Back to roots
Acura has traditionally pursued the high-value part of the luxury segment.
We’ve come to like the Acura ILX a fair bit around here in the DoubleClutch.ca office. It offers Honda’s sweet 200hp 2.4L engine and a fantastic six-speed manual shifter and clutch combination, all wrapped up in a more grown-up package than with the Honda Civic Si. At least that’s the optimist’s take. On the other side of the coin, detractors claimed that the ILX (like the CSX and EL before it) was simply just a re-badged Civic, dipped in gold, and sold for thousands more to unsuspecting customers who may really just be looking for a more premium badge.
I’ve never quite agreed with this pessimistic point of view, mostly because we’ve sampled the top-end Dynamic trim, which is by far and away the trim most geared towards enthusiasts. Lesser models of the ILX didn’t do a whole lot to differentiate itself from garden-variety Civics, which is probably where a lot of the criticism came from. The base powertrain was probably the biggest drawback to that first-generation car. The compact entry-level luxury sedan market is really heating up with the likes of the Audi A3 and Mercedes-Benz CLA-Class, so Acura has gone back to the drawing board in hopes of staying in the game. I picked up a fully-loaded 2016 Acura ILX A-Spec for the week.
The ILX is heavily refreshed for the 2016 model year. It’s not a ground-up redesign, but enough has changed inside and out for Acura to be pointing out the differences. While the overall proportions remain the same (and thus remain connected to the Civic), the most obvious indicators of the refresh come from the front and rear of the ILX. Up front, the new Jewel Eye full-LED headlight array and redesigned bumper grab your attention. Each headlight contains five LED projectors, with the outboard three used as the low-beam function. Not only is the light output super-clean, power-on time is instant. Unlike with the TLX, these low-beam LEDs are not used for the daytime running lights. A separate thin LED strip running the length of the headlight serves that purpose.
Top-of-the-line A-Spec models gain fog lights (but not of the LED variety, and are fairly yellow as a result), and 225-section tires on unique 18-inch alloy wheels. In addition to the functional add-ons, the A-Spec trim also gets some added side skirts and a rear decklid spoiler. In general, the ILX boasts an attractive overall design – it doesn’t take any daring big risks, but Acura has done a good job separating things away from the 9th-generation Civic. As similar as they are underneath, there are a lot of differences in the sheetmetal between the two. For instance, take a look at the shape of the doors, and where the side mirrors are mounted.
Inside, Acura carries over the button-heavy driver’s interface, with new elements from the TLX. The familiar two-screen infotainment solution is fairly easy to use, with haptic feedback confirming your button presses as you stab away at the screen. There are nineteen buttons on the steering wheel alone (including the standard paddle shifters on the back). Part of the reason why there are so many is because of the adaptive radar cruise control system and lane keeping assist system, among others. There are many more acronyms where that came from.
My particular A-Spec tester adds Lux-Suede trim to the seating surfaces, reducing that slippery leather feeling when you’re driving in a spirited manner. Metal “racing-look” pedals round out the cosmetic upgrades to the already tasteful, yet modern, interior. Premium soft-touch surfaces are sure to impress, as is the general build quality of the interior. Acura’s Active Noise Control system works a little like a noise-cancelling headphone to keep road noise away. Accommodations for four are ample, with decent space for front occupants. Headroom may be a little more challenging for taller second-row passengers, but it’s still much better than what the Mercedes-Benz CLA can muster.
The midrange Premium and Tech packages add interior goodies, such as heated leather seating surfaces, and improved auto-dimming mirrors, among other things. The top-end A-Spec package gains satellite navigation as well as an improved Acura-ELS ten-speaker stereo. The ILX takes a different approach, and ditches the Civic’s two-tiered dashboard for a more conventional two-gauge instrument cluster. The two infotainment screens dominate a fairly large section of the centre console, but it’s never really overbearing.
So, the biggest changes seen in the 2016 ILX don’t just relate to the exterior and its brilliant LED headlamps – it is the new hardware under the hood that’s making headlines. The automotive media sure do love to downplay the outgoing goods whenever possible, but in this case, I think it’s fairly justified. Acura has dropped both the base 2.0L engine and the 1.5L hybrid electric powertrain, and have gone straight for a new 2.4L direct-injected “Earth Dreams” gasoline four-cylinder across the board, regardless of trim. This sweetheart of an engine produces 201 horsepower at 6800rpm, and 180 lb-ft of torque at 3600rpm. This engine keeps the ILX competitive with the hot new compact entry-level luxury sedans coming from Germany.
The other big news can be good, or bad, depending on where you stand from an enthusiast point of view. The slick-shifting six-speed manual, seen in the pre-refresh ILX, is no longer available. In its place, is a new eight-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission, borrowed from the larger four-cylinder TLX. As good as the previous manual transmission was, it limited the market the former ILX Dynamic could be sold to, since everybody seems to be looking for automatic transmissions nowadays. This new eight-speed unit, however, is one of the best available in a transverse-mount application (designed around front-wheel drive). Many premium automakers are turning to dual-clutch transmissions to improve performance and efficiency, but many haven’t quite figured out how to improve low-speed driveability. Some units are still a little jerky as the electronics juggle the clutch and throttle application on your behalf. Acura also has the advantage of being able to offer eight fixed ratios – Audi and Mercedes-Benz offer only six and seven, respectively.
What makes the Acura eight-speed dual-clutch transmission different is its integrated torque converter – an item that has been left out of most dual-clutch units. It smooths out power delivery considerably, and allows drivers to smoothly creep along in stop-and-go traffic. People have expectations of how an automatic transmission should operate, and the ILX’s ability to smoothly roll from a stop will be a big deal to a lot of people. Shifts between gears are very direct and crisp, and the eighth gear encourages good efficiency at high speeds. Downshifts are a slight weak point – it can sometimes take a little bit of time for the transmission to shift down five gears so you can complete that pass on the highway.
The 2016 ILX features improved suspension dampers (called Amplitude Reactive dampers, also similarly available on the TLX) that can passively vary the damping rate – improving comfort on rough roads, but improving damping force under dynamic driving. The steering feel is also firmed up compared to that on Civic. It’s no sports car, but the steering remains accurate, nicely weighted, and helps you easily place the ILX in traffic. It’s not quite as athletic as the Civic Si (at least from what one would feel), but it carries the tradition of well-balanced front-drive vehicles from Honda.
Acura rates the ILX at 9.3L/100km in the city, 6.6L/100km on the highway, and 8.1L/100km on the highway. My typical work week involves a lot of stop-and-go city driving as I commute into the core of downtown Toronto. As such, I ended up with an indicated average of 9.4L/100km – about in-line with what Acura projects in an urban environment. The ILX will accept 50L of premium fuel.
Acura has traditionally pursued the high-value part of the luxury segment, and the ILX is no exception. Pricing starts at $29,490 for the base ILX. The key here is that all the important mechanical bits are common across the line, so settling for the base model doesn’t mean a penalty as far as driving dynamics go. Stepping up to the Premium and ($2500) Tech package ($1500 on top of the Premium package) gives you nearly everything one would need in a small luxury car. My particular A-Spec tester, was fully loaded and stickers at $34,890 plus dealer fees and taxes.
Comparing the Tech package to the A-Spec is a little interesting, given the A-Spec really only gives you that attractive body kit, as well as some improved materials in the seats. I especially liked the chrome strip on the rear spoiler, but I think I’d rather stick to the Tech package, and pocket the savings.
The Germans are hoping to make a big splash with the Audi A3 and Mercedes-Benz CLA250. Both are compact sedans with transversely mounted powertrains. Subjectively, I think the A3 and ILX tie in terms of interior and exterior style. The LED headlamps on the ILX are attention grabbing, but I like the clean exterior style Audi is employing these days. Mercedes-Benz calls the CLA a “coupe”, and it shows in terms of interior headroom. As far as driving dynamics go, both the German entries boast turbocharged power delivery, but neither of them win the refinement game like the ILX does. This all comes down to the eight-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission in the ILX. The way it rows through all eight gears sets a new standard in this segment.
Between these three new players, I think the ILX provides the most “rounded” experience, in terms of value, dynamics, and design. Pricing out a comparable Audi A3 and Mercedes-Benz CLA250 (both in front-wheel drive configuration) quickly surpasses even the top-shelf ILX A-Spec.
It’s hard to overlook the fact that even the base ILX costs nearly twice as much as the base 2015 Honda Civic DX. While it’s quite difficult to even find the Civic DX on dealer lots (as it lacks air conditioning and cannot be equipped with an automatic transmission), I’m sure many are asking the question whether the ILX is twice the car the Civic is. There wasn’t enough separating the two, but this isn’t the case today. The ILX drops in a sweet powertrain, and enough premium features to keep the two prospective shoppers apart. Both are simply looking for different things. The refreshed 2016 Acura ILX represents a great value in a tough, but increasingly popular class of luxury cars. Its overall feeling of “well-roundedness” steers me towards the ILX over the German players.