First Drive

FIRST DRIVE: 2016 Acura ILX

With the 2016 ILX, Acura gets serious about its entry-level luxury car

2016 Acura ILX

SAN FRANCISCO, CA – The role of a luxury-brand gateway car like the Acura ILX is more than just to add sales volume in its own right. It’s also expected to recruit first-time luxury-car buyers who, according to the sbecript, will continue to buy larger, more expensive Acuras as they progress through their mating, breeding and working life stages.

There’s nothing especially original about that strategy, but in Acura’s case it’s been unevenly executed over the years. The original Integra performed the role to perfection. But in the mid 90s, Acura in the U.S. – its biggest market – abandoned the segment, leaving Acura in Canada to improvise with 15 years or so of lightly dressed up Civics – two generations of the EL, followed by the CSX.

Only with the launch of the ILX in 2013 did the U.S. come back on board. But although the ILX is very different from the Civic it’s based on, it hasn’t done as well south of the border as Acura had hoped. Not that it was all the car’s own fault as those pesky European copy-cats have invaded the entry-premium territory that Acura once considered all its own.

Acura’s counter-offensive is a comprehensive mid-cycle touch-up for the 2016 ILX. As you’d expect, there are the usual minor styling tweaks, including a re-sculpted face and fanny with Jewel Eye LED lighting and a slimmer grille blade up front.

One powertrain replaces three

But the changes that matter most are under the skin. The standard powertrain across the board – lifted directly from the larger TLX -- is a new 2.4-litre direct-injection ”four” paired to  an eight-speed dual-clutch automatic (the previous powertrain combos comprised a 2.0-litre/five-speed automatic, a 2.4-litre/six-speed manual, and a largely unnoticed 1.5-litre/CVT hybrid).

Compared with the previous base 2.0-litre engine the gains are dramatic – 34% more horsepower (now 201) and 29% more torque (180 lb-ft). Compared with the previous 2.4, the new one makes the same power but generates usefully more torque than before, right across the speed range. Better still, the new 2.4 achieves marginally better fuel economy than the old 2.0.

Among its peers, the 2016’s peak power is competitive with rivals like the Audi A3 1.8T and the Mercedes-Benz CLA 250, but the ILX is out-torqued by the turbo-boosted competition. The way that shakes down, Acura’s claimed 0-60-mph time of about 7.2 seconds (say, 0-100 km/h in 7.6) is about equal to the base Audi A3’s 7.7 sec but dusted by the CLA’s 6.7 (all numbers based on manufacturers’ claims). And although the Buick Verano may not be on the radar of Acura’s under-35 target audience, the baby Buick may be the sleeper of this segment with its sublimely refined 250-horsepower turbo 2.0-litre available on the top trim levels.

Stronger, quieter, and so much safer

Further tweaks to the ILX’s structure and chassis aim to boost crash protection, lower noise and vibration, and sharpen the handling. In today’s auto market, however, the technology race is less about mechanical engineering and more about electronics. And that’s where the ILX truly aims to stand out, promising levels of standard active-safety features that are “unheard-of at the price.”

Consider this: even the base ILX at $29,490 includes as standard the AcuraWatch suite of safety and driver-assist technologies. These include adaptive cruise control, automatic collision-mitigation braking, lane-keeping assist, and road-departure mitigation, to name just the most exceptional items. Other standard notables include a moonroof, dual-zone climate control and smart entry/push-button start.

Take one step further along the “trim walk” and the Premium ($31,990) further adds blind-spot information and cross-traffic monitoring (as well as leather, seat heaters, and an 8-way power driver’s seat).

Another step to the Tech trim ($33,490) adds navigation, AcuraLink and premium audio. And that’s about it on the bells-and-whistles count: the flagship A-Spec trim ($34,890) is a largely cosmetic sports/performance package that includes a wheel/tire upgrade from 17 to 18 inches.

On the infocommunitainment side, base features include a 4.2-inch colour multi-information display in the gauge cluster, Bluetooth, text message capability and (for iPhone owners) Siri Eyes-Free. The Premium adds XM Radio, 8-inch upper and 7-inch lower display screens and iPhone navigation-app connectivity, while the Tech adds on-board navi plus a host of additional phone-based capabilities under the umbrella of AcuraLink (to name but a few:  dealer-appointment scheduling; remote door lock/unlock; collision notification; real-time traffic information and route optimisation; and Internet radio). AcuraLink is subscription based but the first year is free.

That’s nice, but how does it drive?

OK, so the ILX has a zillion ways to distract you, and then protect you from the consequences of that distraction. But what if you just want to enjoy the actual drive? First impressions suggest that it’s a likeable car that nicely balances comfort and sportiness, but it’s not a game-changer.

The engine loves to rev, and with the hammer down the multi-speed tranny keeps the engine in its happy place while snapping off rapid-fire upshifts that are as slick as they are quick. But even with a 51-hp increase the perceived performance still won’t blow you away. What’s missing is the mid-range thrust of turbocharged rivals … or, for that matter, of a Honda Accord V-6.

Slow traffic put a chill on what should have been a spirited romp up the coast on California Highway One, but it was still evident that the ILX chassis is capable of all the right moves – it changes direction keenly, stays flat and grips hard (the test samples were all A-Specs). The fly in the ointment for committed drivers is that the steering is too light and has the robotic feel of a video-game controller. Utility drivers won’t mind that at all, though.

Ride comfort seemed fine on pothole-free California pavement, and I’ll reserve judgement on what seemed to be rather elevated levels of tire noise: the A-Spec’s more aggressive tires may have been a factor, but also it’s a fact that California tarmac has a textural coarseness that exaggerates tire roar on any car.

Comfortable in its (small) skin

No qualifications are needed for at-the-wheel comfort, which suited my mid-height male frame to a T. The A-Spec, incidentally, employs suede upholstery instead of leather;.In expressive driving, its superior “traction” better holds you in place without the need for bold side bolsters that can be hostile to wide-bodied occupants.

You don’t get much interior space for the money (compared with mainstream family sedans) but it’s in the ball-park with the direct competition, and the back seat is quite comfortable for those who do fit.

But then, cars like this exist precisely because some customers are happy to sacrifice size in exchange for the prestige of a luxury nameplate and the amenities that go with it. What the 2016 ILX may lack in test-track speed, it makes up with pleasing road manners plus levels of standard or available safety and connectivity features that really do seem to be, as Acura claims unheard-of at the price.

SPECIFICATIONS:

Model: 2016 Acura ILX

Price range: $29,490 - $34,890

Type of vehicle: Compact entry-premium sedan

Engine: 2.4-litre, 16-valve, DOHC, L4

Power/Torque: 201 hp/180 lb-ft

Transmission: Eight-speed dual-clutch automatic

0-100 km/h: 7.6 sec (est)

Fuel consumption (city/hwy):     9.3/6.6 L/100 km                  

Competition: Audi A3, Buick Verano, BMW 320i, Mercedes-Benz CLA

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