Test Drive: 2017 Acura MDX Sport Hybrid showcases tech prowess

Early in the hybrid era, automakers seemed torn between melding the capabilities of internal-combustion engines and electric motors, working in carefully orchestrated tandem, to attain stratospheric fuel-economy numbers, and the newfangled system's potential to deliver enhanced performance. Honda and its premium brand, Acura, have proved themselves comfortable with either proposition.

Recently, we drove a 2017 Honda Accord Hybrid — a large sedan — that won our hearts with its 50-plus mpg readings. It wasn’t the most stimulating car we’ve ever driven, though. Later came the 2017 Acura MDX Sport Hybrid, whose mediocre fuel-economy readings were mitigated somewhat by its quick acceleration and crisp handling — qualities one rarely looks for, let alone finds, in a seven-passenger midsize crossover.

The MDX, built in Lincoln, Ala., has been around since 2000, providing stylish, reliable, luxurious all-weather performance. Refreshed for 2017, it comes for the first time with a hybrid system. Our top-of-the-line test car carried a $58,975 sticker price, compared with $44,050 for a base MDX with front-wheel drive and a 290-horsepower V-6 engine. The Sport Hybrid’s V-6 and three electric motors place 321 horsepower at the driver’s command.

The MDX and the smaller RDX crossover — base price, $35,800 — are coming on after a slow sales start this year. RDX sales in June were 48.3% higher than in June 2016, while the MDX was up 14%.

Equipped with the Tech, Advance and AcuraWatch packages, the MDX Sport Hybrid showcases the Japanese automaker’s technological prowess — from infotainment and communications wizardry to the latest accident-avoidance systems. And if an accident does occur, the MDX comes prepared, with five-star ratings in government crash tests across the board. It's also rated a Top Safety Pick Plus by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

Our main beef with the MDX Sport Hybrid was its unhybrid-like fuel-economy numbers. They’re not bad — 26 mpg city, 27 highway — but a friend of ours recently bought a conventional MDX with all-wheel drive and broke the 30-mpg mark on a long highway run. Acura recommends using premium unleaded gasoline, further boosting the cost of fuel compared with competitors that call for regular. (Our friend figures he loses 1 mpg when using regular gasoline, with no noticeable diminution in performance.)

Making up for this deficiency is the MDX’s high level of refinement, sharp performance and luxury. Today’s Acuras are more than upscale Hondas; they’re competitive with Toyota’s Lexus brand, and even the British, German and Swedish entries in the crossover segment.

The MDX does have some quirks, including a push-button transmission that left us wondering at times which gear we were actually in, as well as a two-screen display in the center console that sometimes had us looking at the wrong screen while driving — for example, gazing at the navigation screen after changing the radio station, and wondering where the radio readout was. We trust familiarity breeds comfort with these unique-to-Acura arrangements.

2017 Acura MDX Sport Hybrid

Price: $58,975

Engine: 3.0-liter V-6 gasoline-electric hybrid, 321 horsepower, 289 lb.-ft. torque

Transmission: 7-speed dual-clutch automated manual

Drive: all-wheel

Weight: 4,471 lb.

Ground clearance: 7.3 in.

Suspension: MacPherson strut front, multi-link rear

Wheels: 20x8-in. alloy

Tires: P245/50R20 all-season

Seating capacity: 7

Luggage capacity: 14.9 cu. ft.

Maximum cargo capacity: 68.4 cu. ft.

Fuel capacity: 19.4 gal.

Fuel economy: 26 mpg city, 27 mpg highway

Fuel type: premium unleaded gasoline (recommended)

Steven Macoy (semacoy@gmail.com) is a longtime car enthusiast and full-time editor who lives in Bethel, Conn.