2017 Acura MDX Sport Hybrid First Drive: First of the hybrid SUV breed, best of the hybrid SUV breed

Acura has been on the electrification bandwagon since the slow-selling, current-generation RLX sedan was introduced in 2013, but with this latest effort – the 2017 Acura MDX Sport Hybrid – people are actually going to take notice. Sure, the battery-assisted NSX supercar has gotten more than its fair share of attention, but the loyal folks who drive the premium brand's sales are far more interested in SUVs and MPGs than they are in lap times and turbochargers.

The seven-passenger MDX has long been a volume leader for Acura, which made it the next natural recipient for the performance-oriented hybrid powertrain that the brand is excited to present as its new identity. It couldn't have come at a better time, as Acura is facing the most concentrated competitive onslaught it has ever witnessed, with not even its mighty MDX / RDX one-two punch immune to the slings and arrows of an SUV-crazed product push.

The good news for Acura is that the MDX is already standing on solid ground thanks to a recent refresh of the gas-only model. Still, it's important to consider the standard version of the sport-utility vehicle as a mere starting point for the Sport Hybrid, which is quicker, more nimble, and somehow less thirsty than its platform-mate.

At the crux of it all is the Sport Hybrid system itself, which marries a 3.0-liter V6 engine with a single electric motor integrated into the vehicle's seven-speed dual-clutch automated manual transmission as well as and a pair of independent electric motors attached to the rear axle. Altogether the setup is good for 321 horsepower and 289 lb-ft of torque, easily besting the larger engine in the gasoline MDX by 31 ponies. Intriguingly, the ability of the vehicle's all-wheel drive system (SH-AWD in Acura parlance) to selectively call into action the electric motors riding out back offers the SUV a quicker take on torque vectoring. The versatile design not only allows for electric-only pull-away from a stop, but also selective braking (or 'negative torque') application to the inside wheel while cornering, sending the electricity generated in the process directly to its opposite number, overspeeding the motor, and pirouetting the vehicle that much more effectively.

Sound complicated? It is, and the number of different operating modes made possible by the Sport Hybrid system can sometimes feel overwhelming. There's limited EV-only operation for hypermilers, a Sport+ setting that keeps the gas engine operating at all times in order to accentuate acceleration (which is surprisingly rapid), and several other discrete states intended to tackle specific driving conditions.

For the most part, the Acura MDX does all of the thinking for you and presents the results as transparently as possible. It's quite difficult to detect the transition from electric-only to gas-assisted driving, and even on the twisting Washington state roads where I had the opportunity to test out the Sport Hybrid, I couldn't sense the torque vectoring's invisible ballet routine, nor the ministrations of its adaptive shock absorbers (also unique to the model). What I could do was observe the results: the MDX Sport Hybrid handles curves in the road with a confidence and poise rarely found for a vehicle its size, gracefully leaping over the low bar presented by other two and three-row hybrids.

Does that mean I felt compelled to drive the Acura in anger and wrest every scrap of grippy performance out of the experience? Not at all. The MDX Sport Hybrid is still intended to serve best as a plush people mover, and everything else – including the 40 percent or so improvement in combined fuel economy that its 27-mpg rating represents – is merely a bonus for those willing to kick in the $1,500 premium above a comparably-equipped MDX SH-AWD Advance package.

Sandwiching the 1.3-kWh battery pack between the floor and the SUV's belly pan means no sacrifices when it comes to moving cargo, human or otherwise. There's ample second row room, especially with the handsome (and optional) captain's chairs installed in place of the standard bench, and the third row is adequate for both children and adults who still occasionally shop in the children's section at H&M. The MDX Sport Hybrid also happnes to be pleasingly quiet at speed, and can be had with an impressive array of active safety technologies.

The decision to start the 2017 Acura MDX Sport Hybrid at $58,000 keeps it accessible to current MDX owners interested in upgrading on the power and efficiency front. In effect, there's little reason to not snag the battery-assist if you're already shopping for a well-equipped gas model, and it's easy to imagine that parent company Honda is keeping the Sport Hybrid's sticker so low in a bid to boost the profile its gung-ho embrace of EV technology. It's hard to ague with the end result: a competitive, and versatile seven-passenger option for curious premium customers and Acura faithful alike.