Monday, May 20, 2013

Acura ILX - Gateway to the Brand

It's natural that Acura, Honda's upscale division, would introduce the ILX for 2013. When they jettisoned the RSX after the 2006 model year, they eliminated the crucial entry point for folks to become Acura owners. Since day one of the brand, way back in 1986, there was always the Integra to attract folks for whom a plain Honda just wasn't enough. You can't ignore the Millennials. Now they've fixed that problem.

The car's meaningless alphanumeric names hide its personality, but the ILX, whose name starts with I (is it a coincidence?) has plenty to offer. Based on the always big-selling compact Honda Civic, it wears all the design cues that Acura has worked hard to build. Luckily for all of us, the division has chosen to soften up the shovel face that it inflicted on its cars recently. It's one thing to be distinctive and another to be homely, and the new cars are much easier to take.

The ton-and-a-half car will fit in nicely on today's roads with its overall styling. Interesting is the line that proceeds along the side and hops up over the rear wheel. A lot of creases meet there, creating an interesting and slightly mysterious tension. The ILX does not look much like a Civic, though.

Inside, the car gets the full Acura treatment, with boldly defined dash, doors and console. The sweeping exuberance of the  interior makes riding in the ILX feel energizing, and the tactile feeling of the controls adds perceived quality to the plastic.

The garden variety ILX, which I sampled last Summer, came with a perfectly OK 150-horsepower inline 2.0-liter, four-cylinder engine that delivered good fuel economy through an automatic transmission. But this tester, in Silver Moon paint, grabbed the Civic Si's  mightier 201-horsepower 2.4-liter engine, and ran the 170 lb.-ft. of torque through a deeply satisfying six-speed manual. This is a different animal from the plain jane version, and was a hoot to zip along through traffic.

I got it out on some more exciting roads to see how well it would handle it, and it reminded me a little of my old 1986 Honda Civic Si in its taut, communicative steering and suspension and happy whir of its four-cylinder engine. My 90-horsepower Si had 50 percent more oomph than the standard 60-horsepower model. These numbers sound as silly as talking about four-cent first class postage.

The EPA gives the ILX an combined fuel economy rating of 25 miles per gallon (22 City, 31 Highway). I got an honest 27.5 mpg (premium gas). The environmental numbers are a pair of sixes - just above average. The non-turbo 2.0-liter, with its 7 for Greenhouse Gas, squeaks into the SmartWay category. I'm eager to do my part for the Earth, but the 2.4-liter with stick shift is just plain more fun.

There is a Hybrid version of the ILX, as there's one for the Civic, and you can expect 38 miles per gallon in place of 25 - a significant difference worth about $800 a year in gas.

The ILX is built in Greensburg, Indiana, using a Japanese transmission but an American-built engine. Honda has built cars in the U.S. for more than three decades, and most of its cars actually are from U.S. factories.

The performance and look of the ILX make it a worthy playmate, but the Premium Package adds more goodies. These include leather seats, an upgraded seven-speaker audio system, XM satellite radio, an eight-way power driver's seat, 17-inch alloy wheels, a rear-view camera and all the bragging rights. It does amount to a pretty loaded car.

Yes, it'll cost you. The regular ILX, with its standard automatic, starts at $26,795. My tester, with no options, came to $30,095.

There are a few compromises. My tester didn't have a navigation system, which is fine, but the screen in the center dash was pretty small for consulting the other features that run through it. The elegant stitching on the doors is not continued onto the dash, a cost-cutting move.

Acura has just released the 2014 version of the ILX, with a few extra standard features. This might be a fine time to pick up a '13 at a discount. Acura has stocked its showroom with a range of intriguing vehicles, so if they can hook up with you now, you will certainly find something you like later, when you need more doors or seats.

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