When Acura introduced the TLX for the 2015 model year, American Honda Motor's luxury brand replaced both the TSX and TL by mashing them together. The resulting TLX offered a 4-cylinder or a V-6 engine and front-wheel or all-wheel drive (AWD) packaged in a sedan that was larger than most compacts but smaller than most midsize models.
Positioned as a luxury performance sedan, priced to provide perceived value, and charged with being everything to everyone, the TLX represented a clear upgrade from a Honda Accord in terms of quality but struggled to match direct competitors in terms of design, performance, and cachet.
After initial interest by the Acura faithful was satisfied, leasing kept the TLX attractive to people seeking a path to luxury car ownership-and still does to this day. As this review is written, you can lease one for about $340 per month (plus tax) with nothing out of pocket at lease signing. Of course, the attractive lease deals are for the basic model with a 4-cylinder engine.
For this review, our expert evaluated a 2017 TLX equipped with a V-6 engine, AWD, and the Advance option package. The price came to $45,740, including the $940 destination charge.
Before we discuss the results of our evaluation of the Acura TLX, it is helpful to understand who buys this car and what they like most and least about it.
According to J.D. Power research data, 65% of TLX buyers are men, matching the average for the Compact Premium Car segment. They are slightly older than average (58 years of age vs. 56), and they're making less money than average, with a median annual household income of $128,676 (vs. $143,641).
Perhaps reflective of that lower household income number, 16% of TLX buyers identify themselves as price buyers, compared with 11% for the Compact Premium Car segment. Continuing along similar lines, 92% of TLX buyers avoid vehicles that they think have high maintenance costs (compared with 81%), and 63% strongly agree that their first consideration in choosing a vehicle is reliability (vs. 56%). Clearly, TLX buyers are seeking value.
Fewer TLX buyers consider themselves performance buyers (39% vs. 42%), and just 53% of TLX buyers strongly agree that they like a vehicle offering responsive handling and strong acceleration (compared with 61%). Only 60% of TLX buyers agree that friends and family think of them as someone who knows a great deal about autos (vs. 65%). Given Acura's marketing of the TLX as a "performance luxury sedan," perhaps these sentiments reflect a disconnect between the company and TLX buyers.
According to J.D. Power data, Acura TLX buyers are also less likely to pay more for a vehicle that is environmentally friendly (49% vs. 56%). Also, just 80% agree that they like a vehicle that stands out from the crowd, compared with 86%.
Buyers say their favorite things about the TLX are (in descending order) the driving dynamics, interior design and seats (in a tie), exterior styling, and visibility and safety. Buyers indicate their least favorite things about the TLX are (in descending order) the engine/transmission, storage and space, climate control system, infotainment system, and fuel economy.
In the sections that follow, our expert provides his own assessment of how the 2017 Acura TLX performs in each of the 10 categories that comprise the J.D. Power 2016 U.S. Automotive Performance, Execution and Layout (APEAL) Study.SM
Perhaps reflexively, Acura elected to give the TLX a conservative design after consumers rejected the angular and interesting previous-generation TL. While understandable, the result is a rather plain sedan overly reliant on its shiny grille and LED headlamp array to convey personality.
This lack of visual pizzazz, combined with an oddly penned side character line and rear quarter windows integrated into the rear doors, makes the car look smaller and less expensive than it is. Furthermore, it doesn't help that lower-priced Honda models have, as of late, adopted Acura styling themes.
Inside, similarities with Honda products continue, from the switchgear to the infotainment displays. Acura adds a layer of refinement to everything, employing higher-quality materials and executing the TLX's cabin with extra attention to upscale detail, but this car's lineage is obvious.
Comfortable front seats are positioned somewhat low in the TLX, giving the car a sportier feel from behind the wheel but also making it a little harder to get into and out of. Nevertheless, these are comfortable chairs, equipped with heating and ventilation in the TLX Advance.
Adults have no trouble fitting into the rear seat, mainly because all contact points are padded for extra comfort. Remember, the TLX splits the difference between traditional small and midsize luxury sedan segments, and that's reflected in rear-seat room. Note that Acura doesn't offer heated rear seats in the TLX.
Climate Control System
Acura's dashboard layout splits the climate controls between buttons, rocker switches, and touch-sensitive controls located on the bottom portion of the lower infotainment screen. Yes, this is as confusing as it sounds, but only if you're trying to do something other than adjust the dual-zone climate system's temperature.
At some point in the past, on a whiteboard somewhere within Acura's headquarters, the TLX's dashboard design made sense to someone. It doesn't make much sense to me.
There are two display screens to consult. One is touch-sensitive; one is not. One is used to display the navigation map or the music currently playing, while the other one is used for stereo functions and secondary climate functions. One uses standard dashboard buttons and a giant knob, while the other one employs touch-sensitive buttons and a tiny knob.
I'm going to be honest, Acura. I like big buttons and I cannot lie.
Acura knows this setup is less than ideal and has taken measures to rectify the situation. To wit, the company unveiled its Acura Precision Cockpit at the 2016 Los Angeles Auto Show, a look into the future of the company's approach to interiors.
Beyond these shortcomings, Acura's infotainment offering simply isn't robust. The TLX is not offered with smartphone-projection technology, also known as Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. You cannot subscribe to service that transforms the car into a Wi-Fi hotspot, and AcuraLink services do not supply safe teen driver technologies related to speed, curfew, and boundary alerts, let alone detailed parental driving reports.
From its design and interface to the depth and breadth of its offerings, the Acura TLX's infotainment system falls short.
Storage and Space
Thanks to an elegantly covered storage bin forward of the transmission controls and cupholders, Acura provides all of the space modern drivers require for the items that tend to accompany every trip, such as a smartphone, keys, sunglasses case, and more. Additionally, the car supplies large door panel bins and a sizable center console bin. You can even use the shelf under the top display screen to hold items, though they will block the view of the information shown there.
Trunk size depends on the version of the TLX you select. The Advance trim has a storage compartment under the trunk floor, bringing cargo space to 14.3 cu. ft. The measurement without the compartment is just 13.2 cu. ft. Neither number is particularly generous.
Visibility and Safety
Because the driver sits low in the TLX, visibility seems compromised, and not just because of the tapered rear side glass and tall rear deck. Thin windshield pillars and large side mirrors help, as do the car's excellent multi-angle reversing camera and available blind-spot monitoring system.
Acura offers a long list of driver-assistance and collision-avoidance technologies within the Technology and Advance option packages, and the company claims that the TLX is built around the company's next-generation Advanced Compatibility Engineering (ACE) body structure. AcuraLink also provides automatic collision notification for owners who pay for the service.
Owners had better hope those technologies work, because the TLX earns a "Marginal" rating in the small overlap frontal impact crash-test conducted by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS). Given the TLX's relatively young age and its "next-generation" ACE body structure, this IIHS result is tough to understand.
The TLX test car had Acura's excellent 3.5-liter V-6 engine and Super Handling All-Wheel Drive system, which features torque vectoring and can deliver a majority of power to a single rear wheel. A 9-speed automatic transmission is standard with the V-6 engine and operated using a combination of buttons and switches located on the center console. Acura also supplies an Integrated Dynamics System (IDS) with four different driving modes.
With 290 horsepower at 6,200 rpm and 267 lb.-ft. of torque at 4,500 rpm, the TLX is capable of lively acceleration. The trick is to use the IDS to engage the Sport driving mode, which helps to resolve the 9-speed automatic transmission's occasionally sluggish response to requests for more power. Paddle shifters give the driver added control over gear changes. There is a Sport+ driving mode, too, but it is more appropriate for driving on a track than a public road.
In combined driving, the Acura TLX SH-AWD is rated to get 25 mpg according to the EPA. The test car returned 22.2 mpg, falling short of the expected target. Given that TLX buyers rank fuel economy as their least favorite thing about the TLX, my experience appears to be a common one.
For a vehicle touted to be a performance sedan, the TLX delivers an unexpectedly soft and compliant ride quality, prematurely squishy tire grip, sublime but spiritless steering, and beautifully calibrated brakes that suffer fade when the car is driven hard on hot days. Combined with the transmission's lethargy in Normal IDS mode, I have trouble characterizing the TLX as a sport sedan.
Apparently, TLX buyers do not agree with my assessment of the car's driving dynamics, as they collectively cite the way this car accelerates, handles, and stops as their favorite thing about it. Certainly, there is palpable enjoyment to be derived from a properly set-up TLX, perhaps equipped with its optional 19-in. wheels and summer tires, but compared with other models in this segment that actually are performance luxury sedans, this Acura comes up short.
Acura is just beginning its reinvention process. The long-gestating NSX sports car is finally in showrooms, and the company has revealed appealing concepts that show clear hints about what is in store for the automaker's future products.
In the meantime, the company is eager to put a TLX into an aspirational driver's hands. J.D. Power data shows that the intended buyer is not the person actually buying the car. In reality, TLX buyers are looking mainly for value, and getting a good deal on a car that is unlikely to break.
Clearly, though, Acura wants to be shopped for something more than a low lease payment. That is likely to begin happening with an expected TLX refresh for 2018.
Read more on J.D. Power.