2021 Acura TLX Review

You used to be able to get a V6 in a Honda Accord sedan. But now that one’s a four-cylinder-only sedan.

The good news is, there’s a new sedan made by Honda that’s available with the strongest V6 Honda ever put into a sedan.

The bad news is, it’s not being sold under the Honda label.

It’s the Acura TLX sedan, which means you’ll be paying premium bucks for the premium badge.

But at least you can still get it with a six.

What It Is

The TLX is a medium-small sport sedan that competes most directly with the Audi A4, which shares the same general FWD-based/AWD layout. Other cars in the class, like the BMW 3 Series, Lexus IS, Cadillac CT4, and Genesis G70, are similar in size, price, and general appearance but are based on rear-drive layouts, with AWD available optionally.

Prices start at $37,500 for the base trim, with a turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine, a 10-speed automatic transmission, and front-wheel-drive. Acura’s Super Handling All-Wheel-Drive (SH-AWD) system is available optionally, bumping up the MSRP by $2,000 to $39,500.

A Type-S with a turbocharged 3.0- liter V6 and the SH-AWD system will be available in May; Acura hasn’t released pricing numbers yet, but this one will probably sticker for about $50,000 to start.

What’s New

The TLX is completely redesigned.

A much more powerful 2.0-liter turbocharged engine is now standard, and an even more powerful turbocharged V6 is optional. All-wheel-drive is now available with the four, too. Previously, you had to buy the optional V6 to get AWD.

A ten-speed automatic is also standard with both of the ’21 TL’s new engines, replacing the previous eight and nine-speed transmissions that came with the four and the six, respectively, last year.

What’s Good

  • Much more muscular than before with either engine.
  • You can still get a V6 engine.
  • With the four, it’s a deal relative to rivals in the class like the Audi A4, which is also smaller and comes with a much less powerful standard engine.

What’s Not So Good

  • You can only get the V6 in the Type-S variant, which is a much more expensive variant.

While the TL’s FWD-based layout has an advantage in terms of traction, it’s also the same basic layout you’ll find underneath cars that aren’t in the luxury-badged class (and price range). Most of the TLX’s price range models, like the BMW 3 and the Lexus IS, are based on rear-drive layouts, which means you can light up the rear tires if you’re into that.

Like all the cars in this class, the TLX has some needlessly over-complex controls, such as the smartphone-emulating touchpad on the console. It can be as fumbly to use accurately while the car is moving as a smartphone.

The good news is you don’t have to use the touchpad to operate the climate controls or adjust the stereo.

Under The Hood

Acura has upped the TLX’s game considerably for 2021.

The car now comes standard with a 272 horsepower 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine nearly as strong as the previously optional 290 horsepower 3.5-liter. It produces more torque (280 ft.-lbs. at just 1,600 RPM vs. 267 ft.-lbs. at 4,500 RPM). This engine also massively outguns the Audi A4’s standard 2.0-liter, 201 horsepower four and out powers the Lexus IS series optional 3.5-liter (260 horsepower) V6.

It’s paired with a new 10-speed automatic transmission. You can choose front-wheel-drive, or the optional Super Handling All-Wheel-Drive (SH-AWD) system was not available with the 2.4-liter (206 hp) horsepower engine that was standard in the 2020 TLX.

Surprisingly, given the horsepower (and torque) numbers, the TLX isn’t as quick as others in the segment, like the BMW 3, which advertises less power but gets to 60 in less than six seconds. It’s close to 7 for the TLX.

The reasons for this disparity include the TLX’s higher curb weight (3,709 lbs. for the base FWD version vs. 3,560 for the BMW 3 sedan) and the way the standard 10-speed automatic is programmed, which is to maximize fuel economy and necessary to make the government happy.

The same government has made six-cylinder engines rare and expensive. To its credit, the TLX achieves almost the same city/highway mileage (22 city, 31 highway for the FWD version) as the much less powerful and partially-electric (hybrid) Audi A4 manages (25 city, 34 highway). This is a difference within the margin of error in real-world driving and without the complexity or the expense of the part-time electric car drivetrain.

Acura has the answer for those who want more power and much more performance. The new Type-S variant comes with the most powerful V6 Acura has ever put into anything with four doors. It is also an all-new V6, turbocharged and displacing 3.0-liters. It makes 355 horsepower and nearly the same amount of torque (354 ft.-lbs.), making it comparable in output to a V8 (without a turbo).

It, too, is paired with the 10-speed automatic, and the SH-AWD is mandatory. Equipped with this engine, the TLX lives up to its looks, getting to 60 in about 4.5 seconds—a time that makes it competitive with the M340i, the hopped-up version of the BMW 3 Series sedan.

It also makes it a deal compared with that one assuming the unofficial MSRP of the Type-S turns out to be officially $50,000 or so, which would be several thousand less than the M340i’s base price of $54,700.

On The Road

The TLX’s charm isn’t speed; it is tenacity.

Acura’s Super Handling All-Wheel-Drive system is about grip, particularly in the curves — which it enhances by applying power side-to-side and the usual front-to-rear. This torque vectoring adjusts for both understeer (the tendency, especially of FWD cars, to track too deep into the curve during high-speed cornering) and oversteer (the tendency, especially of rear-drive cars, to swing wide and tail out as they approach the limit of grip in a curve taken at high speed).

The goal, of course, is neutral handling—neither over-nor-understeering—which is what you get here. This is how you make up for the speed in a straight line that the Acura hasn’t got relative to its faster-accelerating rivals.

It is true that in the hands of an expert driver who knows how to drive a car sideways in a curve, an oversteering-tending rear-drive car like the BMW 3 can outpace a car like the TLX because, at the limit, the rear-drive car is more balanced. But for most drivers, the TLX will feel safer going faster and probably be real-world faster than a car like the BMW 3 driven by someone who hasn’t got the skills or the nerve to go sideways through the curves.

The car’s main weakness in real-world performance terms is probably the 10-speed automatic, which has ten speeds, not for performance but to achieve higher mileage—a kind of an absurd obsession in this class. People who are “concerned” over gas mileage, especially when we’re talking about differences of three or four miles-per-gallon, aren’t usually people who spend $40k-plus on a luxury-sport sedan.

But the government is very concerned.

This concern forces Acura and every other automaker to express their concern by resorting to expedients such as transmissions with 10-speed rather than four or five speeds (the last several speeds being overdrive speeds), all for the sake of that three-or-four extra MPGs.

Such transmissions are also programmed to jump up into overdrives (plural) as quickly as possible to cut engine revs and thus increase MPGs. But all this shifting up and down takes time. So does all the thinking of the computer, as it decides which gear is the right gear. It’s time measured in fractions of a second, of course, but it will manifest in how the car feels—how the engine responds. It is almost certain this car would be noticeably quicker and feel much quicker if it had a five-speed automatic and were programmed for performance rather than mileage.

But for that to happen, the government will have to get out of the car designing (and gas mileage decreeing) business. The government is also why the V6, once commonly available in Honda sedans, is now a very exclusively priced Acura engine.

The $50k-plus price assures not many will buy one, which perversely helps Acura by not depressing Acura’s “fleet average” MPG numbers too much. A handful of Type-S variants that only rate 20 city, 25 highway (likely approximates for the 355 hp V6) won’t cause Acura to be socked with “gas guzzler” fines or at least lower fines. This makes it easier to sell more of the four-cylinder versions while still offering the V6 for the handful of lucky buyers affluent enough to be in a position to afford it.

At The Curb

You may have noticed how racy new sedans look (even formerly conservative-looking family sedans) like the Accord. Their designers have been focusing on how they look because of how functional crossovers and SUVs are. They can afford to look pretty much the same because they sell on practical rather than aesthetic considerations.

The new TLX looks racy with the scalloped hood and strong pleats arcing along its flanks. The Type-S variant is even racier-looking, especially from the rear, where four cannon-sized exhaust pipes project from the lowered rear diffuser panel. It also sits hunkier on huge 20×9-inch wheels with super-low-profile summer tires mounted.

What’s ironic about all this show is that the TLX is actually a pretty practical sedan, undoubtedly relative to several of its rivals, including the Audi A4 and the Lexus IS. For example, the Acura has 13.5 cubic feet of trunk space vs. 10.8 in the Lexus IS and 12 in the Audi.

It also has 34.9 inches of rear-seat legroom vs. 32.2 in the Lexus IS. Both rear-seats fold forward, too, creating a large pass-through that significantly increases the viable-cargo-carrying capacity of the TLX.

The Acura is also a larger, more substantial-looking car than either of these rivals. At 194.6 inches long, it nearly qualifies for mid-sized status, while the A4 (187.5 inches long) and Lexis IS (185.4 inches long) are firmly in the compact-sedan class.

Ditto, the BMW 3 sedan—also only 185.7 inches long.

Acura’s strategy appears to be to offer more car, literally, for less money.

This Acura also has an analog (non-LCD) main gauge cluster, which those who prefer that layout will prefer. There is less configurability but also less confusion.

With a large and standard (10.2 inch) secondary LCD screen for the infotainment, the Acura has a touchpad controller on the center console.  The console handles several key functions, such as making climate control and stereo volume adjustments, controlled manually, using knobs and steering wheel buttons.

If you’d like an even racier-looking TLX but don’t want to spend the $50k for the Type-S variant, Acura offers most of the Type-S looks in a less-pricey A-Spec appearance package. It includes a flat-bottomed sport steering wheel, suede, and brushed aluminum trim plus an exceptionally good 17 speaker, 710-watt ELS ultra-premium audio system with twin Telford subwoofers (standard in the Type-S).

You can also buy an adaptive suspension system that’s similar to what you’d get if you bought the Type-S variant, just not as adjustable.

Heated rear seats and a Heads-Up Display (HUD) are also available.

The Rest

It’s a measure of the state of things that cars like the TLX and the BMW 3 and others in the same class/price range used to come standard with six-cylinder engines. Economy cars now come standard with four-cylinder engines. Turbos have made these fours more potent than the fours in economy cars, but a certain prestige is lacking, which galls given you’ve certainly paid for it.

How much racier would this TLX be with the V6 standard? How much more appealing would it be vs. four-cylinder-powered economy/family sedans?

Sadly, sixes have become the indulgences of the very affluent who can afford to spend $50k-plus on a car, when once upon a time and not so very long ago they were givens if you spent $35k on a car.

On the upside, the V6 is still available. And it costs less than the six-cylinder versions of rivals like the BMW M340i, especially when you factor in that the Acura’s six is paired with AWD standard, whereas it’s optional in the BMW. With its extra-cost xDrive AWD system, the price of the M340i rises to $56,700.

It’s also interesting, cross-shop-wise, to observe that a Mercedes CLS450 sedan—only slightly larger (194.6 inches long) than the TLX and only slightly more powerful (362 horsepower from its turbocharged six)—is massively more expensive, $70,300 to start.

If the Type-S stickers for just over $50k, it’ll be the deal of the bunch.

The Bottom Line

Sedans are a tougher sell these days, but Acura hopes a sedan that’s a bit larger and a lot stronger than its comparably priced rivals will sell.

We’ll soon know.

Eric Peters lives in Virginia and enjoys driving cars and motorcycles. In the past, Eric worked as a car journalist for many prominent mainstream media outlets. Currently, he focuses his time writing auto history books, reviewing cars, and blogging about cars+ for his website EricPetersAutos.com.

Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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