2021 Acura TLX Type S Review: The Best-Handling Acura This Side of an NSX
The long-awaited TLX Type S shows Acura can still make a great sport sedan.
What you want to hear is this: the 2021 Acura TLX Type S recaptures that brief moment in our sliver of existence when Acura made light, impossibly engaging, premium cars that punched far above their weight. Elegant engineering and understated luxury. Polished but soulful performance. It is the rightful heir to the space in your mind currently occupied (I assume) by longings for a TL or RSX Type-S. Et cetera.
That'd make a great story, one so irresistible that you'll probably read some variation on it elsewhere. The truth is more complicated—though no less positive for Acura. The first thing to understand is that the TLX Type S is a really great sport sedan, the best-handling Acura this side of an NSX and an automatic contender with the likes of the Audi S4 and even rear-drive rigs such as the Cadillac CT5-V. The second thing to understand is that like the NSX, the heavier and more technical approach of the new Type S is enough of a departure from the past that effusive, nostalgia-tinged praise is likely to annoy true believers once they get behind the wheel.
I say this not to be a contrarian or a buzzkill or anything of the sort, but as someone who spent the first three years of the new NSX's existence parroting the same lines I heard everywhere—it's too complex! It's too heavy! It doesn't have a manual!—only to discover how utterly wrong I was once I drove it. If you were so compelled, you could spread out every review, tweet, comment or forum post ever written about that car between 2016 and today on a virtual table and witness a similar narrative shift on a macro scale. Excitement over having a new NSX quickly gave way to the interpretation that because this one isn't the same as the old one, it's flawed. Years passed before we started to realize, hey, this funky mid-engine hybrid is actually a stellar machine in its own right.
We don't have that kind of time with the 2021 TLX Type S. The moment that birthed the nameplate—it first popped up in America in 2000 on the TL Type S—is gone, replaced with one where it's increasingly hard for companies to justify building a new sedan from the ground up, giving it a performance version with extensive chassis upgrades and a bespoke motor, and holding it up as a statement of purpose. It's really a miracle the TLX Type S exists at all. And then it turns out this good? C'mon. You have to give it up for that.
2021 Acura TLX Type S, By the Numbers
- Base Price: $53,325
- Powertrain: 3.0-liter turbo V6 | 10-speed automatic transmission | all-wheel drive
- Horsepower: 355 @ 5,500 rpm
- Torque: 354 @ 1,400-5,000 rpm
- 0-60 MPH: 5.0 seconds
- Top Speed: 155 mph
- Curb Weight: 4,221 pounds
- EPA Fuel Economy: 19 mpg city | 25 highway | 21 combined
- Quick Take: Classic Acura values in a modern form.
We've got a whole explainer on the Type S name if you want the full history—Acura fans need not click—but the long and short of it is that Acura used the label in the mid-2000s for its higher-performance trims with genuine mechanical upgrades that stopped short of track rat status. Think along the lines of BMW M Sport models; more powerful engine tunes, upgraded gearboxes and limited-slip diffs, stiffened suspension, that sort of thing. The Acura Integra Type R is what commands the most attention from that era, and rightly so, but the Type S name developed its own dedicated following before it was discontinued in 2008.
Its return in 2021 was plainly telegraphed with the 2019 Type S concept, that low-slung vision in blue that took Monterey Car Week by storm and had us all crowing about Acura's planned performance comeback after a decade mostly in the wilderness. That concept materialized mostly unchanged as the 2021 Acura TLX sedan, whose rear-drive proportions, double-wishbone front suspension and rigid chassis seemed like a winning formula. But the end result wasn't quite there, let down in spirited driving situations by a sluggish powertrain and disconnected steering. Now, at last, we have the real deal.
The TLX Type S Upgrades
The Type S goodies start with the engine, a completely new 3.0-liter single-turbo V6 that puts out 355 horsepower and 354 pound-feet of torque. Though it does share a V angle (60 degrees) and bore spacing with the 3.5-liter V6 in the MDX, there's enough re-engineering at play here to justify the all-new label. It has its own aluminum block, a forged steel crankshaft, strengthened pistons, and critically, special low-profile DOHC cylinder heads that accommodate the TLX's low hood. The turbo's twin-scroll design generates 15.1 pounds of boost to help bring on peak torque at a surprisingly low rpm—just 1,400. It's also got active vibration-cancelling engine mounts, all-mechanical active exhaust settings, and even cylinder deactivation technology, which doesn't actually do much to improve overall fuel economy.
Acura says it threw a bunch of NSX and Civic Type R engineers at the new engine, and the result certainly shows some of that lineage. Impressive as it is though, the engine is just part of the picture—the real sin of the regular TLX is that unenthusiastic 10-speed transmission. Fortunately, Acura tore it apart for a similar amount of upgrades in the Type S. Everything from the torque converter to the cooling (there's now an external trans cooler) to the gear sets themselves has been strengthened and optimized to deliver a claimed 40 percent quicker downshifts with the paddles and 30 percent quicker upshifts.
The last piece of the powertrain puzzle is Acura's wonderful and wonderfully named Super Handling All-Wheel-Drive system, a twin-clutch torque vectoring system that can send up to 70 percent of the engine's power to the rear axles and shuffle 100 percent of that torque between either the left or right wheels as needed. It too has been tuned for its application in the Type S, in particular overdriving the rear axle by 2.9 percent to enhance the car's RWD characteristics in a corner.
Driving the Type S
These improvements alone would've made a pretty fun sedan, and possibly even one that'd be more in tune with the original Type S models—after all, the high point of the new TLX is its excellent chassis. Drop in the engine everyone wanted in the first place and you've got yourself an honest enthusiast special that doesn't presume to be anything more than a ridiculously competent daily driver. This is where things diverge for the 2021 Acura TLX Type S. The car's structural and suspension upgrades—not to mention its 4,200-pound curb weight and the ceaseless march of technology over the last decade-plus—make it a different animal today.
To run through the basics, new chassis bracing makes the Type S 13 percent more rigid than the regular TLX. Its front suspension is 40 percent stiffer to better take advantage of those double wishbones, with thicker stabilizer bars front and rear along with active dampers at all four corners. Handling is further altered with a re-geared power steering rack to increase responsiveness. Critically, the excellent electro servo brake system from the NSX, also found hiding on the base TLX and doing its best impression of a conventional system, is reworked here to actually feel and perform like the special piece of kit that it is.
Around town, most of that is unapparent in the best way possible. It's absolutely not a car that punishes you, or even makes you mildly uncomfortable—the steering is a little quick but nice and direct, the power is immediate and plentiful, and even in Sport+ mode (one of four) the adaptive dampers don't get anywhere near the punishing stiffness of a jacked performance car. The 10-speed is fast with its business when left alone, but now changes gears quickly enough to make using the paddles a worthwhile time even on a normal drive. The Type S' increase in power and resulting poise is the biggest tangible difference compared to the normal TLX behind the wheel in normal driving situations, but there's also an undeniable tautness to the car that makes it feel inherently more capable.
Which is a good thing, because it also feels every inch of its 75.2-inch width, and then some. Though it's technically a midsize sedan, that figure is a full three inches wider than a BMW 3 Series and on par with an Audi A7. The dashboard design inside also accentuates the width, and as a result the TLX Type S drives like a pretty big car. Like the NSX, the interior also has a cocoon-type quality to it—not in terms of visibility, but in the slightly-detached feeling the TLX's excellent build quality and purposefully polite manners can create at lower speeds.
But pick up your speed—say, a few hot laps around Laguna Seca, as Acura arranged to show off the Type S' abilities—and there's a lot to like here. The low-end responsiveness of that turbo setup is immediately noticeable, as is the way that SH-AWD setup promotes throttle steer in a fast turn; it's incredibly easy to coax a little rotation out of it. Though you've got 10 speeds and the engine redlines below 6,500 rpm, I never felt like I was running out of room bouncing between third and fifth gear on the track, and once again the newly fast shifts were much appreciated. It's not a stretch to say the gearbox approached dual-clutch speeds a few times when I really laid into it. Overall handling? Superb through the famed corkscrew, and not just for a front-wheel-drive-based car. The optional 255/35R20 Pirelli summer tires definitely help there, however.
What impressed the most are the brakes. Again, this is a big, heavy car at 4,200 pounds, and one that's not really built for track days either. Yet whipping it around Laguna for multiple laps at a time, I noticed absolutely zero fade or other issues with those NSX-sourced servo brakes, and in fact fell more in love with them with each passing lap. If you can get over the brake-by-wire trust issues, which I do understand, they're a delight to use and utterly confidence inspiring. The firm pedal is entirely predictable and fun to modulate; I also like playing with it at a stop with the windows down to hear the servos go brrr.
Speaking of weight, the one thing I didn't really notice on track were the optional lightweight wheels that save 21 pounds of unsprung weight. That's a decent amount in the realm of high-end performance cars, but for something that already clocks in north of two tons, it's hard to suss out the benefits from behind the wheel.
Type S Grows Up
Inside, the Type S is the same TLX, just with some nicer touches like a flat-bottomed steering wheel, metal trim, Milano leather seats, a standard 17-speaker ELS Studio 3D premium audio system, customizable LED accent lightning, heated and ventilated seats, and Acura's driver-assistance safety suite that includes radar cruise control. Though it's admittedly more feature packed and a bit louder overall than what was found in the Type S cars of the past, I think it fits a 2021 vision of subtle luxury quite nicely.
Combine that with its thoroughly updated driving dynamics and you arrive back at the point I made at the outset. The 2021 TLX Type S may be going about its business a bit differently, but it's still doing exactly what its predecessors did—standing out as a competent and comfortable performance car, one that you wouldn't think twice about daily driving or taking the scenic route home. It's a real achievement for Acura, especially when you consider how lost the company seemed in the early 2010s. Not to mention how blah the previous-gen 2020 Acura TLX was.
It's typically reductive and pointless to judge automaker efforts based our nostalgia for their past. More than most others, Acura makes nostalgia its business; its whole current turnaround is predicated on reminding 30-50 year olds that yes, it IS still the Acura we remember from our youths. That does seem to be the case here—even if Type S had to grow up a bit, too.
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