Being first isn’t always a blessing. Just ask Honda.
Its Acura brand debuted in 1986 as the first upscale Japanese marque, years before Lexus and Infiniti. By the time its rivals came to market, Acura seemed to be firing on all cylinders. But the brand lost its way after Honda founder Soichiro Honda passed away, its image diluted by such mediocrities as the Vigor sedan, which was supplanted by the TL in 1995. While certainly an improvement, the suave and sedate TL seemed to possess the antithesis of Acura’s performance-based persona. This confusion was particularly acute on the 2004-08 TL, an oversized, overwrought expression of a brand that had lost touch with its customers.
There were other signs of disconnect, such as when designers hid exhaust outlets, something most Acura aficionados would rather see. Most famously, there was the chrome nose, aka the milk moustache, which did little to enhance the brand’s allure. Then, when the TLX replaced the TL and smaller TSX in 2014, it seemed to be more of the same.
A few years later, though, the folks at Acura awoke from their long slumber and revived the 2017 NSX as a high-tech Sport Hybrid. Now comes the refreshed 2018 TLX, a bold attempt at recapturing the brand’s performance mojo in a midsize sedan.
Most of this comes down to a massive cosmetic freshening, with an entirely new nose that features a handsome grille first seen on the Acura Precision concept car and the 2017 MDX. The rest of the front end is new as well, while the backside receives a bit of a nip and tuck too.
What isn’t new are the powertrains, which include a 2.4-liter four-cylinder rated at 206 horsepower and 182 pound-feet of torque and a 3.5-liter direct-injected 24-valve V-6 that generates 290 horsepower and 267 pound-feet of torque. Of course, being a fuel-efficient Honda, the V-6 automatically deactivates three of the engine’s six cylinders under light engine loads. And, if you opt for Super Handling All-Wheel Drive with torque vectoring on V-6 models, you’ll get automatic stop-start, which shuts off the engine while stopped at a traffic light.
That said, don’t look for a true manual transmission. Four-cylinder models come closest, thanks to an eight-speed dual-clutch transmission. Strangely, though, the transmission’s saddled with a torque converter, which the company says smooths its shift feel. V-6 models get a nine-speed automatic transmission, and both gearboxes get sequential manual shift capability.
The car’s performance can be altered by selecting one of four drive modes: Econ, Normal, Sport or Sport+.
That said, if you’re an Acura performance fan, the only version worth considering is the TLX V-6 A-Spec with SH-AWD. The A-Spec trim adds aggressive styling touches inside and uses meatier 19-inch wheels, a larger rear anti-roll bar and a myriad of suspension tweaks to give the TLX a notably sportier, more engaging feel than the base car. It’s so good, in fact, it should be the standard suspension tuning. That is, if Acura is serious about reinstating its “precision crafted performance” image. By comparison, non A-Spec TLXs seem closer in feel to the lackluster models that preceded it.
And, as you’d expect, the AcuraWatch suite of driver-assistance features, which includes lane-keeping assist, forward-collision warning, automated emergency braking, adaptive cruise control, lane-departure warning and mitigation, is standard. A revised infotainment system now includes Apple CarPlay and Android Auto compatibility, although the awkward dual screen setup survives.
Faults aside, the TLX is a serious step in the right direction. It won’t blow your dress-up like the Acura Integra or Legend once did, but it will make you a believer that Acura is working its way out of the woods, even if it’s not quite there yet.
Base prices: $33,000-$45,750
Engine: 3.5-liter V-6, 2.4-liter DOHC four
Fuel type: Premium
EPA fuel economy (city/highway): 20-23/29-33
Wheelbase: 109.3 inches
Length: 191.7 inches
Cargo capacity: 14.3 cubic feet
Curb weight: 3,505-3,616 pounds