Honda may build some of the most popular and competitive cars in the country, but that doesn’t mean its Acura formalwear division has the same mojo.
Acura’s petite ILX and its full-size RLX are forgettable sedans that trail their competitors in nearly every metric that matters. If it weren’t for the stout success of its excellent crossovers, Acura’s sales — and reputation — would be downright depressing, especially in light of the fine cars Acura produced early in its history.
So it’s no surprise that Acura took seriously the chance to make a course correction with its 2015 TLX, a compact sedan that combines two outgoing models: the crisp TSX and the ungainly TL.
The combination simplifies Acura’s sedan lineup and eliminates the redundancy of selling a pair of mid-level luxury cars. Acura knows the stakes are high in this segment, which is why, in August, it kicked off the largest advertising campaign in its 28-year history to promote the TLX debut.
The car falls short of the slick, performance-oriented advertising. But the TLX is nonetheless a pleasing, competent alternative to a heady mix of European rivals including the BMW 3- and 4-Series, Mercedes-Benz C-Class and Audi A4.
The TLX is a comfortable, quiet and probably reliable sedan that will meet the needs of nearly anyone with $31,890 to $45,595 to spend.
The TLX stretches across such a wide swath of the segment because it comes in two distinct forms.
The base model offers a new four-cylinder engine, good for 206 horsepower and 182 pound-feet of torque. It’s mated to an also-new eight-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission. This drivetrain is rated at 24 mpg in the city and 35 mpg on the highway. In a week of testing in mostly city driving, we averaged 22 mpg.
The pairing is excellent. The gearbox delivers quick and seamless shifts. The engine is smooth, quiet and eager from a stop. It should offer more power on the highway, but a majority of TLX buyers won’t mind.
This version of TLX is available in front-wheel drive — Honda is among the only automakers with no rear-drive platform, which some buyers consider a must for a true sport sedan. That means the entry-level TLX still works through corners like Honda’s ordinary Accord.
Drivers seeking performance will be tempted to spring for the V-6 model. It starts at $36,115 and comes with a direct-injected 3.5-liter engine, making 290 horsepower and 267 pound-feet of torque. Front-wheel drive is standard, as is a nine-speed automatic transmission. The all-wheel-drive system on the model we tested is an extra $2,200.
The engine uses cylinder deactivation and a woefully slow start/stop function to improve fuel economy; we averaged 24.8 mpg in mixed driving.
Acura’s excellent AWD system helped neutralize the cheaper version’s tendency to understeer and push through turns. The result was an eager, balanced car with plenty of grip in the corners.
While the V-6 engine’s 290 horses felt and sounded plenty robust, the transmission was having none of the fun. With so many speeds to choose from, the gearbox often needed two or three sleepy downshifts before it could pull any useful power out of the engine.
This is a symptom of other nine-speed transmissions on the market, and it had us wishing for the alacrity of the dual-clutch setup in the four-cylinder TLX. Fortunately, all models come with various driving modes for the car, and leaving the TLX in Sport cured some of these ills.
Regardless of what’s propelling the TLX, Acura deserves credit for making it feel hearty and comfortable over rough roads. It rides as well as anything with a German badge on it. The interior is similarly well-executed, with fine leather covering deeply scalloped seats, and soft materials stretching into every corner.
This being an Acura, the TLX gets the company’s dual-screen setup in the cockpit. Wedged deep into the upper dashboard is a primary screen that displays the navigation map (if equipped) and stereo; below this is a touchscreen and physical buttons to control the main screen.
Promising in theory, the system is frustrating. The touchscreen doesn’t do many of the functions you might expect, and it’s not obvious which screen you should be looking at during which function.
Space inside this car is closer to that of the outgoing TL than the smaller TSX. Tall adults fit in the back seats without head or knee contact, but it’s cozy. The trunk gobbles up plenty of luggage.
Outside, the TLX’s styling is tasteful and subdued but doesn’t offer much new for the brand. At least Acura wisely toned down the odd, metallic, beak-like grille that has scarred the face of previous vehicles. The brand’s new design signature is now its “jewel eye” LED headlights, which are standard on all TLXs.
As mentioned, the TLX starts at $31,890 for the base four-cylinder edition. The highlights of the TLX’s standard gear are the heated front seats, a moon roof, seven air bags, a touchscreen stereo system, alloy wheels and the aforementioned LED headlights.
The four-cylinder version we grabbed sold for $35,920 and added the navigation system with real-time traffic, leather seats, a 10-speaker stereo system, lane-keeping assist, blind-spot monitoring and forward-collision warning.
At the top of the TLX heap was the loaded AWD V-6 model. For $45,595, it offers all the aforementioned add-ons plus adaptive cruise control, pre-collision braking, cooled front seats, remote start and parking sensors.
At any of those price points, the TLX sells for less than its German competitors, as well as the Lexus IS and ES and the Cadillac ATS. This could be a crucial factor in the success of this Acura, especially as prices in this sport-sedan segment keep climbing.
Most of those rivals have more sport baked into them. And it’s a pity Acura didn’t mix the handling and power of the AWD V-6 with the shifting prowess of the base model’s dual-clutch transmission.
But for straightforward luxury, it’s nice to see Acura rediscover some of its mojo.