First Drive: 2013 Acura ILX [Review]
Acura says it is forging new territory with its ILX... but haven't we been down this road before? We investigate.
Here's a lesson Acura should have learned years ago: When you have a successful formula, stick with it.
The rebirth of a new entry-level, semi-premium Acura based on humble compact Honda Civic architecture shows that the automaker has, perhaps, learned from its past transgressions. Enter the ILX, which almost certainly got its first initial from the long-departed Acura Integra.
Even though Acura's engineers wouldn't admit it to us, we know that I in ILX isn't arbitrary.
Honda's premium division had something of a cult hit with the 1980s and 1990s Integra, but the automaker's upmarket aspirations called for an end to the compact sedan and sporty hatchback line about a decade ago. Ever since then, Acura's success in luring in buyers interested in a premium sedan somewhere south of the BMW 3-Series have been pinned on the TSX. And that hasn't been a bad thing for consumers, but Honda is finding it hard to make money on its European-market Accord-based, Japan-built TSX.
Thus was born what might at first glance seem like a warmed-over Honda Civic, the Acura ILX. We can't blame you for being skeptical: Civic devotees will find a shared platform, two powertrains and even an assembly plant in Indiana.
ILX Hybrids use the same 1.5-liter four-cylinder gasoline-electric hybrid and CVT powertrain used in the Civic Hybrid, while the vaguely sport-oriented ILX 2.4 comes with the Civic Si's 201-horsepower, 170 lb-ft. of torque 2.4-liter four-cylinder mated exclusively to a six-speed manual transmission.
However, Acura expects that most ILX shoppers will instead wind up with a 2.0-liter four-cylinder hooked up to a five-speed automatic, a powertrain not offered on other Honda products in North America. The 2.0 puts out 150 horsepower and 140 lb-ft. of torque, a hefty step down from the optional 2.4-liter.
Confusingly, this means there are three distinct ILX flavors: The mass-market 2.0-liter/automatic, the kind-of-sort-of sporty buyer-oriented 2.4-liter/manual and the eco-friendly hybrid/CVT.
All three utilize essentially the same suspension settings, which makes the 2.4-liter somewhat of a head-scratcher since its performance credentials are relegated to additional speed and shift-it-yourself ability, not corner-carving prowess.
Looking the part
Confusing model lineup aside, we were pleased to see that, inside and out, the ILX looks nothing like the Civic. Crisply toned and distinctive if not particularly evocative, the ILX is a pleasant-looking sedan that manages to look reasonably upmarket thanks to delicate brightwork and some familial styling cues. We weren't crazy about its swept-up C-pillar, but we do like the broad rear shoulders formed by its tall rear fenders.
Externally, all three ILXs are identical aside from a functional trunk spoiler on Hybrids and different wheel designs.
Inside, ILX shares no visible switchgear with the Civic, although it is a bit narrow compared to the marginally larger TSX. Rear seat space falls in the ILX's favor, however, as does a high-resolution central display with Acura's generally user-friendly control knob for navigation and advanced audio functions.
Materials choices are a clear step above the Civic, so the TSX rewards with more upmarket textures throughout. Aside from the relative narrowness of its cabin, only a cheaply finished trunk lid that lacked a fully carpeted liner and a non-height adjustable manual passenger seat adjustment revealed the ILX's downmarket roots.
On the road
Careful tuning again erased nearly all of the Civicness from this compact sedan platform. ILX steers nicely, albeit with limited feel and marginally over-boosted assist. Harsh bumps reveal a solid structure and a compliant, if not particularly taut, suspension.
Skinny pedal actions aside, all three ILX powertrain variants rode and handled about the same. The 2.4-liter model has a little more weight over the front axle, but any difference it makes on handling is negligible at best. Confident and controlled, the ILX nonetheless only ekes slightly toward the sporty side of things.
And that's a shame, because the 2.4 is a refined and willing engine that begs to be tossed into a sportier platform. When Honda last rehabbed this engine for its TSX and Civic Si, it ratcheted down the peaky power and added in some torque, which makes it a fine fit for an entry-premium sedan. Further improving matters is one of the most delicately precise six-speed manual transmissions in the business, mated here to a perfectly-weighted clutch pedal. Fuel economy is estimated at 22/31 mpg.
But Acura says that fewer than 10 percent of ILX buyers are likely to choose the 2.4, so they'll be missing out. Instead, the 2.0-liter model feels just adequate in terms of overall power. It merges well enough onto highways and passing isn't a challenge, but the five-cog automatic gearbox certainly gets a workout. At least Acura worked hard to quell cabin noise; the engine is silky smooth as it revs up to redline. This limited power does reap benefits in fuel economy, however, as Acura expects 24/35 mpg from the EPA.
The ILX Hybrid is pokier yet with just 91 horsepower from its 1.5-liter (and an additional 23 ponies from the electric motor). Acura quotes a 0-60 mph stroll of 11.2 seconds, although a decent torque spread - 127 lb-ft. between 1,000 and 3,000 rpm - makes the ILX Hybrid feel about as quick as the mainstream 2.0-liter model in most driving. Only during freeway on-ramp maneuvers does the Hybrid's CVT force the engine to drone as it maximizes available power. Acura pegs the Hybrid at 39/38 mpg, which is a fair amount lower than the Civic Hybrid's 44/44 mpg.
Packaged for success?
As we alluded to earlier, the ILX's lineup is a bit more confusing than Acura's typical "base" or "Technology" (think navigation and premium audio) models. 2.0-liter Hybrid models come standard with cloth seats, a moonroof and Bluetooth for $26,695 and $29,795, respectively.
From there, the lineup climbs to the Premium package, which is standard on 2.4s ($30,095), optional on 2.0s (also $30,095) and unavailable on Hybrids. It adds heated leather seats, an uprated stereo, 17-inch wheels, a rear camera and HID headlamps. Acura hasn't priced the package for 2.0-liters, but it has said that 2.4s will list for around $30,000.
Optional on 2.0 and Hybrid models only, the Technology Package adds navigation, Homelink and a genuinely impressive ELS audio system. These range-topping ILXs run $32,295 for a 2.0 and $35,295 for the Hybrid.
All this seemed reasonable until we realized what an unintentionally good value Acura's own TSX is: A base 2012 TSX, which includes essentially all of what you'll find in an ILX Premium, starts at a mere $810 more. It may be a little larger and a little less fuel efficient, but it's faster and it boasts notably sportier dynamics... for about the same price. And that's before we priced out the ILX's chief rival, the Buick Verano, which lists for around $3,000 less.
It doesn't take a Harvard MBA to realize that part of this situation is short-lived, though. TSXs are built in Japan, where a strong yen continues to dent profitability, while ILXs are built an hour south of the Crossroads of America in Greensburg, Indiana.
Leftlane's bottom line
The Acura ILX's refinement shrugs off any comparisons to its pedestrian Honda Civic platform-mate, but its premium pricing should make it a tough sell - especially while the Acura TSX is on dealer lots.
For only a few bucks more, we'd be hard pressed not to pick the dynamically impressive, Euro-feeling TSX, even if the ILX is the new kid on the block.
2013 Acura ILX base price range, $26,795 to $35,295.
Words and photos by Andrew Ganz.