Acura's product line has gotten a bit bizarre these past couple of years, but now they are introducing a compact sedan called the ILX, which seems like a good idea given the way gas prices are skyrocketing. Is the ILX the car that will get Acura back on track? Read on.
First Glance: Acura tries to return to its roots...and gets lost
Acura has always done well with small cars. First there was the Integra, a sporty, solidly-built car that helped established the brand in America, and later became a cult favorite among Honda performance fans. (Acura is a division of Honda.) Then there was the RSX coupe, not a great luxury car, perhaps, but good looking, fun to drive, and likeable.
In their effort to attract older, more affluent buyers, Acura seems to have lost their way, and I know I wasn't the only person looking forward to the new entry-level ILX. I was hoping that a new compact sedan would help Acura get back to its roots.
Before we delve into the details, I'll give you the short version: The ILX is an okay car, but you'd have to be a die-hard Acura fan to pay the kind of price that Acura is asking.
The ILX looks good from some angles, awkward from others, and forgettable from all of them. Under the sheetmetal, the ILX shares many of the Honda Civic's mechanical bits, although it is a unique car and not just a gussied-up Civic. That's too bad -- if Acura had simply slapped some new badges and a revamped interior onto a Civic, instead of making so many costly changes, perhaps they could have priced the ILX a bit more reasonably.
In the Driver's Seat: Signs of improvement
Of all the things I dislike about the ILX, the interior is the one I dislike least. I've been complaining about Acura's overly-complex dash layouts for years, but the ILX's center stack (link goes to photo) shows a remarkable level of restraint: There's the usual dial/joystick controller, but the number of buttons surrounding it can actually be counted on the driver and front passenger's fingers and toes (provided they aren't missing any). Most of the ILX's secondary systems can be run from the dial controller, but there are redundant climate controls grouped neatly below and stereo buttons arrayed above, just beneath the stereo's 1980s-era LED display. Like most Acuras, the materials that make up the dashboard are top-notch, even if the design doesn't match my idea of luxury.
But it all goes a bit pear-shaped from there. The back seat isn't particularly roomy, the trunk is just meh with a small opening and a 12.3 cubic foot capacity, while hybrid models are downright meager at 9.4 cubic feet. Gas-powered ILXs get an el-cheapo single-piece fold-down rear seat, and the hybrid's back seat doesn't fold down at all.
On the Road: Slow, unless you can drive a stick
Acura offers three powertrain choices for the ILX. First is a 150 horsepower two-liter four-cylinder, basically an enlarged version of the Civic's 1.8 with a harmonic balancer for smoother running and a 5-speed automatic transmission. EPA fuel economy estimates are 24 MPG city and 35 MPG highway. There's a hybrid version (Acura's first) with the Civic Hybrid's 1.5 liter powertrain reprogrammed to deliver stronger acceleration (a term I use loosely in the context of the ILX; we'll get to that in a sec). EPA estimates are 39 MPG city and 38 MPG highway. Finally, the ILX offers a hot-rod 2.4 liter engine, a 201 horsepower unit borrowed from the Civic Si.
How do they all work? Not terribly well, I'm afraid. The 2.0 is pokey and the hybrid is mind-numbingly slow. The 2.4 liter engine is fantastic -- sharp, aggressive, and quick -- but it can only be had with a 6-speed stick-shift. Without an automatic transmission, it's useless for 90% of the American car-buying public.
Once I got the ILX up to speed -- and in the case of the 2.0 and hybrid models, that took a while -- I did find a trace of that sharp, nimble, and direct feeling that sets Hondas and Acuras apart from other cars. The ride is quiet (by Honda/Acura standards at least) and the steering delivers more feedback than most electrically-assisted systems. But with its plain ol' front-wheel-drive setup, the ILX doesn't deliver the same handling magic that is the saving grace of it's older brothers, the TSX and the TL. And that's what really sets the ILX apart from its forebears, the Integra and the RSX -- it's almost impossible to get excited about driving it.