2016 Acura ILX First Drive
Redo: Acura ILX refresh sharpens focus, adds power
The entry-level luxury car is a strange beast. These cars are supposed to draw new people into a brand and, as the theory goes, create lifelong customers.
That's the traditional model, but it appears that there's nothing traditional about new luxury car buyers.
In fact, lots of people have guessed wrong about who buys these entry luxury vehicles and what they are looking for in such a car. To make the waters murkier, mainstream brands have created extremely luxurious competitors such as the Ford Focus Titanium. These can easily out-price -- and outperform -- vehicles such as the Audi A3 or Mercedes CLA.
When Acura rolled out the ILX a few years ago, the entry-level luxury vehicle was created on the Honda Civic platform, which was underwhelming in performance and luxury. It was not a very good starting point for a brand that was struggling with its identity, and the car was in desperate need of rhinoplasty to fix a nose that only a mother could love.
It may have taken a few years, but Acura engineers and designers have struck just the right chord with the made-over ILX. It's modest but luxurious. It's fun to drive and fuel-efficient. It's the real deal and rolling into dealerships today.
Typical refreshes include a couple of new bobbles and replaced front and rear fascias. Acura went way beyond that for this particular car. Its new fascias force the eye lower and give the car a much wider stance. That helps it look more planted and confident. The new grille, which is still not the best out there, is considerably softened and certainly tolerable. The new Jewel Eye LED headlights are simply fantastic -- and standard on the ILX. (Acura also added LED bars below the lights to work as daytime running lights.)
The same goes with the ILX's backside, which is cleaner, lower-looking, and sharper overall. The problem with the previous ILX was that too much of the body looked like a gussied-up Civic, the platform on which the ILX is built. That look has been pleasantly remedied.
Add the optional A-Spec package, which adds foglamps, some ground effects, and a rear deck spoiler, and all of the Civic is shaken out of the exterior. There are nice creases across the body, and the bigger 18-inch wheels add to the car's powerful look.
But a more powerful look was never going to help the previous model if it still used that anemic 150-horsepower, 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine attached to a five-speed automatic transmission. Acura lost the 2.0-liter engine and dropped in a 2.4-liter, direct injection, 16-valve four-cylinder engine that creates 201 horsepower and 180 lb-ft of torque. It also introduces the first dual-clutch eight-speed automatic transmission with a torque converter and paddle shifters that seem to always know the right gear at the right time. It launches with aggressive power, and once first gear winds out, it quickly shifts and maintains that torque until you let off the gas. There's a touch of torque steer to pull you to the right under heavy acceleration off the line, but that quickly disappears and leaves you with a compact rocket on the road.
The electric power steering is taut and very linear, snapping back to center with ease. Driving around Napa, California's, winding mountain roads, the ILX kept its line through every corner and never let up. It's smooth but feels quick and allowed me a chance to make my driving partner just a little bit carsick after a few twisty corners. Acura also improved the car's braking, allowing it to remain smooth and quick. For those who want the car to do the driving for you, the ILX offers adaptive cruise control and lane-keep assist. I'm not particularly fond of the lane-keep assist system, because it seems to work even when I didn't want it to, pulling me back to the center of the lane during faster driving, but I should have merely turned it off then. On the highway, it does a nice job of smoothly adjusting the car back to the middle of the lane.
Acura added a number of quieting technologies in the car, including active noise cancelation and additional deadening materials. This was quite noticeable. The car is remarkably quiet, especially considering it's built on the Civic platform, which is not the quietest compact around. A quiet ride remains one of the hallmarks of luxury, and the ILX allows for easy conversations at any speed.
The interior improvements are just as noticeable as the exterior ones. There are steps up in the quality of materials, the soft dash, and nicely done stitching throughout the cabin. (The A-Spec model includes aluminum floor pedals and special seat inserts.) There are all of the regular luxury items, such as a moonroof, a clean instrument cluster, and comfortable heated seats. When you sit down in this car, you notice that it's nicely done.
The center stack remains a bit confusing, though it's certainly improved over the outgoing model. There are two LCD screens, one at the top of the dash and one in the middle of the center stack. The second one really acts as the stereo head unit -- and Acura offers an optional 10-speaker ELS stereo system that is extremely well-tuned. But the head unit has large graphics, remains confusing to use, and can be entirely duplicated on the bigger 7-inch LCD screen, which offers a sharper picture. In other words, it's redundant for the sake of being redundant. That means it's pointless.
But that's a quibble, when in fact the ILX is a solid package and should seriously go onto people's consideration lists. It starts at a modest $28,820, and a nicely loaded model barely goes over $31,000, which is considerably less than some of its competition.
As difficult as that entry-level luxury vehicle may be to define, the ILX feels like it has hit the definition right on the bumper, and it might just create a few lifelong Acura owners.