Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Test Drive: 2019 Acura ILX Premium A-Spec

When the Acura ILX first debuted back in 2013, Acura touted it as the "return of the Integra." What we were supposed to get was a compact, sporty, Civic based sedan with an injection of luxury to separate it from its parent company sibling. Instead, what we got was a dud. Bland design, an under-powered and wheezy base engine strapped to an ancient transmission, a painfully slow hybrid with barely any fuel economy advantages, and Civic Si powered version that didn't sell because it only came with a six-speed manual (which was admittedly good for us enthusiasts). Acura tried to turn the ILX around in 2016 after three years worth of poor sales. The first refresh saw an updated exterior and interior, and a very slightly de-tuned drivetrain lifted straight out of big brother TLX. Sales initially surged for a few months but quickly dropped again.

By now, most people would suspect Acura would have completely killed off the ILX, or at least redesigned it using the newer 10th generation Civic's platform. If your guess was either of those, you'd be very, very wrong. Instead, Acura chose to facelift the ILX for a second time (anyone else getting second generation RL vibes?), sticking to the same aging platform. Despite being on the same platform, the ILX looks like a completely different vehicle on the outside. The front end now sports the updated "diamond pentagon" corporate grill, and the rear end looks unlike anything Acura has ever designed in the past. Overall, it is a much more sporty and aggressive looking package, especially compared against the debut version of the ILX from six years ago.

The refreshed ILX also brings back the A-Spec treatment to the compact sedan. Unlike the A-Spec that debuted on the RSX, the third generation TL, and the second generation RL (which included handling upgrades along with visual ones for all three vehicles), the modern iteration of A-Spec is strictly visual. Available on the TLX, MDX, and RDX, the ILX A-Spec, like its siblings, adds visual flairs and more aggressive wheels to make the car appear more sporty. Overall, the A-Spec equipped cars all look quite good, and the ILX is definitely no exception. Now if only Acura would finally bring back the Type-S moniker and throw the Civic Type-R engine with SH-AWD into the ILX.

Speaking of engines, the ILX does remain largely unchanged mechanically. While it is still using the 2.4 liter inline-four and eight-speed DCT from the TLX, they have been tweaked a bit to deliver better power delivery. The result is a car that is surprisingly peppy off the line and has some good mid-range pull. The transmission blips the throttle on downshifts to smooth things out, regardless of whether or not the transmission is in normal or sport. But just like every other car equipped with this engine, including the last generation Civic Si, power seems to peter out towards the top end of the rev range. Realistically though, it's a bit of a non-issue since most people who would buy this car will never rev the car anywhere near its redline anyway.

Despite its performance though, the one thing that seems uncharacteristic for a Honda/Acura vehicle is how the engine sounds. While I've always felt Honda needs to work on the exhaust tuning for many of its four cylinder cars, the intake sounds has always been nice and throaty. While the engine itself is certainly far from the wheezy, under-powered mess than powered the 2013 ILX, it sounds like an asthmatic struggling for air. I do wonder if this is intentional though since we're supposed to see some sort of high performance version eventually.

On the inside, the ILX does see some improvements over the 2016 refresh. The first thing I noticed is that the materials look and feel somewhat better than the 2016 version. Despite the improvements though, is it's still barely an improvement over a Civic Touring. Then again, the same could be said about the Accord Touring versus the TLX too, but that's a problem Honda/Acura will need to admit to first if they ever want to sell more Acura vehicles. Another thing that bothers me about the ILX is the infotainment system. A big issue with the ILX since its debut back in 2013 is that the tech inside the car always seems to be a generation behind the rest of its competition. For 2019, the ILX still carries over the old dual screen infotainment setup, albeit with a newer version of the software powering the screens. At least the car finally has Android Auto and Apple CarPlay. Oh, and that steering wheel...it feels great in the hand as it's nice and thick, but holy crap its got a lot of buttons. Let's face it, most cars these days have a similar amount of buttons. Our 2016 Honda Accord Touring probably has a similar amount of buttons too. The main issue is how the buttons are laid out on the steering wheel. It looks and feels like a cluttered mess.

Thankfully, the car feels way more sorted than its steering wheel button layout. Like pretty much
every other electric power steering equipped Honda these days, the weight feels good but there is almost no road feeling. I suppose this is fine considering the target audience of the ILX and has essentially become the status quo for electronic power steering these days. No use in beating a dead horse. Despite not being able to really feel what the front wheels are doing, potential ILX customers will be happy to know that the front wheels do rotate the car without much complaint. If the car were equipped with a limited slip differential, I would probably feel a little more confident in tossing it into a corner at higher speeds, but let's face it: never gonna happen. Body roll is fairly limited and the car actually handles surprisingly flat. The car doesn't absorb bumps and road imperfections as well as I'd like it to, but that's probably more due to the 18 inch wheels and tires rather than the suspension. Compared to the rest of the handing characteristics of the ILX though, braking feels quite awkward. It all feels fairly normal at first, with the car braking progressively harder as you apply more pressure to the brake pedal. Once you reach a certain point though, the car seems to stop abruptly. It's a little jarring, to say the least. It could just be a case of needing to get used to it.

The one major improvement over the 2016 ILX, other than the looks, is the inclusion of Acura Watch on every trim level. This means that the 2019 ILX uses the latest version of Acura's driver assist package, offering such features as active cruise control, lane keep assist, collision mitigating braking, and a whole other suite of features. The one feature noticeably absent is low speed follow. This is due to the fact that the ILX, being built on the older ninth generation Civic platform, does not have an electronic parking brake. It's a bit of a bummer, but the rest of the system works quite well. I tested the updated system on a long stretch of road with a 45 MPH speed limit, and the ILX's updated system seemed to perform better than in our 2016 Honda Accord Touring. For a stretch of two mile long road, the car did a fantastic job of staying in the center of the road and maintaining a two car length distance from the car in front.

At the end of the day, I think my reaction to the 2019 Acura ILX is going to be the same as the 2013 and 2016 version: I want to like the car, but I just can't seem to bring myself to do it. Sure, it has better power delivery, more tech, and is a better bargain than its competitors in the same class, but there's just something about this entire class of vehicle that bothers me. I think the excessive cost cutting to meet a price point is the biggest issue. At an MSRP of $31,550, the Acura ILX is over $4,000 more than a Honda Civic Touring, which has similar, if not better equipment, an interior that is just as luxurious, and has a newer and more potent drivetrain. Not to mention, its driver assistance package is more advanced thanks to the inclusion of low speed follow.

If having that luxury badge is really that important for your compact luxury car, then you definitely can't go wrong with the ILX. It's probably the best vehicle in its class, as long as you aren't looking at high performance models like the Audi S3 or the Mercedes-Benz CLA43 AMG. Honestly though, if the badge really isn't that important to you, get a Civic Touring. You'll probably be much happier with the extra money in your pocket.