Nine speeds to rule them all! | Acura has put a lot of its resources and know-how behind the TLX, and it shows
Back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, automakers from Japan were busy finding their mojo. Even in the compact car segment, the Honda Civic of the early ‘90s was a force to be reckoned with, with many arguing in support of its engineering excellence even to this day. Stepping up to the full-size luxury car segment, Lexus was making huge waves and upsetting many rivals left and right, though mostly from Germany. Right in the middle, Acura’s mid-size luxury offerings were strong sellers. The Vigor and Legend provided buyers with typical Honda driving dynamics, excellent build quality, and handsome styling for the time.
In the years past, the TSX and the TL served to bolster the “slightly-smaller” and midsize luxury sedan market, respectively. Canada even got the CSX (and EL before that!) to really fill in Acura’s lineup at the bottom end. The TSX, in my opinion, was sized perfectly – not too big and not too small. Powered by Acura’s workhorse K24 engine, it was agile and athletic on its feet, providing lots of satisfaction to the enthusiast behind the wheel. The TSX – specifically with the four-cylinder engine – did a pretty good job of hinting to people how Honda and Acura used to be twenty years ago. Bucking the trend of exponentially expanding model lineups (see BMW), Acura is actually consolidating two products into one. When it was announced that both the TSX and TL were being replaced by a single model, details that came out suggested a new model, a little bigger than the TSX, but at the same time a little smaller than the outgoing TL. We tested a four-cylinder TLX with the Tech package earlier this winter and came away supremely impressed – so much so that it won our “Biggest Surprise” award at the end of 2014. I picked up the keys to a Graphite Luster Metallic 2015 Acura TLX SH-AWD with the Elite package.
Japanese automakers have long been criticized for being a little too conservative in their styling languages. The reality is that the Japanese produce tons of wacky local-market products that rarely ever make it across the ocean to North America. The fear is that the conservative tastes of North Americans (ironic as that is) will never accept such radically styled cars, but the people are proven wrong from time to time. Acura has dabbled in what they would consider aggressive and forward-thinking styling. The result of this was the controversial and polarizing Power Plenum Grille that was affixed to the front-end of every Acura for the good part of an entire product cycle. Customers (and the internet) spoke up, and Acura has refined the design to be more cohesive with the rest of the car, rather than overpowering it.
By replacing both the TSX and TL, the new TLX needs to get the “just right” sizing correct. The outgoing TL measures up at 4,966mm in length, and the TSX measures up at 4,714mm. The TLX cuts that right down the middle at 4,832mm. More significantly, the TLX’s wheelbase is about the same as the TL. What this means in practice is increased interior space through better packaging (especially knee room), but reduced overhangs. I’ve long considered the long front and rear overhangs to be a particular weak point in the TL’s styling. My particular TLX rides on 18-inch wheels with 225-section tires all around.
Looking at the rest of the car, it’s easy to come to the conclusion that the Acura TLX is simply a handsome car. Conservative enough to not offend, but dynamic enough to turn the heads of those in the know. The tighter proportions are welcome in an age of excess, but the real eye-catching part lies in the headlights. Made up of five LEDs with projectors, they act as the low and high-beam headlamps as well as the daytime running lamps. They do a great job dressing up the front end – the excellent night-time illumination is only a bonus.
Inside, the TLX is a mild evolution of the classic Acura design we’ve become quite accustomed to. Similar in design to the RLX, Acura’s latest interior layout reduces the button count somewhat compared to the TL, but maintains hard buttons for commonly-accessed features. One thing that should’ve remained are the heated and cooled seat controls – they are only accessible through the touch screen interface. Luckily, the auto seat heating/cooling is smart enough to do the thinking for you, automatically ramping down and turning off the heat as the cabin warms. Acura is also proud about keeping the interior quiet at speed. Active Sound Control works a lot like noise cancelling headphones and really does keep wind and tire noise at bay. The triple-sealed doors also keep unwanted noise out. The door closing action sounds really solid, specifically.
One point of contention is the push-button electronic gear selector. It replaces the traditional gated gear selector, still seen in the four-cylinder TLX. Each gear position gets its own button, space, and LEDs. In this case, I’m not entirely convinced the wheel needed to be re-invented. It definitely is something that takes a little bit of coordination to figure out, with reverse selected by sliding a spring-loaded switch backwards. Acura claims to have freed up valuable centre console space, but the button bank actually takes up the same amount of space that a traditional gear selector would. The downside to this design is the loss of a place to put your right hand when it’s not on the wheel.
Many manufacturers have come up with standard company-wide designs (see BMW) for their gear selectors. Change for the sake of change can be good from a design point of view, but there’s something to be said about sticking to something that works. As far as radical designs go, the Chrysler 200, with its rotary knob gear selector is actually more effective in making centre console space and storage options available.
Under the hood of the TLX lives either a 2.4L gasoline four-cylinder engine, or a 3.5L gasoline V6 engine. My tester was equipped with the latter, good for 290hp @ 6200rpm and 267lb-ft of torque at 4500rpm. A naturally-aspirated powertrain, it features direct-injection and variable valve timing, but no forced induction. Like most Honda engines, it sounds great at the upper-end of the rev range. This transmission is hooked up to a brand-new nine-speed automatic transmission. This marks the first time where Honda has gone outside the company for a transaxle. Sourced from reputable German supplier ZF, the nine-speed gives Acura’s engineers a big spread for gear ratios. The first few gears can be optimized for quick off-the-line acceleration, and the upper set optimized for cruising fuel efficiency. V6 models can be paired up with either front or Super Handling all-wheel drive. Four-cylinder models are front-drive only. On top of that, all front-drive models come with Acura’s Precision All-Wheel Steer system, or P-AWS.
Acura’s SH-AWD is famous for its ability to shuffle power around to any one of four wheels, independent of one another. Updated for duty in the TLX, this latest-gen SH-AWD seen here is now a hydraulic system, rather than the former electromechanical system. This reduces weight, friction, and provides faster response when torque needs to be sent to one particular wheel. There’s a little display in the instrument cluster that can be configured to show the driver what the system is doing. For example, if you take a highway onramp with a little bit of gusto, whilst maintaining throttle application, you can see the graphs dance around, and show the outside rear wheel receiving more torque, effectively rotating the car and pushing you through the corner. It’s an interesting sensation to feel – a little different from that of a pure rear-drive car.
The transmissions in the new TLX both enter uncharted territory for Acura. The four-cylinder TLX comes with a new 8-speed dual-clutch unit, built in house. The 9-speed automatic paired up with the V6 is a little different. While the massive gear ratio spread is great for peppy performance and relaxed cruising, the transmission in practice left me wanting a little more in terms of calibration. First gear is held for far too long, considering how short it is. Even in the “Normal” and “Econ” settings selected by the Integrated Dynamics System, you’ll often see the engine revving up to 3000rpm before engaging second gear. Then, the second to third gear shift is a little too rough for my liking. For someone who spends a lot of time in low-speed urban traffic, these two things were worth noting. At highway speeds, the transmission is eager to get you up to ninth gear, settling down at around 1500rpm at 100km/h.
Acura rates the TLX V6 with SH-AWD at 11.2L/100km in the city, and 7.5L/100km on the highway. The big gulf between the two values partly comes down to the 9-speed automatic transmission. At highway speed under low load, Acura’s Variable Cylinder Management shuts down three out of six cylinders to help the TLX achieve such impressive ratings. In the city, the new TLX V6 gains a family-first idle start-stop feature (thanks to the transmission) to further improve the numbers. I ended up averaging 11.7L/100km over about 600km. This consisted of a lot of city driving – the cold of winter doesn’t help, either.
My particular TLX, with the V6 engine, SH-AWD, and Elite package, comes in at $47,490. Being the top-end package. No additional factory options are available. The LED headlamps are standard equipment, as are the sunroof and dual-zone climate control. The Elite package gets you satellite navigation, premium audio, lane keeping assist (in addition to blind spot info), forward collision warning, heated steering wheel, ventilated front seats, heated rear seats, remote engine start, adaptive radar cruise control, and LED fog lights. Acura has long been serious on providing more for the money. A fully loaded TLX undercuts a base BMW 335i xDrive by thousands of dollars, and that’s before you add any of the option packages that the TLX already gives you. Same goes for the all-wheel drive Cadillac ATS 3.6, but the delta is a little smaller here. Bottom line: Acura is being aggressive with pricing and value for the money that puts it ahead of a lot of the competition.
There’s always the question of whether the TLX brings Acura to the “good old days”. Many regard the third-generation TL (from 2004 to 2008) as being one of the best sedans they’ve ever built, in both style and performance. Enthusiasts may scoff at the fact that no more manual transmission is offered, but it is highly likely the take-rate would have been pretty low, anyway. I like the TLX for being “the right size”, while offering sharp looks, a high-quality build, and outstanding value for money. The SH-AWD will be useful to a lot of people where inclement weather is a way of life, but I think I prefer the four-cylinder TLX overall. The delicious powertrain and lighter weight of the four-cylinder TLX are more attractive to me than the pure traction and straight-line performance of the top-tier TLX with the V6. I expect the TLX to receive a much better reception with the public than the former TL did. Acura has put a lot of its resources and know-how behind the TLX, and it shows – replacing two distinct products with one is never an easy task, but Acura has done a good job here.