First Drive: 2013 Acura ILX

When Acura introduced its 2013 ILX sedan at the 2012 Chicago Auto Show, we wondered why the company would add another small sedan, just under the TSX in size and price. We also wondered if the demand truly exists for a luxury car of this size and price, which was projected by Acura as "well under $30,000." (We published complete pricing information last night.) But I had wondered the same thing about the Buick Verano, and once I drove that model and saw the differences between it and the Chevrolet Cruze on which it's based, I couldn't deny its appeal.

To make a decision on the ILX, I'd have to drive it. Yesterday I did—all three variants: the 2.0L, 2.4L and 1.5L Hybrid.

Automakers get cagey when you start talking about shared platforms, especially between brands of disparate cost and reputation. Acura openly acknowledges that the new entry-level ILX shares its foundation with the recently redesigned Honda Civic, but also points out the mechanical differences between the two.

For one, the ILX is lower and about 1.5 inches wider than the Civic, and its torsional rigidity (the body's resistance to twisting) is greater, by 18% in front and 11% in rear. The ILX uses different shock absorbers, called amplitude reactive dampers, typically found in European luxury cars. The two-piston systems are said to provide a soft ride without sacrificing sharper bump absorption or cornering performance.

The ILX also has a faster steering ratio and upgraded hardware, such as a larger-diameter steering shaft, for improved feel. There's more noise abatement as well: thicker window glass, more insulation and active noise cancellation in models with 17-inch wheels, among other measures.

How does this all translate to the driving experience?

First I drove the 2.4, which is most like the Civic Si in that it has a 201-horsepower. 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine and comes only with a six-speed manual transmission. As expected, it's quick, though the torque peak of 170 pounds-feet doesn't give the car the urgency some drivers want off the line. The engine and exhaust sound pretty good, but it gets loud and intrusive as the revs climb to where you'll get the most out of it.

The manual is satisfying, once you get beyond the unreasonable expectations evoked by its shift lever. (The sight of that shifter always recalls the Honda S2000, but alas nothing has ever matched that car's rifle-bolt precision.) The gear ratios are well-matched to the cause.

Despite the special provisions, the steering feel is lacking. Torque steer is under control, though it seems to come with a stiffening of the steering wheel, which is perhaps a countermeasure enacted through the electric power steering.

Where the ILX 2.4 is most like the Civic Si is in the most disappointing way: body roll. This trim level has the same suspension tuning as the other models, and it simply needs more control over body lean. Without the confidence and roadholding that comes with competent body control, the 2.4's extra power is mostly wasted.

The ride quality is pretty good, though, exhibiting the road-surface awareness we expect from Acura—without undue punishment on one extreme or wallow on the other.

I also drove the ILX Hybrid, Acura's first, whose mileage (originally estimated at 35/38 mpg city/highway) is now an officially EPA-estimated 39/38 mpg. It's significantly lower than the Civic Hybrid, at 44/44 mpg.

Though the powertrain hardware is the same and the ILX Hybrid has a rear spoiler and low-rolling-resistance tires, the Acura doesn't make as many aerodynamic concessions. It's also about 100 pounds heavier and its hybrid system is tuned for greater responsiveness.

On the road, the hybrid doesn't exhibit too much of the delayed acceleration response we've come to tolerate in many hybrids—known as the rubber-band or motorboat effect—at least not when accelerating from a stop. There's more of it if you nail the gas once already in motion, but three drive modes let you trade mileage for responsiveness: The Econ button makes the car reticent to rev the engine, the Sport mode keeps the revs higher all the time and the normal Drive mode, as you'd expect, is right in between. Not a bad arrangement. If those don't work for you, you can use the steering-wheel paddles to select among seven fixed ratios for the continuously variable automatic transmission.

The ILX Hybrid isn't quick and the brakes have a dreadfully mushy pedal, but if you go into it with proper hybrid expectations (quirky acceleration and braking, not much liveliness or fun), it should satisfy you.

With a 2.0-liter four-cylinder rather than the Civic's 1.8-liter, the ILX 2.0 strikes a good balance, which is what Acura intended. It didn't feel demonstrably quicker than the Civic to me, though, perhaps because of the increased weight—about 145 pounds more than the automatic-equipped Civic EX. The five-speed automatic is well-behaved, providing smooth shifts and quicker kickdown when it's time to pass.

The ILX is definitely quieter than the Civic, though not exceptionally quiet, and if memory serves, not as serene as the Verano. Rather than a pitter-patter when traversing pavement cracks and tar patches, the tires emit more of a distant low-frequency drumbeat.

It goes without saying that the ILX's interior quality is better than the Civic's widely criticized cabin (which Honda has acknowledged). All of the test cars I drove had at least the Premium option package and thus perforated leather-and-vinyl seats, which are well-executed. The dashboard has low-gloss soft surfaces, and the center control panel has an interesting finish. Less impressive is the silver-gray trim elsewhere and the black plastic at the front of the armrests and around the door handles.

A little more consistency would help, as would some color, especially when the ILX is up against the Verano. With the exception of the optional ivory-colored seats and select surfaces in our 2.0 test car, this Acura is characteristically black and gray.

My day of driving ILXes ended with an interstate trip back to with the 2.0 for further evaluation, and the seats proved comfortable even after five hours of highway driving. Did Acura produce a better Civic? Of course. But is the $25,900 ILX better than the $22,585 Verano or other competitors? I'm skeptical, but I and the other editors will scrutinize this volume model and publish a full review in the near future.

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