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2013 Acura ILX First Drive

Acura’s smallest luxury car keeps up with the kids, if not the Kardashians.

What It Is/Who It’s For
Young kids, college grads, and trendy urban dwellers looking to get a little luxury and technology for their personal transportation dollars.

Best Thing
Nimble and comfortable, a willing engine in the 2.4, and great mileage in the hybrid.

Worst Thing
Lots of road noise, costs almost as much as the roomier and better-driving TSX.

Snap Judgment
A decent little luxury runabout that steps on its big brother’s toes a little too much.


While at the press conference for the introduction of the 2013 Acura ILX, a great Saturday Night Live sketch from the mid-90s came to mind. Will Ferrell plays a marketing executive. “How do we attract kids?” says another character. “Hello?” replies Ferrell, “Teenagers? Pokemon? Cha-ching!”

A Few Photos of this Vehicle

Click thumbnails for detailed view

Laugh now, but the marketing onslaught towards today’s kids is alive and well. Because there’s a problem: Today’s young people just aren’t buying cars anymore. “Gen Y,” as they’re called—and yours truly falls square in the middle of this age group—doesn’t hold the same value on attaining a driver’s license. Therefore, they (we) don't value a new car as our baby boomer forebears did a generation ago. For carmakers, it’s like being told that nobody wants to play with them at recess. What’s a poor little multi-billion-dollar international car company to do?

Acura thinks it’s got the Gen Y demographic nailed down. During our 2013 Acura ILX preview presentation, its spokesmen touted Gen Y as being interested in “gourmet cooking,” “attending music festivals,” and “college sporting events.” We also, it turns out, love to wear hats. We flock to cities and proudly label ourselves as “urbanites,” where we live in overpriced lofts and take public transportation. We value looking good over going fast. We deserve rewards for all we’ve accomplished and compensation for our patience. In short, we’re a bunch of jerks, aren’t we? Likewise, Acura deems the near-premium ILX as a fitting reward for our efforts—and for those of us fortunate enough to hold down a job and a car payment, shouldn’t we have something to show for it?

Hence, the 2013 Acura ILX, Acura’s smallest vehicle. It's goal is twofold for the brand: 1) it's now the entry-level model for the brand, slotting under the TSX, and ostensibly filling in for the long-gone RSX coupe; and 2) it replaces the EL and CSX in Canada, which sold in droves in spite of being little more than shameless Acura grille swaps of the Honda Civic. In Acura’s world, the ILX is the “gateway to the brand,” the car that brings young people into the fold so they can graduate to a TSX, or a TL, or eventually—when they pop out a few kids and move to the suburbs—the MDX. On paper, the ILX seems to have what it takes to attract young folks: compact size; three distinct drivetrains; plenty of tech toys; and value-laden, mid-$20,000 pricing.

Walkaround

The 2013 Acura ILX is a strange car to visualize. It's wedgy up front, but not exactly forward-leaning. Its sculpted, upwards-rising flanks feel like they belong on a swoopier car, adding a lot of visual weight to the back. It's a warmer, softer Acura, that's for sure—no knife edges and "power plenum" beaks here—but its clean lines are handsome, if a bit amorphous. If kids want a Mustang, they'll get a Mustang.

The ILX will be offered with three distinct drivetrains: a 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine with 150 horsepower; a hybrid drivetrain with a 1.5-liter gasoline engine; and a 2.4-liter VTEC four with 201 horsepower, which is essentially the exact drivetrain lifted from the Civic Si. That last one is interesting. Think of it as a Civic Si in a nice suit. It will be the performance “halo” for the lineup, only available with a six-speed manual, and Acura expects just 5 percent of buyers to take it. However, you won't be able to get it with the Technology package; drivers of the rest of the ILX range can enjoy the navigation system and 10-speaker ELS digital sound system.

Sitting Down

The 2013 Acura ILX is shaped with a sleeker, lower roofline than the Civic, jutting right up against the Rogaine daubs of six-footers. It's also wider than the Civic by about 1.7-in. Overall, it's about the same size as the TSX, which means big payoffs for legroom, front and rear.

Acura knows that luxury is changing. It's no longer about copious amounts of fake wood (none of which can be found in the ILX), but about value for money. To that end, the ILX comes standard with Bluetooth connectivity, Pandora Radio, and text messaging capabilities as found on a wider array of new Hondas. The Technology Package's new navigation system boasts clearer graphics and faster responses, which were complaints we've had about previous Acuras. Finally, and mercifully, the new center stack—shared with the RDX—has been cleaned up and no longer requires a master's degree in computational complexity theory to navigate.

Acura designed the 2013 ILX to be functional, and a repository for all the nifty gadgets we like to play with. Hence, lots of bins: A USB port resides in a deep, padded compartment below the center stack, and an even deeper console hides an auxiliary plug and a 12-volt outlet. There’s even a real glovebox that’s 7.4 liters big, Acura proudly tells us. On all models except the hybrid, the rear seat folds down in one piece for long cargo items; hybrids have a fixed seatback thanks to the battery pack. Even without folding, the trunk can fit a full-size cooler, a golf bag or two, and according to our presentation, even a folding wheelchair. Is it for all the broken bones we get while performing extreme stunts? Or will Gen Y still find it in its collective heart to care for grandparents?

Driving

The theme of the ILX is "urban performance," going back to Gen Y's preference for overpriced downtown lofts, preferably near weekly farmer’s markets. For the ILX, it means a certain level of agility and low- to midrange power, because cars don't really get up to speed in Flatbush. We started our day driving the 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine, which produces 150 horsepower and 140 lb.-ft. of torque. Acceleration was adequate and responsive, but the entire experience wasn't without drama. This car is rather on the loud side, from the intrusive road noise that grumbles from the wheelwells to the engine that drones at speed and shouts under acceleration.

A Few Photos of this Vehicle

Click thumbnails for detailed view

The brakes on our 2.0 were firm and less mushy than the ones we experienced in the RDX. Unlike the Civic Si, the ILX is tuned for comfort, and the ride was compliant but never jarring. High tensile steel and a stiffer body than the Civic also do the ILX some favors. The steering was light at parking lot speeds and became more weighted on the highway, even though it lacks the directness of the BMW products that aspirational kids are inevitably drawn to. After lunch—at a faux ghost town-themed tourist trap named "Mining Camp," where we consumed barbeque ribs but not the blacklung—we drove the 1.5-liter hybrid model. The drivetrain is exactly the same as the Civic Hybrid's, but Acura tweaked the ECU to provide better acceleration and throttle response. Again, vital for Bushwick. The hybrid's steering felt lighter and less responsive than the 2.0-liter model's, presumably due to the extra weight of the batteries. Irritatingly, the hybrid’s brakes still feel harsh and artificial, with no way to gauge how quickly to come to a stop. It's typical for hybrids to have odd-feeling brakes, since the system also helps recharge the batteries. But a decade after car companies figured out how to cram two power sources into one car, they still can't figure out how to do make the brakes feel normal.

Acura brought along some five-speed TSX sedans as a counterpoint to the 2.4-liter ILX. Big mistake. The TSX felt much more confidence-inspiring and friendlier to drive at the limit. Even though the TSX is front-wheel drive, it handled wonderfully like a rear-drive machine, and reminded us why we loved it so much in the first place. The ILX, on the other hand, had to be constantly prodded into liveliness, feeling slightly duller by comparison. It’s puzzling that the larger TSX was a much more agile performer; the ILX is smaller and weighs less, but is just as powerful.

Summary

In the end, the ILX isn’t anything like Pokemon: you can’t catch them all. That final comparison between the ILX and TSX may very well be the smaller Acura’s Achilles heel. We found ourselves praising the small Acura in reserved doses, until we asked how much the TSXs we drove cost. The answer: $31,000, which is perilously close to the pricing of a loaded ILX. The 2.4 drives well, but at $29,200 it’s not compelling enough—when for $1,000 more you could have a roomier, sharper, and—dare we say it—better-looking TSX Special Edition. At a starting price of $25,900, the 2.0 is a solid, comfortable performer—a surprise to us, considering its entry-level status on an entry-level car. But at $28,900 the hybrid is expensive for what it is, and the money for the 2.4 is better spent upgrading to the TSX.

Is this praise for the TSX, or a damning of the ILX? Neither. Either way, Acura gets a youth conquest, and Gen Y gets its fair share of attention. Considering how egotistical and self-absorbed we can get—“I deserve it,” says Acura as one of our needs and wants—the ILX could be exactly what we need, and also what we can afford. Just don’t jam it with speakers, neon lights, photograph it in front of fake graffiti, or put that abhorrent Foster The People song on the iPod. The ILX deserves better than that—and evidently, so do we.

Basic Specs

2.0-liter four-cylinder, five-speed automatic transmission, front-wheel drive, 150-hp, $25,900, 24 mpg city/35 mpg hwy

2.4-liter four-cylinder, six-speed manual transmission, front-wheel drive, 201-hp, $29,200, 22 mpg city/31 mpg hwy

1.5-liter four-cylinder hybrid, continuously variable automatic transmission, front-wheel drive, 114-hp, $28,900, 39 mpg city/38 mpg hwy

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