Middleburg, Virginia -- We're tearing up a ribbon of Virginia road in a 2015 Acura TLX, its 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine zinging rapidly through the gears of an eight-speed dual-clutch automatic. Even as we enjoy this new Acura, we can't help but be distracted by all the old Acuras along our route. Integras, Legends, and RSXs. They're everywhere.
A brand spokesperson later admits this is no coincidence—we're near the largest Acura dealer in the country. Nevertheless, it drives home the fact that Acura was, at some point, a very popular brand. Emphasis on "was." Last year Acura sold fewer than 45,000 sedans; BMW sold about 120,000 3 and 4 Series in the same period. If it weren't for the success of its crossovers, the MDX and RDX, we might be discussing the end of the brand.
Instead, we're talking about a new beginning. The 2015 Acura TLX replaces both the TL and the TSX, which tripped over each other in the showroom. The TLX basically covers their territory in terms of pricing and powertrains. A 206-hp four-cylinder, a higher-compression version of the direct-injected engine we know and like from the Honda Accord, is standard. A 290-hp 3.5-liter V-6, also direct injected, is optional and can be equipped with all-wheel drive. The dimensions for the TLX, naturally, fall between the two old models, but there's strangely less interior room than in even the TSX.
From Battlestar Galactica to Leave It to Beaver
Although the model overlap certainly didn't help sales, something else hurt more. When we ask TLX project leader Mat Hargett why sales for the TL dropped off so precariously in the last generation, he answers with one word: "Styling." Acura introduced a robotic new design language with the 2009 TL. Gutsy move, but not a particularly smart one, as sedan buyers in this price range are a notoriously conservative bunch. Even Chris Bangle, at his flame-surfacing zenith, dared not fuss with the lines of the BMW 3 Series. Not only did the edgy design fail to attract a new audience, as Acura had hoped, but it also turned off brand loyalists, who either bought something else or held onto their old TLs.
The TLX, therefore, doesn't mess around with avant-garde. Sure, the designers talk about gaining inspiration from horses and "red carpet athletes," but the sheetmetal is as clean cut and conservative as Ward Cleaver. The nicely shaped, jeweled headlamps and toned-down grille suggest Acura is learning how to establish brand identity without clubbing people over the head. The aggressive stance and lean body sides announce the TLX's sporting intentions, although the long front overhang lets slip that it's front-wheel drive.
The interior similarly plays it safe. There aren't any experimental interior materials or wild colors, just nicely grained plastics, wood and silver trim, and muted leather (leatherette is standard). Acura did gamble a bit by replacing the shifter on six-cylinder models with buttons for park, reverse, neutral, and drive. Some common sense ergonomics—the button for drive is angled so you push forward, the one for reverse inset so you have to pull back -- make it a cinch to use.
We can't say the same for the TLX's infotainment system. Two large color screens dominate the center stack, along with a multifunction controller. They look like three different systems thrown into one car, and sometimes work like that, too. We spent a lot of time deciphering which control directs what function on what screen.
Honda engineers earning their lab coats
The 2.4-liter TLX pairs with Honda's all-new, eight-speed dual-clutch automatic. The 3.5-liter comes with a nine-speed automatic developed with ZF. Get your Kleenex out: no manual transmission will be offered. Hargett, who drives a TL SH-AWD with a stick shift, cries along with us but says there simply aren't enough buyers, pegging the take rate at about 2 percent for both the TL and TSX. It's hard to argue with numbers like those, but we protest nonetheless. The slick manuals in the TSX and TL were the last living links to the era when Acura offered some of the most engaging drivers' cars on the market.
That's not to take anything away from the new automatics. The eight-speed, in particular, proves that Honda engineers haven't lost their creativity. Unlike other dual-clutch automatics, Honda's transmission incorporates a torque converter to smooth out the launches. Once moving, it provides the blistering quick shifts that perfectly complement the quick-revving four-cylinder. Christopher Kipfer, the assistant large project leader in charge of powertrains for the TLX, says the torque converter takes the place of a dual-mass flywheel and thus doesn't add too much weight or complexity.
Why not offer it with both engines? Kipfer says a conventional nine-speed still offers more of the refinement that V-6 buyers want. Indeed, the nine-speed shifts with the creaminess we've come to expect of ZF transmissions. He also admits that the eight-speed dual-clutch, in its current form, won't stand up to the six-cylinder's torque. More problematic, it is not yet engineered to work with all-wheel drive. That means you'll have to opt for the V-6 if you want all-wheel traction, at a cost of $42,345, which is some ten grand more than the base model. To its credit, it's a very good system -- smaller, lighter, and even faster acting than what was offered on the TL SH-AWD. Dive into a corner too fast, add throttle, and you can actually feel the torque-vectoring rear differential tuck the car back into line.
A New Deal for front-wheel drive
Still, Acura once again brings what is essentially a front-wheel-drive car to a fight that's now dominated by rear-wheel-drive and all-wheel-drive offerings like the Audi A4 2.0T Quattro, the BMW 320i xDrive, and the Cadillac ATS 2.0T AWD. To compensate for this, the TLX comes loaded with driving aids: rear-wheel steering (Precision All-Wheel Steer, or P-AWS) and brake-based torque vectoring (Agile Handling Assist, or AHA). The acronyms would trip up the Roosevelt administration, but the technologies work really well. Even the front-wheel-drive V-6 model has surprisingly neutral handling, despite its miserable 61/39 percent weight distribution.
That said, the four-cylinder TLX may be the most engaging to drive in the twisties. With its brilliant transmission, excellent body control, and relatively low, 3492-lb curb weight, it reminds us that a front-wheel-drive car can dance if taught the proper steps. What the engine lacks in peak power compared with some turbocharged competitors, it makes up for in flexibility and sound. Acura did cheat a little on the latter -- some of the engine's growl is piped in through the speakers when the car is in its most aggressive, sport-plus mode (this mode also delivers heavier steering and more frequent downshifts). The rest of the time, active sound deadening and liberal amounts of conventional insulation make this one of the quietest Acuras we've driven.
Considering the effort and resources that went into high-tech suspension aids, Acura could have put a little more thought into the tires. The relatively tall all-seasons -- seventeens for the four-cylinder, eighteens with the V-6 -- start howling early and also sap steering feel, although the wheel is precise and nicely weighted. No summer tire package will be offered.
Conclusion: Back in the game without changing it
Despite the new name and some advanced features, the 2015 Acura TLX doesn't revolutionize anything. It's a nicely equipped, well-built, and conservatively styled front-/all-wheel-drive sedan -- just like the Legends, TLs, and TSXs we spotted tooling around Virginia's Loudoun County. Those waiting for Acura to "get serious" and develop a rear-wheel-drive sedan like Cadillac, Lexus, and Infiniti have will be kept waiting—perhaps indefinitely. However, we suspect many buyers will be just fine with an Acura that once again looks, feels, and drives like an Acura. It's also priced like a traditional Acura, offering tons of content at a discount compared with European competitors. The 2015 Acura TLX thus should have no problem finding its way into driveways here in Virginia and beyond.
2015 Acura TLX Specifications
Engine2.4L I-4; 3.5L V-6
Power206 hp; 290 hp
Torque182 lb-ft; 267 lb-ft
Transmission8- or 9-speed automatic
DriveFront- or all-wheel
Fuel economy24/35 mpg (city/highway, four-cylinder), 21/34 mpg (city/highway; V-6, FWD), 21/31 mpg (city/highway; V-6, AWD)
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