2015 Acura TLX

Immediately after landing at Washington's Dulles airport, an Acura representative handed me the keys to a 2014 TSX with fewer than 180 miles on its clock. The four-cylinder engine started and I pointed its signature beak towards a destination in Middleburg, VA. It was a curious move by the Japanese automaker, especially considering that I had flown no less than 2,300 miles to drive the discontinued vehicle's ostensible successor, the all-new 2015 Acura TLX.

Yet spending a solid 40 minutes with a sparkling-new version of the outgoing model that still smelled showroom fresh, allowed me an opportunity to scrutinize the dropped sedan and remind myself why it had never really blown me away – it was good at doing many things, but truly great at doing none.
Time with the TSX also started me thinking about the Acura TL, the second model that the TLX will effectively replace. I have better memories of the slightly larger sedan, especially the SH-AWD 6MT trim – it's a solid driver's car – but it, too, fell short in areas where competitors, including the Audi A4, BMW 3 Series, Cadillac ATS, Lexus IS and Mercedes-Benz C-Class, excelled.

As I pulled up to the hotel a short while later, it became clear that Acura had some work to do. Its task over the next 48 hours would be to persuade me that its clean-sheet TLX was not only a worthy replacement for the TL and TSX, but a competitive player in this fiercely contested segment.

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The easiest way to replace two vehicles, especially when each is a different size, is to split the difference. And that is more-or-less what Acura has done with its new TLX. When the wraps were taken off the sedan at the 2014 New York International Auto Show earlier this year, it revealed a vehicle larger than the TSX, yet still a few inches shorter than the TL. More importantly, the excess length was not taken from the passenger cabin or wheelbase – it was cut from the front and rear overhang to leave interior volume and a comfortable ride intact.

The TLX will never be accused of breaking new ground in terms of overall design, but it won't offend, either.

Visually, the new silhouette works. Shortened overhangs, and a lower roofline give the sedan a wide and stable appearance, with the Acura's debatable satin aluminum beak cleanly integrated into the design – one of its best applications. The TLX will never be accused of breaking new ground in terms of overall design (I'd call it conservative compared to what some other automakers are offering), but it won't offend, either.

That's something I kept in mind while dropping into the cabin of the new four-door, noting that the front seat easily accommodated my six-foot, two-inch frame, affording ample torso, leg- and headroom without any hint of being overly confined. I moved the driver's seat (standard 10-way power adjustable with lumbar) and steering wheel (manual tilt and telescope) into my preferred positions and then climbed into the second row, which gave my knees about a half-inch of remaining clearance and left my head a couple inches shy of the headliner (credit a deep bottom cushion in the second row). All told, the cabin will accommodate four adults comfortably, or five in a pinch, even if each have different political views.

The interior, in terms of design and execution, reminds me of the recently released RLX, which is Acura's current flagship. That's actually a very positive association. A three-spoke steering wheel, with excellent button and wheel controls, sits between the driver and an instrument cluster with a tasteful and easy-to-read mix of two round analog gauges on either side of a multifunction color digital display. The center stack has two large full-color displays, but it isn't as clean ergonomically as the workload of replacing buttons and switchgear is split between the pair. There are only two rotary dials on the console – a small one to control the audio level, and a larger one for the navigation screen. Most everything else is controlled via touchscreen or buttons, controls that require more than a bit of familiarization.

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The interior reminds me of the RLX, which is Acura's current flagship. That's actually a very positive association.

Additional upscale RLX influence is found nestled between the two front seats. Instead of a traditional gear lever, models with the V6 arrive with Acura's Electronic Gear Selector, which uses a digital pushbutton array to replace the cable-connected mechanical lever. Acura says the electronic system frees up space in the center console, which it does. Like it or not, lever-less consoles appear here to stay.

The six-cylinder engine is shared with the automaker's RLX sedan and MDX crossover, and is familiar to owners of the current TL, but it has been updated for duty in the TLX. The naturally aspirated, direct-injected 3.5-liter now carries a rating of 290 horsepower and 267 pound-feet of torque (gains of 10 horsepower and 13 pound-feet when compared to the 3.5-liter offered in the outgoing TL). The V6 is mated to a ZF-sourced nine-speed automatic transmission – a first-time application for Acura – with a traditional torque converter.

If a pushbutton gear selector isn't your cup of tea, or you want to save upwards of $4,225, opt for the standard TLX model that arrives with a traditional cable-actuating shift lever. Buried inside its engine bay is a naturally aspirated 2.4-liter four-cylinder rated at 206 horsepower and 182 pound-feet of torque. Here's where things get interesting: the engine is mated to a standard eight-speed dual-clutch transmission (DCT) with a torque converter. Yes, a torque converter. The automaker has combined its DCT with a torque converter – the industry's first such marriage we're aware of – to improve smoothness in stop-and-go situations and enhance off-the-line acceleration, both areas of weakness with many dual-clutch gearboxes.

2015 Acura TLX

The V6 is mated to a ZF-sourced nine-speed automatic transmission with a traditional torque converter.

In the grand scheme of things, Acura will initially offer seven different models, with the front-wheel drive TLX 2.4 starting at $31,890 (all pricing references include an $895 destination fee) and topping out with the TLX 3.5L SH-AWD with Advance Package, which runs $45,595. Customers may opt for front- or all-wheel drive, four- or six-cylinder power and choose to add Technology or Advance Packages to fit their needs.

Before jumping behind the wheel and covering hundreds of miles in all three models combined, Acura showed me a fullsize cutaway of its new sedan. The display allowed me to see for myself that the TLX is built on the same basic platform as the Honda Accord, but it is significantly different, having been updated for premium duty with additional high-strength hot stamped steel to improve rigidity and safety, along with aluminum alloy and magnesium componentry to reduce weight. Once satisfied with the platform's enhanced body stiffness and lowered mass, the engineering team shot acoustic foam into the body cavities, adhered acoustic barrier panels within the body panels, used triple door seals around the frames and added electronic active noise control to provide a quiet ride – there was a clear obsession to make the cabin whisper quiet.

But silence wasn't its only objective, as the automaker had safety on its mind, too. Acura expects its so-called Advanced Compatibility Engineering (ACE) body structure will earn the TLX a Top Safety Pick+ rating from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and a Five-Star Overall Vehicle Score in the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's New Car Assessment Program safety ratings. Passengers are offered additional protection from front, side, side-curtain and driver's-side knee airbags, and standard and available driver-assist features include Adaptive Cruise Control, Blind Spot Information (BSI), Forward Collision Warning (FCW), Lane Departure Warning (LDW), Lane Keep Assist System (LKAS), Road Departure Mitigation (RDM), Cross Traffic Monitor, Motion Adaptive Electric Power Steering and a Collision Mitigation Braking System – it's reassuring to know that the intimidating list simply means that the sedan has been engineered to help keep its occupants comfortable and safe on the road, while reducing their workload.

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The Acura is remarkably quiet for a vehicle in this segment.

To customize vehicle driving dynamics, all models of the TLX arrive with Acura's Integrated Dynamics System (IDS), which gives the operator the ability tune the vehicle's character to their driving style in one of four selectable modes (Econ, Normal, Sport and Sport+) by altering throttle response, power steering effort, transmission shift logic, climate control system operation, active sound management and the control logic for either the P-AWS or SH-AWD systems.

I drove all three models (FWD I4, FWD V6 and AWD V6) over the course of the day and was generally very pleased with what I observed. Naturally, I did emerge with a favorite.

Most importantly, regardless of engine or powertrain, all TLX models are exemplary highway cruisers. Every single one glides down the road with a silence and demeanor more typical of a full-size European luxury vehicle. There is a near absence of wind and tire noise, and not a squeak from within the cabin. The Acura is remarkably quiet for a vehicle in this segment. The chassis and ride is also superb in all models. I sailed over whoop-de-dos on backcountry roads, bounded over railroad tracks and traversed miles of uneven pavement. There was hardly a crash, bang or bump, and never once did the wheel travel reach its limit or did the platform become unsettled or choppy. After a few hours of trying to expose a weakness in the ride, I gave up and simply enjoyed the serenity – the TLX will make its owners look forward to the daily commute, whether three miles or three hours.

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If you require V6 power, my suggestion is to spend the additional $2,200 for the automaker's excellent Super Handling All-Wheel Drive.

Floor the accelerator on the front-drive TLX V6 and its tires will spin unnecessarily (and fruitlessly), even with Acura's unobtrusive traction control engaged – thus making it my least favorite model of the trio. If you require V6 power, my suggestion is to spend the additional $2,200 for the automaker's excellent Super Handling All-Wheel Drive (SH-AWD) model. The full-time system, which requires no driver intervention, has been thoroughly reworked for duty in the TLX to be more compact and 25-percent lighter than its predecessor. As an added benefit, the new rear-drive unit is overdriven by 2.7-percent (compared to 1.7 percent on the previous system) to provide more torque vectoring capability and enhanced cornering.

The SH-AWD is always monitoring grip, lateral Gs and power output to determine how to best put the power to the ground (as in the past, the driver can watch the power application with the digital display on the instrument panel). The system also now takes a look at steering wheel angle to proactively send power to proper wheel to optimize handling. In practice, SH-AWD works very well, and wheel slip stemming from too much power to the contact patch is eliminated. And, for all intents and purposes, the AWD system is efficient enough that it doesn't exact much of a penalty when it sips premium fuel (the EPA's combined fuel economy estimates are identical between FWD and AWD models, but the highway figure drops three miles per gallon).

I'm not a huge fan of the industry's push toward nine-ratio gearboxes – realize that this is the same basic transmission that arrives in the Jeep Cherokee – as they seem to constantly be on a hunt for a proper gear. But Acura's engineers have done a commendable job tuning out most of this automatic's annoyances in both six-cylinder models. TLX V6 models leap off the line with eagerness, the shifts are buttery smooth and both seems perfect content holding gears for more than a few moments, which is the polished performance customers in this segment expect. I don't believe any 9AT model will spend much time in its highest ratio (most of my steady state cruising was too slow), but intelligent mapping, cylinder deactivation and idle-stop – Acura's name for start/stop technology – allow the 3.5-liter TLX models to achieve decent fuel economy (an EPA rating of 21 miles per gallon city/31 highway) for their output.

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My preferred engine is the four-cylinder, which is lamentably not available with the SH-AWD but arrives with Acura's excellent all-new eight-speed DCT.

My preferred engine is the four-cylinder, which is lamentably not available with the SH-AWD but arrives with Acura's excellent all-new eight-speed DCT. The entry-level model is a full 291 pounds lighter than its range-topping V6 sibling, and its lower mass and very eager DCT permit it to drive with a youthful and agile step despite being less powerful and understandably slower (the horsepower deficiency is most obvious at highway speeds, where a turbocharger would really help). And, as an expected benefit, the smaller engine delivers stronger fuel economy (EPA: 24 city and 35 highway).

All versions of the Acura ride on a MacPherson front and multi-link rear suspension. The steering rack is electrically assisted, and there are disc brakes at all four corners (single sliding-piston calipers). The architecture is all proper for a mid-size luxury sedan, but the TLX isn't afforded an opportunity to prove itself as a sport sedan. In an effort to reduce cabin noise, improve fuel economy and allow all models to be a true four-season sedans, Acura has fit each with all-season grand touring tires. Unfortunately, they are just 225-mm wide and that leave a lot to be desired (my pictured test car was fitted with Goodyear Eagle LS-2 rubber, but there were Bridgestone Potenza RE97AS tires on another). Push the sedan over six-tenths and the tires' tread blocks immediately protest. Push it further and understeer becomes its predominant handling trait.

But then something interesting happens – the TLX makes it around the corner.

All front-wheel drive models are equipped with Acura's Precision All-Wheel Steer (P-AWS) system, which uses its independent left and right rear-wheel toe angle control to turn the rear wheels in the same direction at high speed to improve stability, and in the opposite direction during low speeds to improve turn-in and stability (P-AWS also toes both wheels in during braking, to help settle the back end). The P-AWS system, working in conjunction with Vehicle Stability Assist (stability control) delicately guides the sedan around the radius.

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The all-wheel-drive model uses its SH-AWD system, aligning with the stability control system, to expertly distribute power and do similar tricks. From an outside observer's standpoint, the TLX plows and completely lacks finesse. However, the vehicle's operator always feels in complete control – the Acura's handling at the limit is stable, predictable and safe, and I never came close to dropping a wheel off the pavement.

Acura has engineered a much better sedan than its TSX and TL ever were.

After six-plus hours of effortless seat time in the Acura TLX, the sedan had won me over – but not for the expected reasons.

I'm a sport sedan guy, and given that primary motive, I'd likely choose the BMW 328i as this segment's most engaging, sportiest and fun-to-drive model – but option-for-option, it's significantly costlier to purchase and own, especially once BMW's free maintenance program expires. And besides, in the real world, people rarely drive above six-tenths. The reality is that most buyers in the segment are actually seeking an attractive vehicle with an accommodating cabin, comfortable ride, sporty-feeling yet predictable handling, a long equipment list, strong crash test scores, impeccable reliability, fuel economy and a price that doesn't break the bank.

By honing in on what people really need and excelling in each of those categories, Acura has engineered a much better sedan than its TSX and TL ever were – and it's finally in a position to offer a much better, more properly focused luxury sedan than most others in the segment. The TLX's biggest hurdle to success, then, is likely to be something a bit nebulous and beyond its control – Acura's image. Will enough buyers look beyond this car's crisp yet evolutionary styling to choose it over offerings from more prestigious brands? The TLX might be up to the challenge, but the real question is whether consumers are willing to give a deserving new Acura a chance.