Payne: Acura MDX has the NSX-factor

Henry Payne
The Detroit News

The Woodward stoplight turns green. I floor the brake pedal with my left foot. Then I floor the accelerator pedal with the right and the tachometer needle flicks quickly to 1,500 rpms. I drop the brake and the three-row Acura MDX Sport Hybrid rockets forward. My right hand flicks off quick, dual-clutch shifts on the steering-wheel paddle like an NSX supercar.

A sport ute with launch control? No (the above procedure is a standard, electronic “rev-cutoff” feature on most modern cars). But I understand if you start exploding out of stoplights. The battery-assisted MDX is a three-row dragster.

When Honda’s luxury brand birthed its second-generation NSX supercar at the Detroit auto show two years ago, some NSX purists moaned. Gone was the raw first-generation Ayton Senna-inspired budget supercar; it had been replaced by a complicated, 3,800-pound $160,000 hybrid robot. The peanut gallery complained the NSX was too exotic to inform a brand whose costliest RLX sedan tops out at $66,000.

Peanuts weren’t the only ones who freaked out. Acura North America boss Jon Ikeda concedes the product team was concerned when CEO Takahiro Hachigo demanded the next NSX get with the 21st century by adopting hybrid technology usually found on million-dollar Ferrari LeFerraris and Porsche 919s.

But as the concept sunk in, the engineers saw a method to Hachigo-san’s madness.

Honda was determined to make exotic hybrid technology applicable to its affordable luxury brand. The ferocious 573-horsepower, all-wheel drive mid-engine NSX supercar showed off hybrid performance for one-10th the price of a Porsche 918. Next step was to bottle the formula and feed it to every newborn sedan and SUV in the lineup.

The MDX Sport Hybrid is the first application. And, by gum, it works.

The idea of translating sports-car halos to SUVs is nothing new, of course. Porsche’s racing spirit breathes in every Cayenne and Macan it makes. And inside every Mazda CX-9 SUV is a playful MX-5 Miata busting to get out.

But the big, three-row MDX is probably the most ambitious application of halo-to-family vehicle that I’ve experienced. After all, a two-row Cayenne — for all its capabilities — isn’t stuffed with the 911’s flat-six turbo. And neither is a CX-9 a drop-top roadster. The MDX Sport, however, rips the whole torque-vectoring electric-motor concept out of the rear-wheel-drive NSX platform and adapts it to the MDX’s front-wheel-drive platform. Now that’s gutsy.

Intoxicated with NSX DNA, the MDX rhino thinks it’s a ballerina.

I threw the big ute around Metro Detroit country roads with abandon. The non-hybrid NSX is already a decent athlete with rooted steering and mechanical torque-vectoring AWD adapted from the TLX sedan. The Sport Hybrid takes this to another level by throwing in adaptive dampers and twin electric motors in the rear to spin up the outside wheel for better rotation of the rhino’s 4,484-pound mass.

With the motors doing the work in the rear there is no need for a driveshaft connecting engine to aft axle, so Acura has cleverly stored all the hybrid hardware in the basement. That makes for a center of gravity that’s an inch lower for the Sport Hybrid.

I toggle the Drive mode to Sport Plus (yes, a three-row SUV with Sport Plus mode) — just like in the NSX — so that the 3-liter engine and 1.6 kWh are at maximum effort. Sport Plus also opens a guttural roar from the exhaust pipes so that the kids in the third row (if I still had tykes small enough to fit in the third row) get the full entertainment experience as I bear down on a poor, unsuspecting Mercedes driver in front of me. Rhino Sport Hybrid comin’ through!

This, in my opinion, is how hybrids should be: fuel sippers running on battery one minute, deranged electron-torqued animals the next. Why must e-cars be limited to tree-huggers? Didn’t the NSX show us that hybrid drivers can have it all?

Did I mention that the MDX Sport Hybrid gains not only 31 more horsepower than the non-hybrid MDX but 45 percent better fuel economy? It’s like low-cal chocolate mousse. Or diet Haagen-Dazs.

All this goodness comes for just $1,500 more than the MDX non-hybrid. Acura predicts the Sport Hybrid will only make up 5 percent of sales but for that kind of bargain, why not 95 percent?

Acura’s bet on battery technology puts it in rare air with other stylish three-rows like the (imminent) Audi SQ7 and Volvo XC90 that also offer advanced drivetrains but for much more coin. The Audi, expected to start at over $70,000, sports a supercharged twin-turbo diesel V-8 pushing out 435 horsepower while the Volvo’s supercharged turbo 4-banger can reach an eye-watering $105,000.

But while my loaded, $57,475 MDX will go toe-to-toe with these athletes in the ring, style has never been Acura’s forte. So Acura cooked up another halo car, the Precision Concept — unveiled at the 2016 Detroit Show — to craft a wardrobe fitting for the brand’s new swagger.

The most notable feature of the concept was its so-called “diamond pentagon” grille and the MDX Sport Hybrid is the first Acura to wear it. It’s a welcome change from the family’s previous mug which was variously panned as a parrot’s beak, bucktooth, or bottle-opener. But the real problem with the chrome beak was it looked too much like the chrome nose on sister Honda; it compromised the Acura’s claim to be the family’s luxury looker.

Covered with diamonds and jewels (Acura’s signature 10-LED “jewel-eye” headlamps), the front end is a virtual prom queen. The pentagon grille’s detail resembles Mercedes’ “diamond-block” grille and draws you into the car.

The same can’t be said for the Acura’s infotainment system, alas. The confusing, twin-screen system carries over in the MDX with a touchscreen below and a button-controlled navigation screen above (or is it the reverse?). Otherwise the interior design is pleasant if unremarkable.

What is remarkable — as with the Honda Pilot SUV with which the MDX shares a platform — is the family-friendly storage and seats. The configurable central console can swallow a large purse while the one-touch button second row seats make for easy, third-row access for the kids.

Maybe most remarkable about this state-of-the-art hybrid is that Acura doesn’t trumpet its hybrid-ness. But for a blue badge on the front quarter panel and the wee battery gauge on the instrument panel, the MDX modestly absorbs its high-tech geegaws.

Its performance is anything but modest. There’s an NSX inside waiting to get out ... as that sports sedan gasping in my dust at that Woodward stoplight can attest.

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne.

2017 Acura MDX Sport Hybrid

Vehicle type

Front-engine, all-wheel drive, five-passenger SUV


3.0-liter V-6 with electric-motor assist


Seven-speed, dual-clutch automatic


4,484 pounds


$52,935 ($57,475 as tested)


321 horsepower, 289 pound-feet torque


0-60 mph, 5.7 seconds (Car and Driver); no towing


Fuel economy

EPA est. mpg: 26 city/27 highway

/27 combined

Report card


More power, better mpg than standard MDX for just $1,500;

easy third-row access


Generation-old dual-info screens; towing not recommended


Grading scale

Excellent ★★★★Good ★★★Fair ★★Poor ★