Acura opens the brand door with ‘near-luxury’ ILX

SIGNATURE LOOK: The ILX has Acura’s now-standard jeweled headlights and a modified version of the traditional “shield’’ grille.
SIGNATURE LOOK: The ILX has Acura’s now-standard jeweled headlights and a modified version of the traditional “shield’’ grille. –BILL GRIFFITH

Acura’s ILX sedan—today’s test car—has two identities.

One is as the gateway vehicle to the Acura lineup, designed to draw young (under-35), upscale buyers to the brand.

The other is to be a competitive entry in the near-luxury segment, competing with similar vehicles from Audi, BMW, Lexus, and Mercedes-Benz.

Meanwhile, staying in the Honda-Acura Family, the ILX also competes with a well-optioned Civic or, moving up a size, the Accord.

However, as I’ve learned several times in my own family, the Acura brand has a cachet with its buyers who have made top sellers both of the MDX mid-size SUV and the smaller RDX.

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As an entry-level vehicle, the ILX can be had in its base form (well equipped) for $28,820 (including destination).

Trim levels step up (in price and features) through confusingly named packages: AcuraWatch Plus, Premium, Premium & A-Spec, Technology Plus, and Tech Plus & A-Spec.

Our test vehicle was the fully equipped Tech Plus & A-Spec version with a bottom line of $35,810.

Story continues after the gallery:

It contained all the high-tech goodies that Acura is pitching to its target market.

That includes (from the Premium package), power passenger seat, satellite radio, blind-spot information, and rear cross-traffic monitor. From the Tech package comes Navigation, multi-view rear camera with real-time traffic reports, dual-zone climate control, and upgraded sound system.

Then we added in (from AcuraWatch Plus): adaptive cruise control, collision mitigation braking, road departure mitigation, forward collision warning, and both lane-keeping warning and assist.

Finally, from the A-Spec package: sports seats with suede inserts and contrast stitching, black headliner, 18-inch alloy wheels, fog lights, rear decklid spoiler, and aluminum sport pedals.

There are no complaints here about having this full package of goodies. Not only is that what the perceived Acura customer wants but it’s also where the future of mainstream automotive technology is headed.

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All the systems work well. We felt the lane-keeping assist regularly nudging us to the middle of our lane, even though we weren’t wandering close to the painted markings. Twice, just as we were pulling out to pass, the collision mitigation system decided we were getting too close to the car in front and started to apply the brakes.

It was a startling event but our foot on the accelerator easily overrode the braking. We had the adaptive cruise control set at the maximum distance. Using one of the three shorter distances likely would have avoided our experience.

Technological advances always seem to come at the right time for me. In the world of cameras, auto focus arrived about the time my eyes started to “back focus’’ many photos; in the automotive realm, the rearview camera arrived about the time I started remarking: “Nothing good happens when the gear selector is in reverse.’’

These safety systems, packaged under the AcuraWatch umbrella, are among the key components that will drive the so-called autonomous and connected cars of the future. They’re pretty much passive, meaning you turn them on, and they do their jobs. It’s not like learning the different menus in the infotainment systems. You just push the button on the steering wheel to make sure they’re activated.

The ILX has yet to be safety-rated by the NHTSA and IIHS, Acura is optimistic it will earn top safety scores from both organizations.

While the ILX has multiple choices for its tech packaging, there’s only one choice under the hood.

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For 2016, the larger of the previous years’ two four-cylinder engines now is the only choice. It’s a 2.4-liter that produces 201 horsepower and 180 lb.-ft. of torque. That power goes to the front wheels via an eight-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission.

All-wheel-drive isn’t available on the ILX, but it is on the larger TLX sedan—the one that replaces both the previous TSX and TL models.

We found the four to be a tad buzzy but plenty powerful and nimble. Mileage estimates are 25 in city driving, 36 on the highway, and 29 overall. In a week of mixed driving, we averaged 33.9 mpg. Acura recommends premium fuel. “Recommends’’ premium means Acura says the car will run better on higher octane but the on-board computers should adapt to regular fuel.

On the road, the suspension was a nice combination of being able to handle last winter’s holdover potholes with enough firmness for spirited cornering.

Acura has redesigned the grille to incorporate the marque’s new family of “jeweled’’ headlights. The large chrome bar with the Acura logo is, to me, a more pleasing look than the similar look on SUVs while still retaining an immediately recognizable Acura identity.

Inside the cabin, the controls are generally small but intuitive, given the wide array of electronic wizardry in the vehicle.

The navigation system’s graphics work fine but I don’t find the maps as easy to read as other brands’. There’s a small power and volume knob for the radio, but most other functions have to be accomplished by using steering-wheel buttons, the touchscreen, or voice activation.

For me, the quality of the seats was a plus. They seemed supportive without making you feel confined. However, headroom was snug for a mere 6-footer, even with the seat lowered all the way. We also had to be careful not to whack our heads on entering the front seats. Rear passengers had snug-but-livable head and legroom.

Given the quality of the seats and overall look of the car, the touch surfaces of the cabin such as the dashboard, armrests and console top seemed a bit downscale in a vehicle with so many luxury touches.

All-in-all, it’s a very nice package with a lot of value in the tech packages. For me, I’d do a comparison drive and shop with the Accord in the same family to see if its added seven inches of overall length and larger cabin would be a better fit.

Alas, even though the Accord begins with an “A,’’ it’s not an Acura—and that makes all the difference to the ILX’s target buyer.

2016 Acura ILX Tech Plus A-Spec

THE BASICS

Price, base/as tested (with destination): $28,820 / $35,810. Fuel economy, EPA estimated: 25 city / 36 highway / 29 combined. Fuel economy, Globe observed: 33.9 mpg. Drivetrain: 2.4-liter I-4, 8-speed automatic, front-wheel-drive. Body: 5-passenger sedan.

THE SPECIFICS

Horsepower: 201. Torque: 180 lb.-ft. Overall length: 181.9 in. Wheelbase: 105.1 in. Height: 55.6 in. Width: 70.6 in. Curb weight: 3095.

THE GOOD

State of art technology, Acura quality, fuel economy.

THE BAD

Premium fuel recommended; no spare tire; some cabin touches.

THE BOTTOM LINE

Acura achieved its goal by building a gateway vehicle to the brand.

ALSO CONSIDER

Audi A3, Mercedes-Benz CLA-250, Buick Verano. BMW 2-Series.

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