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Acura ILX light on power, driver enthusiasm

Published: Saturday, Oct. 6, 2012 1:15 a.m. CST

(Continued from Page 2)

With summer barreling through the calendar faster than you can say "water wings," it's likely you have a family reunion looming on the horizon.

As friends and co-workers will tell you, there are generally a few minefields that are best to avoid at such potentially volatile family gatherings. These include the alarmingly yellow potato salad, political affiliations and showing up alone _ again.

Maybe bring Acura's all-new ILX instead.

Consider what this compact, almost-luxury sedan comes with: a handsome exterior and manageable price tag to make your parents proud. A button-worshiping and tech-heavy interior so your oily-faced nephew finally thinks you're cool. And a lack of space, power and aptitude for fun, lest your Uncle Larry think you're getting too glib for your britches.

There's nothing like a neutered, well-made, conspicuously moderate car to bring the family together.

The front-wheel drive ILX starts at $26,795 and is more or less a bedazzled version of the Honda Civic. Thus the two share a trio of engine choices. Acura expects a vast majority of buyers to choose the base 2.0-liter four-cylinder unit I spent most of my time in. Its displacement has been bumped up from 1.8 liters in the Civic and it now gives the ILX 150 horsepower and 140 pound-feet of torque.

As you may have guessed, 150 horsepower does not a quick car make. This ILX often felt underpowered, especially on the freeway. Acura does deserve some kudos for smoothing out the engine's character compared with the version in the Civic.

The only transmission available is a five-speed automatic, and it's capable but not extraordinary. (The lack of a sixth gear shows the perils of relying too heavily on an economy car for your foundation.) Paddle shifters are a nice touch. This engine is rated at 24 miles per gallon in the city and 35 on the highway. In 220 miles of testing, I averaged 24.5 mpg.

The ILX's driving dynamics were similarly competent yet unenthused. It's perfectly capable of getting you where you need to go without fuss, but don't look to it for a particularly engaging experience. This seems like a lost opportunity to introduce the Acura brand as a product that's fun to pilot. Wind noise is nicely isolated, but the ILX clatters over bumps and potholes like its humble cousin and not the luxury car it wants to be.

More power _ and fun _ is available in the form of the optional, 2.4-liter engine ripped right out of the Honda Civic Si. It gives you 201 horsepower and 170 pound-feet of torque and is paired with a six-speed manual transmission.

Although I wasn't able to sample this power plant in the ILX, I've driven it in the Civic Si, and it's a rev-happy joy-machine. One has to wonder why Acura didn't make it standard equipment on the ILX and skip the smaller engine altogether. After all, an ILX with the Premium package is $30,095, regardless of which of these two engines you choose.

Acura chalks it up to the smaller engine's (minor) advantage in gas mileage. Although that could be the case, it seems like Acura also didn't want the demi-luxury ILX to encroach on the territory of the larger TSX, which has that bigger engine as standard.

Finally, Acura offers the ILX with a hybrid powertrain, again from the Honda Civic. This $3,000 upgrade has 111 horsepower and 127 pound-feet of torque from a 1.5-liter engine and an electric motor. It's paired with a continually variable transmission and is estimated to get 39 mpg in the city and 38 on the highway.

Turning to the metal that's wrapped around these engines, Acura has done a great job of making the ILX safely handsome. Save for similar profiles that feature short trunk lids, you'd be hard pressed to see any resemblance of the lesser Honda in this Acura.

Thankfully, Acura also did away with the imprudent and garish metal grills of some of its other vehicles. Instead, the ILX is fitted with a much smaller chrome strip up front, which ties in well with a sleek and sporty visage that should appeal to a wide variety of buyers.

Inside, Acura has also nicely delineated the ILX from the Civic. The cabin is solidly bolted together and finished with a soft-touch dashboard. The seats are comfortable throughout, though in the rear they seemed to be more supportive than those up front.

The model I tested was the $32,295 ILX Tech, which adds options such as leather seats that are heated in the front, a navigation system with real-time traffic and weather updates, a 10-speaker sound system and a backup camera.

The systems worked well together, but the dashboard layout is plagued by a miasma of buttons orbiting around an enormous knob that serves as your primary controller. This made for a steep learning curve and a hunt-and-peck-style of finding the right button that made me feel like a toddler learning to type. A steering wheel equally festooned with buttons didn't help.

My only other quibble with the ILX interior was its tight visibility; this car felt small only when you were looking out of it. The A-pillar around the windshield seemed to cut into your sight lines when looking to the left and right, and a trio of headrests in the back seats cut into the already small rear window. Consider removing them entirely if your back-seat passengers are few.

You can choose a car, but you can't choose your family. As such, Acura's ILX excels at modesty. Its centrist compromises on horsepower and space are perfect for navigating the minefield that is a family gathering. Your ace in the hole is the fact that the ILX is assembled right here on U.S. soil, at Honda's Greensburg, Ind., plant.

That should get your sister-in-law to stop quietly judging you long enough to pass the watermelon. Now, who's hosting Thanksgiving?

 

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