Review: The Acura TLX Is That Indulgence Your Sensible Side Can Live With

“I hope to be able to get an Acura one day,” is a statement I’ve heard from more than one person, but it doesn’t stop surprising me.

They say it in the same way one might say it if the brand were Mercedes-Benz or Porsche or even Cadillac. But by subbing in Acura, it makes the whole phrase sound so much more sensible. Like, “One day, I’ll get a vacuum that doesn’t have a bag.”

It’s because all of the people I’ve heard those words from own Hondas. Journalists buy Hondas. Teachers buy Hondas. And they keep buying Hondas because they’re practical people who don’t have time to drive 17 new cars when they only reason they’re replacing their old car is because the paint has faded away or one of their kids crashed it.

I’m sure this is why the Honda Accord has such a loyal following, and why they’re pushing more expensive versions to keep those customers who just keep coming back for more and expecting a better and better car.

But if you love your Hondas, here’s the truth: the best Accord you can buy right now is called an Acura TLX.

Definitely some kind of thrill

Why are you looking at me that way, Acura? Calling the TLX an Accord is a compliment of a pretty high order when we’re talking about cars around $30,000.

In taking the very basic Accord pieces and adding upgraded parts to make the TLX a viable alternative to the Audi A4s and BMW 3-series of the world, though, Acura buttoned down the entire feel of the basic platform. The result is a quieter car with solidity that’s closer to Munich than Marysville.

As in the Accord, the 2.4-liter four is the way to go over the V6. With it, the TLX has enough power. The 206 horsepower it develops on paper sounds low, considering some four-cylinder rivals make as much as 50 horsepower more and get the benefit of a turbo. Power is therefore modest below 2,500 rpm, but send the revs past 4,000 and everything comes to life.

The fact the engine sounds willing to do what you ask of it is rewarding, considering its size. In fact, I caught myself on several occasions saying this to no one while revving up the TLX: “Imagine how good this would be with a six-speed manual.”

Shifts are smooth from the 8-speed dual-clutch transmission that’s the only setup with the 2.4, but it forces a severe prodding of the pedal to downshift promptly. Otherwise, it’s reluctant to decide which cog is the right one at low speeds. The six-speed DSG from VW does the shifts better, while the new dual-clutch setup in Hyundais like the 2016 Tucson does a better job of pretending it’s a conventional automatic.

The lazy programming in almost all of the four selectable driving modes, however, might reflect the TLX’s true character. The engine and steering may be sporty, but the car isn’t a full-fledged sports sedan. Try as the chassis might, it can’t pretend to have a rear-wheel drive pedigree.

Instead, it’s better at convincing you that it’s a quiet, comfortable cruiser. The seats are super comfortable, Volvo-like in their ability to hold you in place without breaking your backside. Engine noise is well-suppressed, too.

The thrill of driving the TLX might actually be relaxing in it for a long drive.

Stark realities

It’s unfair to call the TLX bland, but it is severely lacking in a … something … about its styling.

The Acura shield grille and the googly LED headlights have been refined to a point where they’re not offensive, but still odd. And then the rest of the car doesn’t look like it’s really been styled much at all, looking like nearly 16 feet of rather fetching blue paint on the example I drove.

The TLX’s efficient personality bleeds into the design of the whole car everywhere except up front.

Inside, matters aren’t helped by the gray color scheme or the obviously fake wood inserts. While it’s of higher quality than the corresponding $35,000 Accord, the TLX competes with cars that offer actual wood or actual metal accents inside. Acura puts some nice plastics inside, but they’re still just plastic.

I’d understand this more if the interior was hiding some truly ambitious in-car technology that made the clinical nature of it all more understandable, in a Tesla-esque way. But the Acura double screen radio/entertainment setup is ponderous and confusing, and pretty much only useful if you want to see truncated song titles in three different places. You’ll get familiar with the voice commands and steering wheel controls quickly.

And for now at least, Acura continues to use a slow-to-respond and basic navigation system that couldn’t find a Citibank near Pasadena to save its life. In this regard, the Garmin system Honda is pushing in the 2016 Accords, along with Apple CarPlay, makes that the midsized Honda to get today if you want to get directions without screaming.

At this price, good sounds great

After about 200 miles, I realized the TLX is a very, very good car.

At about $36,500, I wonder if it’s worth saving roughly $4,000 by ditching the Technology Package – you’d lose the dubious nav and supposedly nicer leather, but also the lovely ELS audio system and useful safety tech. But even at that price, you’d have to be an enormous badge snob to take an Audi A3 or Mercedes-Benz CLA over the larger, better-finished Acura.

I totally get why you’d pay as much as $10,000 more to get into a BMW 328i, Cadillac ATS or even a Volvo S60, though. Those cars are actually styled, use materials that feel less man-made and have a level of panache that Acura can’t seem to capture.

The Acura, however, will probably cost less to operate than any of those cars. And that’s an awfully large price difference to justify panache. And you just can’t ignore how well the TLX masters the basic responsibilities of a midsize sedan. It’s more comfortable than a lot of cars at this price, the interior is well put-together, the engine is sweet and 30 MPG in mixed driving is actually possible. 

Whereas the $35,000 Accord Touring is like fast food with every available side thrown in, the TLX 2.4 Tech is less stuff for a little more money, but made from better ingredients and altogether more satisfying.

This is why you get out of the TLX 2.4 after driving and walk away shocked by its goodness. And maybe greatness isn’t worth an extra $10,000 or so. But charm isn’t a substitute for knowing your ABCs and your AP Style.

Go on, journalists and teachers. Splurge the practical way and get this Acura.

(Acura let me have this TLX for a week, as long as I took it to all sorts of interesting places. Like the bank, the airport, the post office, El Segundo, etc.)

Photos: Zac Estrada/Carscoops

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