When Acura launched in the mid-1980s, the luxury brand’s first point of conquest was existing Honda customers. As Acura’s lineup diversified in the early nineties, the Integra appealed to Civic owners looking to move up the economic ladder but who didn’t want to give up Honda’s sporty performance. When that model was replaced by the TSX, Acura continued to reach driving enthusiasts with its crisp manual gearbox, peppy high-revving engine and nimble handling.
This year, Acura introduces a new model, the ILX, which becomes the brand’s entry level sedan. As with the more expensive TSX, the new compact car appeals to brand enthusiasts as well as conquest customers.
By offering three models, Acura gives drivers the option of prioritizing value, performance or sustainability. The two-liter automatic model, which product planners expect to command 75 percent of sales, is priced from $25,900, excluding destination charges. The 2.4-liter premium model with a six-speed manual gearbox starts at $29,200 and gasoline-electric hybrid is priced from $28,900.
By basing the new model on the Civic chassis, the automaker contained development costs, enabling Acura to offer a high level of standard convenience features including keyless entry, power moonroof, Bluetooth connectivity, Pandora radio, SMS text messaging and 16-inch alloy rims.
There are two option upgrades for the two-liter and hybrid models: a premium package which adds heated leather seats, a 360-watt audio system, rearview camera, 17-inch rims, high-intensity discharge headlamps and fog lamps; and a technology package which adds naviagation with real-time traffic and weather, a 365-watt audio system with 15 Gb music storage, and Homelink.
Buyers who choose the 2.4-liter model can purchase the premium package but not navigation. Because Acura expects the model to have the lowest sales volume, there was no business case for adding the expensive option.
Tuned for luxury performance
Engineers sought to give the new ILX some characteristics of the sporty TSX, by making the car wider and lower than the Civic, for a more stable ride. A harmonic balancer reduces engine vibration for the 2 and 2.4-liter blocks. The 2.4-liter four-cylinder ILX engine has the same horsepower and two more foot-pounds of torque than the 2.4-liter TSX block, which is the smaller of two available engines for that model.
Acceleration in first and second gear is more powerful than the TSX, but more extended for the remaining four gears. The gearbox has higher fifth and sixth gear ratios than the six-speed manual for the TSX. The taller gears increase gas mileage during steady-state cruising on the highway, while maintaining adequate power for the lighter chassis.
Engineers sought to minimize noise, vibration and harshness in all three models by using a thicker steering system shaft, a more rigid attachment point, and improving the chassis’ torsional rigidity by 18 percent in front and 11 percent in the rear.
They gave the suspension smoother performance through friction-reducing measures, adding rebound springs and amplitude reactive dampers on both axles.
The electric power steering system works in tandem with the car’s antilock brakes, stability and traction control to prevent the driver from losing directional control in the corners.
Test drive in the Superstition wilderness
On a recent media program, I had the chance to test both the two-liter and hybrid models on freeways in Phoenix’s east valley, as well as some two-lane roads in the Superstition Mountain foothills east of town.
I began both test drives in fully automatic mode; then shifted to manual gear selection to see how it could enhance performance and how much it impacted gas mileage.
I give Honda engineers credit for offering the driver a lot of latitude in deciding how to use the powertrain. While both engines shift early in fully-automatic mode to stretch gas mileage, the driver can keep the engine revving high by using the paddle shifters. Doing so makes a tremendous difference in acceleration off the line, as well as performance on steep uphills.
Unlike some manual gear select systems, this one holds onto gears as long as the driver chooses. The system will only revert to automatic mode if the driver comes to a sudden stop.
Both cars felt nimble and well balanced. The hybrid offered slightly better performance off the line due to instant torque from the electric motor. Fuel economy matched EPA estimates while in fully automatic mode. When selecting gears manually, I averaged about 38 miles-per-gallon: a pretty good number considering that the engine was revving about 2000 higher rpm than normal.
Visibility around the perimeter is good. The car’s low hood enhances the driver’s forward view. A convex section on the driver’s side mirror improves visibility, enabling him to see around rear blind spots and better monitor traffic to the left.
A rearview camera is not standard on the two-liter ILX. While I can understand this as a cost containing measure, it seems shortsighted since federal legislators are pushing to make the devices required safety equipment by 2014. A rearview camera which offers both wide-angle and overhead views is available as part of the premium option package for both 2 and 2.4-liter ILX models.
Four-wheel disc brakes stop both cars in a firm, linear fashion.
Despite its compact dimensions, the ILX has a roomy interior with seating for up to five passengers. A standard power moonroof on all models brings an abundance of ambient light inside on sunny days. Tech-savvy customers will appreciate that a USB port, Bluetooth interface, Pandora radio interface and SMS text messaging are all standard features.
Both Honda and Acura do a great job of steering wheel design. The diameter is not too large, and the paddle shifters are ergonomic. I found both front seats to have enough lower lumbar support for moderately long drives. The low hood line makes it easier for small drivers to see out the front of the car.
I found both the gauge cluster and center stack screens easy to see in bright sunlight. The hybrid gauge cluster includes an information display which includes an Eco drive indicator, fuel consumption history, energy flow meter and the driver’s eco score.
There are plenty of cup and bottle holders for both rows of passengers, as well as a lockable glovebox and center console bin with a 12-volt power point and auxiliary jack. Both the two and 2.4-liter models have enough trunk space to hold a wheelchair. Second-row seats fold flat to extend the cargo floor.
Standard dual-zone climate control keeps both front passengers comfortable.
The lithium-ion battery pack for the hybrid is located between the rear seats and cargo area. It reduces the size of the cargo area eliminates the possibility of a pass-through.
The Acura ILX comes with front, side and side curtain airbags, antilock brakes, electronic stability and traction control.
Acura builds the ILX at its Greensburg, Indiana assembly plant.
Likes: A stylish compact luxury sedan which is fuel efficient and fun to drive.
Dislike: Rearview camera is not standard equipment.
Base price: $25,900 (2-liter); $28,900 (hybrid)
As tested: N/A
Horsepower: 150 Hp @ 6500 rpm (2L), 91 Hp @ 6500 rpm (Hybrid)
Torque: 140 lbs.-ft. @ 4300 rpm (2L), 127 lbs.-ft. @ 1000 rpm (Hybrid)
Antilock brakes: Standard
Side curtain airbags: Standard
First aid kit: N/A
Bicycle friendly: No
Fuel economy: 24/35 mpg city/highway (2L), 39/38 mpg city/highway (Hybrid)