Acura Hits Home Run with Entry Model

Njuguna Kabugi | 8/22/2012, 4:51 p.m.

Acura has been derided as the automotive champion that snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. By now many have forgotten that just a mere 20 years ago, Japanese automakers were struggling to establish themselves as serious luxury brands in North America.

The luxury segment was so thoroughly dominated by Detroit nameplates Cadillac, Lincoln and a handful of European manufacturers that it was laughable to talk about serious luxury by a Japanese carmaker. Acura was the exception among the Japanese.

Acura was not just the first Japanese nameplate to take on the U.S. luxury market - its Legend and Integra models pre-dated Lexus and Infiniti - but its cars also received rave reviews. As a showcase for Honda's most advanced technology, Acura was hitting home runs at a dizzying rate in its first decade.

Yet over the years, Acura let go of the advantages of its head start and what many consumers and automotive journalists considered the foundation of the brand - nimble, meticulously engineered sporty cars. While the Legend name was phased away, the Integra was discontinued in 2002 as part of Acura's failed upmarket push.

The Acura ILX is a decent attempt to revive the past glory. Acura's marketing folks have been whispering that the Acura ILX represents the return of the beloved Integra, or at least a sedan version of the RSX - the alphanumeric christening that was grafted to the Integra before it exited the lineup in 2006.

Based loosely on the Honda Civic platform, the ILX is the new entry-level Acura, starting at about $27,000. It's seen as a "gateway" car to bring new buyers into Acura showrooms. I drove the car for close to a week and developed a healthy respect for the car. Despite humble Civic underpinnings, it exudes a dose of Acura luxury and civility by impersonating a premium sedan quite well.

Featuring a windswept exterior design with 5-passenger cabin, the body is completely reskinned, a more mature-looking body than the Civic's. The styling works well and enables the ILX to look distinctly Acura by presenting a more toned-down, widely-palatable version of the chromed plastic grille the automaker introduced a few years ago.

The interior, too, is pure Acura, from the waterfall-design, button-laden center stack to the red start button to the right of the steering wheel. Build quality appeared solid on the test unit I drove and the optional leather interiors were also of good quality.

The seating arrangements are compact-car cozy but not tight, and a familiar selection of buttons adorns the console - the audio and climate controls are borrowed from the TL.

The ride quality is pretty good too, exhibiting the road-surface awareness we expect from Acura -without undue punishment on one extreme or wallow on the other. The ILX's handling is competent, though the engine feels muted - it doesn't beg you to drive it hard unlike the original Integra this car seeks to replace.

The starting price includes noteworthy standard features such as moonroof, six-speaker audio system, 5-inch color information display on the dashboard, Bluetooth phone and audio connectivity, dual automatic climate control, keyless entry and push-button start.

The ILX model range includes the 150-horsepower 4-cylinder 2.0L version equipped with standard features such as automatic climate control, a Sequential SportShift 5-speed automatic transmission and Amplitude Reactive Dampers for outstanding ride quality. The ILX 2.4L features the robust performance of a 2.4L inline 4-cylinder engine with 201-horsepower, a quick-shifting 6-speed manual transmission, and 17-inch diameter wheels. The ILX Hybrid utilizes an efficient 1.5-liter 4-cylinder engine that teams with an electric motor to produce 111 horsepower while also achieving an EPA-estimated fuel economy of 38 mpg on the highway.