There’s a lot to unpack when trying to understand the 2017 Acura MDX Sport Hybrid. Acura is billing it as a three-row crossover infused with NSX technology via a sport-oriented hybrid drivetrain. So it’s a hybrid crossover, sure. But it doesn’t comport itself like a traditional crossover, nor is it a conventional hybrid. What it is, underneath, is an intentionally subtle blend of impressive technologies doing their best to appear transparent – and it’s too subtle, I fear, to be appreciated by those who’d like it the most.
This is a lot of foreshadowing, but if you’re not familiar with the MDX Sport Hybrid’s powertrain, let’s fill you in. The MDX Sport Hybrid uses the same basic system as the 2014 RLX Sport Hybrid, with some newer NSX battery tech sprinkled in, packaged neatly into the refreshed third-generation MDX platform. The system improves handling and efficiency – but more important, it smoothes out the harshness of shifts and engine stop-starts.
What no mode enables is a feeling of increased confidence. For one, the uncommunicative steering means that placing the MDX Sport Hybrid accurately in a freeway lane takes some attention. And while the SH-AWD’s connection to the road might be excellent, and the way it moves torque across the rear axle to improve handling is technically impressive, the connection to the driver is lacking. Sure, this is a crossover, so expectations are low. But the strange thing about the Sport Hybrid SH-AWD system is that system might keep you from sliding into a wet ditch under the moss-bearded trees, but it won’t provide you with reassuring signals that the grip is, indeed, there. It’s doing it for you rather than with you – and it’s unsettling. The uncanny valley of good handling, you might call it.
The smoothness really comes to the fore when driving the RX450h or QX60h, both of which Acura had on hand and both of which compare poorly to the MDX – especially the Prius-writ-large RX450h, saddled with a CVT and which transmits its green(er) cred through measured lurches, futuristic droning, and a not-insignificant amount of whining. And the QX60h might have one of the best CVTs in the business, but it’s a milquetoast loaf next to the MDX Sport Hybrid’s superior DCT/motor combo.
The X5 40e, to single one of those competitors out, embodies a considerably different philosophy regarding driver involvement. You can jockey the drive mode to Sport for max regen and drive it with one pedal, or lock it in EV-mode to glide around (or get a quick jolt of instant torque). Not all the choices are optimal, but the driver’s largely in charge. That’s a far cry from the MDX Sport Hybrid, which likes to make the final call about which of the vehicle’s drivetrain components do what task at any given time.
So the MDX Sport Hybrid stands a bit apart from the crowd. Its innovative and phenomenally capable drivetrain is perfectly engineered to provide an exquisite but subtle experience that takes some concentration to appreciate. If you consider the contemporary zeitgeist, attention spans aren’t really our strong suit right now. If you can sit still long enough to savor what the MDX Sport Hybrid has to offer, you’ll probably enjoy it immensely.