Acura MDX Sport Hybrid SH-AWD first drive review

The Acura MDX is the most popular three-row luxury crossover vehicle, says Honda’s premium division, with 850,000 sold since 2001.

The vast majority of those were sold in North America, since the Acura brand is almost entirely focused on the U.S.

The MDX was also Acura’s highest-selling vehicle last year, just ahead of its smaller RDX crossover, and outsold all of its sedans by a long way.

 

Until now, the luxury hybrid SUV hasn’t had a hybrid model to compete with the dominant Lexus RX hybrid, plus a handful of competitors from BMW, Infiniti, and Mercedes-Benz.

That’s changed for 2017, and now we’ve had a chance to spend a day and more than 100 miles in what’s formally called the 2017 Acura MDX Sport Hybrid SH-AWD.

That last bit, by the way, stands for “Super Handling–All-Wheel Drive,” in case you were wondering. Ahem.

 

While hybrid SUVs are largely sold on the promise of better fuel economy, Acura’s working to recast itself as the “precision-crafted performance” brand.

Hence the “sport” part of Sport Hybrid, allied to its “super handling” all-wheel drive system: the company is casting the hybrid system as a way to boost performance and sharpen handling.

The three-motor system’s credentials for doing that couldn’t get much better: it’s effectively a version of the powertrain in the Acura NSX supercar, with a detuned V-6 engine, and flipped back to front.

In the NSX, the engine and one hybrid motor power the rear wheels, with a pair of motors adding torque selectively to the front wheels. In the MDX Hybrid, the engine and motor drive the front wheels, and the pair of electric motors provide the all-wheel drive for the rear wheels.

The hybrid MDX crossover is actually the third vehicle with the system: as well as the NSX, the RLX large sedan has offered the Sport Hybrid system as well. But that big sedan is virtually invisible in the market, with miniscule sales numbers, so the MDX will be the first high-volume use for this expensive and sophisticated three-motor hybrid powertrain.

Handling crisper

Does it improve performance and handling over the conventional MDX SH-AWD? We didn’t have a standard MDX to drive when we tested the hybrid, so we couldn’t do a back-to-back comparison.

What we can say is that the MDX Sport Hybrid has relatively taut handling for a large, heavy SUV, and it turns in very nicely on sharp and decreasing-radius turns.

That’s a result of the ability to vary the electric torque delivered to each rear wheel, slowing the rotation of inside wheel on corners. We felt the car tighten its line in turns a couple of times, though intermittent drizzle during much of our day outside Seattle limited the amount of really aggressive driving we did.

Certainly there’s little question that the Acura MDX Sport Hybrid handles better than at least two of its competitors: the Lexus RX 450h and the Infiniti QX60 Hybrid. The RX is only a five-seater, but it invented and still rides atop the luxury crossover market, inspiring Audi, BMW, Infiniti, Jaguar, and Mercedes-Benz to field competitors.

But the RLX Sport Hybrid sedan we drove the same day felt much crisper yet, pointing out the inherent challenges in trying to make a large, tall, three-row crossover into any kind of out-and-out performance vehicle.

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