If you’re a technology enthusiast—and you obviously are, because you’re reading Ars Technica—you’ll know that poor software or a bad UI can drag down even the best hardware. It’s frustrating, and not just because lousy software can make using the newest, shiniest gear less fun. The frustration is also fueled by the vision of what could have been if the manufacturer had truly gotten its act together.
That, in a nutshell, describes my week with the Acura MDX Sport Hybrid.
The MDX is the first hybrid SUV from Acura. It was refreshed for the 2017 model year, and, aside from a few new color options, it is essentially unchanged for 2019. It’s a three-row, midsize SUV that sits in the same luxury segment occupied by the Infiniti QX60 (look for our review soon), Audi Q7, Volvo XC90, and Lexus RX 350L. It has a 3.0L, 24-valve V6 under the hood, accompanied by three electric motors—borrowed from the hybrid NSX supercar no less. There’s also a 7-speed dual-clutch transmission that works torque convertor, which Acura says improves its efficiency.
Altogether, Acura’s hybrid powertrain can crank out 321hp (239kW) and 289lb-ft (392Nm) of torque. On its own, the V6 is capable of 257hp (191kW) and 218lb-ft (295Nm) of torque. The electric motors—the two in the back are 36hp (27kW) each, and the one that’s built into the transmission cranks out 47hp (35Nm)—provide the additional horsepower and instant torque.
If you don’t want the hybrid, the standard powertrain is a 3.5-liter V6 with optional all-wheel drive.
While the MDX starts at $44,300, you’ll have to shell out for the hybrid action. Indeed, the MDX Sport Hybrid starts at $52,800. Our review car included the Tech package (satnav, premium audio, remote start, and a few other niceties) and the Advance package, which includes surround-view camera, heated and ventilated front seats, heated captain’s chairs in the second row, wood trim for the interior, and roof rails. Best of all, AcuraWatch—Acura’s suite of driver-assist technology—comes standard across the lineup, giving you adaptive cruise control with low-speed follow, lane-keep assist, and forward collision warning.
The MSRP for our car came to $59,550, which includes everything but the $2,000 entertainment package that adds a 16.2-inch screen for the kids to watch movies or play games on. All-in, the MDX still costs several thousand dollars less than you’d need to fork out to Audi or Volvo for a similarly-specced vehicle.
On the outside, the MDX Sport Hybrid looks a lot like its conventional-engine counterpart, including its diamond-pentagon grille along with LED headlamps and fog lights. The Sport Hybrid sports dual exhausts and a pair of Hybrid badges on the front fenders. Both skid garnishes are the same color as the body instead of black like the other MDX models. It’s not an unattractive car, but unlike, say, an Alfa Romeo Stelvio (pretty) or Lexus NX300h (ugly), there’s nothing about it that screams “check me out.”
The vehicle is nicer on the inside. Acura has gone almost all-in on the premium luxury feel with the Advance package, with no shortage of leather and wood trim. I say “almost,” because the dashboard material has more of a downmarket look and feel. Twelve-way adjustable power seats are standard in the front row, and the heated seats and steering wheel are a welcome feature during Chicago winters—the cabin goes from freezing to toasty very quickly.
The interior also feels very spacious, at least for the occupants of the first two rows. The second row, in particular, will seat adults under 6’4″ comfortably, with scads of legroom and a storage bin between the two captain’s chairs. Back-seat passengers get their own climate controls, along with a pair of USB ports for charging devices. The third row is typical for a mid-size luxury SUV: it’s on the small side and adults will find it cramped back there. A single button on the top of the second-row seats shoots the seat forward and down, allowing for easier access to the third row.
Driving position is par for the course with an SUV. The cockpit is comfortable, and the leather-wrapped steering wheel has radio controls on the left and driver-assist and instrument panel controls on the right. Indeed, everything is thoughtfully laid out, with one major exception: the infotainment system.
A distracting infotainment system
Distracted driving is a very real problem, and an intelligently designed infotainment system and center console will allow the driver to do things like change the radio station, adjust the heating, and make a phone call with a minimum of distraction. Unfortunately, Acura gets a failing grade here.
The infotainment system is spread across two displays, one above the other. The bottom one is a touchscreen that is used for climate controls and radio (and to hang up phone calls). The top screen sits just above it and is recessed into the dashboard. That’s the home for your GPS, phone, camera, and CarPlay/Android Auto. It’s a touchscreen; instead, you control it via a dial and a few buttons the bottom display. The UI itself looks archaic, and I ran into some intermittent issues with it. There were a couple of instances when I could not turn on the heated seat, even after shutting the car off and turning it back on—irritating on a 20° evening. There were also a couple of times when I couldn’t change radio stations with the steering-wheel control right after starting the car. I was forced to listen to “True” by Spandau Ballet—one of the worst songs of the 20th century—while an “operation not permitted” message flashed on the instrument panel.
Speaking of the instrument panel, it’s pretty basic. There are large analog speedometer and tachometer dials, with an analog fuel gauge on the right and battery charge indicator on the left. A small HD display in the middle shows you things like mileage, tire pressure, compass heading, and the fact that you can’t change the radio station.
Acura has also gotten rid of gear levers, with a row of buttons instead. They do the job fine, but each one has a different shape and feel, which doesn’t really serve any purpose other than aesthetic. Next to the shift buttons is a pair of cupholders. There’s also the usual storage bin with an adjustable armrest, which is a pleasant touch.
A quiet hybrid ride
Acura has made the hybrid system largely transparent to the driver. Unlike, say, a Prius, no animation shows off your battery regeneration. The MDX moves silently and easily between battery-only and hybrid mode. The MDX Sport Hybrid is rated at 26mpg city and 27mpg highway, with an overall rating of 27mpg. I only got 20.5mpg for a week’s worth of mixed highway and suburban driving.
Even if you don’t get the mileage boost you were hoping for from the hybrid, you’ll enjoy the very quiet ride the MDX Sport Hybrid offers. The only other car I’ve driven that was as quiet as the Acura was the Audi Q5. The cabin is well-insulated both from road and engine noise. With the radio at a modest volume, I found myself glancing at the tachometer to confirm that I wasn’t just running on battery power.
The MDX offers four drive modes: Normal, Comfort, Sport, and Sport+. The first two provide a fairly sedate ride. If you’re not in Sport or Sport+, acceleration feels almost leisurely. In Sport mode, the MDX feels peppy. It can move from zero to 60mph in 6.0 seconds, about 0.2 seconds faster than the non-hybrid model.
Handling-wise, the MDX is standard SUV fare. It’s not a car for driving aggressively on winding roads, as there’s a feeling of top-heaviness and a touch of sway if you take a curve too quickly. Sport mode feels more like it’s intended for acceleration and straight-ahead speed than it is for carving canyons. It’s definitely a cushy ride in Comfort mode, though. You can drive confidently down rough stretches of pavement knowing that the suspension will spare you from feeling potholes and the like.
Acura’s driver-assist technology, AcuraWatch, works well. It kept me largely in the center of my lane and maintained a safe following distance in all kinds of traffic. The 360° camera view is helpful for parking, but it could use some refinement to cover situations where you want to switch between front and rear camera views (like verifying that you’ve pulled far enough into the garage).
There’s plenty of room for luggage, sports gear, groceries, and other detritus that accumulates over years of shuttling your offspring to and from school, sports, dance lessons, and everything else that folks looking for a luxury SUV will use it for. The 15 cubic feet of cargo space in back jumps to 38.4 cubic feet when you put the third row down and 68.4 cubic feet with the second row down, too.
With the MDX Sport Hybrid, Acura has succeeded in building a comfortable and roomy mid-size SUV. The ride is incredibly smooth and quiet, it’s comfortable for front- and second-row passengers, and the interior feels really luxurious. And the inside warms up very quickly on a cold winter morning. But the quicker Acura transitions away from the shoddy two-screen infotainment system in the MDX to the TrueTouch trackpad in the 2019 RDX, the better (and I’m no fan of trackpads in cars, either). It’s buggy, the UI on the bottom screen is cramped, and it’s just plain irritating to use.
I would be remiss if I didn’t spend some time discussing the gas mileage. Most of the cars I’ve driven come in right around the EPA figures, and if they miss, it’s by five or 10 percent. The MDX Sport Hybrid missed its mark by over 20 percent, getting 20.5mpg instead of the EPA’s 26/27mpg rating. The most plausible explanation is the cold weather. According to the EPA, when temperatures drop to 20°F, gas mileage in conventional engines can drop anywhere from 12 percent to 22 percent, depending on the length of the trip. The effect is even worse for hybrids—the EPA says mileage can be as much as 31 percent to 34 percent lower. During the loan period, temperatures didn’t climb out of the 20s for two days. The rest of the time, temps were in the 30s and low 40s. Cold temperatures were certainly part of the mileage picture.
My usual photographer wasn’t available to shoot this car, but when I ran into him a few days into the loan, he asked me how I liked the infotainment system. He drives a 2014 MDX and has heard me gripe about subpar infotainment systems more than once. I shared my feelings with him, and he surprised me by saying he felt the same way. “Why did you buy it, then?” I asked.
“Because my butt felt good in the seat and I knew it would feel good driving it from Chicago to the Twin Cities to visit family.”
That’s the MDX in a nutshell—all the stuff under the hood and inside the cabin leads to a stellar, luxurious ride, with the infotainment system detracting from it. At several thousand dollars cheaper than a comparable Audi or Volvo, it’s a tradeoff you’ll need to decide is worth it for yourself.