Friday, August 29, 2014

Test Drive: 2015 Acura TLX 2.4 P-AWS

With the TSX and TL now officially gone from Acura's line up, a void was left between the compact ILX and almost full-sized RLX sedans. Rather than introducing another generation of the TSX and TL, Acura decided to replace the two cars with one and call it the TLX. The TLX is supposed to have the positive qualities of its predecessors: the nimbleness of the TSX and the power and space of the TL. Acura is also hailing the TLX as a true competitor to the BMW 3-Series, going so far as calling the BMW out on its website. With a pair of brand new direct injection motors - a 2.4 liter inline-4 and 3.5 liter V6 - some major weight loss, and a host of new technologies, has Acura hit the mark? Most importantly, does the TLX take us back to the days when Acuras were fun to drive cars with great interiors at a great price?

When Acura debuted the TLX concept during the Detroit Auto Show, many were thrilled by the car's exciting looks and bold color choice. While the TLX ended up losing some of the sharp design features going from concept to production, the car still looks conservatively handsome. One of the best design features is the front of the car, which seems to evolve design cues from the third-generation TL, one of Acura's best selling sedans to date. If you have ever seen the third-generation TL before, imagine the front of that car, but with the new "power plenum" grill and Acura's new "Jewel Eye" LED headlights incorporated into a slightly evolved design. However, like many of the other people following the TLX since concept, I am very disappointed at the lack of visible exhaust pipes and the ugly 17 inch wheels that come standard on the 2.4 liter models. Frankly, the exhaust would be fine if it was properly hidden, and not poking out from under the bumper. As for the wheels? I am not sure why Acura felt a 17-inch wheel, especially one with such an unattractive design, was fine for a car that is supposed to be a premium vehicle, particularly since there are not really any alternatives provided. Acura should have either made the 18 inch wheels that come on all V6 models standard on all trims, or at least make them standard on the 2.4 liter with tech package. They were fine making the larger wheels standard on the tech models of the RLX and MDX, just not sure why the TLX did not get the same treatment.

The interior of the TLX, on the other hand, is actually quite the improvement from both the TL and TSX it replaces. It resembles the interior of the MDX more than the RLX, but materials all feel very high quality, and even the fake wood trim looks fairly decent. I would have liked the option for some kind of aluminum trim, but I could live with the wood trim while my brother would like to see some matte finish wood options. Like the MDX and RLX, the TLX comes standard with the dual screen infotainment set up. In the base model TLX we drove, navigation was not available, but all other functions were available to the car. While East Brother and I did not really test the infotainment system, we figure it would be essentially the same as on our MDX and RLX, so we will not spend any space here talking about it.

What is most important about the TLX is how it drives. From my viewpoint, I feel like the TLX drives fairly well. Leaving the car's Integrated Dynamics System (IDS) in normal, the TLX rode fairly smoothly. As expected, steering was light and not very communicative in normal mode, and throttle response lagged a bit. Switch the IDS over to sport, and the car livens up quite a bit. Steering feels better weighted and handling becomes much tighter. In "sport+" mode, the TLX feels like a completely different car than in normal mode. Everything about the car reacts much quicker. Steering is heavy, but feels much more communicative. Throttle response is very good, and handling is surprisingly quite good. It is sad that the handling is limited by Acura's horrible tire choice. Taking a corner moderately fast results in the lousy tires begging for dear life. The Goodyear tires equipped on the car were clearly selected for fuel economy and not performance.

Acura's new 2.4 liter inline-4 is a higher tuned version of the direct injected 2.4 liter in the Honda Accord Sport. This engine is mated to a brand new, in house built, eight-speed dual clutch transmission (DCT) with torque converter. Acura hit the nail on the head with this combination. The direct injected four feels surprisingly lively, and the all new DCT shifts smoothly and quickly. With the torque converter attached, Acura's new DCT does not exhibit the bucking and poor behavior that other DCTs have at low speeds. Downshifts in sport and sport+ mode are smooth and satisfying as the car rev matches each downshift. From the seat of the pants feel, East Brother felt that it did pretty well in matching the acceleration feel of his 6MT TSX.

Personally, I enjoyed the TLX. Sure, there are some problems with the car that would need to addressed before I would consider buying one. First, a set of better looking 18 inch wheels would go a long way towards improving the look of the car. Next, a decent set of all-season tires, or even the option of summer performance tires, will dramatically improve handling. Yes, you would probably end up sacrificing one or two MPG, but it is a trade off I would be willing to pay for. At the price Acura wants for the car, it definitely makes a compelling package. Is it a real 3-Series competitor though? That is questionable. While the TLX definitely wins on the price to tech quotient, I am not sure its driving dynamics would be superior to the 3-Series. At least the TLX makes me believe Acura is back on track to making fun and affordable luxury cars.

East Brother, on the other hand, feels like the TLX is definitely a strong contender in the segment and is a good first step towards Acura's recovery from several years of languishing sedan sales, but it could have been so much better. Acura's insistence on playing it safe with extremely under-stressed motors that have significantly more performance potential and overly fuel economy focused wheel and tire package underwhelms on the performance front and belies just how good the chassis has the potential to be. The TLX has headroom in the Acura line-up to deliver a significantly better experience, especially to the enthusiast buyer. While the TLX will sell great to the average buyer, it is going to struggle to keep existing owners coming back to brand. A Type-S version geared towards better performance without sacrificing too much of the luxury and fuel economy would go a long way towards lifting Acura's image among its more performance oriented enthusiasts.

Whatever we may think, the TLX will almost certainly be a sales success for Acura. It is a better all-around car than either of its predecessors - nimbler than the TL, smoother than the TSX, and quieter than both. It offers the right kinds of luxury touches to elevate Acura back into the fight with its other luxury brand competitors, but provides a mix of technology and performance that few competitors can offer for the same price. However, Acura's greatest weakness is not the TLX, but rather just how good the Honda Accord has become. In order to truly distinguish itself from its more pedestrian platform-mate, the TLX needs to reach deeper into the luxury and performance wells to bring out its own unique identity and truly show what the Acura brand is capable of becoming.

A special thanks to the team at Santa Monica Acura for helping to arrange our test vehicle.

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