivalent MDX SH-AWD.

Don't let the patent leather shoes fool youThe 2017 Acura MDX Sport Hybrid is not fast, even by hybrid standards. That word is reserved for the likes of the Mercedes-Benz GLE550e and the Volvo XC90 T8; the former boasts 436 horsepower and the latter 400 even. "Fast" in this segment also comes at a price; they'll both set you back another fifteen grand.

But 321 horsepower is more than you'll get in a Lexus RX450h or BMW X5 xDrive 40e. Let's not even talk about the QX60 Hybrid, though we're sure Acura would appreciate it if we did. Remember too that the hybrid SUV market is still somewhat young, and the segments not fully fleshed-out. The Lexus and BMW are both two-row SUVs (so is the Benz, for that matter), so not only are you getting more power with the Acura, you're actually getting more car.

This is not a crossover you purchase because it gets better fuel mileage (though it does) or because it's equipped with all sorts of newfangled engineering wizardry (which it is). You buy it in spite of those things, because they are not central to the driving experience.

Following in the grand tradition of the Accord V6 Hybrid (hello, 2006!) and Acura's own RLX Sport Hybrid (again, that's the big one), the MDX Sport Hybrid brings performance to the table first.

Take the engine note, for example. It's all V6, and it's there when you expect it. Like any luxury car, the MDX's cabin has been generously isolated from the powertrain, but not because of the unpleasant cacophony you tend to associate with HEV powertrains. It's the right amount of quiet blended with the right amount of aggression--each present when you want it and absent when you don't.

At no point does its hybrid-ness intrude upon the experience of driving the car. It's a footnote--a conversation piece or curiosity, not a feature. The only sign that anything out of the ordinary is afoot is the MDX's ability to pull away from a stoplight in EV mode. Just think of it as a really, really good auto stop/start system.

Thanks to the unholy deluges typical of March in the Seattle area, we weren't able to push the limits of the MDX Sport Hybrid's dry-weather grip, but we can confidently report that the SH-AWD system is relentlessly effective in the wet--and we mean really, really wet. Unfortunately, this also meant we weren't able to photograph the MDX for ourselves.

Leftlane's bottom lineIf you're already looking at a higher-trim MDX (and according to Acura's stats, the average buyer is), the Sport Hybrid is a no-brainer. It's more fast, more fun, and with a projected $450 in fuel savings per year, more than capable of paying for itself in short order. Don't think of it as a hybrid. Just think of it as the "big engine" option in Acura's already-solid family hauler.

2017 Acura MDX Sport Hybrid base price, $51,960; as tested, $58,975Advance package, $6,040; Destination, $975

Photos courtesy of Acura.

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