By Eric Peters, Automotive Columnist Photo courtesy of CARICOS
It’s rare for a luxury car’s price to go down for the new model year. Rarer still for that to happen when the car in question is “all new.”
Well, here you are — the 2015 TLX.
It replaces the TL luxury sport-sedan and (more or less) fills the same slot in Acura’s lineup, targeting the same general buyer pool. But it does so at a much lower entry price point — $31,445 vs. $36,030 for the defunctified TL.
This puts the TLX — which remember is an Acura — in the same price ballpark as Toyotas (Camry), Mazdas (6), Nissans (Altima, Maxima) … while making BMWs (3 and 5) and so on seem awfully pricey.
But — as they say — that’s not all.
To further entice potential cross-shoppers, Acura offers one of the punchiest (and most fuel-efficient) non-turbo’d fours as the new TLX’s standard engine — paired with an eight-speed automatic and four-wheel-steering. Or, choose a new-design 3.5 liter V-6 paired with a nine-speed automatic and Acura’s Super Handling All-Wheel-Drive(SH-AWD).
That’s pretty heavy stuff — and very unusual stuff in this class — and price range.
In addition — and in typically Acura technology-leading tradition — the TLX can be ordered with computer-controlled steering assist, a precursor to the “driverless car.”
That’s a feature no one else in this class — or price rage — offers, either.
So, what’s the catch?
Is there a catch?
WHAT IT IS
The TLX is Acura’s new mid-sized (but slightly downsized) luxury sport sedan. It’s new in name as well as everything else. It slots in between the compact-sized, entry-level ILX sedan and Acura’s flagship, the full-size RLX.
It is smaller overall than the TL which it replaces — and a lot less expensive, just $31,445 to start vs. $36,030 for the base 2014 TL.
It also offers a four-cylinder engine (the old TL came only with a V-6) and four-wheel-steering or four-wheels driven.
Because of its range of drivetrains — and prices — the TLX overlaps the territory of nice but not-luxury brand sport sedans such as the Nissan Altima/Maxima, Mazda6 and Honda Accord, et al, on the one hand — while presenting a more modestly priced yet still luxury-branded alternative to cars like the BMW 3 (and 5), the Lexus GS, Caddy CTS… and so on.
Acura no doubt hopes to pull sales away from both categories.
The name, the car — everything.
Base four cylinder engine is not turbocharged — but isn’t a weakling.
Dual clutch eight-speed automatic with torque converter (explained below).
Four wheel steering — or all four wheels driving.
Attractive pricing; buy a luxury-brand, AWD-equipped sedan with a 290 hp V-6 for not much more than you’d pay for a loaded Maxima.
Or a not-loaded BMW 5.
WHAT’S NOT SO GOOD
Back seat legroom is way down.
FWD-based in a class dominated by rear-drive-based cars.
Unavailable with a manual transmission.
Extremely high-tech features might mean high-cost repairs in the future.
UNDER THE HOOD
It’s not surprising to find a four-cylinder engine under the hood of the new TLX. Because the pressure to reach the 35.5 MPG bar that goes into effect next year (2016) is immense. It affects luxury cars as much as ordinary cars as both are subject to “gas guzzler” taxes for not making the cut — which make them a harder sell. This is why even luxury-brand cars now routinely come standard with small four-cylinder engines rather than the previously typical big sixes (this includes the outgoing TL, which came standard with a 3.5 liter V-6, with a 3.7 liter V-6 available as an option).
What is surprising is that the TLX’s new 2.4 liter isn’t turbocharged — as most other entry-luxury sport sedan fours are.
Nonetheless, Acura manages to squeeze 206 hp out of it, which is in the ballpark of the power made by the turbocharged fours in competitor vehicles and certainly class acceptable. This engine is fitted with Acura’s iV-TEC variable valve timing (lift and duration) system. Honda — Acura’s parent company — is world-renowned for high specific output/small displacement engines. Think of Honda sport bikes; the same know-how manifests on four wheels as well as two.
The peppy little four is paired with a new dual-clutch eight-speed automatic with multiple driver-selectable modes and rev-matching downshift capability plus a torque converter — which no other dual-clutch automatic currently on the market has. The torque converter uses hydraulic pressure to multiply the engine’s torque at low engine speeds, which gets the car moving more quickly when accelerating from a dead stop. But the DSG’s inherently more efficient design also retains the fuel-economy advantage, helping the TLX post 24 MPG city and — wait for it — 35 on the highway. Much closer to the bar than the ’14 TL V-6’s 20 city, 29 highway.
Optional is a new-design 3.5 liter V-6. This is not a carryover engine. It is direct-injected and high-compression (11.5:1) and features both i-VTEC and Variable Cylinder Management (VCM) which automatically shuts off three of the six cylinder during light-load/cruise driving to maximize fuel efficiency. This engines makes 290 hp (vs. 280 for the old TL’s less sophisticated 3.5 V6) and manages to almost match the mileage stats of the 2.4 liter four: 21 city, 34 highway for the FWD version. Models equipped with the V-6 and the optional Super Handling All-Wheel-Drive rate 21 city, 31 highway — better than the ’14 TL with front-wheel-drive (last year’s TL with AWD was a guzzler: 18 city, 26 highway).
The V-6 is paired with an also-new nine-speed automatic, sourced from ZF. It’s not a dual-clutch automatic, but the range of possible forward gears allows for closer/sooner upshifts — which is part of the reason for the new TLX V-6’s excellent EPA numbers.
The SH-AWD system can kick power to individual wheels — or wheels in pairs — as needed to maintain traction and enhance stability. It is an AWD system that provides a practical assist on bad weather days (rain and snow) as well as a performance assist during high-speed cornering.
The SH-AWD system is, however, only offered with the V-6.
But if you buy the 2.4 liter engine (or the V-6 with FWD) you’ll get Precision All-Wheel-Steering (P-AWS) included. The system does what it sounds like it would. Instead of directional control being a function of the front wheels only, electric motors adjust the angle of the rear wheels to assist in the curves. This makes the TLX easier to steer at low/normal speeds as well as ups the handling ante when you’re running faster.
ON THE ROAD
Less engine (size-wise, at least) and more gears to leverage the available power sounds like a mixed bag on the face of it. Fun, certainly — in the way that a motorcycle is fun. A bike’s drivetrain (unless it’s a big ol’ Harley) is always doing something — revving, shifting — and that engages you in the process. On the other hand, riding a bike for long periods — revving and shifting — isn’t for everyone.
But don’t worry, the TLX’s four — though it can sing like a liter bike’s four when you want it to — doesn’t need to in order to maintain the pace. Part of the reason for this being the brilliant eight-speed transmission that’s paired with it. Like other such transmissions (e.g., the VW/Audi DSG) it is an automated manual transmission, with electronically controlled clutch engagement. Two clutches, in this case — one set engaging/disengaging the even forward gears (2, 4, 6 & 8) another the odd (1, 3, 5 & 7), which Acura says cuts down shift intervals significantly, for both quicker-feeling and more efficient shifting.
But the key thing is the box’s torque converter — a feature of conventional automatics that no other automated manual on the market currently has. If you’ve driven other DSG-equipped cars, you will know — as I know — they’re typically sluggish coming off the line. It’s because they don’t have a torque converter. It takes a moment — not long, but noticeable — for the engine to build speed and thus, power. The torque converter lets the engine rev up faster, so it builds torque sooner. So how come everyone else doesn’t use a torque converter? In a word, slippage. The very quality that lets the engine rev/build power when you floor it from a standstill also (historically) entails an efficiency loss, which is why a car with a conventional (non-dual clutch) automatic is usually slightly less fuel-efficient than the same car with a manual transmission.
The automated manual combines the efficiency of the manual with the ease of use of an automatic — but without a torque converter, off-the-line (and stop and go traffic) performance hasn’t been as good as either the manual or the conventional automatic with a torque converter. Acura’s solution — adding a torque converter to their auto-box — takes care of that.
If you shop this car, try the 2.4/eight-speed combo before you buy. I’m not saying don’t buy the V6. I’m just advising you not automatically rule out the “little” engine, thinking it’s an economy engine.
It is — but it isn’t.
It’s also unique in this class for being paired with a four-wheel-steering system (P-AWS), which automatically (electronically) alters the toe angle of the rear wheels to make the car more maneuverable at low speeds as well as corner more controllably at high speeds. From the driver’s point of view, it’s unnoticeable — in the sense that you can’t tell when the rear wheels are changing their angles. Put another way, it’s an upgrade over the usual/typical stability control system — which reacts to instability by pumping the brakes. Acura’s system enhances stability by altering geometry. It’s pretty neat. The system comes standard with both engines, too.
The optional SH-AWD system (V-6 TLXs only) is similar in concept to the previous SH-AWD system that was available in the TL — “torque vectoring,” or the routing of power not just front to back under acceleration also to individual wheels when cornering — but the weight of the system has been cut down by 25 percent. This — along with the upgraded V-6 (direct injected) — accounts for the improved performance and fuel economy.
The previous TL handled well, but it was heavy — and thirsty.
This fixes that.
AT THE CURB
Acura began as a kind of anti-Lexus. The former being for the young and affluent, the latter for the old and affluent. But over time, Acura developed a beer gut — while Lexus edged ever-sportier.
The new TLX — and other new Acuras — is an attempt to return the brand to the Integra (and NSX) zeitgeist of the ’90s. It is lower — and much leaner — than the middle-aged-spread TL: 3,483 lbs. vs. 3,741 lbs., 5.8 inches off the ground vs. 6.1 and an inch less wide through the hips (73 inches vs. 74 previously). The wheelbase remains the same, but overall length has been reduced by almost four inches (190.3 vs. 194 inches). Narrow — and long — LED DRLs and a less big version of Acura’s “pewter bar” grille accentuate the trimmed down/toned-up look of the TLX.
There is a price to be paid for youthful good looks, though. Headroom up front drops by more than an inch (37.2 inches vs. 38.4 in the TL), it’s a bit tighter, shoulder room-wise (57.5 inches now vs. 58.2 before) and — the big one — backseat legroom has been lopped down to 34.5 inches vs. 36.2 in the TL. Still, this is in the ballpark when you compare the TLX’s stats with those of others in its price range, such as the BMW 3 and Mercedes CLA (which is a compact sedan). The TLX is smaller overall (and inside) than the old TL, but it’s still mid-sized.
Just leaning a bit more in the direction of compact-sized.
For a long time, Acura was somewhat hobbled relative to the Big Name Players in the luxury segment because its cars were based on front-wheel-drive layouts (with AWD optional) whereas — for the most part — the others were based on rear-drive layouts. The latter was perceived as being more prestigious as well as superior, in terms of handling/driving feel (the weight of the car being more evenly distributed) while the former was looked upon as — fundamentally — an economy car layout.
But this is no longer true — or at least, not as true as it used to be. In the first place, it is very hard (on the street, within legal road speeds) to tell a difference, handling-wise, between a FWD-based AWD car and RWD-based AWD car. In addition, many prestige brand cars are AWD or offer AWD. Also, the FWD-based layout no longer appears to be a marketing liability. Mercedes’ new CLA sedan — which is FWD/AWD — is doing very well. Well enough, in fact, that Mercedes has already spun-off another FWD-based vehicle — the GLA — using the same basic architecture. Expect BMW to follow suit. Cadillac is already there.
And of course, there’s Audi.
I did a separate article (see here) about the TLX’s available semi-self-steering technology. It’s formally called Road Departure Mitigation and uses cameras built into the front end to orient the car’s position in between the yellow and white lines. When engaged, the system will automatically steer the car (within certain boundaries) to keep it within its travel lane. The driver feels this as a light — but noticeable — assist. It is possible — though not recommended — to take both hands off the wheel and watch the car drive itself. Just be mindful, because the car can’t take sharp curves on its own and if the cameras can’t see the painted lines, the car will wander.
It’s a preview of things to come… unfortunately.
Acura has added a small but helpful feature it probably copied from Kia/Hyundai — whose cars had it first: A button near the shifter you can press when stopped at a red light that will apply the brakes and hold the vehicle stationary without the need to take it out of gear — and without the need for you to keep your foot on the brake. Press the button again to release the hold and be back on your way.
TLXs with the SH-AWD system come standard (alas) with the auto-stop/start thing that is quickly becoming a de facto standard in new cars. See earlier discussion about fuel economy pressures emanating from Washington to grok why this is so.
The car’s seat heaters are excellent — and the optional 455 watt, 10 speaker ELS/studio sound system superb. The On Demand Multi-Use Display (ODMD) is a mouthful to say but gratifyingly simple to use. Tap and touch, legible graphics and an attractive display. The USB and HDMI ports are both located driver-accessibly (with the car moving) in front of the shifter, at the bottom of the center stack.
THE BOTTOM LINE
If you’re considering a new Altima, Mazda6 — or BMW 3/5 — you ought to at least take a look at this TLX. It’s a deal compared with all of them.
But it’s also more than just that.