First drive: 2019 Acura ILX

Acura's new compact gets some updates for 2019.

For the better part of two decades, Acura was known for offering compelling and grin-inducing entry-level models with just enough of an upmarket feel to justify their premium over models offered by parent company Honda.

One of Acura's most iconic nameplates, Integra, was a staple of this segment. In the final years, its Type-R variant was the final word in front-wheel-drive sport compact performance. By those standards, the 2019 Acura ILX has big shoes to fill.

What is it?

The Acura ILX is the baby in the lineup, following in the footsteps of the compact Integra (That "ILX" begins with "I" is, depending on you ask, either entirely or not at all coincidental.) and its replacement, the RSX.

Unlike its predecessors, however, the ILX is strictly a four-door offering (The Integra was offered as both a coupe and sedan initially, but the RSX was always a coupe.) Traditionally, this slot in Acura's lineup has shared its underpinnings with the Honda Civic. That's still fundamentally true, but in this case, it's a generation behind Honda's current compact.

Sitting below the TLX sedan, the ILX is offered with just one engine here in the States, a 2.4L, normally aspirated four-cylinder making 201 horsepower and 180 lb-ft of torque. Power goes to the front wheels only by way of a fancy eight-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission. This combo is good for 24 mph city, 34 highway and 28 combined.

What's new?

The 2019 ILX is the final car in the Acura lineup to get a styling makeover, finally bringing it up-to-date with a new "Diamond Pentagon" grille along with new front and rear bumpers and updated lighting at both ends. 2019 also marks the introduction of the company's AcuraWatch safety suite as standard equipment.

For the new model year, Acura has also made the ILX less expensive, both at the introductory and range-topping ends of the spectrum. Like the Audi A3 and BMW 2 Series, ILX fills the role of a subcompact sedan despite riding on a wheelbase common to mainstream cars a size up. At $25,900 to start, the ILX offers a compelling value proposition. Topping off below $32,00, the range-topping A-Spec model does the same.

The updated A-Spec gets a new two-tone red leather and black Ultrasuede interior, which is certainly sporty but perhaps not everybody's cup of tea.

How does it look?

The 2019 facelift has done a lot for the ILX, but we're not certain it's enough. The profile is a bit awkward, with a blunt-nosed look reminiscent of some last-generation Volvo sedans that is not flattered by the ILX's high rear deck and kinked-off c-pillar lines. The ILX's front end needs to be on a hatchback to really work.

If you look at it from any angle but the dead-on profile, the 2019 Acura ILX looks much better than the car it replaces, and the wheels and gloss-black trim elements looked particularly sharp on our A-Spec test cars.

And the inside?

We spent only an hour or so bombing around country roads outside Marysville and East Liberty, Ohio, in the 2019 Acura ILX A-Spec, meaning we had precious little time to really settle into its interior (We'll explain why later this week.).

Standard Android Auto and Apple CarPlay integration were welcome, as was the honest-to-God volume knob. We found the retina-scarring seats to be comfortable and supportive enough for hustling around tight turns, but we were disappointed by their too-high base seating position.

But does it go?

The 2019 Acura ILX's 201 horsepower is tasked with moving roughly 3,150 pounds of car via just the front wheels. There's no turbocharger for extra torque, which means if you're going to get it moving, you're going to have to get some revs.

Happily, the 2.4L is keen to offer them. It may not be as rev-happy as Honda's older (and much-beloved) two-liter engines, but it's not bad either. The transmission shifts quickly and obediently, making the ILX one of the rare mainstream vehicles where paddle shifters are actually worthwhile inclusions.

Acura has always had a knack for sound engineering, and by that we don't mean engineering that is sound, but rather the curation of a pleasant aural experience. There are very few low-output, two-liter engines that can match the noise produced by the old RSX's base engine. It may not have been a match for the Type-S in terms of performance, but it still felt special.

The same is true here. Sure, Acura employs tricks like active noise cancellation to optimize the sound environment, but there's a satisfying element to the 2.4L's engine note that many automakers simply don't bother to replicate.

Unfortunately, the 2.4L's on-road performance just doesn't compliment that attitude. It may sound the part, but it just doesn't feel it. Willing, capable, and competent? Sure. It's all of those things. But compelling? Hmm. No.

Leftlane's bottom line

This is the last of many nip-and-tuck jobs for a compact experiment that has seemed at times to be almost pointlessly over-iterated. We've understood all along why the ILX exists, but we've frequently wondered whether Acura's product planners were on the same page. The 2019 Acura ILX finally feels like a complete (if slightly outdated) package and hopefully it's a sign of better things to come. After all, being the baby in the Acura lineup means following in the footsteps of legends (small L).

2019 Acura ILX A-Spec base price, $31,550; as-tested, $32,545

Destination, $995

Photos courtesy of Acura.

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