Acura, the original premium Japanese auto brand, has been a bit of an enigma lately. Their SUVs, the RDX and MDX, have lived at or near the top of their respective categories since their introduction, but the sedans have lagged behind competitors from Lexus, Infiniti, BMW and Audi in performance, design, and ultimately consumer consideration.
It wasn’t always the case. The original Legend and Integra were both widely praised and well loved cars – the Integra gaining a cult following among tuners. As recently as the early 2000s, the TL and TSX were media darlings and held their own with buyers. But even then there were rumblings of Acura sedans not differentiating enough from their Honda counterparts. From 2005 until today, it’s been a long slow sales slide for Acura’s sedan business as the market moved to SUVs and offerings from the competition have been more compelling.
With the introduction of the 2021 TLX, Acura hopes to change that.
My weeklong test TLX came with Super Handling All-Wheel Drive and was decked out in top-of-the line Advance trim. The first order of business was to pick up the car in Chicago on a Monday afternoon. It turned out it was the most Monday of all Mondays, with me getting a late start on my two-hour drive to the city, so by the time I arrived, snow had started to fall and accumulate quickly. After I had taken care of some other business on the north side of town, the white stuff had piled up about 6 inches deep.
Fortunately the Michelin Primacy all-season tires had little trouble clawing through the powdery snow. In wet, heavy snow, it might have been a different story. The more time I spent on the compromised road surface, the more I wished the TLX were shod with winter tires. This was especially true when it came to stopping. The Michelins slid a little too easily for comfort. Nothing that moderating speeds and increasing following distances didn’t help. If you live in a place like Chicago, however, where significant snowfall is a distinct possibility, get yourself a good set of snow tires and put them on around Thanksgiving. Whether you have rear-, front-, or all-wheel drive, they’re your best defense against Mother Nature’s winter wrath.
My first impressions of the TLX were positive. It’s a handsome car. Acura finally got their grille right, the long dash to axle ratio and short overhangs give it a rakish appearance. The new TLX rides on an all-new platform and for the first time ever, doesn’t share anything with the Accord. It has a longer wheelbase, is lower and wider than the previous generation car. The new architecture is also more rigid which allows the suspension to do its work better.
The TLX marks the return of one of the elements that differentiated Acura’s cars from competitors for years, a double-wishbone front suspension. It’s a subtle but important change from the more common MacPherson strut set up. With a double wishbone suspension, the wheel remains perpendicular to the road as it moves up and down, maintaining an optimum contact patch with the road surface. A MacPherson strut has a single pivot point which means the wheel angles slightly as the suspension is compressed. The double-wishbone delivers more confident high-speed cornering thanks to added grip and a more consistent feel. Add the adaptive dampers that come with the Advance option package and you have a car that rides smoothly on the freeway and still provide thrills on your favorite winding two-lane.
Another upgrade is the standard and only engine option (for now), a retuned 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine. Adding 66 horsepower and 98 pound-feet of torque over last year’s engine, it ups the pleasure quotient considerably. With 272 horsepower and 280 pound-feet of torque, the TLX offers more standard power than the BMW 330 and Audi A4. The 10-speed automatic transmission makes the most of that power especially when in sport mode, keeping the engine well within its power band.
The result of the engine, architecture, and suspension changes is a car that feels nimble, light, and quick. This isn’t a full-throated sports sedan. Especially in Advance trim, which leans more toward luxury. Order an A-Spec model and it will look sportier inside and out, but it doesn’t enhance the performance. That comes later this year when Acura brings back the Type-S nameplate and stuffs a 355 horsepower turbocharged V6 under the nicely sculpted hood. They’ll also be tuning the transmission for quicker shifts, and upgrading the suspension to make it even more aggressive.
While the optional Super Handling All-Wheel Drive system on my test car did help in the snow, that’s really not its primary function. As the name suggests, it’s to help the car perform better. That happens thanks to sophisticated torque vectoring that transfers the power from front to rear and side to side depending on the road surface and your driving style. Roll along at cruising speeds on a straight level highway, and 70% of the power is put to the pavement via the front wheels. Accelerate hard from a dead stop and up to 80% of the power shifts to the rear to increase traction and improve performance. If you’re driving hard through a corner, the system puts more power to the outside rear wheel, over-cranking it by up to 2.7% which which essentially helps the TLX rotate through the turn.
Inside the TLX with the Advance package creates a very competitive environment to the other Japanese and European premium sport sedans. The leather trimmed, heated and ventilated seats with contrast stitching are even more comfortable and supportive than they look. The leather-wrapped steering wheel is the right size and provides enough controls without being overwhelming. Front seat passenger room is excellent, but the rear seat is a little cramped. If I were to sit back there, whoever is in the seat in front of me would have to slide forward a couple of inches. Overall, Acura’s attention to detail is on full display in the cabin with nice surfaces, excellent fit and finish, and a premium audio system that rivals that of BMW and Lexus.
The one feature I’m still not sold on is the Acura touch pad interface for the infotainment system. It’s definitely a better than the Lexus trackpad, but still wasn’t as intuitive as systems from Genesis, Audi or Mercedes-Benz. Owners I’ve spoken with about it offer few complaints, however, so like anything the more you use it, the more natural it becomes. There were times I had to take a moment and think about about where to touch and tap, which did take my attention from the road for a bit, so there’s definitely a learning curve and until you master it, just remember, you’re a driver first, a consumer of entertainment second.
What it boils down to is this: The TLX no longer lags behind BMW 3, Audi A4, Mercedes CLA, and Lexus IS. When you consider pricing, the Acura becomes an even more compelling option. The base TLX starts at $38,525 which includes the $1,025 delivery charge and caps out at $49,325 for the SH-AWD with the advance package. The only thing that remains to be seen is if the Type-S has the chops to hang with the the M, S, AMG, and F versions of the those cars. That’s something I’m looking forward to finding out.