It’s tough to climb out of the 2019 Acura MDX Sport Hybrid with complaints. The vehicle’s very smooth, comfortable and easy to use. But its simplistic interface, which makes the SUV a standout in user-friendliness, also breaks the spell of opulence that makes luxury cars appealing in the first place.
(Full Disclosure: Acura offered an MDX Hybrid for me to test drive and I was happy to accept. The vehicle was delivered to my garage with a full tank of gas.)
Acura loves the word “precision” in its marketing and its ads usually revolve around selling an aura of technological advancement. At the risk of seeming pejorative, I might call the company’s image “Upscale Nerd.” On one level, it totally works. The NSX supercar’s hybrid powertrain is a marvel of engineering and the same concepts that make that car amazing trickle down to the MDX Sport Hybrid.
With a 3.0-liter V6 making a claimed 257 horsepower plus a 47-HP electric motor in the transmission housing and two more 36-HP motors between the rear wheels, this hybrid SUV can storm off a stop with remarkable force, accurately spread power across all four corners for maximal traction, and also hit 27 mpg in combined driving–an impressive feat for a six-passenger vehicle that weighs about 4,500 pounds.
On the road, it’s sure-footed and swift. The leather wrapping the seats feels good and heavy. Even the wood dashboard trim, which can be very hit-or-miss, seems well-executed.
But the MDX Sport Hybrid has the same problem as the mighty NSX–the buttons, gauges and digital displays look like they were plucked out of a sale bin at Toys ‘R’ Us. (RIP.)
On Hondas, which use largely similar inputs and screen designs, the childproof vibe doesn’t seem offensive. In fact, it communicates a sense of resiliency I really appreciated in the HRV and Passport when I test drove them.
But in modern Acuras, it just feels a little... lame. Not pretty. Too functional, maybe. It works but there’s no artistry or beauty here.
In fact, both this SUV and the NSX canyon carver reminded me just how important the design of an automobile’s interface really is to cultivating a mood in the cockpit. It’s not impossible to overlook in the NSX, a car which, when driven hard on a track or snakey roads, drenches you in sheer driving pleasure.
The MDX doesn’t lend itself to quite as emotional an experience, though. (This probably won’t surprise you.) So it is, unfortunately, a little easier to nitpick on.
Even so, I still find myself conflicted over the vehicle’s displays. While on one hand, its blunt inelegance was offensive enough to still be bothering me months after leaving the car. On the other, I have to admit its gentle learning curve was also one of the MDX’s most impressive attributes.
It took no time whatsoever to learn the intricacies of the top-trim MDX’s two-screen infotainment system. For every function I wanted to access, I was able to find my way to, on the first try, without cracking open the manual or even thinking twice.
The fonts are all starkly legible; even the physical buttons for things are large to the point where the cockpit almost really does look like it was focus-grouped for children and the elderly.
As I thwacked the heated steering wheel button, which is about the size of a silverback gorilla’s thumb, I thought about how much my grandfather would love this car. He’s a sharp octagenarian, but watching him struggle with the COMAND system in the Mercedes-Benz he’s had since 2013 just makes me feel bad.
But his CLS550 is just so much more artful inside than an MDX. That car feels cool. This one, frankly, does not. And yes, that matters. Today more than ever, design is one of the strongest enticements to step up to a luxury car from basic A-to-B transportation.
All of this is to say Acura’s infotainment system is simultaneously one of the best and worst in 2019, leaving the MDX with a very specific appeal. If you want a large luxury vehicle so intelligent it’s basically idiot-proof, the MDX Sport Hybrid is a fierce contender.
If you appreciate artistry in your automobile’s instrumentation, look elsewhere. And if you’re like me, and you like both, you won’t be able to decide what to think of this car either.