It’s still not often you see the words “Sport” and “Hybrid” in the same sentence – let alone in the same name – but the concept is growing in popularity. And few companies are leveraging the principle of using an electric motor’s instant low-speed torque to augment the high-end power of a gas engine as thoroughly as Acura.
Of course, hybrids are hardly new. But in most early applications, vastly increased fuel economy was the primary goal, with performance targets being aimed at little more than “keeping up with traffic.”
That’s changing. Several high-end sports cars are now using hybrid technology to achieve some astonishing performance figures, Acura’s recently released NSX 2-seat exotic being among them. The company’s RLX luxury sedan has used a performance-oriented hybrid system in its AWD version since its introduction in 2014, and more models are in the pipeline. (Our review of the 2014 RLX Sport Hybrid gives a more thorough explanation of this type of hybrid system, which is also used in the new MDX discussed here.)
The MDX premium midsize SUV was restyled for 2017, arriving last fall in front-drive and AWD versions. It was the first Acura to wear the make’s new “Diamond Pentagon” grille design, which will be adopted by other models in the near future.
So where does the new MDX Sport Hybrid – which comes standard with AWD — differ from its non-hybrid counterpart?
First, in powertrain design.
The gas MDX SH-AWD (Super Handling All Wheel Drive) comes with a 3.5-liter V6 and 9-speed automatic transmission, the combination driving all four wheels. Power output is rated at 290 horsepower and 267 lb. ft. of torque. But the Sport Hybrid uses a 3.0-liter V6 mated to a 7-speed automated-manual transmission with built-in electric motor/generator that drives only the front wheels; the rears are driven by two more electric motors housed in the rear differential. (As such, there’s no driveshaft going the rear wheels.) Combined, the engine and electric motors put out a total of 321 horsepower and 289 lb. ft. of torque, an increase of roughly 10 percent. Countering that, however, is the Sport Hybrid’s weight gain, which figures out to about 230 lb. or roughly five percent. Acura says 0-60 acceleration times for both versions are in the 6.5-second range, but that the Sport Hybrid is a bit quicker in full-throttle acceleration while underway.
Then there’s fuel economy.
As might be expected, the Hybrid trumps its gas counterpart in this regard, scoring an EPA rating of 26 city/27 highway/27 combined vs. the gas version’s 18/26/21, giving the Hybrid a 45-percent advantage in city driving (though it’s virtually a wash on the highway). But the gas model is rated to tow 5000 lb. whereas towing isn’t recommended with the Hybrid, so there’s a trade-off.
Another comes in price. The $51,960 Sport Hybrid comes standard with the Technology Package (blind-spot and rear-cross-traffic alert, navigation system, and a few other features) that’s optional on the $46,050 gas model, but when the latter is likewise equipped, the total jumps to $50,460. That means that with the Technology Package, the Hybrid costs just $1500 more – a relative bargain. Both versions are also offered with an Advance Package that adds (in addition to the Technology Package features) a 360-degree camera and ritzier interior furnishings for $6040, but only the gas model is available with the $2000 rear-seat DVD Entertainment Package.
In most other ways, the MDX Sport Hybrid driven was much like the gas version we tested earlier this year. That includes tasteful interior trim, good visibility (though less so to the right front and rear corners, with a standard 180-degree rearview camera helping with the latter), and good 1st– and 2nd-row passenger space, the latter aided by a flat floor (of benefit to a middle-seater). But it also means limited space in the 3rd row (though my 5’9 frame managed to fit in, albeit in a knees-up seating position) and slightly confusing audio/climate/navigation controls split between upper and lower dashboard screens and some manual knobs, buttons, and flippers.
However, the dynamic experience differs a bit. In normal driving, the hybrid system is virtually transparent; the engine’s standard start/stop system (included in the gas model’s Advance Package) shuts it off at stoplights, but restarts it with little fanfare – unless, that is, you floor the throttle. In that case, there’s a bit of a delay before the vehicle moves out, and then acceleration is not really strong until after the first second or two. If the pedal is nailed while underway, there’s some instant response from the motors, and then a stronger surge once the transmission kicks down and the engine chimes in. (In some cases under cruise conditions, the engine shuts off, with the vehicle running under just electric power.) Some of the full-throttle hesitation can be relieved by choosing the Sport+ mode – which keeps the engine running all the time – but selecting that is a multi-step process that has to be repeated every time the vehicle is started (because it messes with the EPA figures). By contrast, the choice of Comfort, Normal, and Sport modes will be retained along with seat and mirror positions in the driver’s memory settings.
Handling is supposed to be aided a bit by the Hybrid’s lower center of gravity (due to the heavy hybrid battery being mounted beneath the floor) and its version of Acura’s Super Handling All Wheel Drive. The latter uses the rear motors – which can also serve as generators – to help the Hybrid through fast corners. It does this by applying power to the outside rear wheel while slowing the inside wheel (via the drag created by switching the motor over to a generator function), which helps rotate the Hybrid around a corner. Indeed, the vehicle felt very stable in fast turns (though we didn’t have a gas model to use for comparison), and it also rode quite smoothly.
Acura’s MDX has long been one of Consumer Guide’s favorite premium midsize SUVs, and the new Sport Hybrid adds “fuel economy” to its list of virtues. If you drive 12,000 miles per year on $3/gallon gas, the Hybrid will likely pay off its extra cost in less than four years, after which the savings are all gravy. Balance that against the slightly more vivid throttle response and towing capability of the gas model, but either way, you really can’t make a bad choice.