Thursday, January 24, 2013

Test Drive: 2013 Acura ILX 2.4L 6MT

The ILX is Acura’s attempt at moving further down-market, offering a car that will, in theory, appeal to a younger, upwardly mobile, audience that is looking to get their first taste of luxury as a part of their increasingly affluent lifestyle. Acura calls this, “Moving up without settling down.” Based on the ninth generation Honda Civic’s chassis, the ILX does not actually share much with its Honda sibling, save for the 2.4 liter inline-4 sourced from the Honda Civic Si, as well as the 1.5 liter hybrid powertrain sourced from the Civic Hybrid. But is the ILX a compelling enough entry level luxury sedanto be able to convince potential buyers to choose the Acura brand over such competitors as the Audi A3 and even Honda’s own Civic Si?

The ILX presents and aggressive and handsome fascia
The Good
The version we drove is the ILX 2.4 Premium, which comes with a 2.4L inline-4 mated to a 6-speed manual transmission that is exclusive to this trim level. Since the Premium package is the only available package on the 2.4 model, standard equipment is quite generous. Items like keyless entry with push button start, multi-angle rear view camera, heated leather seating surface for the front seats, xenon HID head lamps, and a whole plethora of tech goodies all come standard on this car. And for about $29,000, it seems like a pretty good deal. This is the same 201 hp, 170 lb./ft. 2.4 liter from the ninth generation Honda Civic Si as well as the ILX’s big brother, the TSX. The extra torque in the lower reaches of the tach really does help with daily driving and the extra mid-range punch makes passing less of a chore compared to some of the older, high revving Honda motors. In fact, we feel this motor is well-suited to the ILX as its intended audience will want a car that is easy to drive, but will provide power when needed.

From the rear, the resemblance to the Lexus IS is uncanny
One of the ILX’s best features is that wonderful 6-speed manual transmission. With a snick-snick motion reminiscent of a rifle bolt sliding into place and matched to a well-balanced clutch, this transmission is an absolute masterpiece, making the experience of rowing your own gears ever more enjoyable. The fact that this excellent example of the manual transmission will only account for a miniscule fraction of ILX sales is a travesty, but it guarantees that those who select this trim option will see them command a slight premium on the used-car market due to their rarity. Now if they would only include the limited-slip differential that comes standard on the Civic Si, the drive train would be one of the best combinations on the market.

The ILX chassis soaks up bumps surprisingly well and tracks quite well, exhibiting ride that is noticeably stiffer than the TSX. Steering feel is roughly the same as the Civic Si, though I find the steering to be a little more boosted than in the Si, resulting in a slightly artificial sensation when turning quickly. Brakes provide strong feedback, but just average performance, a characteristic that shows itself in nearly every other Honda/Acura product we have driven (with the exceptions of the TL Type S and the S2000).

The center console is clean, simple, and attractive
On the outside, the ILX bears a resemblance to the outgoing Lexus IS from the rear, but is all Acura up front and carries what may be one of the best executed versions of the Acura “power plenum” grille. It is clearly different enough from its Civic sibling that the average person would never know that beneath the skin of the ILX lays the same foundation as the lowly Honda Civic. The premium package’s 17” alloy wheels fill out the wheel wells nicely and the overall stance of the car is surprisingly aggressive.

The interior is nicely appointed with nice quality leather and soft touch plastics in all the right places. The center stack is actually fairly clean and organized compared to some of Acura’s previous offerings. The iMID display is nice and useful, but still feels about one-generation behind the competition in both size and function.

The Bad
Unfortunately, for $29,000, the ILX comes up a bit short on value. Since the Premium package is the only package available for the 2.4 liter model, you will never be able to get the high-end, ELS sound system or the hard drive-based navigation system. Also, if you have no clue how to drive a manual transmission (you should probably learn!), you're out of luck as the larger 2.4L motor, as mentioned earlier, only comes as with the excellent manual transmission. Can't drive a stick? Then you are stuck with the incredibly anemic 2.0L, or the wheezy 1.5L hybrid. Acura promised that once the Earth Dreams series engines were ready, they would go straight into the ILX, and frankly, they cannot get here soon enough.

The interior is typical Acura and feels right for the class
Handling, while decent, is nothing special. For the trim that is being marketed as the “performance” version of the ILX, one would expect it to demonstrate handling characteristics that at least better the base model and hybrid siblings. Sadly, that is not the case as the ILX has the same suspension tuning all around, regardless of trim or engine size. This is not to say the car handles poorly, but an opportunity to provide a truly engaging driving experience was squandered here.

To be completely honest, the ILX is a car we want to like. We really wanted to like it enough to take it home to complement an S2000 as a daily driver. In the end, there are just too many small shortcomings to the ILX, many the result of Honda's marketing decisions about this car. When test driving the car, we could not help but wonder, “what would convince someone to spend an extra $5000 over a fully loaded Civic Si to get the ILX?” The Acura badge alone does not carry the brand cachet to drive those extra sales. By the end of our test drive, we still could not answer that question. The ILX 2.4, for all intents and purposes, is a dolled up Civic Si, but without the optional navigation system and limited slip differential. Hopefully, once Acura starts including the different variations of the K24W Earth Dreams engine from the 2013 Honda Accord, the ILX will be a more compelling vehicle. And if we hear another Acura salesman tell us that the ILX is better than the Civic Si “because it's an Acura,”we might just punch that salesman in the face.

View from the East
As I currently own the TSX, it was natural for me to make the comparison between the ILX and my daily driver. I found the steering shockingly light, comparatively, but there are genuinely a lot of things to like about the ILX and I think there is a market out there for this car. If they can fix a few things, especially as a true sport model, they would be able to rekindle some of the lost magic from the days of the Integra. Right now, the ILX feels just a tad flabby in certain places and is, in my opinion, not nearly as good a driver's car as the TSX. Acura, please do something to make this car better; make it the awesome entry-level sport sedan that it has the potential to be and would make it a serious contender in the marketplace.

View from the West

To be completely honest, the ILX is a car I want to like. I really wanted to like it and take it home to supplement my S2000 as a daily driver. It is hard not to compare this car to the new Civic Si, which with the recent redesign, is a much more attractive option than in prior years. I just am not seeing what the extra $5,000 you spend on the ILX buys in terms of standard equipment, technology, or even driving enjoyment. Acura seems to have realized that the 2.0L version of this car is downright anemic and should be adding the new Earth Dreams engines to the line-up soon and will likely be making the automatic transmission available with the 2.4L as well. Perhaps that will be enough for the average driver, but for me, it just is not enough.

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