2021 Acura TLX Review: A Beautiful Dancer That Can’t Throw a Punch
The new TLX still needs more excitement. Thankfully, the Type S is on the way.
Rolling along the highway, you'll notice the 2021 Acura TLX can steer itself quite well, brake for you with competence, and cruise down the interstate mostly on its own accord. Remove your hands from the wheel for a quick game of pat-a-cake with your passenger, and the car will alert you in a few seconds that driving is more important than baking a pretend cake. Acura, as a company, thinks so too. Above all else, the brand has pushed the new TLX as a car that's all about the driving experience, trying to claw back a brand image that has gradually drifted away from sporty and dynamic to reserved and kind of anonymous.
There's a lot to distract from that mission, though. So much, in fact, that I found it hard to find the car Acura wants everyone to see. The TLX, on the face of it, is good at so many things besides being a sports sedan that it's difficult for that part to really shine.
To that point, if all you want to hear is the Acura isn't quite as sharp as the new G20 BMW 3 Series, I'll tell you outright that it isn't. If you want the full picture, understand that judgment comes down to a few key areas—namely the four-cylinder engine and occasionally slow-shifting 10-speed transmission—while the rest of the new TLX remains an incredible value.
2021 Acura TLX 2.0T SH-AWD, By the Numbers
- Base Price (as Tested): $38,525 ($49,325)
- Powertrain: 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder | 10-speed automatic transmission | all-wheel-drive
- Horsepower: 272 at 6,500 rpm
- Torque: 280 pound-feet at 1,600-4,500 rpm
- EPA Fuel Economy: 22 city | 31 highway | 25 combined
- Curb Weight: 4,026 pounds
- Quick Take: A fantastic chassis that needs a more trustworthy drivetrain.
A New Tack for the TLX
The first thing you need to know is that it's no longer based on the Honda Accord as the previous generation was. That car was basically a nicer and slightly faster version of Honda's tried-and-true midsize sedan. Now, the TLX is on its own platform with a more sophisticated suspension, doing away with the all-too-common and conventional front struts in favor of superior double-wishbones. It also gets a de-tuned, 272 horsepower version of the Civic Type R's motor.
This car being tested isn't the sportiest version, though. There's a more aggressive "A-Spec" trim of this car that's available now—albeit with nearly all of the same parts—and a "Type S" model on its way, which is promising to be far more confident in terms of delivering smile-inducing driving dynamics. That car will have a 355-hp, turbocharged V6, adding another 83 horsepower and other driving-focused refinements to the mix.
Inside, Acura Steps It Up
But even without the sportiest trim level or 355 horses, you'll find the hood feels tremendously long from the driver's seat due to a cranked-up dash-to-axle ratio on the outside, and despite the car's low-slung, rear-wheel-drive appearance, it manages to have excellent visibility. The interior aesthetics are also some of the most unique in the industry, with a deep-set dashboard that makes the cockpit of the TLX's German competitors look flatter than Kansas.
There's plenty to explore on the inside besides the aforementioned lane-keep and radar cruise as well. Climate control is dual-zone and automatic of course, and the heat/ventilation function of the seats has an "auto" option. As far as I can tell, this does nothing. That being said, the seats are thankfully capable of getting a little too warm for comfort—staving off that never-quite-hot-enough shower feeling—and the powerful ventilation is easy to mistake for sweat evaporating on your back. The seats, in every sense, are great. The bolsters are adjustable, as is the lumbar support, and those plus other minor adjustments will display on the infotainment screen as you select them, leaving no guesswork when it comes to getting comfortable.
The rear seating is also comfortable, with heating optional. I found the back seat itself (I'm around 5' 10") to be somewhat lacking in leg and headroom, but the space is certainly adequate for children and shorter adults. It's the price you pay for suave looks, but it's money well spent.
In fact, the interior of this car is the part that really draws you in. It's quiet, everything feels solid and pleasant, and nothing—besides the one piece of glossy piano black right in the center of the dash—looks out of place. Really, that shiny black plastic should've just been the brushed aluminum material that surrounds the touchpad, but that's beside the point. The interior aesthetics of this car are excellent, even in tan.
While most automakers have embraced touchscreen controls for infotainment systems at this point—even Lexus has started going that way—Acura still believes in its trackpad. A few times I found myself just wanting to touch the dash-mounted display itself, however, this system is effective once you get used to it. The small touchpad utilizes absolute positioning, meaning it's proportionally linked to a location on the much larger 10.2" screen.
Pressing the top left of the touchpad, for instance, will select a menu item on the top left of the screen. There is no free-roaming cursor; selections just highlight themselves when your finger is in their vicinity and are activated with a physical click down. This system also allows you to trace out letters to spell things for the navigation, which can actually be done quickly and effectively, one letter right after another. It works objectively better than the trackpad Lexus was using for so long; it's nowhere near as frustrating as that system.
However, the nature of this system changes when you switch over to Android Auto or Apple CarPlay, both of which are compatible with this car. When you plug your device in, the touchpad suddenly works like a laptop with an invisible cursor, doing away with any "absolute positioning." It's frustrating to deal with this change, however, if you find yourself using either Android Auto or Carplay all the time, you won't be spending much time with Acura's infotainment anyway.
No matter what system you end up using, however, your music will sound at its best. As equipped, the 17-speaker, 710-watt system that comes with the $4,000 Technology Package was definitely above-average, with excellent bass, mid-range, and treble. If it's just you in the car, definitely balance it to only the front seats, it makes a difference and you'll enjoy it more.
The interior also shines—quite literally—at night. In conjunction with all the driver-assist features, the cabin's customizable accent illumination and cool white backlighting give it a first-class jet cockpit vibe on a darkened, empty road. Throw in the heated seats and steering wheel, and cold nights on the highway are something to look forward to.
2021 Acura TLX: The Drive
What is slightly less suave and airliner-esque is the TLX's engine. This car gets a more than adequate 272 horsepower from its turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder, which is plenty for merging on the highway and passing, but it sometimes has the timbre of a cheaper car, especially at lower RPM and on downshifts. It's more powerful than the previous generation's V6, but it's out of character with the rest of the vehicle.
However, the transmission it's tied to swaps gears just great around town, changing between its 10 speeds seamlessly in places where you would expect it to falter. It exists quietly in the background, doing its work without head-bobbing upshifts or controversial downshifts in normal low-speed driving. It's also good on the highway, shifting quickly and quietly almost all the time. It works well with the all-wheel-drive system also, which I found out on some patches of snowy roads. Like everything else, it's competent and you'd never know it was fighting slippery conditions as hard as it was. With the proper tires, I'm sure this car wouldn't break a sweat during the winter.
But let me pause here. If you enjoy getting behind the wheel for a spirited drive, keep reading. If not, know that the 2021 TLX is excellent pretty much all the time. I looked forward to driving it just because of how nice the cabin was, and how undramatic everything about the car turned out to be. To sum up the entire vehicle in one word, it's zen.
"Zen" doesn't set the stage for a performance masterstroke, however. At least, not without the promised Type S treatment. It pains me to say this about a car I otherwise liked so much, but this TLX's behavior as a sports sedan just doesn't cut it.
As it is with almost all other cars these days, the steering is electric. If you're intending to drive this car aggressively, leave it in Comfort mode as opposed to the other "Sport" or "Normal" modes. It lacks any meaningful connection to the road and the heavier settings are just more effort for near-zero reward. At one point I found myself less curious about the steering and more curious about whether a pile of roadside manure was just steaming or actually on fire. The steering only begins to come alive at high cornering speeds, and I wonder whether anyone who's in the market for this car—including myself, theoretically—would actually drive it like that often enough to appreciate it.
The engine, at least in this more-than 4,000 pound TLX, also comes up short. It often sounds brash, lacking the typical turbocharged snarl of other similar performance engines in this segment. On downshifts, it doesn't sound extremely pleased, either. It also feels very turbocharged sometimes, and other times feels decidedly naturally-aspirated, seeming to run out of steam pulling towards redline. The power is there and is adequate, but uninspiring. You get the sense that the upcoming Type S with 355 horsepower, 354 lb-ft of torque, and an additional two cylinders is really what's needed.
But the TLX is far from lackluster when driven in anger, thanks to a phenomenal suspension setup. It's stiff but never punishing, predictable, and it quite literally gets tiring to try and throw it a curveball. Slow corners, fast corners, tight and sweeping, this car acts exactly the same, even at the limit. It feels neutral, tightly sprung, and damped well. And there's honestly no perceptible difference between Sport and Comfort modes here. Both get the job done.
In fact, the chassis is so good that it casts a shadow on the rest of this car's underpinnings, especially the transmission. As I said, it's perfect—and I mean perfect—for everyday driving at low and high speeds, but even in its "Sport" setting it falls short in demanding situations. On corner exit and during mid-corner adjustments, it's slow and unpredictable, and if you decide to flick the throttle wide open, it will consistently take more than a second to kick down into a lower gear. It's slow enough to be beyond a nitpicky detail; it's often inconvenient in situations like highway merging or passing.
Also, the paddle shifters are nearly pointless most of the time—10 gears are just too many to keep track of when you're driving fast. There's also no indicator on the otherwise excellent heads-up display for your gear position, which would help you navigate the car's excessive number of ratios. It wouldn't have mattered if it had that, though, because the transmission will often deny you gear changes to the point where it's hopeless trying to fight it. It also won't hold you in gear even if you beg. Trust me, I did.
No, this car doesn't need a manual transmission. Back it up with the ZF eight-speed out of the new 3 Series and this car would be a much tighter package. And I know it's not that simple, Acura engineers. I know.
Ending on a note like this wouldn't be appropriate, however. This car is a sports sedan, just not the sort whose bail you'd pay—indeed, it would never end up behind bars in the first place. Despite its sanitized behavior though, the TLX is a vehicle I liked to be seen in and a genuine contender in the segment, especially considering the base price of $38,525.
But the upcoming Type S will likely be better to drive and be seen in. If you're looking to take on the serious sport sedans, that's the one you're likely going to want. This car is extremely competent and very comfortable, but it would never throw a punch when I wanted it to. It just seemed a little too cool to ever get that angry.
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