When you pay almost $30k for a luxury-sport sedan, you expect better performance than you’d get out of a $20k economy sedan.
Acura’s ILX — the upmarket cousin of the Honda Civic — didn’t deliver it when it was launched two years ago as an all-new 2013 model.
Well, not with its standard engine, at any rate. Just 150 hp out of 2.0 liters.
You did get very good gas mileage (24 city, 35 highway). Which was almost as good as the mileage you’d get out of the Civic’s 1.8 liter, 140 hp four (30 city, 39 highway).
But you also got a Civic-like nine second 0-60 timeslip.
That’s acceptable in a $20k Honda.
Not so much in a nearly $30k Acura.
The fix was easy. Lose the 2.0 engine.
The formerly optional 2.4 liter engine (which is basically the high-performance Civic Si’s engine) is now the standard engine. Result? The ILX is quicker than rivals like the Mercedes CLA250, Audi A3 and Lexus IS250.
And, it costs less.
Not just than they do.
Less than last year’s ILX, too.
Just like that, things got a lot more interesting!
WHAT IT IS
The ILX is Acura’ entry-level, compact luxury-sport sedan. It derives from the Civic, but now has more in common with the high-performance Civic Si.
Base price is $27,900.
A top of the line model with the A-Spec performance/handling package and the Technology package, which includes adaptive cruise control and a semi-autonomous steering function (more on that below) as well as GPS and a larger LCD display monitor lists for $34,890.
The ILX competes with other compact entry-level luxury sport sedans like the Mercedes CLA250, the Audi A3 and the Lexus IS250.
In addition to the formerly optional 2.4 liter engine becoming standard equipment, the ’16 ILX also comes standard with a new eight-speed automated manual transmission (not available in the Civic Si, by the way).
The ILX’s exterior and interior have been updated, too — and there are several new electronic/safety features available, such as lane keep assist, forward collision mitigation and a multi-view back-up camera.
There’s also a price drop.
Acura is asking less for the ’16 with the 2.4 engine ($27,900) than they were for the ’15 with this engine ($29,350), a difference of about $1,500.
Performance now matches the price — and outclasses pricier rivals like the Benz CLA250 ($31,500-$33,550), the Audi A3 ($30,900-$42,050) and the Lexus IS250 ($36,550-$39,085).
Fuel efficiency is actually better this year than it was last year — despite the power/performance increase.
Much more practical (and a much better deal) than the Mercedes CLA250 — which has seven inches less legroom in the second row.
A steal on wheels compared with the $36k to start Lexus IS.
WHAT’S NOT SO GOOD
Manual transmission has been dropped.
Not as dramatic-looking as the stunning Mercedes CLA.
AWD not available (it’s optional in the CLA 250, A3 and IS250).
UNDER THE HOOD
The sore-gummed (and Civic-sourced) 2.0 engine has been dropped — not because it was a bad engine, but because it was an underpowered engine. Its replacement — sourced from the Civic Si — is much more appropriate to the car.
Instead of 150 hp and nine seconds to 60 — weakest power/performance in the class — you’ll get 2.4 liters, 201 hp — and 0-60 in about 5.8 seconds.
This is best in class — and not just by the stopwatch.
The Acura beats the A3 1.8T at the pump, too. Its standard 1.8 liter four produces 31 fewer hp and the car takes 7.2 seconds to get to 60 — but only manages 23 city, 33 highway vs. 25 city, 36 highway for the ILX.
The Benz CLA250 edges out the Acura gas mileage-wise, but just barely. It rates 25 city, 36 highway — and isn’t as quick (and is $3,600 more to start).
You may be wondering why the ’16 ILX with the now-standard 2.4 engine is quicker than the ’15 ILX with the same (but previously optional) engine. It’s because of the different transmission that’s paired with the 2.4 engine for 2016.
The six-speed manual that was mandatory with the 2.4 engine last year has been dropped in favor of a new eight-speed automated manual that’s now the standard (and only available) transmission.
The automated manual is a two-fer:
Better performance numbers than with the six-speed manual, due to perfectly timed (by the computer) shifts as well as tighter gear spacing due to the additional gears in the box. And better mileage, due to the superior efficiency of the eight-speed box vs. a conventional manual.
The difference is not small.
Last year’s ILX with the 2.4 engine and six-speed manual rated 22 city, 31 highway — respectable, but not spectacular (and much less than the spectacular 26 city, 38 highway delivered by the Benz CLA).
The new ILX notches the city number up by 3 MPG — and by 5 on the highway — without any loss of power and with an improvement in the car’s performance. This is why not-automated manuals are fading away. Even an F1 driver can’t consistently outshift one of these very clever computer-shifted automated manuals.
It’s why rival cars like the CLA250 and the A3 also have them.
Something the ILX does not have, though, is all-wheel-drive.
It’s actually one of the few cars in this class that doesn’t at least offer it (both the CLA and the A3 do). This is a particularly odd omission given Acura’s pretty aggressive marketing of its SH-AWD (super handling) system in models like the TLX and MDX. The “why” may have to do with fuel efficiency (and price) concerns. Adding AWD would slow the ILX down, make it thirstier — and more expensive. For some sense of this, the AWD-equipped Mercedes CLA250 starts at $33,500 and its mileage drops from the FWD version’s class best 26 city/38 highway) to a so-so 24 city, 32 highway.
The wild card in this class is the A3 TDI. It’s the only diesel-engined car in the class — and the only car in the class capable of 43 MPG on the highway (and 31 in city driving).
It’s also a not-bad deal at $33,200 to start.
But, it’s slow — two second and then some behind the ILX, 0-60.
ON THE ROAD
The Civic Si-sourced 2.4 engine’s war song is one of this car’s best features. It spins like a two-stroke to 7,000-plus RPM before each gear change under WOT.
It’s a very different sound (and sensation) vs. the turbocharged fours in the competition’s cars — reflecting a different approach to making power. The turbo engines base theirs on boost while the Acura relies on flow. They make their power (and torque) much lower in the powerband: 5,500 RPM for the CLA 250’s turbo 2.0 and 4,500 for the Audi’s turbo 1.8 — vs. a screaming 6,800 RPM for the VTEC Honda (oops, Acura).
It’s the difference between a Hayabusa — and a Harley.
Well, maybe not that extreme.
But the point’s solid.
The Benz and Audi’s turbo engines are designed to produce big torque numbers (258 ft.-lbs. at just 1,250 RPM for the CLA; 200 ft.-lbs. at 1,600 for the A3 1.8T) in the lower and mid-ranges, to give the cars relaxed but powerful-feeling acceleration. The Acura’s free-breathing (and higher revving) naturally-aspirated engine is designed to practically beg for hammer time, the eight-speed transmission in Sport mode (which automatically drops it down two gears and really cinches up the shifts), the tach needle sweeping to the limiter at somewhere just south of 7,000 on the tach. If you’ve driven other VTEC Honda/Acura hot rods like the S2000 and — yes — the NSX — the experience will be very familiar.
Some will lament the loss of the shifted-by-you six-speed manual. But drive the car before you set your opinion in cement.
Some automated manuals are beset by sluggishness coming off the line — due to the absence of a torque converter in most of them. Or they shift weirdly sometimes — for example, jumping ahead too many gears on a downhill stretch.
The ILX’s eight-speed does everything right — all the time. In Sport mode, you get dead-on (and rev-matched) downshifts, lightning quick upshifts coming out of the corners (but not in the middle of the corner) and (when you disengage Sport mode) immediate quiet and calm. The revs fall, the tach needle settles down. Higher, more fuel-conserving gears are engaged.
You trundle along, almost Camry-style.
This Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde quality suits. And either way, you’ll be impressed by how little fuel this thing uses. In Mr. Hyde mode, I averaged 28.5 MPG. That’s with the transmission in Sport, full-throttle runs at every opportunity.
In Drive, I averaged 33.7 MPG — almost four MPG better than the EPA’s estimated average for this car.
AT THE CURB
Subjectively, the ILX strikes me as being in between the supermodel-in-a-thong Mercedes CLA and the still-holding-it-together housewife in a one-piece A3. The first’s an amazing looker — the second still looks good.
This actually jibes with the objective stuff — physical dimensions (especially allocation of space inside).
The Benz, like a supermodel in a thong, is not very practical. Though long and lean (every young man’s dream) it has a cripplingly cramped back seat. Just 27.1 inches of legroom back there (vs. 34 in the ILX and 35.1 in the A3).
The Benz’s back seat is effectively unusable by adults who aren’t Little People.
Both the ILX and the A3 have serviceable back seats.
But the Audi’s trunk is tiny — just 10 cubic feet vs. 12.3 for the ILX and — oddly — 13.1 for the Mercedes. The CLA has more room for cargo than people. See that point about the supermodel in a thong.
Arguably — because objectively — the ILX is the most balanced of the three. The Audi’s smaller overall size (it’s just 175.4 inches long overall vs. 181.9 for the Acura and 182.3 for the CLA250) forces compromises (see the tiny tiny trunk). The Mercedes — being the longest of the three — ought to have the most room in both rows and in the trunk — but it sacrifices function for the sake of form.
The Acura is slightly smaller than the Mercedes, slightly bigger than the Audi — and has almost as much legroom in the second row as the Audi (and seven inches more than the Benz) without leaving you with a purse-sized trunk.
Noteworthy design features include sport seats with upper shoulder “wing” bolsters; these provide an additional measure of support as well as comfort. The seats are top-drawer — as comfortable as Nissan’s “zero gravity” chairs but with the lateral support you don’t get with the Nissan’s otherwise best-in-the-business chairs.
Also worth a mention is the ILX’s unique semi-self-steering option. It’s called Lane Keep Assist (LKAS) and when engaged, the car can almost steer itself. On a straight road — or one with gentle radius curves — it actually will steer itself. Cameras in the nose track the painted lines to your left and (hopefully) right and use this data to orient the car. Servos steer left or right as needed to maintain heading and course. You can literally take your hands off the wheel and let the car take over — within limits. If the painted lines in the road are faded or broken or the curve is too sharp, the system can’t hold the line and it’s up to you to make sure the car doesn’t wander off the road or into the opposing lane of traffic.
Technically, LKAS is an assist — not self-steering. It’s supposed to just decrease steering effort. But the fact is the car can — to a degree — steer itself. Acura is the first major car company to offer this preview of things to come. Drive the ILX (or rather, let the ILX drive itself) and you will be among the first to sample the almost-here autonomous car.
All the entrants in this class are marketed as luxury-sport sedans — but the Acura is the sportiest of them.
The large motorcycle-style analog gauges (8,000 RPM tach to your left and 160 MPH speedo to its right) are — like the VTEC 2.4 engine — very Integra GS-R esque.
They really ought to make a coupe version of this thing.
And — what the hell — offer it with the six-speed manual.
For years, Acura was at something of a disadvantage relative to other luxury car brands (especially German luxury car brands) because Acuras were on the wrong side of the front-wheel-drive/rear-wheel-drive divide.
Front-wheel-drive was perceived by many as a fundamentally economy-car layout.
Or at least, not a premium car layout.
But Benz now sells front-wheel-drive (and front-wheel-drive based) cars like the CLA250. And so, of course, does Audi. BMW is — for now — the only luxury car brand that doesn’t sell a front-wheel-drive (or front-wheel-drive-based) passenger car.
Give it time.
Rear-drive is fun for tail-out drifting and laying rubber but it sucks in winter and it’s not so great in the rain, either. FWD endows a car with bad weather tenacity — and now that the handling stuff has been worked out, you don’t lose much if anything in terms of joy to drive — unless you’re driving on a race track. The handling limits of any new car, whether FWD, RWD or AWD, are very high. Probably you will lose your nerve (or your license) before the car loses grip.
It’s just a shame that Acura decided not to offer its excellent SH-AWD system as an ILX option. That plus maybe another 20 hp or so from the VTEC four… .
THE BOTTOM LINE
The car business is an unforgiving business, but I hope the ILX gets the second chance it deserves. I love the CLA250 for its elegance and style — and the A3 for its brilliant turbo-diesel engine (which — trust me — will better the EPA’s rated mileage figures).
But the ILX offers things neither of them does — for less money. This should not be overlooked.
Or at least, it ought to be considered by anyone considering a car in this class.
*** Photo courtesy of Caricos