The Acura Integra was one of the seminal sporty compacts and a star of the brand's early lineup. The Integra eventually went away, and when Acura's most recent entry-level model, the TSX, floated up in size and price, it left space once again for a youthful entrée into the brand. It was with fond memories of the Integra that we ordered a new Acura ILX for a yearlong test. Maybe things were simpler back in the late 1980s and early '90s (which is starting to feel like a long time ago), but the notion of a Honda Civic made nicer and sportier doesn't seem so complicated, really. Our year with the ILX, however, suggests that it is.
Things started off on a good note. We opted for the larger, 2.4-liter engine, which is paired with a six-speed manual transmission and comes standard with the premium package. Effectively, this version of the ILX uses the Civic Si as its springboard. This powertrain won friends right away, and it seemed that everyone who slid behind the wheel marveled at Honda's ability to create a slick, user-friendly manual gearbox.
"The clutch and transmission are absolute joys to use," began associate web editor Jake Holmes, in a missive about the ILX's stick shift. "Changing gears is so effortless that it requires no more thought than driving an automatic," he continued. "You never wonder when or how the clutch will engage, and it is light enough that it won't tire your leg in city traffic. The shifter is deliciously precise in the way it slips from gear to gear, and each gate is exactly where you expect it to be." Others were equally enthusiastic, if less verbose. "Happiness is a Honda stick shift," quipped copy editor Rusty Blackwell.
This was just as we'd remembered from days gone by. So, too, was the rev-happy Honda i-VTEC four-cylinder. Its 201 hp comes on at 7000 rpm, and its peak torque of 170 lb-ft isn't within reach until 4400 rpm. The engine's large displacement, high-revving nature, and linear throttle response give it a retro appeal that holds considerable charm. Drawing a contrast with many of today's turbo fours, which have all their torque down low, associate editor David Zenlea said, "The Honda 2.4-liter still loves to be revved past 6000 rpm." Another commenter added: "I love to wind out the engine and hear it snarl all the way to the redline."
The powertrain is definitely the hero of the ILX story, but it is a hero that's not without flaw. For one thing, this version of the ILX is an outlier. The vast majority of ILXs are equipped with the much more humble 150-hp 2.0-liter and a five-speed automatic. Others have the fuel-sipping, but soul-sapping, 1.5-liter four-cylinder hybrid. The 2.4-liter might find more takers if Acura offered it with an automatic -- yeah, we know, everybody should drive a stick shift, but the reality is that most people don't. As it is, the 2.4 comes only with the manual.
The other issue is that, while it's fun to run this engine into the far reaches of the tach, its droning becomes a drag when it's spinning away at 3000 rpm or better on the highway. We're not saying that Honda should ditch this normally aspirated four-cylinder; we would suggest, however, a taller sixth gear. With a linkage this slick, we wouldn't mind dropping down a gear or two when it's time to pass.
And it's not just the engine. There's a fair bit of road and suspension noise, as well. "I think they forgot the sound deadening," wrote one commenter. Maybe that was true; for 2014 Acura has added active noise cancellation to the ILX.
The lack of refinement might not be such an issue if Acura presented the ILX as an enthusiast's machine. The chassis, though, is confused on that front. The lifeless steering gives lie to that notion. "There's no indication that the steering wheel is actually connected to anything behind the dashboard," Holmes said, "and that's a pity because the zesty powertrain deserves a fun-to-drive package." Senior web editor Phil Floraday wished for a firmer suspension but acknowledged that he didn't mind trading a measure of body control in order to stave off impact harshness.
After a time, we noted that the rear suspension wasn't damping bumps very well and was being excessively vocal in its work. Floraday even crawled underneath, wondering if the car had a beam axle at the rear (it doesn't; the ILX has an independent multilink rear suspension). Finally, a vigilant service technician discovered that a damper had gone bad, and it was replaced under warranty. Ride quality was restored, but the suspension noise wasn't totally eradicated.
Noise wasn't the only aspect of the ILX that had us questioning its premium-compact credentials. The fact that navigation (part of the technology package) is not offered with this powertrain, even as an option, drew a fair bit of criticism. So did the fussy Bluetooth system. Also, the voice-command button "is a bit of a ruse," because it can't operate any infotainment features beyond very basic phone functions. And everyone complained about the rearview camera's image quality. Deputy editor Joe DeMatio likened it to "a fuzzy black-and-white movie on a crappy old TV." Here again, Acura has made a change for 2014 with a new multiview camera as standard equipment.
The interior's tech features disappointed, but in characteristic Honda fashion the ILX cabin gets the important things right. The switchgear is of high quality, with an unfussy layout and clear functionality. More than one staff member gave a shout-out to the radio controls, which are easy to use and minimally distracting. The seats received mostly good reviews, but tall drivers felt too close to the headliner even with the seat at the lowest position. Overall, though, the cabin doesn't feel cramped, unlike others in this class. As associate web editor Joey Capparella observed, "This Acura manages to be relatively roomy inside while remaining compact on the outside."
For some of us, this all added up to a compelling mix of virtues. "The ILX is for those of us who grew up loving Honda Civics of the '90s to early 2000s," said twenty-something videographer Sandon Voelker. "It's a Civic that has grown up and put on a suit. No, it's not the most refined or classy car in this segment, nor is it a sports car with four doors. To me, this is a car guy's daily driver. It's quick and involving enough to make me take the back roads to work on occasion. It's roomy and comfortable enough to bring your friends on a weekend trip. And it's stylish and handsome enough to take your boss out to lunch or to pick up a date."
But more of us felt that the ILX was too short on refinement to be a convincing premium compact car and not sporting enough to be a dressed-up sport sedan. In truth, the notion of an upmarket compact is a relatively recent one, and the offerings so far -- ranging from the Lexus CT200h to the Buick Verano to the Mercedes-Benz CLA -- are all over the map.
"Clearly, every automaker is struggling to figure out what buyers in this segment want," argued Zenlea. We think that Acura had a pretty good handle on it back in the day with the Integra. We're still awaiting its return.
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