Like Lexus and Infiniti, Acura launched with two models, a bespoke flagship sedan and a smaller car based on an existing mainstream model. Unlike the Lexus ES 250 and the Infiniti M30, though, the Acura Integra received rave reviews. The Integra was discontinued for 2002 as part of Acura’s failed upmarket push. The Civic-based Integra sedan’s slot was sort of filled with the larger, heavier European Accord-based TSX. The 2004 TSX was a good car, but it was no Integra, and the model gained additional inches and pounds with a 2009 redesign. For 2013 Acura returns to its original playbook with a Civic-based four-door model. They’re not yet ready to officially admit the stupidity of going alphanumeric, so the new car is unfortunately appellated the ILX.
Dimensionally, the ILX shares a 105.1-inch wheelbase with the 2004-2008 TSX, but is 4.3 inches shorter, 1.2 inches wider (surprise!), and 1.7 inches lower. Interior dimensions are very similar (including a couple of inches less rear legroom than the compact sedan norm) with the exception of rear headroom, which isn’t quite sufficient for six-foot passengers in the new car. Trunk volume is a passable 12.4 cubic feet with the regular ILX, but only 10.0 cubes with the Hybrid. Most significantly, the ILX is nearly 300 pounds lighter than the original TSX and over 400 pounds lighter than the current one.
Compared to other recent Acura sedans and the latest Honda Civic, the ILX’s exterior styling is a step in the right direction. The exterior’s most distinctive feature, a character line that S-curves up the body side just ahead of the rear fender, recalls the Dodge Avenger, which hasn’t exactly set the world on fire, but the whole is better executed here. Seventeen-inch wheels standard on the 2.4L and available on the 2.0L (but not the Hybrid) help lend the small sedan an athletic stance. Inside, the ILX resembles the TSX and TL, just with a less substantial feel to the doors and seats. Not quite premium, but far, far nicer than a Civic, and thankfully bereft of the Honda’s massive bi-level instrument panel.
The Acura ILX’s powertrain options are…curious. You can get a 150-horsepower 2.0-liter only with a five-speed automatic, a 201-horsepower 2.4-liter (shared with the TSX and Honda Civic Si) only with a six-speed manual, or a 111-horsepower 1.5-liter hybrid only with a CVT that can be manually shifted to mimic a seven-speed transmission. Oddly, premium unleaded is recommended with all three engines, even the Hybrid.
With nearly 3,000 pounds for its 111 horsepower to motivate, the Hybrid with Technology Package is perhaps the most sluggish car with a sticker price over $35,000. Even a Lexus CT feels considerably more energetic. In the EPA tests the hybrid manages 39 MPG city, 38 MPG highway, but you’ll only observe these numbers in the real world with a lethargic driving style much better suited to a Prius (with its much stronger electric motor) than an Acura.
Though the ILX 2.4L pairs nearly twice as much peak horsepower with a nearly identical curb weight, it will satisfy lazy drivers little more than the Hybrid will. Unlike Audi, Buick, and Volkswagen, which offer the most directly comparable cars, Acura continues to avoid turbocharging. The 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine has little going on south of 4,000 rpm and peaks just 100 rpm shy of a 7,100 rpm redline. Employ the solid, precise shifter typical of the brand to keep the engine on boil, though, and the car entertains. Few fours sound sweeter or feel smoother when revved.
But, spoiled by widely available big sixes and boosted fours, most driving enthusiasts now demand a solid shove at low rpm. If they can live with a not remotely premium interior, they’ll be happier in a Jetta GLI. If they can’t, Audi will soon offer a redesigned A3 as a sedan and Buick will soon offer the Verano with a 250-horspower turbocharged engine.
The ILX 2.4L is geared for performance, not fuel economy, so its EPA ratings are 22 MPG city, 31 highway. The Jetta GLI matches it in the city and manages another two miles-per-gallon on the highway. The 2.0L automatic does a little better, 24/35. Are a few MPG worth giving up 51 horsepower? Acura apparently thought most potential buyers would think so, or they’d have also paired the automatic with the larger four.
The ILX’s steering isn’t as lightning-quick as the TSX’s, while being equally uncommunicative. Nevertheless, the new car feels even lighter than its relatively low curb weight suggests it ought to. A Jetta GLI is only about three inches longer and 150 pounds heavier, but feels considerably larger and more massive. A Buick Verano feels even heavier than the VW, perhaps because it is. The ILX rides much more smoothly than the VW, if still not as smoothly or quietly as the Buick. Partly this is because its suspension simply wasn’t tuned as aggressively as the VW’s. A limited-slip front differential is standard on the Civic Si, but not offered here. But the ILX is also the first Acura to employ “amplitude reactive dampers” that provide limited damping for the first five centimeters of travel then firm up for suspension motions over ten centimeters in a mostly successful bid to pair a comfortable ride with athletic handling. The ILX might not drive like a hardcore sport sedan, but it has a lively yet precisely controllable character that makes it fun when pushed. Imagine a more powerful, more refined, slightly softer Mazda3, and you won’t be far off.
Unfortunately, the Acura ILX is also far more expensive than a mainstream compact like the Mazda3. Though based on the Civic rather than the European Accord, and with a corresponding less substantial feel, the ILX 2.4L is priced $6,920 higher than a Civic Si (about $3,000 of which is due to additional features) and nearly as high as the TSX: $30,095. Is the ILX too dear, or is the TSX a bargain? If you adjust for the ILX’s additional features (including leather upholstery, a power driver seat with memory, proximity key, and xenon headlights) using TrueDelta’s car price comparison tool, it’s only about $1,300 more than the Jetta GLI with Autobahn Package. But the adjustment is nearly $2,500, and many people might not look beyond the $3,780 MSRP gap. A Technology Package with nav and Elliot Scheiner surround sound audio isn’t available with the 2.4L. Get that package on the Hybrid and the sticker shocks: $35,295. But no more than it does for the Lexus CT 200h, which has a nearly identical base price and is nearly $3,000 more when both cars are loaded up.
While I found the Acura ILX Hybrid sluggish, I enjoyed driving the 2.4L. You can’t get a 200-horspower sedan with a curb weight under 3,000 pounds from any of the Germans, even VW. And while boost can’t be beat for its ability to pair midrange power with fuel efficiency, I continue to prefer the sound and feel of a high-winding, naturally aspirated engine when paired with a well-engineered stick shift. Overall, the ILX doesn’t make a strong statement in how it looks or how it performs, but neither did the Integra. Like the earlier car, the new one possesses the willing responses and light, almost delicate feel that has historically typified Hondas (with a nicer interior then you’ll find in a Honda). This character is increasingly hard to find as virtually the entire industry piles on turbos, gadgetry, sound deadening, and pounds. Ultimately, no one else offers a car like the ILX 2.4L. The main change I’d like to see: a price not so close to that of the TSX.
Suburban Acura of Farmington Hills, MI, provided the ILX 2.4L. They can be reached at (248) 427-5700.
Nick Pechilis at Acura of Memphis provided the ILX Hybrid. He can be reached at (901) 334-5525.
Michael Karesh operates TrueDelta.com, an online provider of car reliability and real-world fuel economy information.