2021 Acura TLX A-Spec: Is Acura Back In The Sport Sedan Game?
New looks inside and out, while targeting a sportier audience, this sedan makes you rethink Acura.
Acura used to nail the sweet spot between sporty and luxurious on the more attainable end of the luxury car market. Between 2003 and 2008, I felt that Acura offered some of the best looking affordable luxury sedans, but that trend quickly departed with the arrival of a polarizing styling language and an identity crisis. With a solid decade of crossover sales far outperforming its sedan offerings, the Japanese marque has been refreshing its entire lineup over the past two years while reviving its sedan offerings.
Early generations of TL were cool, sharp looking, fun to drive, and accomplished plenty for a reasonable price. As the TLX came into play, the car got bigger, heavier, and pricier. Competing against the BMW 3 Series, Audi A4, Genesis G70, and Mercedes-Benz C Class, Acura needed to inject some performance back into its sedan top-selling four-door. The all-new 2021 TLX flexes sharper lines, stronger proportions, more power under the hood, and finer appointments throughout its cabin. Can it hang with the field?
The Key Numbers And Updates
Employing the trusty K-Series 2.0-liter turbo engine, the Acura TLX has 272 horsepower and 280 lb-ft of torque, which is a massive 66 horsepower jump over the 2020 model's four-cylinder, and a bit more than its rivals' standard four bangers. The 2021 TLX comes standard with front-wheel-drive (with all-wheel-drive optional), and a 10-speed automatic is the only transmission offered at this time.
Measuring 194 inches long, 75 wide, 56 tall, and sporting a 113-inch wheelbase, the overall dimensions of the 2021 TLX aren't much bigger than its 2020 offering, but the wheelbase jumped a healthy four inches, and the track got wider, targeting better handling capabilities. That growth helped the TLX pack on 160 pounds, now flexing a curb weight of 3,920 in all-wheel-drive form. While the new TLX is about the same size as the others in class, it is a couple hundred pounds heavier than its nearest rival. Despite having a small turbocharged engine, the 2021 Acura TLX gets fewer miles per gallon than its competition, with EPA estimates of 21/29/24 (city/highway/combined).
Pricing is made easy by Acura, with simple option packages to incorporate many features, and a choice between front- and Super Handling All-Wheel-Drive. Base price for the 2021 TLX starts at $37,500, and SH-AWD will cost you $2,000 more. As tested, my Platinum White Pearl A-Spec model also ticked the tech package option box, and rang up at a total of $47,775.
The Stylish Commuter
Acura has gotten its design language sorted out, and in my opinion the 2021 TLX is the best looking sedan the company has produced. Overhangs are shortened, the track is wider, and the dash-to-axle ratio is much more effective. It's not much bigger than the 2020 model it replaces, but this new TLX looks sportier and wider. I was pleasantly surprised that the TLX got plenty of second looks and nods of approval during my test week.
Opting for the A-Spec package adds black trim outside, more stylish gray wheels, and a red interior that you'll either love or hate, which I happen to adore. The cabin also gets a bunch of racier appointments, heated and ventilated seats, Acura's ELS Studio 3D audio system, and wireless mobile phone charging, and I think it's a must-have option.
Immediately apparent are Acura's revisions to the suspension and spacing between the wheels. Bumps are easily absorbed by the double-wishbone front and multilink rear suspension while providing great feedback, turn-in is light yet crisp through the electric steering, and the four-cylinder turbo delivers smooth torque. Ride quality is softer than I anticipated, but that's not a gripe.
Acura provided plenty of usable spots to store your various items. Cupholders won't be a nuisance if in use, the wireless charging pad is out of the way, and the center console has plenty of room for hand sanitizer, extra masks, and snacks. Hauling your friends around is a bit cramped in the back, as Acura gave front occupants better cabin space, but kids will be fine, and trunk space is good for a sedan of this size.
Upgrades Aplenty Inside
Acura's new cockpit layout is definitely stylish, but it's also intuitive. Physical buttons are right where you'd expect them, and nothing requires you to reach too far. You'll have to adjust to the transmission shift buttons if you've not been in a Honda or Acura built in the past few years, but the design keeps things tidy on the center stack. The TLX gets a new touch pad-controlled infotainment screen that's like nothing else I've tested, but once you've quickly learned its behaviors, it's impressive. Using absolute positioning, your finger's placement on the trackpad--which I'd like to be a little bigger--is where you're hovering on the display. Want to use an app at the top right of the display? Just place your finger there on the pad.
Part of this approach is to allow the driver to employ muscle memory once they've customized placement of Acura's infotainment functions and favorites like they would by grabbing and dragging apps on a mobile phone home screen. This is something other relative positioning and cursor-based infotainment systems don't allow you to do. I didn't make use of it, but Acura also introduced a natural language voice setup to its navigation system to allow drivers to make simple commands like "take me to the nearest gas station" or "I need to find..." which are more casual than learning a system's language. Acura's ELS Studio 3D audio system is fantastic, and if you're listening to any 5.1 audio, you'll be treated to proper surround sound.
I love the A-Spec package's black headliner, thick-rimmed flat bottom steering wheel (with red contrast stitching) swiped from the NSX, and the mix of leather and Alcantara on the seats. Acura effectively nailed a sporty theme in the TLX, but there is a bit more plastic placed on the center console and door card than I'd love in a car that's inching toward $50,000. The TLX's instrument cluster contains a pair of brushed silver dials with red needles and numbering that fit the performance theme, but in an era when digital displays with loads of customization are common, the speedometer and tachometer look like they were borrowed from a 2006 Acura RSX. At least the center display of the cluster has a good digital display with plenty of data points easily available.
Decent On Fun Routes
If Acura is going to jump back into the sport sedan conversation, the TLX has to perform on fun roads, and for 2021, it's not bad at this. Switch into the sport dynamic mode, and the steering feel gains positive weight, dampers firm up nicely, and the engine revs more freely. Because of smoother suspension tuning, it's easy to accidentally carry more speed toward a bend, but thankfully the rear diff can help you shove your way through, while coping with a hint of understeer.
By no means is it potent, but the four-cylinder gives good mid-range torque, and it helps the TLX carry momentum nicely. The turbo does mute the high-revving VTEC noises of Acuras past, and I miss that screaming mechanical sound. Ten is a few too many gears for my liking, as the automatic wants to switch up and down too often, but make use of the paddles and control your own shifts to have the most fun in the TLX.
You're able to personalize an individual drive mode, but the sport mode is sufficient for tackling twisty routes. While not too firm, the suspension responds nicely, and the active inputs from the rear wheels help you better rotate through a corner. If you care at all about carving corners, Acura's SH-AWD is a must. Brake performance is confident enough for a quick stint on your favorite back road, but don't try to track the TLX.
Acura offers an adaptive suspension for the TLX, but only if you opt for the Advance Package that tosses out the cool red seats while upgrading some interior appointments. I wish that suspension was part of the A-Spec's performance-focused setup in addition to grippier rubber, as the standard all-season tires are definitely hampering the TLX's ability to be fun.
Ticks Plenty Of Sporty Sedan Boxes
Up against more commonly selected German options, the 2021 Acura TLX is a good sport sedan. It added plenty of power to its turbocharged four-cylinder engine, sharpened its handling characteristics, and received meaningful styling upgrades inside and out. By no means is it a proper performance sedan, but it's definitely worthy of consideration versus the Audi A4, BMW 3 Series, and Mercedes-Benz C Class.
Acura recently announced the return of its Type-S designation, with the TLX Type-S coming to showrooms in the Spring of 2021, so you'll have to wait a little while longer for an all-new 355 horsepower twin-turbo V6 paired with an adaptive suspension, stickier tires, better brakes, and a bigger price tag. My driving skills are above average, as are my power expectations, so I'd probably wait for the Type-S. Most buyers will opt for the punchy four-cylinder, and should be happy with its performance.