Editorial note: Business Insider will name its 2017 Car of the Year on November 14, based on 15 finalists. Each day this week, we’re taking another look at the five vehicles that were runners-up. First up: the Acura TLX A-Spec.
- The Acura has a splendid V6 engine, a smooth-shifting transmission, dual infotainment screens that make sense with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, and a comfortable interior.
- The car is a great value versus the competition, with legendary Honda reliability.
- But the Acura is not a luxury status symbol. It also lacks rear-wheel-drive (although AWD is excellent), has a sub-300hp motor, and the styling is a bit controversial for Acura loyalists.
Sometimes, a really great car just kind of sneaks up on you. Several years ago, Acura (Honda’s luxury division) rolled out a new version of its TLX sedan, a mid-size BMW 3-Series fighter.
That’s no easy task; everyone selling a mid-size luxury sedan has been unsuccessfully fighting the 3-Series for decades. But the TLX was absolutely necessary to keep Acura competitive in the segment. That said, everyone also knew that the almighty BMW wasn’t going to be dethroned anytime soon, if ever.
Enter the TLX A-Spec, which I borrowed to test out. I drove a well-optioned 2018 model that came with all-wheel-drive and stickered at $US45,750. (Interestingly, I sampled the Acura in and around Fremont and San Jose, CA, when I was also checking out the launch of the Tesla Model 3, the all-electric mass-market car of the future, and we later enjoyed the vehicle in the New York-New Jersey area).
It would be a sad understatement to say that I liked this car. I’ve always been an Acura fan — even though Honda doesn’t do rear-wheel-drive and therefore has a tough time competing against BMW, Mercedes, and Lexus, who do. The brand’s cars and SUVs are exceptionally well-done, with reasonable performance, great reliability, and fantastic Honda engineering. My TLX had a brilliant 3.5-litre V6 under the hood (Honda makes superb V6’s) and all the go-fast upgrades that earned it the A-Spec designation.
It was good. Real good:
The TLX A-Spec isn't flashy, but it's a nice looking set of wheels, in shimmery white with a black interior.
The TLX replaced the TL in 2015 and was quickly greeted with the usual sighs about how Acura is never going to top the Big Four luxury automakers: Mercedes, BMW, Lexus, and Audi. Along with Infiniti (Nissan's luxury brand), Acura has long strived to replicate Lexus's achievements, but of the Japanese carmakers, only Toyota has truly cracked the luxe code.
This is a misplaced lament. Acura has been around since Ronald Reagan was in the Oval Office and over the decades has sold many vehicles, including the much-loved Legend and Integra. The brand has its own thing going, and in my view, it's different from Lexus's 'Don't think about it' approach toward luxury and the Germans' focus on driving performance.
I gave some serious thought to buying a used luxury sedan a few years back -- certified pre-owned luxury cars are great deals -- and Acura was my first stop. Yes, rear-wheel-drive is nice, but if you're mainly going to be navigating freeways and urban/suburban roadways, you don't really need it, and having to send power to the back wheels adds mechanical complexity.
Acura's solution is to use its front-wheel-drive platforms to host AWD technology. You either buy this or you don't. And as Acura once pointed out to me, Infiniti's decision to go RWD hasn't really helped it to conquer the BMWs and Mercedes of the world.
Ultimately, you're getting a much nicer Honda in the bargain if you go for an Acura like the TLX. If that sounds like a compromise, it isn't, unless status ranks higher than common sense. Hondas are a superb baseline; Acura's are better.
The much-maligned 'beak' is gone from the TLX's front fascia, replaced by the angular grilled and the large Acura badge.
Acura took it a little too far in a flashy direction with its prior front-end design, alienating some owners who have always liked the brand's sharp, but non-Germanic looks.
Honda's overall problem with design had been that decades of competence had suddenly become boring. So Acura overreacted and has now retreated.
The result is a fairly well-designed car that blends clean lines with a touch of aggression -- but just a touch. And check out those 'jewel eye' LED headlights! Very sleek and contemporary, although, one could complain that they're out of scale when compared to the badge.
I don't think Acura has the best seats in the luxury segment, nor the flashiest appointments. But the carmaker tends to get everything just right, continuing Honda's long record of focusing on ergonomics.
When you get into an Acura, the learning curve is a bit steeper than it was in the pre-infotainment-system era, but it's still far less steep than with some other carmakers (BMW and Lexus, I'm looking at you).
Did I say that seats aren't the best? OK, but these saddles are pretty nice, with contrast stitching, piping, and Alcantara inserts.
Also, up front they're heated and cooled -- I appreciated the latter in some toasty NoCal sunshine.
From the driver's point of view, the cockpit is a pleasing combination of new and old, with the multi-screen infotainment system on the center stack but the central instrument cluster analogue-style old-school. The leather-wrapped steering wheel has all the usual buttons to control vehicle functions, and the paddle shifters are sort of fun if you want to tackle the shifting yourself in manual mode.
A decent-sized moonroof prevents the black interior from feeling cavernous, and back seats are reasonably roomy.
I've been looking at this tachometer-speedometer layout form pretty much my entire adult driving life.
But something interesting happened, as I was testing the TLX A-Spec while covering the launch of the new Tesla Model 3, a car that's completely done away with the traditional instrument clusters, placing all information in a central, horizontally oriented touchscreen.
I expected this even before I saw the car in the flesh, so the TLX provided me with an opportunity to consider the demise of gauges.
Honestly, I think the industry will move in Tesla's direction over the coming decades. For the vast majority of drivers, the tachometer is a useless instrument -- it merely adds a sporty vibe. Few will really need to track their car's engine redline when shifting. I certainly didn't, even though the TLX A-Spec includes both a Sport and a Sport Plus driving mode, in additional to Normal and Econ (the last helping the car make good on its 20 mpg city/29 highway/23 combined fuel-economy ratings).
Lincoln has been tipping in this direction by making its information displays more minimalist, which actually adds to a luxury feel. The Model 3 is a $US44,000 car at currently available pricing, but its ultra-minimal insides make it feel ironically more premium. A trend is a trend, and in this context, the TLX's setup comes off as overly complicated. The future will entail less.
I didn't have anything to put back there, but if I did, the trunk would have easily swallowed up a long weekend's worth of luggage for a family of four. A golf bag would fit, as would gear for a mixed-doubles team. Two guitars and two amps, yes. A drum kit: no.
The Acura has an interesting infotainment-screen setup: two screens! This means you can run Apple CarPlay, for example, on one, and the Acura system on the other.
It's a little odd, but it works well. You have Bluetooth, USB/AUX ports, navigation, voice commands, and a tasty audio system.
Acuras are more fun to drive than Lexuses, less fun than BMWs, different from Audis (I tend to find Acura's to be better for daily driving duty), more youthful than Mercedes, and less juicy than Cadillacs. Lincolns are much mushier, in a good way.
The A-Spec package adds some oomph to the regulation TLX. A 290-horsepower 3.5-litre V6 is under the hood, and it's fantastic. We're being compelled to deal with more and more turbocharging on luxury vehicles, but the TLX's mill is all motor, and it punches above spec, at least in the feel department.
I thought I had more than 300 horses the entire time, testament to how that V6 in combination with a 9-speed automatic does a passable imitation of a small V8. The 0-60 mph run can be achieved in about six seconds, which isn't bonkers fast, but the TLX A-Spec comes into its own when you call on it to pass or want to cleanly access the power while modulating speed.
This is a no-compromise drivetrain, and when you throw in the torque-vectoring AWD system, you get a ride that's crisp when commanded and mellow when it isn't -- the polar opposite of a twitchy performance car. Steering is responsive without being heavy, and the brakes feel solid. If you get bold with the throttle, the A-Spec even shows a glimmer of a wild side. But just a glimmer. This is no BMW M-Sport machine.
A litany of driver-assist features are standard for the TLX A-Spec, ranging from adaptive cruise control to lane-keep assist and forward collision braking, but I didn't much use them. Firstly, because I didn't have the car for long enough to engage in a long freeway cruise. But secondly, and more importantly, because I just liked driving the car myself too doggone much!
Ben Zhang and I agreed that the TLX A-Spec offers a convincing alternative to a BMW 3-Series with comparable options, given that everything I've outlined in this review can be had standard for the just a scooch more than $US45,000, with the only uptick from the $US44,800 ticker being the $US950 destination charge. And it's not for nothing that you'll be buying Acura reliability and quality; if you want to drive the TLX until the wheels fall off, you can.
This is how Acura greatness sneaks up on you. And it's why the brand should always be in the top-tier luxury conversation, even if it's rarely included in that club. I should have known that this would be one of the best cars we'd drive all year.
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