Driven: 2013 Acura ILX

By Seyth Miersma

April 19, 2012

 —Scottsdale, Arizona
When introducing a brand new vehicle, in a brand new segment, any automaker worth its marketing department comes to the launch program armed with a vision of its potential customer base. This vision, more often than not, is presented to us journalists (and, before us, we can only assume, to the decision-makers at the company) as a made-up person or small group of people who are intended to show every salient attribute of the buying market for the new car. This is basic stuff; create an understanding of the individual buyer to inform the harder-to-visualize mass audience for your product.
Why are we telling you this?
Mostly we think that it’s important to understand whom Acura is marketing its new ILX to, in order to understand why it has built the car that we drove in Arizona. That’s because, in addition to being definitively not some kind of next-phase TSX, Acura is clear about the fact that the ILX is also, most certainly, not a reemergence of the lost Integra nameplate.
So, who is this figurative ILX buyer? He/she (there were an equal number of photos of men and women, and Acura said nothing about gender in terms of targeting) is a member of the vast and powerful Generation Y, which makes him young-adultish. He’s techy, and pretty green, and massively active with his free time. He’s successful for his age, and looking for a small, stylish car that sets him apart from his peers. In all honestly, he sounds like a real brand snob.
So what does this iPhone-wielding, Korean barbeque-eating, ladder-climber want to drive while listening to the new Black Keys album (“Pitchfork gave El Camino a 7.4, but those assholes hate everything.”)? Why, the 2013 Acura ILX of course.
With that as background, it starts to make sense that the ILX driving experience is a lot closer to “Mini Lexus” than it is to “Small Sports Sedan.” The goal, setting out, was to deliver a stylish, reasonably fuel efficient car with an Acura badge on the steering wheel, at as affordable a price point as could be managed, and emphatically not to build an enthusiast car in the mold of, say, a four-door 1-Series.
The bread-and-butter car in the ILX range will be powered by a 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine, connected up to a five-speed automatic transmission. Though the powertrain story for the total ILX family is fairly complex for one model—the sportier 2.4-liter car offers only a six-speed manual, while the greener ILX hybrid can be had exclusively with a CVT—the 2.0-liter car is automatic-only.
In the minds of most driving enthusiasts, the 2.0-liter’s output of 150 horsepower and 140 pound-feet of torque won’t seem very consequential. But, as Acura’s phantom buyer considers performance secondary to overall economy, the balance of the powerplant’s output figures and excellent fuel economy—35 miles per gallon highway, 24 in the city—makes sense.
We’ll never be accused of calling the 2.0-liter ILX a “fast” car, but the truth is that the engine and transmission work seamlessly in this near-luxury-car context. Short travel of the gas pedal, combined with a quick-spinning motor, make mid-range acceleration in the ILX feel, at least, appropriate for the car. Initial acceleration is pretty unremarkable; making the move from 75 miles per hour or so to the higher reaches feels a little strained.
Thankfully, the five-speed automatic transmission, with ratios selectable via wheel-mounted paddle shifters, does a fine job of keeping the engine on boil when attempting to merge or pass. Even with its low power output, we had a good time making the ILX move on a few twisting roads, by using the paddles to keep the engine revved up. Left to shift for itself, the transmission will default to a far less involving style, but it’s good to know that you have the option to shift around at will.
Sonically, the ILX 2.0 offers a very muted experience, with the exhaust note only really filtering its way into the cabin at the highest of revs. That high-end note is typically Honda in nature, with a nice, high-pitched note that will bring former Civic drivers a touch of enthusiast nostalgia. We expect that the bulk of ILX drivers will enjoy the mostly unheard engine most of the time, though.
On the downside, wind noise was slightly higher than expected here. The lack of mechanical noise from the engine makes the rushing sound from around the side-view mirrors more noticeable.
Beyond the mildly too-prevalent whoosh of wind, Acura has constructed a pretty nice cabin for its least-expensive vehicle.  The center stack is streamlined compared to other Acura products, and is certain to quell those that felt the company’s cars were too button heavy. On the downside, dash, door, and trim materials, though unremarkable in the larger spectrum of cars, feel decidedly less plush than those found in RL, MDX, ZDX, etc.
We found the seats to be a good balance of comfortable (over 100 miles or so) and supportive, keeping us firmly in place when we pushed the limits on some curvy back roads. The steering wheel felt good in hand, too—thick of rim, and grippy, and just like that of its larger sibling the TL (a car that we’re quite fond of).
From the driver-involvement standpoint, the steering fared less well. Effort is pretty good, with more weight in the experience than in a Lexus IS, for instance, without feeling but not artificially heavy. Turn-in does not feel especially quick, though, and is downright dull when compared with the rather snappy TSX precedent. There’s also very little road feel available, even on lock, and none at all in dead-straight cruising.
While the steering may not stir one to drive the ILX hard, the underpinnings of the car do a better job to encourage fun driving. We found the suspension tuning to offer a compliant ride on rough roads, while not turning to mush when turning was required. There’s some roll in evidence when the cornering forces become higher than average, but it comes on predictably and not too quickly, allowing us to understand and adjust our speed with no problem. Eventually the ILX will understeer when pushed hard enough, but the balance falls happily into the “better than expected” category.
Remember, there’s not a whole lot of punch in the powertrain here, so the near-limit handling of the ILX is happening at fairly mild speeds. That everything works well and cohesively within these moderate boundaries is great, but one shouldn’t be confused that this is a sports car in the making.
In fact, in the small amount of time we got behind the wheel of the ILX with the 2.4-liter engine, we were pretty disappointed. With slower, less responsive steering and a duller suspension setup, the ILX felt more like a muted, less engaging version of the Civic Si than a replacement for the pointy TSX. We’ll review the 2.4 car in greater detail when we have more time with it, as well as the ILX Hybrid, but suffice it to say that those Integra faithful that are still holding out for a proper successor had better settle in for a wait.
Though we hate to get into the stubborn banalities and ill-conceived myths about vehicles that share a “platform,” we’ll take two seconds to talk about the ILX compared with the Civic with which it shares some DNA. The ILX doesn’t really look like the Civic, inside or out. It doesn’t “feel” like a Civic in any way more concrete than one front-engine, front-wheel-drive sedan feels like another. Anyone that claims to not care for the ILX, as a concept, because it is something like a “more expensive Civic” has the right to that opinion, but the facts of our driving experience beg to differ. Enough said.
On the other hand, we expect that this car has got a surprisingly difficult competitive set with which to battle, despite there not being one really standout competitor. Acura picks out the Audi A3 and Lexus CT200h as potential rivals for the “near-premium” dollar, but we’d suggest that group is bigger than that. Essentially all of Buick’s sedan range falls into this high twenties, low thirties range, as do Volkswagens CC, Passat, and GLI. Even Volvo’s fetching C30 hatch may be a player here, for those dollars going to the most design bang per buck.
Ultimately, with so many cars available that are similar in spec but much less expensive, or similarly priced but far better performing, the ILX target buyer is going to have to care a lot about the Acura badge as a signifier of success. The balance of this car is really that between thirst for a premium car, and the constraint of a smaller-than-hoped-for budget. With other premium carmakers dabbling with the same formula, we’re far from saying that there isn’t a win in the making here.
We will say that the ILX is a strong sign of Acura’s divestiture from the sporting car realm, at least in the lower, daily driver rungs. (We think the upcoming RL and NSX show loads of promise for enthusiasts, of course.) This is no Integra. Then again, no Integra ever gave us turn-by-turn directions to the nearest Korean place. Anyone else hungry?
VS: Volkswagen CC
With its fresh redesign for the 2012 model year, and a significantly more potent powertrain, Volkswagen’s sleek sedan should be an automatic ILX cross-shop.
Buyers concerned at all with performance will likely prefer CC’s DSG/turbocharged engine configuration to that of ILX’s four-pot and 5AT. On the other hand, ILX is a considerably better value, with a starting price lower by a couple of grand, and running costs that are sure to be lower overall. Lest we forget, long-term costs for Acura will most likely undercut those of the VW product by a lot.
In short, while the CC is the better car to drive, and more appealing overall (unless the VW badge is inferior to Acura’s in your own personal brand-value equation), the ILX will almost certainly be a better car to actually own.
VS: Buick Verano
Buick’s smallest, newest, and least expensive sedan offer significant resistance to the ILX package, right out of the gate. The Verano is slightly less expensive than the Acura to start, has a more powerful engine, and offers a very competitive feature set. Of course the Buick is a few hundred pounds heavier, too, and can’t compete with the ILX’s (estimated) fuel economy numbers.
On brand cred alone, the ILX should be more appealing to most shoppers—Buick’s “old person car” label is proving slow to shed—but the truth is that these cars are very similar to drive. Both offer smooth, unfussy handling, quiet rides, and rather unexciting powertrains.
2013 Acura ILX 2.0
Engine: Inline-4, 2.0 liters, 16v
Output: 150 hp/140 lb-ft
0-60 MPH: 8.0 sec (est)
Weight: 2910 lb
Fuel Economy, City/Hwy: 24/35 mpg (est)
Base Price: $25,900
On Sale: May 2012