Building a world-class sport sedan is tougher than it looks. Of course, that’s true of everything from making an omelet to setting a broken bone, but a smart, focused student can generally master either of those in less than a decade.
The learning curve is a bit — shall we say “extended?” — for automakers who want to challenge cars like the Audi A4, BMW 3-series and Mercedes C-class.
Twenty years after Cadillac joined the fray with the CTS, GM’s luxury brand is back where it started, trying to establish the CT4 and CT5 as contenders. Ditto, Lexus, whose next truly successful small sport sedan will be its first. Reading between the lines of corporate cost cutting initiatives, Infiniti appears to have all but given up trying. Jaguar appears headed the same direction.
All of which makes the 2021 Acura TLX noble and admirable, if not entirely successful. Honda’s been plugging away at the sport sedan business since launching the luxury brand — Japan’s first by several years, to give credit where it’s due — in 1986.
Acura developed the 2021 TLX to compete with compact sport sedans like the 3-series and A4 and bigger midsize models such as the 5-series and Mercedes E-class. Targets like that are a bit problematic. They suggest an automaker wasn’t sure what the target was, or belatedly realized it missed the bullseye.
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Those concerns notwithstanding, the new TLX is an attractive sedan with a promising drivetrain and competitive prices.
Safety and driver assistance features
- Front collision warning and braking
- Lane departure alert and assist
- Adaptive cruise control with low-speed following function
- Traffic sign recognition
- Hill start assist
- Automatic brake hold
The TLX uses a new platform that’s exclusive to it — for the moment, anyway; platforms are expensive, expect a sporty SUV or another sedan to share it within a couple of years. It retains the base front-wheel-drive layout of all Honda’s sedans and SUVs, but does not share a single platform component with the Accord sedan, the obvious donor in Honda’s corporate tool bin. The platform was developed in the U.S., a five-year program that began with a competitive drive of leading competitors. The design also came from a U.S. studio, more evidence of Honda’s corporate strategy to make the U.S. the home of some Acuras.
In an odd, back-to-the-future moment, the platform’s key bragging points include a double-wishbone front suspension. That was the layout Civics and Accords used back in the ‘80s when Honda first won American hearts as drivers’ choice among small, fuel efficient cars.
The 2021 TLX’s wheelbase is 3.7 inches longer than the outgoing model. Overall length increased 2.9 inches, width 2.2. The roof is a half-inch lower, contributing to a rakish and distinctive look. Other exterior touches include boldly flared rear fenders, a low hood, narrow headlights and 7.9 inches longer dash-to-axle measurement for a long hood and sport profile.
All TLXs come with a turbocharged 272-hp 2.0L four-cylinder engine that produces an admirable 280 pound-feet of torque from 1,600 to 4,500 rpm. A 10-speed automatic transmission is standard.
The base powertrain is front-wheel drive, but I drove a pair of all-wheel-drive models.
The engine revs fast and free, delivering plenty of power for quick, smooth shifts. The AWD system can send up to 70% of torque to the rear wheels, and all of that either right or left, to aid traction and handling in curves.
The steering is precise and quick. Engineers shifted the battery to the rear to improve balance, but the TLX remains nose heavy. The 57% front/43% rear weight distribution becomes apparent in fast curves, when understeer feels imminent.
I tested two TLX models: A-spec and Advance. Their features differed slightly, but the biggest difference was in interior color, material and personality. The A-spec was black and grey, with red stitching and aluminum pedals. Advance was done in lighter shades and wood. Wood and metal trim are genuine, a sign Acura’s been studying the competition.
The controls are easy to read, with big gauges and dials and buttons for audio and climate. I find Acura’s “absolute positioning” touch pad much less satisfying than a touch pad for navigation and other features, but some people don’t mind it.
Net result, the ’21 TLX’s performance and handling improvements make it the brand’s best sedan in decades.
The TLX is a meaningful first step to competing with the A4 and C-class, but not a leap forward. Acura’s claims it will also compete with the bigger A6 5-series and E-class seem very optimistic.
The TLX’s performance, price and features could give smaller sport sedans like the Audi A3/S3 fits, however.
The TLX’s prices and long list of standard features are the key to both goals. Its base price rises $4,500 to $37,500, but the 2021 TLX is clearly both bigger and better than its predecessor. All-wheel drive adds $2,000 to the tab.
A more powerful and expensive Type S with a 3.0L V6 should go on sale in the spring.
The AWD A-spec I tested stickered at $46,500.
Its standard features included:
- 10.2-inch display screen
- Apple CarPlay
- Android Auto
- Bluetooth compatible
- Voice recognition
- 17-speaker ELS audio
- USB connection and charging ports
- Dual-zone GPS-linked climate control
- Pushbutton start
- Milano leather and Ultrasuede sport seats
- Heated and ventilated front seats
- Heated rear seats
- 60/40 folding rear seat
- Power sunroof
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