The first thing is, you have to start out in the dark. Unless you hit the road on California Highway 1 between Monterey and San Luis Obispo before daybreak, you’ll be staring at the back of a motorhome at 35 mph the whole 136 miles.

So that’s why I’m here in the dark with the 2015 Acura ILX 2.4L and the Breakfast of Champions is in my hands (skipping the cigarette). It’s the Monday after the Pebble Beach concours, probably the worst day of the year to be on the coast road. I’ve been making this drive on California Highway 1 since 1976 (maybe a couple dozen times in cars and on motorcycles), and I still like it best north to south, the way I did it the first time with a BMW 320i Alpina.

Calm down, it's just a road

If you drive CA highway 1 as if it were a race track, you will surely end up in the ocean. This would not be a good outcome. So as you pass Carmel and Point Lobos on the way south, it’s good to open your field of vision. There’s no sense driving along the rim of the Pacific Ocean if all you’ll be seeing is a little mailbox-size view of the road directly in front of you.

The 2015 Acura ILX is more like a BMW 320i Alpina than you realize. It’s a right-size answer to a long and winding road, plus it has some stuff that makes it more than you expect, like dual-pane acoustic glass for the windshield and forward glass, upgraded brakes, zippy high-tech dampers and decent 215/45R-17 Michelin Pilot HX MXM4 tires. Plus this ILX has a way better engine than the 320i ever had, a 201-hp 2.4-liter inline-4 that’s matched with a six-speed manual transmission.

Keeping it together in the dark

Generally I pass the spectacular bridge at Bixby Creek just at first light, and I’m always reminded that it was here that Automobile Magazine’s first cover was photographed in 1986. The road runs pretty straight past the old Point Sur lighthouse and it gives me time to think about the road noise coming through the tires, a persistent issue with all things Honda, and the old, coarse pavement here doesn’t help things.

That’s when three deer run across the road and try to kill me. I always forget about these three deer, and they’ve been trying to kill me for at least a decade. Unfortunately, when you drive at first light, animals are always about. As always, I vow to remember this, but I know I’ll forget again.

The little coffee places beneath the coastal redwoods in Big Sur are tempting, plus there are a couple of big-time restaurants like the Ventana Inn. But then I remember the motorhomes.

Lucia to Ragged Point

From Big Sur down to Lucia, the road is all natural wonders and you’ll be doing a fair amount of gawking at redwoods, waterfalls, and waves rolling in from Japan. At Lucia Lodge, you’ll probably be stopping for motion sickness pills if you have a passenger. (They know me here.) After that, it’s a fun zone down to Ragged Point.

The Acura ILX is just the right size for this sort of thing. A wheelbase of 105.1 inches gives the car some stability, yet the curb weight of 2978 pounds doesn’t make you feel like you’re running one of those cross-country races with a knapsack full of bricks.

The ILX’s electric-assist steering isn’t an issue here, since the car steers with enough precision that you’re unaware of any funny business in the on-center feel or stiction in the action. Just as we’ve come to expect in an Acura or Honda, the controls are very light. You steer with your fingertips, step into the brakes with circumspection while modulating with pressure not simply the stroke of the pedal.

The Acura ILX’s chassis feels lively, and it picks itself up from one corner then snaps into the next in the other direction without making you wait, and this is what you want when the next corner has a caution sign of 30 mph with a big blue sky of nothing on the far side of the guardrail. But there are times when the ILX feels a little too lively to me, as if there’s still more springiness than damping. But it’s not bad, and the fact that I brake with my left foot helps settle the chassis through the corners.

Getting intense with 2.4 liters

The Acura ILX carries the 2.4-liter Honda inline-4 under its hood, and it’s easy to think of it as a fairly relaxed, Accord-friendly powerplant. But to make this engine deliver happiness with a manual transmission, you should be thinking small coupe, not family sedan.

There will be no motoring along at 3500 rpm, because there’s just not enough torque for this front-wheel-drive car to dig its way out of the corners. Another 900 rpm is called for, as the engine is rated for 170 lb-ft of torque at 4400 rpm.

Once you realize that the engine’s power peak is 7000 rpm, you drive appropriately, although the unmusical sounds that come from beneath the hood make you feel a bit embarrassed about it. Fortunately the slick, light-effort action of the six-speed manual transmission is on your side, plus you won’t need fifth or sixth gear between Lucia and Ragged Point anyway.

Land of the sea elephants

Finally you come down off the cliffs above the ocean and spill out into the coastal plain of Pacific Valley. You slow down and enjoy the sight of the water in the rocky bays, which is a soup of kelp forests, sea otters, and California brown pelicans (welcome back, guys). Naturally you stop to see the big pods of sea elephants on the beaches below Hearst Castle.

The 2015 Acura ILX doesn’t get a lot of respect, as it’s become simply the small one in a brand that is too often overlooked. But after a day on California Highway 1, I’m reminded again that the heart of every Honda (Acura, too) is a small car, not a large one. And between Monterey and San Luis Obispo, that’s just what I want.

Stopped for a couple of quick pictures, only had one motorhome in front of me the whole way.

2015 Acura ILX 2.4L Specifications

Base price:$29,350

Price as tested:$29,350

Engine:DOHC 2.4L I-4

Power:201 hp @ 7000 rpm

Torque:170 lb-ft @ 4400 rpm

Transmission:6-speed manual

Drive:Front-wheel

L x W x H:179.1 x 70.6 x 55.6 in

Wheelbase:105.1 in

Curb Weight:2978 lbs

Fuel economy:22/31/25 mpg (city/highway/combined)

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