Cars

Acura ILX conquers new lux frontier

With its 2013 ILX sedan, Acura creates a new point of entry for the brand. The ILX is slightly smaller than the TSX sedan, which costs $30,905 (including a destination charge of $895). The ILX starts at $26,795. Nice difference.

The ILX’s three versions are the 2.0L, the performance-oriented 2.4L, and Acura’s first gas-electric model, the 1.5L Hybrid. I drove all three.

The Acura ILX is sure to appeal to some efficiency-seeking entry luxury shoppers. It looks like an Acura but has a very strong bond to its cousin, the Honda Civic.

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The ILX shares its foundation with the Civic, making it the first model to do so since the sporty RSX coupe, which left the market in 2007. Automakers get cagey when you start talking about shared platforms, especially between brands of disparate cost and reputation, but Acura openly acknowledges the relationship, even as it points out many mechanical differences between the two.

For one, the ILX is lower and about 1.5 inches wider than the Civic, and its torsional rigidity (the body’s resistance to twisting) is greater, by 18 percent in front and 11 percent in rear. The ILX uses different shock absorbers, called amplitude reactive dampers, typically found in European luxury cars. The two-piston systems are said to provide a soft ride without sacrificing sharper bump absorption or cornering performance.

The ILX also has a faster steering ratio and upgraded hardware, such as a larger-diameter steering shaft, for improved feel. There’s more noise abatement as well: thicker window glass, more insulation, and active noise cancellation in models with 17-inch wheels, among other measures.

The expected best-selling version is the ILX 2.0L, where the number represents a 2.0-liter four-cylinder, which teams only with a five-speed automatic transmission. All versions of the ILX are front-wheel-l-drive. In place of the Civic’s 1.8-liter, this 150-horsepower engine didn’t feel demonstrably quicker than the Civic to me, perhaps because of the increased weight—about 145 pounds more than the automatic equipped Civic EX. But it’s quick enough. The five-speed automatic is well-behaved, providing smooth shifts and quicker kickdown when it’s time to pass. Of the three ILX versions, the ILX 2.0L strikes a good balance of power and mileage, which is what Acura intended. It is EPA-rated at 24/35 mpg city/highway and 28 mpg combined. Sadly, premium gas is recommended.

The ride quality is good, exhibiting the road-surface awareness we expect from Acura, without undue punishment on one extreme or wallow on the other.

The 2.4L is most like the Civic Si in that it has a 201-hp, 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine and comes only with a six-speed manual transmission. As expected, it’s quick, though the torque peak of 170 lb.-ft. doesn’t give the car the urgency some drivers want off the line. The engine and exhaust sound pretty good, and the manual is satisfying enough, as gear ratios are well-matched to the cause. The car is EPA-rated 22/31 mpg and 25 mpg combined.

I also drove the ILX Hybrid, whose EPA-estimated mileage is 39/38 mpg, which is more than respectable, especially in city driving, but significantly lower than the Civic Hybrid, at 44/44 mpg.

On the road, the hybrid doesn’t exhibit too much of the delayed acceleration response we’ve come to tolerate in many hybrids— known as the rubber band or motorboat effect—at least not when accelerating from a stop. There’s more of it if you nail the gas once already in motion, but three drive modes let you trade mileage for responsiveness: The Econ button makes the car reticent to rev the engine, the Sport mode keeps the revs higher all the time, and the normal Drive mode, as you’d expect, is right in between. Not a bad arrangement. If those don’t work for you, you can use the steering wheel paddles to select among seven fixed ratios for the continuously variable automatic transmission.

The ILX is definitely quieter than a Civic, though not as serene as the Buick Verano. Rather than a pitter-patter when traversing pavement cracks and tar patches, the tires emit more of a distant low-frequency drumbeat.

Cloth seats with manual adjustments are standard on the 2.0L and Hybrid. Leather seats with eight-way power and heaters in front come in the optional Premium and Technology packages. My test of the ILX 2.0L included an interstate trip, and I found the seat comfortable even after five hours of highway driving. The backseat is admirably roomy for a compact car, and the floor back there is virtually flat, which goes a long way in making the center seat truly usable.

It goes without saying that the ILX’s interior quality is better than the Civic’s. All of the test cars I drove had at least the Premium option package and thus perforated leather-and- vinyl seats, which are well-executed. The dashboard has low-gloss soft surfaces, and the center control panel has an interesting finish.

A little more consistency would help, as would some color, especially when the ILX is up against the Verano. Except for the optional ivory colored seats and select surfaces in our 2.0L test car, this Acura is characteristically black and gray.

When Acura introduced its 2013 ILX sedan at the 2012 Chicago Auto Show, we had three questions: Why would the company add another small sedan, just under the TSX in size and price? Can it improve enough on the car’s humble Honda roots? Perhaps most important, does demand truly exist for a luxury car of this size and price?

As for the why, it’s probably because the company perceives demand for a more affordable sedan in its lineup, and because the car’s high gas mileage will both appeal to cost-conscious buyers and help meet federal fuel-economy requirements. (The TSX tops out at 26 mpg combined.)

Did Acura merely produce a better Civic? Of course. But with the Verano, Buick fielded a better Chevrolet Cruze, at a starting price $3,325 lower than the ILX. Though the Verano’s mileage maxes out at 25 mpg combined, we were mightily impressed with its luxury feel and appointments. As for the greater question, demand for cars of this type in general is yet to be determined.

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