Attention Honda: The 2013 Acura ILX is a Great Civic

Posted: July 19, 2012 in Acura, Fuel Economy, Honda, Hybrids, Electrics and other "Green" Technology
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When you visit your Acura dealer (if you can find one) to test the new Acura ILX, just don’t say any word that starts with an I and ends with an A. They are very sensitive about past history.

2013 Acura ILX 5-speed Automatic in Silver Moon

An example of the most-stolen 1994 Acura Integra. Love the headlights!

It’s been six long years since Acura offered an entry level vehicle based on the Honda Civic. The Acura Integra (damn, there’s that I-word) and its successor, the RSX, achieved almost mythical status as an entry level sports luxury coupe (and sedan) with exemplary front-drive handling characteristics. In fact, in the latest Insurance Industry statistics, the 1994 Acura Integra holds the esteemed number eight position on the most stolen list. It was that popular!

Enthusiasts are still wounded over the unceremonious demise of the Integra/RSX’s. The Acura brand found itself in crisis after a widely-panned styling gamble and mixed messages about its place in the crowded luxury car field.  Customers stayed away in droves and Acura fell off many shopping lists.

After the devastating 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami and the equally crushing criticism of the ninth generation Civic, Honda was a company in crisis, battered into a corner, bruised and bleeding. The 2012 Civic, introduced shortly after the earthquake, is an all-important model for Honda. It was widely-panned for its lack of inspirational design and warmed-over technology.

The styling of the Acura ZDX never caught on and its price (base $47,015, loaded with the Technology and Advanced Package, $57,565) scared off many buyers.

The NSX was Acura’s halo car for 15 years. This beautiful 2005 model still looked fresh; but Acura simply dropped the ball on its successor. We won’t see a new NSX for another two or three years.

Acura, Honda’s luxury division, was also in trouble. Its flagship RL sedan, introduced in 2005 with a mild refresh in 2009, flopped from day one. The odd BMW X6-like and expensive ZDX SUV remains unknown to most consumers. The beloved and the sublime NSX sports car wore Acura’s halo for its 15 year run; but Acura never planned for its replacement and it disappeared from showrooms in 2005. In short, Acura, the first Japanese luxury brand introduced in the United States, has been adrift in brand wilderness for a while now.

The 2012 Acura TL is a very nice Honda Accord

The 2012 Acura MDX is very popular. It’s based on the Honda Pilot

Before the new ILX, Acura relied on two models to keep the ship afloat. The TL is a dressed-up Honda Accord stuffed with extra luxury touches and the option of a trick “super-handling” all-wheel drive system. The MDX, a traditional luxury SUV also bristling with technology and luxury features, is based on the Honda Pilot and has been a solid seller since its introduction.

Starting at just $25,900, the ILX, the smallest Acura, is an excellent upgrade to its Honda Civic cousin. The base ILX 5-Speed Automatic is outfitted with Honda’s 2.0L i-VTEC four making 150 hp and 140 lb-ft of torque – an upgrade over the Civic’s 1.8L mill. Honda’s ubiquitous 5-speed automatic transmission with Sequential SportsShift is the only transmission. I doubt it will set the performance world on fire; but it will likely be the volume leader. It was also the only model that wasn’t available to drive at the Acura ILX All Access Ride & Drive Event I attended in a parking lot across from the Staples Center.

The Acura ILX All Access Ride & Drive Event was held in a parking lot across from Staples Center. In this picture, both Hybrid and 6MT models await drivers for the cross-town drive portion of the event.

The Acura magic wand also means that the cheap, nasty, hard plastic interior panels and surfaces that offended drivers of the Civic have been banished in favor of upgraded softer and textured materials that feel and look upscale. In addition, a heavy dollop of soundproofing isolates the cabin from outside road noise.

The interior of the 2013 Acura ILX is a much more inviting place than its Honda Civic cousin. Hard plastic surfaces have been banished in favor of soft-touch and textured materials.

The 2012 Audi A3 Sportsback doesn’t come to mind when I think about the 2013 Acura ILX. Sorry, Acura.

Acura would like us to believe that the sole competitor to the new ILX is the Audi A3 Sportsback.  Really? The A3 is more expensive and its excellent German engineering coupled with superb, class-leading interior craftsmanship don’t spring to my mind when I look at the ILX – not to mention that the A3 is a wagon and the ILX is only available as a sedan.

The 2012 Buick Verano is a nice small, upscale near-luxury sedan – exactly what I equate with the 2013 Acura ILX.

To me, the closest competition in price and luxury features would be the new Buick Verano. But Acura doesn’t want its customers to associate Buick with Acura.  Buick is an “old man’s” car, right? Well, yes, sort of, but Buick is desperately trying to change that image and Acura is desperately avoiding any suggestion that it’s anything other than a sporty youth-oriented brand.

My first drive was the ILX 6MT featuring the entertaining drivetrain lifted directly out of the Civic Si. It features a 2.4L naturally-aspirated four-cylinder engine making 201 hp and 170 lb-ft of torque married to Honda’s exemplary close-ratio 6-speed manual transmission.

The 2013 Acura ILX MT6. It uses the excellent powertrain from the 2012 Honda Civic Si. The sweet 2.4L four cylinder engine is only offered with the 6-speed manual transmission. This will severely limit sales as most people want an automatic. It will, however, satisfy some enthusiasts.

We had our safety rules for the closed course portion of the Acura ILX All Access Event. This was the starting point, from inside a tent.

Honda estimates that the 6MT model with standard Premium Package ($29,200) will account for only 5% of ILX sales. If Acura dropped the 5-speed Sequential SportsShift automatic from the TSX (which uses the same 2.4L engine) into the sporty ILX it may get more sales from drivers wanting a bit more than 150 ponies under the hood. I’m not holding my breath.

I had forgotten just how excellent the Civic Si was and I was happily reminded with the ILX 6MT. Honda’s close-ratio row-it-yourself 6-speed gearbox is polished perfection. Our ten minute on-road course took us on the surface streets around Staples Center. The clutch was so creamy, linear and easy that you could drive it on a daily basis in LA with little distress to your clutch foot. The car never bucked on gear uptakes and I didn’t stall it once.

The food in the lounge/food tent was pretty good. Overall it was a nice setup.

The slalom course included lane change, an NVH (noise, vibration and harshness) test and potholes.

The little steering wheel felt just right in my hands and the electrically-assisted rack-and-pinion power steering provided sufficient feedback and on-center accuracy. It cuts a tight turning circle too. The happy revs, variable-ratio EPS and well-sprung and dampened 4-wheel independent suspension chassis meshed effortlessly for lighthearted entertainment if not blistering speed. It even performed well in our off-street mini-slalom/NVH course.

My second drive was the ILX Hybrid that comes standard with the Premium Package. If you believe the EPA estimates, the Hybrid should get around 38 mpg, no matter where you drive. Assuming normal driving, you’re likely to get closer to 35 mpg. The extra weight on the ILX accounts for the reduction in fuel economy from the Civic Hybrid which is rated at 44 mpg.

The Hybrid’s drivetrain is identical to the drivetrain in the Civic Hybrid: A 1.5L four-cylinder 110 hp gas engine coupled with Honda’s Eco Assist system which includes a 23 hp permanent magnet electric motor sandwiched between the engine and the continuously-variable transmission. The new-generation Civic/ILX Hybrids use a 20 Kw lithium-ion battery pack.

As long as the green ball in the middle of the dash display stays green and grows, the car is happy. Any sudden moves on the accelerator are greeted with disapproval from both the shrinking, yellowing ball display and the whining CVT. It’s not going to win any races, but the people who buy this car don’t care.

2013 Acura ILX Hybrid in Silver Moon

The ILX Hybrid with the Technology Package and shipping is a whopping $35,295. The Civic Hybrid with all the goodies is about $6,500 cheaper. I’m not sure Hybrid buyers will drop the extra dough for the Acura upgrade and extra features.

The ILX Premium Package is a must-have and it’s standard on all but the base ILX. It includes perforated, heated, 8-way power leather-trimmed sports seats, a multi-view rear camera and dual-zone automatic climate control – goodies you’ll never find on Honda Civic. At 6’1”, I was able to find a comfortable seating position in the ILX – something that never happened with the Civic.

The ILX 6MT interior, with the Premium Package, shows the nice sports, power perforated leather seats. Cup holders are large and should suit American tastes.

The Technology Package is the top trim level for all ILX and encompasses all the tech-geek features we have come to expect from Acura: Acura’s excellent satellite-linked navigation with Real-Time Traffic and Weather; An Acura/ELS sound system with more speakers (10 not 7), more watts (415 not 360) and a 15 GB media storage hard drive good for storing up to 3,500 songs. Acura’s voice recognition system is better than others.

Acura steps things up in the Tech Package with a Pandora internet radio interface, USB audio cord and Bluetooth 2.0 streaming audio as well as hands-free mobile phone functions. The big new feature is the SMS text message function which reads incoming texts aloud and lets you verbally respond from a list of pre-programmed responses: “I’m running late, the 405 is a parking lot” or “Call me you idiot, I’m driving.”

The Technology Package trim level adds a terrific sound system, navigation, text-to-voice and many other goodies. Notice the red pushbutton start in the lower left corner. It’s standard on every ILX.

All this great technology and yet HomeLink, the decades-old nifty feature that allows you to control gates and garage doors with a built-in interface, is nowhere to be found. Not even as a dealer accessory. I just shake my head.

A keyless entry and pushbutton ignition system is standard across the ILX range. The key fob is small and slim – something I wish every manufacturer would adopt. If you have a keyless system, why does the fob have to be big? A big fob may work well when lost inside a woman’s purse, but doesn’t do wonders in pants pockets.

The brushed chrome “beak” of the new ILX gives it a nice edge and I think the new sheet metal is handsome. If only the Honda Civic looked this good!

The ILX carries the latest softened version of Acura’s bold front beak/blade look. I rather like the handsome, if conservative looks and think it’s a good entry-level product for Acura. If you yearned for a Honda Civic with better styling, respectable interior plastics, a longer warranty and a host of luxury features, look no further than the ILX.  If you were looking for another Integra, check out the ILX 6MT. It’s not the “I-word” and it’s not a coupe, but it’s sure an impressive upgrade to the Civic Si sedan.

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Comments
  1. Tom Pease says:

    The 2nd-gen Integra was and still is a very handsome car. I’m afraid I’ve never warmed to the new brand-look of the front end Acura adopted: depending on the model it goes from Bucky Badger to full-on Queen Family Truckster.

    And if they don’t want to be compared to Buick then perhaps they should drop the sweep-spear styling..

    • Todd Bianco says:

      Acura’s styling really failed to attract more customers to the brand. Perhaps in hindsight, people will see this as Acura’s “golden age” when it was willing to take risks. Who knows. The ILX is one of the better iterations of the look, I think.

      The product specialists – independent contractors, not Acura employees – were interesting and knowledgeable; however, they had clearly been told to stay away from any comparison to the Integra and that the “direct competition” was the Audi A3. I’m pretty sure I wasn’t the only attendee that found the comparison a bit specious. The A3 is available with quattro as well as a TDI engine and it’s a wagon! That and it’s more expensive than the ILX, by thousands of dollars. And wouldn’t you rather go to an Audi dealer over an Acura dealer? It’s not like there is an Acura dealer in Beverly Hills. At least there is one in Santa Monica.

      When I thought about it, the only analog I could come up with was the Chevy Cruze becoming the Buick Verano. And no one wants to be compared to Buick.

  2. Todd Bianco says:

    When I wrote the article, I just assumed that the Technology Package – the ones with all the fun stuff, including navigation, upgraded sound and text-to-voice – would be offered across the line. However, it’s been brought to my attention that Acura dose NOT offer the Tech package on the sporty 6MT ILX. I just hate that. So if I want the fun sporty one, I can’t get all the luxury upgrades I’d like.

    I guess since Acura thinks that only 5% of ILX buyers will opt for the 6MT, they reasoned that only a subset of those buyers will opt for the Tech Package. So if 50% of the 5% want the Tech Package, that’s too few buyers to bother to tweak the package to fit the 6MT. Great. I know it’s all a numbers game, and it probably isn’t profitable, but it still pisses me off.

  3. Scott Delinger says:

    Canada had a small Acura all along: Integra and RSX, the EL, the CSX, and now the ILX. Pity all Acura’s still have the 1880s cow-catcher grill. Look like bad copies of steam locomotives.

    • Todd Bianco says:

      Scott – we didn’t have an EL or CSX here in the US (or if we did, there was a different name/badge). I’m afraid Acura is lost in the wilderness still. The new TLX is a very nice Accord, but it’s so nice that there is no reason to pay thousands more for the RLX. I look forward to the NSX Hybrid, but that’s a very low volume, every expensive halo car.

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