Words: Calvin Chan
Photography: Calvin Chan
Published: May 16, 2021
Acura’s bread and butter sedan is here, revitalized from head-to-toe with new tech, sleek styling, and brand new engines. Compounded by the pressure to keep sporty, compact sedans relevant, the TLX is oozing with refinement, a heavy focus on performance, and a functional and well-connected interior. Let’s see if this new 2021 Acura TLX A-Spec has what it takes to bring the fight against the BMW 3 Series, Mercedes C-Class, Genesis G70, and Infiniti Q50.
First up, the looks. Compared to the previous model, the new TLX features a 94 mm longer wheelbase, a 56 mm wider body with wider front and rear tracks, and a 15 mm lower roof. It’s also one of the most sportiest looking Acuras in recent memory. The front end is incredibly distinctive, sporting their signature beak but with slimmer headlights and a creased hood that make its look less ornithological, and more bold and unique.
The rear end is slightly more anonymous, equipped with swollen tail lights that appear eerily like a Buick Encore. A-Spec models take aesthetics further with a black rear spoiler and bumper trim, darkened head- and tail-lights, 19-inch wheels, exclusive blue and red paints, full leather seats dressed up in red with contrast stitching, and an NSX-inspired flat-bottom steering wheel. Which leads us to the interior because this is where the TLX has made the biggest improvement.
Following the cabin design set forth by the RDX, the TLX is button-haven but functionality reigns supreme. It looks exactly like the MDX’s we recently tested but slightly narrower. Every dial and button feels well-placed and has a home. The TLX still makes use of analog dials as well, with a digital center screen that displays various information outputs and high-definition graphics. We love the speedo and tach, as it reminds us of an expensive watch face, and the readouts and fonts remain crisp and easy to read. It takes us back to a time where analog felt just right. Furthermore, the flat-bottomed steering wheel is one of the best, boasting perforated leather grips with all the high-frequency buttons and dials in all the right places. The paddle shifters feel plasticky and toy-like but with such lethargic shifts from the 10-speed automatic, we didn’t make much use of them anyways, but more on that later.
What we don’t miss is the infotainment unit. The outgoing TLX’s dual screen setup was clunky, limited in functions, and downright frustrating. This new 10.2-inch widescreen display is mated to a touchpad that works a lot like the one in Lexus models, adding a great deal of connectivity options. That being said, the learning curve is quite steep, especially when compared to BMW’s rotary dial or Audi’s strong haptic-feedback touchscreens. The more time we spend with it, the easier it gets, but it’s still not ideal - training your solo finger to conquer the job while both eyes are on the road is no easy task. The trackpad is also positioned on the driver’s side of the center console, and since the display isn’t touchscreen, that means if the passenger wants to tinker around with the navigation or car settings, they have to awkwardly reach over. Those wishing for a more familiar interface can just plug in their Apple or Android smartphone instead. On a side note, the 2021 Acura TLX still uses the old key fob design, unlike the 2022 MDX that receives the newer one with a sharper and sleeker shape.
Under the hood of the TLX is a 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder that produces 272 hp and 280 lb-ft of torque, sending it through a 10-speed automatic transmission coupled with Acura’s Super-Handling All-Wheel Drive (SH-AWD) system. This output falls in line with the rivaling Alfa Romeo Giulia Ti and BMW 330i, but thanks to little turbo lag and smartly tuned gears, the TLX does feel light on its feet. Power comes on smoothly and really begins to kick in around 3,500 rpm.
The exhaust is heavily muffled from the outside though, more so than other turbo-fours, and Acura pipes synthesized intake and exhaust noise into the cabin. In most cases, I’m okay with that, but the difference with the TLX’s actual exhaust noise and the cabin noise is night and day, and that irks me a little. That said, those wishing for more noise and performance will be glad to hear that the Type S is coming. Acura will equip the TLX Type S with their brand new 3.0-litre twin-turbo V6 that will produce 355 hp and 354 lb-ft, matched with all-wheel drive, adaptive dampers, 20-inch wheels, larger brakes, quad exhausts, and a unique aero kit.
The TLX feels more like a chassis car than an engine car. There is a new double wishbone suspension and out on the open road, we detect better road compliance and an improved sense of handling. It’s nicely dialed in, effectively soaking up bumps and remaining quite flat around corners without taxing occupants with a jarring ride. The TLX is also much stiffer than before, which adds to its sense of rigidity and comfort.
One of the standout features is its SH-AWD system. The TLX does not use a brake-based torque vectoring system like other cars, but uses real torque vectoring from the NSX, and it makes all the difference in transforming this heavy sedan into a proper dancing partner. With the help of a twin-clutch rear differential, the TLX is capable of shuffling power between the front and rear axles, as well as between the two rear wheels. Acura says the torque transfer is faster than before, and we can really feel it. You can lean into a corner at speed, add throttle unnaturally early, and watch as the systems send torque to the optimal wheel for incredible rearward rotation. We were almost caught off guard by how lively and eager it was. Shame that the TLX is still let down by a gearbox that is constantly unwilling to downshift. Even when switched to manual shifting, the transmission will always short shift from first to second, and automatically upshift the moment it hits the redline. Not very ‘manual’ is it? But we’re hoping that will change with the Type S.
The TLX offers five driving modes - Sport, Comfort, Normal, Snow, and Individual - all controlled via the aluminum dial that sits at the center of the dashboard. We love the upscale feedback the dial provides, and the sound effects and Japanese-inspired graphics that emerge, but the modes do little to sharpen its dynamic acuity. We are not very fond of the variable-ratio steering system, as it's quite numb and lacking feedback. The electro-servo brake-by-wire technology derived from the NSX sports car is better. Mounted with an electric brake booster, the pedal feels quite natural with firm and linear resistance, and doesn’t feel like a springboard like in the MDX.
The new TLX is engaging to drive with a wonderfully stiff chassis and clever torque vectoring system, though it’s not quite the complete package we wished it to be. We have high hopes that Acura saved their best for the upcoming Type S. But once you look past its meager gearbox tuning, muted exhaust, and head-scratching trackpad unit, there is still much to enjoy, from the wonderfully ergonomic interior, comfortable seats, road-trip worthy road compliance, and exciting new styling. The potential is there. We’re just waiting for Acura to make use of it.
Model: 2021 Acura TLX A-Spec
Paint Type: Performance Red Pearl
Base Price: $49,405
Price as Tested: $49,905
Length/Width/Height (mm): 4,924 / 1,909 (mirrors folded) / 1,432
Engine: 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder
Horsepower: 272 hp @ 6,500 rpm
Torque: 280 lb-ft @ 1,600 - 4,500 rpm
Transmission: 10-speed automatic
Engine & Drive Configuration: Front engine, AWD
Fuel Consumption ( City / Highway / Combined ) L/100km: 11.3 / 8.1 / 9.8
Observed Fuel Consumption (L/100km): 11.7