Of all the companies to abandon the manual transmission, I never thought Acura would bow out this early.
The ILX is like a Civic with lipstick, mascara, foundation, Botox and Spanx.
Earlier this year I drove the 2015 Acura ILX in a base trim, and its greatest virtue was, in fact, its slick little six-speed manual transmission. Will that be the last Acura ever to be graced by a manual transmission? The way things are going, that is likely so.
When we reserved for ourselves a 2016 ILX for a Comparison with the Buick Verano, I spent some extra time in it to see if it captured the legacy of small, sporty Acuras of the past, and perhaps made the loss of the original TSX and the manual transmission a little easier to bear.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s a good little luxury car, but it neither recaptures the driving and shifting joy of the original TSX, nor does it quite offer the total package on offer in the Verano or pricier entry-level luxury offerings from Audi and Mercedes-Benz.
Okay, now that I’m done bitching about what it’s not, I guess I should tell you what it is and what it does well.
Based on Honda’s perennial sales leader Civic, the ILX was a far more thoroughly differentiated car than its CSX and EL predecessors, which were Canadian-only, barely-more-than-lipstick-on-pig models. The ILX is like a Civic with lipstick, mascara, foundation, Botox and Spanx. It looks a lot better for starters. A lot. Of course, my utter disdain for Civic sedan styling is part of that equation, so to some the design gap may not be quite so dramatic, but even so I find the ILX an attractive design, easily as nice as anything in this segment, A3 and CLA included.
It also looks and feels good on the inside, with a modern design proudly flying two screens and a big knob, with a more reasonable number of buttons than Acuras of the past. Oh wait, they simply seemed to have migrated to the steering wheel. Despite the proliferation of buttons on the steering wheel, it is the idiosyncrasies of the two screens that frustrate, while the buttons on the steering wheel become second nature easily enough. I won’t turn this into another bitchfest about the Honda/Acura infotainment system, but suffice to say it is not one of our favourites, although functions like navigation, satellite radio and other fancy-pants functions that seem completely superfluous.
Okay, so Acura is not a leader in the interior technology game, but how does it stack up as a driver? While it’s not what we antiquated, manual-transmission enthusiasts are looking for, it might just nail the segment expectations: smooth, sophisticated transmission paired to an efficient but engaging engine that is also impressively refined.
The transmission is an eight-speed dual-clutch automatic with smooth engagement and low-speed behaviour. In fact, driving it you won’t likely notice it is anything but a regular automatic because of a torque converter added in, which eliminates the biggest drawback of dual-clutch transmissions. With eight speeds, you might expect a bit of gear hunting, but again it is smooth enough that it won’t elicit any complaints.
Power is right on the fence between lacklustre for any luxury brand and just right for this entry luxury segment. Its 201 hp only reach their peak at 6,800 rpm, and though torque maxes out at 3,600 rpm, it only ever reaches 180 lb-ft, yet weighs 1,424 kg, almost as much as the far torquier 2.0L turbos from Audi, Mercedes-Benz and Buick. While it moves off the line sharply and accelerates up to highway speed without effort, it does not go above and beyond as do any of the more powerful engines from the competition. Earlier in the year, when I sampled this same basic power plant with the manual, its direct engagement and lower weight had me far more entertained, though with the wheel upgrade, this A-Spec delivered the goods in cornering in a way the 2015 did not.
Our 2016 ILX A-Spec was outfitted with 18-inch rims that look like the blades of a food processor to me, and the front strut and rear multi-link suspension have been massaged to keep body motions under control for a sportier ride. The steering is light and the grip from the 225/40R18 Continental ContiProContact is reasonable for an all-season tire, and they bridge the gap between grip, comfort and noise nicely for this class.
Buick has staked a claim on a quiet ride in this segment, but the ILX won’t likely draw negative comment except in comparison with the Verano, and the ride, in general, is fitting for a small luxury brand car, but perhaps not quite up to the agility that an A-Spec badge might imply. Yes it handles well in the corners and turns in nicely, but the ride is a bit crashy on those large rims.
Its efficiency is one of its strong points, with 9.4 L/100 km in the city, 6.5 for highway driving and 8.1 in mixed use. During an afternoon of hard driving we saw 9.6 L/100 km on the comparison loops, but then we settled down and finished the week at 8.3. Manual enthusiasts can gloat that the 2015 Dynamic model managed a far better 7.3 in far colder conditions, though Fuelly.com shows that owners of 2016 models have been averaging a very frugal 7.2 L/100 km. My long-term test of the A3 2.0T managed no better than 8.6 L/100 km.
In terms of cabin practicality, the ILX is a typical small sedan, with one glaring flaw: front headroom. Never have I been in a car that so impinges on front headroom, to the point that I had regular brushes with the headliner around the sunroof over even the mildest of bumps. The compact size I can handle in any of the other areas, front seat or rear, even if it is smaller than most competitors. Even though the CLA lists less front headroom, I experienced no such issues. At 5’10” (with an admittedly disproportionately tall torso), there is no way this lack of headroom should be so apparent and a major irritant.
Unfortunately for Acura, there are just too many things working against the ILX, and its duking it out in an invigorated segment with great products from traditional luxury brands and a value option. The ILX doesn’t offer enough variety of choice or overwhelming superiority in any one area to be the sporty choice, the style choice, or the value choice. However, these issues are not unique to the ILX in the Acura lineup, and the brand as a whole is still mired in a search for identity beyond having a very good, reliable SUV.
Here is my proposal. Forget about the ILX. Start with the Civic Si Coupe. Put this grille on it. Put leather and nav and satellite radio in it. Put the Civic Type R’s 306 hp and 295 lb-ft 2.0L i-VTEC turbo-four. Put an Integra badge on it. Heck, put an RSX R-Spec badge on it. Put a $40K price tag on it. It might not sell, but it’ll inject some life into the brand in a segment that people might care about rather than the never-arriving hybrid supercar niche whose halo faded long before it even hit the market.
Pricing: 2016 Acura ILX A-Spec
Base Price: $34,890
A/C Tax: $100
Freight and PDI: $1,995
Price as Tested: $36,985
4 years/80,000 km; 5 years/100,000 km powertrain; 5 years/unlimited distance corrosion perforation; 4 years/unlimited distance roadside assistance