SEATTLE — The forthcoming Acura MDX Sport Hybrid is the largest hybrid variant American Honda has brought to market. Yet the company is thinking small.
Acura is expecting this new hybrid model of its three-row midsize crossover to account for just 5 percent of total MDX sales, or between 2,000 and 3,000 units annually. That’s a surprisingly conservative goal considering the MDX has been Acura’s best-selling vehicle since 2010, regularly reaping sales of more than 50,000 units a year.
Honda’s luxury division is basing much of its expectations for the MDX hybrid on the performance of the Lexus RX 450h — the volume leader among premium hybrid crossovers. That variant has accounted for an average of 9.5 percent of all RX sales over the past five years, according to Lexus.
But Acura has reasons to tamp down expectations.
First, in a market where light trucks are practically selling themselves, the gasoline-powered MDX isn’t doing so well. The MDX ended 2016 down 4.7 percent overall and is down another 13 percent in the first two months of 2017.
Part of the 2016 decline for the MDX was due to Honda’s issues with light-truck capacity. Compounding matters last year was the fact that a refreshed MDX, with a more conservative grille design, went on sale during the summer. This put Acura in sell-down mode for the first half of 2016.
Second, for all its greenness as a brand, American Honda has never been particularly good at selling hybrid vehicles. Its past (and present) is littered with models that never quite resonated with consumers, including Honda’s CR-Z, Accord hybrid and Insight and Acura’s current RLX hybrid and earlier ILX hybrid.
Even so, Acura — like other brands — will continue to expand its green lineup.
For its part, Acura says a hybrid entry in the luxury crossover world is a must-have.
“SUVs are definitely a place we need to be looking at. That’s where the market is,” Jon Ikeda, general manager of Acura, told Automotive News at the press launch of the MDX hybrid here. “So I think [it’s] important for us to do this since it helps us with the performance image as well as just some of the uniqueness of the product.”
The grandfather of the premium hybrid crossover is the Lexus RX, though in recent years the field has grown thanks to additions from Infiniti, Mercedes-Benz, BMW and Volvo; Audi will join the fray soon.
“We believe this is actually a really significant and future-telling segment in the premium market,” Gary Robinson, manager of product planning for Acura, said at the press launch.
The MDX hybrid is arguably the most compelling hybrid version of a gas-powered model American Honda has made to date. On paper, it stacks up strongly against competitors, particularly the two Acura is targeting directly: the Infiniti QX60 hybrid and the Lexus RX 450h.
Rather than a pure green play chasing fuel economy, Acura is positioning the MDX hybrid as a higher-performance variant of the gas model — hence the name Sport Hybrid.
2017 Acura MDX Sport Hybrid
|Honda has only modest sales expectations for the MDX hybrid, a 3-row crossover that will compete against Lexus’ smaller RX 450h.|
|2017 Acrua MDX Sport Hybrid||2017 Lexus RX 450h|
|Wheelbase||111 in.||109.8 in.|
|Length||196.2 in.||192.5 in.|
|Width||77.7 in.||74.6 in.|
|Height||67.4 in.||67.7 in.|
|Curb weight||4,471 lbs.||4,740 lbs.|
|Cargo volume||68.4 cu. ft.||55.9 cu. ft.|
|Engine||3.0-liter V-6, 3 electric-drive motors||3.5-liter V-6, 2 electric-drive motors|
|Battery||Lithium ion||Nickel-metal hydride|
|System horsepower||321 hp||308 hp|
|EPA mpg||26 city/27 hwy.||30 city/28 hwy.|
The extra kick falls in line with Acura’s current brand reinvention pegged to its old slogan, “precision-crafted performance.”
The MDX hybrid offers 321 total horsepower and combined fuel economy of 27 mpg, 31 more horsepower and 23 percent better combined fuel economy than the standard gasoline MDX.
Honda designed the MDX’s light-truck platform — which also underpins the Odyssey minivan and Pilot crossover — to accommodate the battery pack and hybrid running gear from the start. While the battery sits below the middle-row passengers, the added components don’t eat into the MDX hybrid’s interior space.
Acura is also keen to point out that the all-wheel-drive hybrid system in the MDX is nearly the same as that in its headline-grabbing sports car, the NSX.
The hybrid model operates in a unique sweet spot among midsize hybrid luxury crossovers that Acura hopes will serve it well: seven seats, lowest price in its segment, more power than the Lexus and Infiniti, and better fuel economy than the Infiniti.
The MDX Hybrid will start at $52,935 including shipping when it hits showrooms nationwide in late April; that’s $1,500 more than a comparable gasoline-powered MDX.
Should all this add up to a sales hit, Acura isn’t worried about outrunning its own modest projections.
“Hey, nobody’s saying we can’t make more,” Ikeda said.