It’s been nearly three decades since Honda became the first Japanese automaker to launch a separate premium brand. The original Acura Integra and Legend hit the streets four years before the first Lexus and Infiniti dealers opened their doors for business. Yet, despite that head start, Acura has never quite managed to define itself as a brand. I recently spent a week with the all-new 2015 TLX sedan to see if it provides any additional clarity.
What is Acura?
Acura’s ill-defined role in the automotive ecosystem has been an issue from the very beginning when the Integra and Legend launched without a logo for the brand. Eventually, by the time the stylized caliper badge appeared on Acuras, the brand image became even muddier with cars ranging from a bigger, softer second generation Legend to the amazing NSX sports car.
With a few exceptions like the old Integra Type-S and the NSX, Acuras by and large have not been infused with either hard-core performance or big-time luxury. They just seem to occupy this mushy middle space with vehicles like the CL coupe and the big MDX crossover. Like almost everything produced by Honda, they were always good and had some cool features like V-TEC and Super-Handling All-Wheel-Drive, but never truly outstanding.
Back in 2008, Acura tried to at least define itself visually with a new design language dubbed “Keen Edge” that debuted on new versions of the TL and TSX and a refreshed RL. Let’s just say, the look was not huge success and the prominent shield grille was quickly dubbed “Bucky the Beaver” by Jalopnik. Over time, the grille was dialed back and more smoothly integrated into the face of revised models.
Over the past two years, Acura rebooted its entire car line, hoping to finally erase the design mistakes of 2008, finishing with the reveal of the all-new TLX at the 2014 Detroit Auto Show. Most of the Keen Edge look is gone now and the TLX looks much like its smaller sibling the ILX with a side character line that begins behind the front wheels and sweeps up and over the rear wheel arch.
In addition to the more restrained shield grille, the TLX features the split lower grille that hearkens back to the beloved third-generation TL of 2004-2008. Like the big-brother RLX, the TLX gets a full-set of LED headlamps arranged in a pair of thin strips flanking the grille. These energy efficient lamps provide excellent nighttime lighting that is both bright and even.
Middle of the Range
As if Acura as a brand wasn’t ill-defined enough, the previous generation sedans also suffered from size overlap. The 2008 TSX, TLX and RL sat almost on top of each other in terms of size and all offered the same 3.5-liter V6 engine, although the TSX used a 2.4-liter four-cylinder as standard equipment. For the new generation, Acura provided more separation among its sedans with the smaller ILX being spawned off the Civic platform and the RLX growing larger than the RL. The TLX which effectively replaces both the TL and TSX splits the difference between its predecessors. While riding on the same 109.3-inch wheelbase as the last TL, most other major dimensions inside and out are closer to the slightly smaller TSX.
Honda’s marvelous 2.4-liter four-cylinder, now equipped with direct-injection is the standard powerplant for the TLX with 206-horsepower and 182 lb.-ft. of torque driving the front wheels through a unique new eight-speed dual-clutch transmission. A direct-injected version of the 3.5-liter V6 is also available with a more traditional planetary gear automatic with nine forward ratios. The V6 is available in either front or all-wheel-drive variants. No manual transmissions are available on the TLX for 2015.
I drove the four-pot variant with the new DCT and was mostly really impressed. DCTs are effectively two electronically controlled manual transmissions running in parallel, with one clutch enabling drive to the odd numbered gears while the other controls the even ratios. DCTs provide quick shifts and improved mechanical efficiency compared to traditional automatic transmissions and Volkswagen Group has had tremendous success with its variant under the VW DSG and Audi S-Tronic brands.
Controlling a DCT is apparently harder than it looks, especially when using drying clutches as Honda has chosen to do. Ford and other manufacturers with dry-clutch DCTs have received a lot of customer complaints about rough launches and shifting. Honda has tried to overcome this problem by actually adding a torque converter between the engine and dual clutch pack. This has the benefit of smoothing out the torque delivery and also multiplying the torque for smoother launches.
During my time with the TLX, the transmission mostly behaved admirably, shifting smoothly and rarely exhibiting any of the unruly behavior found on some other similar gearboxes. However, every once in a while there would be a sudden jolt that felt like releasing the traditional clutch on a manual too abruptly. This mostly happened when accelerating out from the middle of a turn which suggests that this is probably a control software issue with the transmission not being quite sure which gear it should be in. I wouldn’t be surprised in a software update at some point.
While Acura’s image has always been a bit fuzzy, as Hondas at heart, they have tended to be relatively nimble on the road and this certainly applies to the TLX. This is clearly not a competitor to the BMW 3 Series or Cadillac ATS, but it definitely feels good attacking a twisty back road. In particular, the electrically assisted steering feels much better than the previous TSX and TL, both which seemed to exhibit an odd dead zone just off straight ahead. The TLX steering was nicely weighted at all speeds and provides decent if not exceptional feedback.
Front-wheel-drive TLXs are equipped with Acura’s precision all-wheel-steer that independently adjusts the toe angle of the rear wheels. The intention is provide a tighter turning radius at low speeds for better maneuverability, improved stability at highway speeds and while braking and improved agility during spirited driving on curvy roads. Unlike some of the early all-wheel-steer systems of the 1990s, the activity of this system was never independently apparent while driving although I can’t complain about the way the car behaved so it seemed to be doing the right thing.
The TLX cabin is well finished in high-quality materials and most of the controls are well laid out. One odd choice is the use of dual displays in the center stack. Like previous Acuras and many Hondas, a seven-inch display for the navigation system sits on top of the dash, well out of reach of the driver. A second seven-inch display with touch control sits below that just above a large control knob and rows of physical switches, closer to the driver and passenger. Information is split between these displays and it’s not always obvious where various information will appear although eventually you get used to it.
For drivers that use Apple’s iDevices, the TLX has support for Siri Eyes-Free pass-through of voice commands. Everyone with a bluetooth enabled phone can use it to play back media through the audio system and as with most other newer vehicles, playback can be paused, reversed or fast-forwarded with the on-screen touch controls.
A nice thick-rimmed, leather-wrapped steering wheel features shift paddles on the back for instant finger-tip manual control of the gearbox. As usual for Hondas and Acuras the front seats are comfortable and supportive, in keeping with the overall nimble feel of the car. The rear seat is slightly more snug than the previous TL but offers more width than the TSX and two-adults will find it a comfortable space for a trip. As usual Acura has kept the pillars as slim as possible, mitigating forward blindspots that have become all too common in recent years.
The four-cylinder TLX I drove was equipped with lane departure warning and prevention as well as blindspot monitoring with cross-traffic alert. The forward looking camera detects when the car is drifting out of the lane at speeds above 45 mph without a turn signal and provides an alert to the driver. If the driver doesn’t correct, the electric steering automatically nudges the car back toward the center of the lane. It’s important to remember that like most such systems, this is not a lane centering system that tries to maintain a path between the lines, and if left uncorrected it can bounce back and forth as if driving down a bowling alley with the bumper rails raised up. That said, the corrections are smooth and don’t jerk the car around.
The EPA rates the 2.4-liter TSX at 24 mpg city and 35 mpg highway and I averaged about 26 mpg in mixed driving, a respectable if not exceptional result.
So does the TLX help to define what Acura stands for? If what Acura represents is nicely executed, well-equipped but not ostentatious, somewhat sporty, reasonably affordable sedans and crossovers, then the answer is more or less yes. However, don’t forget that the new NSX is coming in a few months to further mix things up, so who unless Acura is going to revive the Type-S nomenclature for the rest of the lineup, the brand vision is as vague as ever. That said, the $36,000 TLX with the Technology package is a really nice mid-size sedan that’s worthy of consideration as long as you don’t expect it to blow you away.