“What does the SH stand for?” a curious woman asked while loading groceries into her newish Explorer, referencing the “SHAWD” badging on my Acura’s tailgate. “Super handling,” I responded. After a pause and a slightly confused look on her face, she replied, “But it’s a big SUV, why would anyone want that? … And [is it] even worth the extra money?” she asked. Two fantastic questions about the 2018 Acura MDX Sport Hybrid. After spending several days in the three-row premium hybrid crossover, I can tell you exactly why someone would opt for a big hybrid SUV with a so-called “super handling” all-wheel-drive system.
Powering the MDX Sport Hybrid is a powertrain consisting of a 3.0-liter V-6 producing 257 hp and 218 lb-ft of torque, a seven-speed twin-clutch transmission, and three electric motors powered by a 1.3 kWh battery pack. The largest of the three motors is housed in the transmission and makes 47 hp and the other two are located at the rear (where you would normally find the axles and differential on non-hybrid AWD models), each can power their own wheel separately. The system’s total power output comes to 321 hp and 289 lb-ft, topping the regular MDX’s rating of 290 hp and 267 lb-ft from its 3.5-liter V-6. A similar system—originally derived from the NSX hybrid supercar—can be found on the RLX Sport Hybrid sedan.
Where this particular Acura excels most is in around-town driving. The four-mode drive system, which is standard on the Sport Hybrid, is to thank for that. When cruising in traffic or in parking lots, Comfort mode provides all the ride comfort most need, and the hybrid system does a good job of using just the electric motors at slow speeds—as long as you don’t stab the throttle—and during steady highway cruising. With a mostly charged battery pack and feathering the throttle, I was able to get the MDX to 25 mph on all-electric power when driving through parking lots and streets with low speed limits. When the gasoline engine kicks in, the transition is sometimes not noticeable if the road is slightly rough.
Normal mode provides a good balance of ride comfort and handling by slightly stiffening the suspension and increasing steering weight and throttle response. Sport mode significantly stiffens the suspension, further increases throttle response, and makes the steering feel heavier. Sport+ mode entertainingly keeps the electric motors on, providing full power during takeoff. Sport+ mode also adjusts throttle response and transmission shifts for maximum performance, while the active suspension flattens the crossover during rapid steering changes and maneuvers. The SH-AWD’s torque vectoring capability is also maximized. We found most three-row crossover buyers would likely most enjoy the crossover’s handling dynamics in Normal mode. Testing director Kim Reynolds wished the SH-AWD system would react sooner during hard cornering but still said, “This is fun and way better performing (subjectively) than the vast majority of SUVs.”
But most folks buy a hybrid for improved gas mileage, not sporty drive modes. So how much better is fuel economy with the MDX hybrid compared to the non-hybrid model with all-wheel drive? On the highway, the gasoline engine is running most of the time so EPA-rated fuel economy is only improved by 1 mpg to 27 mpg—carrying an extra 238 pounds doesn’t help the hybrid, either. City driving is where the difference is significant. The non-hybrid MDX AWD is rated between 18-19 mpg (depending on whether engine start/stop is equipped) but the Sport Hybrid takes that figure to 26 mpg, almost matching the highway rating. Because both MDX models use the same-size gas tank, the total driving range is also extended to 526 miles over the non-hybrid’s 410-429 miles (based on 45 percent highway and 55 percent city driving). Using that city/highway driving ratio and an expectation of 15,000 miles a year, the EPA says that MDX AWD drivers will spend $450 more on gasoline annually than MDX Sport Hybrid buyers (personalize those values for yourself at the EPA’s site here). Considering the $1,540 premium for the base Sport Hybrid Technology trim over the same trim in the all-wheel-drive non-hybrid MDX, that’s not a bad deal for buyers considering a $50,000+ premium crossover.
In comparison, the Lexus RX 450hL premium three-row rival edges the MDX with a 29/28 mpg rating, while the smaller and similarly priced Volvo XC60 T8 plug-in hybrid does 26/28 mpg when in hybrid mode and can run on all-electric power for up to 17 miles on a full battery.
Some buyers assume hybrids are slow and not fun to drive, but that is not the case with the MDX Sport Hybrid. The extra power from the hybrid powertrain is evident during acceleration. During Motor Trend instrumented testing, the hybrid performed slightly better than the regular MDX, hitting 60 mph in 6.0 seconds compared to the non-hybrid hitting the mark in 6.2 seconds (the two-row RX 450h took 7.0 seconds and the XC60 T8 took 5.4 seconds). In the quarter-mile, the hybrid took 14.6 seconds at 95.2 mph, just beating the non-hybrid’s run of 14.7 seconds at 94.6 mph. Test driver Chris Walton was surprised by the hybrid SUV’s quickness and described the upshifts as smooth. During normal driving, the hybrid system provides plenty of power whenever needed and the twin-clutch transmission is quick and smooth.
Our figure-eight handling course runs were almost identical; the non-hybrid’s 27.0-second run just beat the hybrid’s 27.2 seconds (both averaged 0.65 g). Both variants stopped from 60 mph in a respectable 121 feet but with the hybrid, Walton noted a “big delay between jumping on the pedal and actual slowing.” Additionally, as with most hybrids, the brakes feel a little mushy but still stop well.