Car Reviews First Tests

2018 Acura MDX Sport Hybrid First Test: Hat Trick

The more efficient, more powerful, and more advanced MDX

The more efficient, more powerful, and more advanced MDX

“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 (40 km/h) 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 (235.2 to 8.7 L/100km)—carrying an extra 238 pounds (108 kg) 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 (13.1/12.4 L/100km) (depending on whether engine start/stop is equipped) but the Sport Hybrid takes that figure to 26 mpg (9 L/100km), 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 (846 km) over the non-hybrid’s 410-429 miles (660-690 km) (based on 45 percent highway and 55 percent city driving). Using that city/highway driving ratio and an expectation of 15,000 miles (24,140 km) a year, the EPA says that MDX AWD drivers will spend $450 USD more on gasoline annually than MDX Sport Hybrid buyers (personalize those values for yourself at the EPA’s site here). Considering the $1,540 USD 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+ USD premium crossover.

In comparison, the Lexus RX 450hL premium three-row rival edges the MDX with a 29/28 mpg (8.1/8.4 L/100km) rating, while the smaller and similarly priced Volvo XC60 T8 plug-in hybrid does 26/28 mpg (9/8.4 L/100km) when in hybrid mode and can run on all-electric power for up to 17 miles (27 km) 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 (153.2 km/h), just beating the non-hybrid’s run of 14.7 seconds at 94.6 mph (151.8 km/h). 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.

In case you’re worried that the hybrid system will impede on interior room, don’t. Designers packaged the MDX Sport Hybrid to have the same cargo and passenger room as the regular MDX while offering more than some competitors—the small battery pack plays a part in that. Behind the third row, the Sport Hybrid offers 15.0 cubic feet of cargo space, 38.4 cubic feet with the third row folded down, and 68.4 with second and third rows folded. The RX 450hL can hold 7.5 cubic feet of cargo behind the third row, 23.0 behind the second row, and a maximum of 58.5 cubic feet behind the front seats. The two-row XC60 T8 measures at 21.1 cubic feet behind the second row and 49.3 with it folded down. The MDX also beats both in passenger volume as well.

Inside, Acura redesigned the MDX’s dual-screen multimedia interface with a new lower touchscreen that is now capacitive and quicker to respond. More intuitive menus and command structures were added as well as Apple CarPlay and Android Auto smartphone integration—smart feature additions considering we haven’t always been fans of Acura infotainment systems in the past. The interior is quiet, too.

Our tester came in the highest Advanced trim that includes 20-inch alloy wheels, LED headlights, LED fog lights, LED puddle lights, perforated premium leather-trimmed seats, heated and ventilated 10-way power front seats, a heated steering wheel, tri-zone automatic climate control, a premium audio system, a navigation system, heated second-row captain’s chairs with a center console, second-row sunshades, a top 8.0-inch screen, a bottom 7.0-inch touchscreen, and a slew of safety features.

The standard AcuraWatch package of driver-assist safety features consists of adaptive cruise control, automatic emergency braking with collision warning, lane keep assist with lane departure warning, and road departure mitigating. The Advanced trim also gets a surround-view camera system, and blind-spot monitoring with rear-cross traffic alert. In IIHS crash testing, the Acura, Lexus, and Volvo crossovers all performed well—all are considered 2018 Top Safety Picks. NHTSA gave the 2018 MDX Sport Hybrid its highest overall rating of five stars. Although the long-wheelbase RX 450hL has yet to be tested, the regular-wheelbase 2018 RX 450h also received five stars. The 2018 XC60 has yet to be crash-tested by the NHTSA.

The Acura MDX Sport Hybrid has a lot going for it, but the crossover does lack in some areas. Even though the multimedia system is easy to use, the dual-screen interface looks aged as does the navigation map, instrument panel, and center stack. The second-row seats are a little firm and the two-seat third row should be reserved for kids only (I made the mistake of trying to fit my 6-foot self back there). I wish a head-up display, more interior ambient lighting, and a power-folding third row were offered. The adaptive cruise control system works like a charm but the lane centering system is not as advanced as some and will ping pong between lanes without substantial driver input—somewhat defeating the purpose of the system. The MDX also blends in with other large crossovers; it doesn’t have a distinctive look, but our tester’s black wheels did look cool.

The MDX Sport Hybrid is a relative value considering the Advance trim’s sticker price of $59,145 USD. The only other trim for the hybrid is a base trim that includes the Technology package, and starts at $53,095 USD. The RX 450hL starts at $51,645 USD but you miss out on Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, a navigation system, a heated steering wheel, power-folding mirrors, and blind-spot monitoring with rear-cross traffic alert. The smaller Volvo XC60 T8 Plug-in has more power and an all-electric driving range but has a starting price of $53,895 USD.

Not everyone will understand the point of a sporty, efficient hybridized luxury crossover, and that’s fine. But some drivers will appreciate a crossover that visits the gas pump less often, even if the hybrid system costs more, enjoy driving on quiet and clean all-electric power, and have fun with a multi-driving-mode crossover with the instant power response of electric motors. Personally, I would gladly pay the $1,540 USD premium for the Sport Hybrid version of the MDX.

2018 Acura MDX Sport Hybrid SH-AWD (Advance)
BASE PRICE $59,145
PRICE AS TESTED $59,145
VEHICLE LAYOUT Front-engine, AWD, 6-pass, 4-door SUV
ENGINE 3.0L/257-hp/218-lb-ft SOHC 24-valve V-6 plus 47-hp/109-bl-ft central and (36+36)-hp/(54+54)-lb-ft dual rear electric motors; 321 hp/289 lb-ft combined
TRANSMISSION 7-speed twin-clutch auto
CURB WEIGHT (F/R DIST) 4,460 lb (57/43%)
WHEELBASE 111.0 in
LENGTH x WIDTH x HEIGHT 196.2 x 77.7 x 67.4 in
0-60 MPH 6.0 sec
QUARTER MILE 14.6 sec @ 95.2 mph
BRAKING, 60-0 MPH 121 ft
LATERAL ACCELERATION 0.83 g (avg)
MT FIGURE EIGHT 27.2 sec @ 0.65 g (avg)
EPA CITY/HWY/COMB FUEL ECON 26/27/27 mpg
ENERGY CONS, CITY/HWY 130/125 kW-hrs/100 miles
CO2 EMISSIONS, COMB 0.73 lb/mile