Third Look: 2013 Acura ILX Tech Hybrid

By Chris Martens

November 15, 2012

In Acura’s television ads, the ILX is billed as offering a just-right blend of premium-brand luxury, fun, and down-to-earth practicality—a blend that, in Acura’s own words, invites drivers to “move up (without) settling down.” Given this, one might assume the ILX Tech Hybrid would fit roughly the same mold, but with a distinctly energy-efficient “green” twist, and to a certain extent it does just that.
 
The ILX, which is loosely based on Honda’s Civic platform, has an identity all its own, an identity we’d be tempted to describe as “upscale sedan writ small.” By this we don’t mean to suggest that the ILX is in any way puny, because it is in fact admirably roomy inside. It’s just that the ILX is distinctly less bulky than most mid-size sedans, and for that very reason seems just as well suited to navigating traffic-choked urban streets as it is to exploring back roads or going on a cruise out on the interstate.
 
On one hand, the ILX is compact enough to maneuver in tight spaces and to qualify as being at least somewhat tossable—not so much by virtue of a seriously sporting suspension, but rather because the care weighs less than 3,000 pounds and thus has less mass to manage than many other sedans. On the other hand, the ILX still manages to provide a usable back seek (though headroom for six-footers is marginal) and trunk. Put these observations together and you may come to the conclusion we’ve reached, which is that the ILX is a well and truly handy size, though we would concede that those with growing families or who routinely travel with more than two full-size adults might be better served by something a bit bigger.
 
Acura offers three basic variations on the ILX theme: the 150 horsepower ILX 2.0 (28 miles per gallon combined EPA mileage rating), the 201 horsepower ILX 2.4 (25 mpg combined), and the 115 horsepower ILX Tech Hybrid (38 mpg combined). The Hybrid is the heaviest of the three ILXs while also serving up far less horsepower and torque than its siblings. It’s also the only model in the threesome to use a CVT transmission, whereas the ILX 2.0 comes with a five-speed automatic and the ILX 2.4 comes with a six-speed. What does this mean? Well, to state things bluntly, it means you’ll have to sacrifice a good-sized chunk of the fun-factor the other ILXs might offer in order to partake of the ILX Tech Hybrid’s green-machine benefits. For some customers this will actually be an appealing compromise, one that allows the owner/driver to enjoy the luxury and self-evident build quality of the ILX while at the same time being a frugal and environmentally conscious steward of Mother Earth’s precious non-renewable resources. For others, though, it may seem more like the ILX Tech Hybrid is an otherwise fine, compact premium sedan that has, in a sense, surrendered its performance-minded soul.
 
In simple terms, the ILX shows its fundamental Acura-imbued goodness in several key ways. First, external and (especially) interior build quality seem appropriately high, with the interior sporting materials that, in look and feel, are noticeable improvements over standard Honda fare. Second, the ILX is a delightfully quiet and serene little sedan that is never more fully in its element than when gracefully cruising along on level pavement while passengers are left to marvel at how very little noise finds its way into the cabin. Third, there’s the aforementioned magic element of the ILX’s just-right size: small enough to be fun, but big enough to be useful. If you like the qualities we’ve just sketched out, then you’re well on the way to being able to appreciate the ILX.
 
Steering and handling are both quite decent, though they do not by any stretch of the imagination achieve benchmark standards. Steering seemed reasonably well weighted and offered a sensible, moderate amount of boost, but on-center feel and overall road feel were limited—giving little sense of a direct, immediate-feeling connection between the steering wheel rim and the contact patches of the front tires. For those who look to premium-brand vehicles more for luxury than performance, this will be fine—perhaps even a good thing, but performance-minded drivers may find themselves wishing that Acura had dialed a bit more of dynamic DNA of the Honda Civic Si sedan into the mix. Handling is reasonably sure-footed with the chassis exhibiting good, middle-of-the-road spring rates and damping settings. The ILX is not going to win any accolades for Mini Cooper-grade nimbleness or sporting prowess, but it does do a pretty good job of treading the line between well-damped luxuriousness and cornering competence.
 
We particularly liked the ILX’s interior, and especially the front seats, which are big enough to accommodate large (as in, “somewhat beamy”) adults, yet well bolstered and supportive enough to hold drivers and passengers in place during spirited back-road excursions. The nice part, we felt, is that the seats pulled off this balancing act without ever leaving passengers feeling as if they were being forcibly constrained by the sort of “grip of doom” you might encounter with, say, overly tight-fitting Recaros. (Don’t get us wrong; Recaro seats are very cool in their proper context, but they aren’t necessarily the hot setup for cars that might reasonably be used for long highway cruises.). The ILX’s navigation, communication, and audio amenities were very satisfying, too.
 
At last, though, we come to the ILX Tech Hybrid’s drivetrain, which we must report was a disappointment on several counts. Count 1: not enough horsepower or torque. When you get right down to it, 115 horsepower and 127 lb-ft of torque is simply not adequate for a car this size (or price). We wouldn’t kvetch so much if the ILX hybrid offered mind-blowing mileage, but frankly it doesn’t. There are other greenformance drivetrains out there (VW TDI or the Kia Optima/Hyundai Sonata Hybrids, to name just two) that offer much more power, more torque, equally good (if not actually better) mileage, and are vastly more satisfying to drive. Count 2: A CVT transmission that gives the hybrid drivetrain many variations on one unpleasant theme: labored droning that makes the car always sound as if it is desperately searching for, but failing to find, its automotive “happy place.” Granted, the ILX Tech Hybrid can be a wonderfully serene and quite cruiser when it’s on a dead-level road. But ask the ILX Tech Hybrid to a) accelerate, or b) climb even a modest incline, and the CVT will spin the Hybrid’s overworked motor up into a fairly loud, moderately high-revving drone that is completely out of sync with the rest of the ILX’s otherwise balanced and upscale persona. Put the CVT in “Sport” mode and all you get is a barely discernible increase in acceleration and a tendency to spin the motor up into an even higher pitched and more frantic-sounding “drone zone.” Our thought: surely there are simpler, cheaper, more enjoyable, and just plain superior ways of achieving 38 mpg.  
 
The bottom line is that we think the ILX platform, per se, is well made and shows a lot of potential. The ILX Tech Hybrid, though, has a split personality we found disconcerting. On one hand, you’ve got the makings of a fine, versatile, compact premium sedan, but on the other hand you’ve got a drivetrain that adds cost, makes unpleasant noises, and saps performance, yet does not really deliver the hoped-for benefit of stellar mileage. We think a company with Honda’s undeniable technical prowess can and should do better, if only because the ILX deserves it.