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Behind The Wheel of the 2013 Acura ILX
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            Saying that you're buying an Acura for its practicality is like saying that you're buying a Tag Heuer just to tell time. It just isn't true. Sure, Acuras are great cars. Tag Heuers are great watches. But neither of the above is about being practical or economical whatsoever. You buy these luxury items because you've made a good life for yourself. You have a great job and it pays you well enough that you can indulge in the finer things in life. Either that or you really want to go into debt. It's all about the allure of joining the elite league of luxury car owners. The club of fancy people that wear designer labels and belong to country clubs; the general list of qualifications. The manufacturers know this. They're all about it. Acura is no different.

            So it was startling when Acura announced plans to sell its all-new ILX compact sedan in the United States. Even more shocking when they announced that pricing on the ILX would start at an unbelievably low (for an Acura) $25,900. Was this a move to try to lower the price of membership to the club and bring in a whole new class of member? Was this a move to try to steal business away from the likes of Lexus and Infiniti? Was this a move to get their name to the top of the headlines? I couldn't understand it.

            Acura has long had self-esteem and self-image issues. Although they are meant to be Honda's Lexus, many don't consider the two to be exactly equal and among younger buyers, the belief that Lexus is superior is even stronger. Lexus holds an air of prestige that Acura just can't seem to master. Thatís in part because Acura has always been closer to Honda than Lexus has to Toyota. Toyota learned early on that while it was profitable for Lexus to be close enough to share Toyota's reputation for quality and reliability, there is a respectable distance the two must stand apart for the buyer to see them as two separate lines of vehicles for two separate demographics, thereby justifying the price premium of a Lexus over a Toyota. Acura, on the other hand, has always stood much closer to Honda. So close, in fact, that in the Japanese market, Acura models are badged as Hondas. The American Acura TSX is sold in Japan as the Honda Accord. The American RL as the Honda Legend.

            The ILX is an interesting creature. To understand its genetic makeup, we have to go back to the Canadian Acura EL and it's successor, the CSX, both badge-engineered twins of the Honda Civic. The Canadian market has long had an Acura to fill the compact class. It was first called the Acura EL and later the Acura CSX. Both of these models were merely Honda Civics with updated front and rear sheet-metal. Everything else was standard Civic. Honda knew that selling such an illusion in the United States would never hold up, so they kept it above the border. Until now. The United States and Canada will both be receiving the ILX in Acura showrooms. Itíll only be a new class of car to us.

            Every car enters the market to compete in the market with similar models from other automakers. The luxury auto market is a little less saturated, but there is still competition out there for Acuraís new girl on the block. The Lexus IS and Infiniti G will be its two closest competitors, these three being Asian, with the Audi A4, BMW 3-Series, and Mercedes-Benz C-Class slightly more distant, playing for the European team.

            Interestingly enough, all of the above start above $30,000 (base MSRP, not including higher trim-lines, delivery, taxes, license, and other fees). The Lexus IS starts at $33,795 and the Infinity G starts at $32,600. This is interesting because Acura could have easily priced the ILX to match its class competitors but instead entered the ILX at $25,900. The price difference, for those keeping score at home, is a pretty substantial $7,895. With that difference in price, you could easily get a higher trim-level and add on al a carte options and accessories and really make it the full package.

            I've had the pleasure of driving some of Acura's best and believe me, they're good. The current generation TL with the available SHAWD (Super Handling All Wheel Drive) drivetrain is perhaps the best midrange sports sedan on the market. The MDX equipped with the same SHAWD package dances circles around the Lexus RX. So is this new ILX worthy of the Acura badge? Or should it be rejected and tossed into the Honda pile and rebadged as a Civic? I've been invited to spend some time with one at my local dealership and I've accepted. Let's get behind the wheel and see what Acura's newborn has to offer.

First Impressions

            It only takes a few seconds for something to make an impression on you ó a little less if itís all based on looks. Walking up to the ILX, you immediately notice that itís definitely smaller than any Acura thatís come before it. The model I was paired up with wore a shiny black coat (Acura calls this Crystal Pearl Black). From its profile, the ILX features a few design cues that were reminiscent to me of Nissan/Infiniti. Its door handles are lifted from the TSX, but its overly exaggerated lines appear more current-generation Infiniti. Things get closer to home from the front, where the ILX wears a subdued version of Acuraís in-your-face face. From the back, however, I saw Hyundai. Not good for this car.

            Acura says that the ILX is larger than a Civic in exterior dimensions, which I believed, looking at the car. The hood is definitely longer than a Civicís, and although design could have been playing optical illusions on my eyes, the body appeared wider and longer. Thatís good, because Iíve never been a fan of the Civicís small body, however itís still nowhere near TL/Accord size. This is, after all, still a compact sedan.

The Cabin

            When you first get behind the wheel, you know you're not in a Civic. Leather, faux-wood trim and chrome accents all distinguish this car from its Civic counterpart, however there are distinct touches that scream Honda: the iMid display and ďECONĒ button to name a few. That's more of a compliment to Honda than an insult to Acura. In the Asian midrange market, Toyota's cars may look nicer, but when it comes to interior fit and finish, Honda's rather dowdy Civic is a few steps ahead of Toyota's almost-sexy Corolla. It's the same story when it comes to cabin technology. The Civic, for example, has for the past six years has had a digital speedometer on a nice two-tiered dash with touches like a futuristic cabin and standard bluetooth and USB connectivity options. There are also a handful of options for those who wish to go above and beyond the already loaded base model. All of those touches and a few more are present on the ILX.

            Honda's iMid display is inside. iMid is short for "intelligent Multi-information Display". It's a decently sized (about 5-inch) screen that displays various vehicle functions along with some real-time statistics on a roll of screens. Honda currently includes it in the Civic and CR-V. Iím a bit surprised that they carried it over to the Acura line without at least retouching its graphical interface. Itís more than satisfactory on a Honda, but a little less so on an Acura. It's a bit disappointing that they didn't include a navigation unit as standard, but again, this car is priced low enough that there is still plenty of money in the budget to option one in if so desired. I've never been a huge fan of any in-dash navigation system as my iPhone (and most other smartphones) can do it a hundred times better. However, I do like the larger display for other functions. In fact, I expect it on a high-end car. The problem with iMid and not the navigation unit is that the screenís setback housing doesnít shrink to better showcase the five-inch iMid display. Instead it makes a perfectly acceptable screen seem small and out of place. Itís not a huge deal, but itís just another hint that Acura did only what was really necessary to make this car an Acura.

            That story continues with the backup camera. Itís a standard feature on this vehicle, although its not really necessary as visibility out the back is descent and in reality, this is a small vehicle. The problem is, this is the same camera and same interface used on Honda models. There are three different perspectives that you can choose from, each giving you a different view of whatís going on behind you, and the car provides guide markers showing where the car is going, although there are no distance markers (often distinguished by red, yellow, and green lines) and no trajectory (where the guides move according to steering). Even on the high-end ILX equipped with the tech-package, the backup camera still only shows guide lines. Either one of these two features (distance and trajectory) would have been easy to build in via a software update, and yet Acura left it the way it is on a Honda.

           

            Acura has always had a thing with buttons. The more the better, they must think. All their cars suffer from this philosophy. It's not as strongly implemented in here as it is on the MDX and TL, but it's still present. Compare the dash boards of the ILX and the Civic and you'll see a profound difference. This isn't a bad thing if you're a current Acura owner, but if you're moving up from a Honda or any other automaker, it might be a little overwhelming. The first thing that struck me was the clusters of buttons on the steering wheel. From experience, there are only five buttons I really want on the steering wheel: volume (up and down), voice-activation, and dedicated answer/reject buttons. Other than that, nothing else. Having a cluster of buttons on the wheel does two things against you: having more buttons means that each has to be smaller to fit on the already small panel, and having a handful of buttons distracts you since you have to find the function youíre looking for.

            Physically, the ILX is larger than a Civic, so itís surprising and disappointing that it feels more claustrophobic than a Civic. Everything from the width of the cabin to headroom and legroom felt more cramped. The ILX opened up for me featured a dark interior: black leather, black paneling, black everything, which could have made the cabin seem smaller. Personally I prefer a light interior color palette over a dark one, however the dark interior is definitely a signature of a high end car. The ILX is offered in a variety of exterior/interior combinations so finding a match shouldnít be hard. Do note, however, that leather is not standard and if you want a light interior, youíre going to have to move up to a model with leather. The base ILX comes with cloth seats in ďebony blackĒ.

            Other than that, cabin fit and finish is quite acceptable. It's definitely not at the level of a TL, but then again, with an MSRP $10K less than that of a TL, perfectly acceptable. The drivers seat can be adjusted to your comfort, although when I adjusted my seat to the position I wanted it to be in for optimal visibility, my hair was brushing against the ceiling. The story continues into the backseat where again the seats are plush and comfortable with sufficient (but not more than that) headroom and legroom for tall adults (Iím not sure but I think the Civic may have a taller cabin than the ILX). It will do when you pick up your clients for lunch at the Ritz, but won't if you're using it to take a road trip. Realistically though, if that's what your lifestyle is like, get a Honda CR-V.

Behind The Wheel

            Driving the ILX is a mixed bag. The ride is refined, smooth, and controlled, with much better isolation of road noise than your standard-issue Honda Civic. Handling is good, though not great, and driving over metal plates and uneven pavement can make your passengers feel as though theyíre on some kind of theme park ride. Honda/Acura has never done too well with that. Itís obvious that theyíve improved it over the Civic, though Iím still not sure theyíve quite gotten it up to Acura spec. Watch steep driveways and some speed bumps as this car has very little ground clearance. Depending on your height, that could also mean getting in and out of the car will be a hassle. Even for me, at five-feet, five inches, I had to duck down to avoid knocking my skull into the A-pillar while getting into the car.

            Driving the ILX is like driving any other Honda. That would be good if we were talking about a Honda. It lacks the premium luxury-sedan feel of the higher-end models like the standard TL and has nowhere near the sports-handling of the TL SH-AWD. Acura claims to have dialed back some of its pep in order to squeeze a few more miles-per-gallon out of the engine. I donít buy that because even with this pep dialed back (even more so if you engage ECON mode), the car is still only rated at 24 city/35 highway with an average of 28. Thatís a little lower than the Civicís, which uses the same engine. Acura does offer a hybrid version of the ILX, rated at 38/39. Thatís not bad, but when put against the Lexus CT200h which does 43/40, it does pale a bit. Itís also $3,000 more than the base ILX. The base ILX comes with a 150-horsepower, 2.0 liter, 160valve, SOHC iVTEC 4-cylinder engine. Itís fine for everyday driving but really takes all the fun out of driving it. Upgrade to the more powerful engine and you get 201-horsepower, 2.4 liter 16-valve DOHC iVTEC 4-cylinder engine with paddle-shifters mounted on the steering wheel. Although thereís no need for a V6 or AWD in this car, it would be nice to have as an option. A V6 would increase ride comfort and AWD would increase sport handling. Neither of which this car has.

            The ILX is also offered with a manual gearbox, although in what seems like a middle finger to enthusiast drivers, if you opt for the manual gearbox, the tech package (which adds a better sound system, the eight-inch navigation screen, and a few other touches) disappears from the list of options. Thatís a shame, because this car could benefit from having a manual gearbox. Adding the manual doesnít make it a sports car or even an enthusiast car by any means, but for those who enjoy driving a manual, itís not a bad ride.

The Judgement

            The ILX is an interesting creature. Itís the baby-Acura. Itís like BMWís 3-series and Lexusí IS. This is the car that will get you into the exclusive club without doing too much damage to your bank account.

            Hereís the bottom line: you fall off of the fence on one of two sides. You either want the image so you sacrifice a little car for the price, or you want a really good car. Walking into the showroom, I really wanted to like it. Walking out, I found myself thinking that Iíd rather get a top-of-the-line Honda Accord instead. More car, better engine (the Accord shares its engine with the Acura TL) essentially the same interior, and same tech. Itís a draw. Both are great cars. And itís even harder because the Honda Accord, when properly equipped, can be quite a luxurious ride. I also prefer the Accordís looks.

            The ILX isnít for everyone, but itís surely not for no one. If youíre in the market and have twenty-seven to thirty thousand to spend, the ILX is a definite consideration. However, you may want to first check out the high-end Honda Accord and even the high end Toyota Camry.

            And, if you end up an ILX driver, donít get too red in the face if people ask you if thatís the new Honda Civic. Itís bound to happen. Just smile and drive off ó making sure that they can see the Acura badge as you do.

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