Superlative SEDAN

BY Paul Choi. Jun 24 04:00 am

Buyers in the entry-level luxury sedan segment are spoiled by choice. In this crowded field, there are no fewer than seven quality sedans vying for your wallet: the gold-standard BMW 3 Series, the venerable Audi A4, Lexus’s IS lineup, the stylish Infiniti Q50, the Cadillac ATS and the Mercedes C-Class.

And then there’s Acura. Diminished in recent years but not forgotten, Honda’s luxury nameplate is attempting a comeback, and the new TLX, a surprising sedan in more ways than one, is leading the charge.

Introduced in 2014, the mid-size TLX replaced its predecessors, the TL and TSX sedans, in one fell swoop.

As a response to the previous TL’s bulky and angular proportions, this new sedan is more compact, and the front end has been reworked to feature Acura’s Jewel Eye LED headlights and a less bird-nosed shield treatment, a response to the TL’s much-criticized beak grille.

The result is a handsome sedan that doesn’t offend but is admittedly a little plain compared to some of the other cars in this segment. The front fascia lacks a certain presence, and the omission of visible exhaust tips (they’re tucked under the rear bumper) is a big misstep for what is supposed to be a sports sedan.

But, looks aside, it’s the driving experience that really counts, and here the TLX excels with a comfortable, luxurious ride.

The base front-wheel-drive trim starts at $35,490 (all figures before freight and PDI) and comes with a 2.4-litre, four-cylinder engine that makes 206 horsepower and 182 pound-feet of torque. That engine is mated to an eight-speed dual-clutch transmission. This engine/transmission combo is offered in the base and Tech trims. Also available is a 3.5-L V6 mill that makes a more robust 290 hp and 267 lb.-ft. of torque, mated to a nine-speed automatic. This combo is offered in the TLX’s three AWD trims, including our tester, which carries a price tag of $47,990.

This mill provides the bang you’d expect in a luxury sports sedan, and it makes highway passing and on-ramp acceleration effortless. Zero to 100 km/h is achieved in just under six seconds. Throttle response is quick, and power is delivered in a linear fashion, thanks to the ZF-designed nine-speed automatic transmission. Two gripes about the transmission, though: it’s about a second slow to respond to downshifts when using the steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters, and it has a tendency to hunt for the right gear when driving at low speeds. The Honda-designed eight-speed DCT is, by all accounts, a touch smoother in those areas.

Acura’s Integrated Dynamics System (IDS) offers four modes — Economy, Normal, Sport, and Sport+ — to tailor the car’s driving characteristics.

The full-time, front-biased AWD system (up to 70 per cent of torque can be sent to the rear wheels when needed) makes for a composed, confident ride, with little understeer when navigating sharp turns. The suspension is also a good balance between comfort and sport but lacks the taut, road-connected feel of BMW’s sportier 3 Series. Steering is on the light and effortless side, with little feedback, regardless of driving mode.

The TLX isn’t quite as sporty as some of its rear-wheel-driven rivals, but it is a surprisingly comfortable highway cruiser. The cabin is library-quiet thanks to the car’s use of active noise cancellation, triple door seals and acoustic spray foam in the body. All this makes the TLX miles more refined than a top-line Honda Accord, its mainstream counterpart.

What doesn’t work as well, though, is the TLX’s dual-screen infotainment system. In an effort to reduce button clutter, Acura moved many functions, including climate control, to the seven-inch touch-screen display. Adjusting the fan speed and tuning the radio on this touch screen, which can be hard to see under direct sunlight, is a distracting nuisance that could have been avoided with physical buttons.

Using the navigation screen up top isn’t any easier. It requires the use of an awkwardly placed control knob, and there are several screens to plow through just to set a destination. All of this makes the absence of Apple CarPlay and Android Auto all the more glaring. And for a car with so much tech, there’s only one USB port for charging.

On the plus side, the TLX’s active safety features in this trim work as advertised. The blind-spot monitor flashes without being intrusive, the lane-keep assist guides the car back into line and the adaptive cruise control keeps a set distance (you can set how much buffer room you want) between you and the car in front.

As a comeback attempt, the TLX is solid evidence Acura is making a major push to be relevant again in this segment. It’s refined, possesses athletic qualities and features loads of tech, even in base trim. There’s good value to be had as well, with the SH-AWD TLX ($40,490) priced $3,500 below the previous SH-AWD TL and the top-line Elite trim offering more power and features than a similarly priced BMW 328i (241 hp and 258 lb.-ft.) or Audi A4 (252 hp and 271 lb.-ft.).

Styling remains the X factor that continues to elude Acura. While the brand has made strides, the TLX still lacks that “gotta have it” quality in its looks. Nevertheless, the TLX offers as close to a total luxury package as you’ll find in the entry-level segment. It should definitely be in the mix if you’re in the market.

— Postmedia Network Inc. 2016