Relaxing and modest Acura TLX

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FIRST THE BAD NEWS: Last week Honda told US dealers to stop selling some versions of its 2015 Acura TLX sedan because of problems with the transmission.

Apparently 9,500 of the 2015 TLX had errors that could cause the 9-speed automatic to fail to properly shift into park. The gear shifter would indicate that the car was safely stopped and secure — when it wasn’t.

Poor timing. That problem came after Acura’s October announcement that it incorrectly recorded the gross vehicle and axle weights on the car’s safety labels. Not long after, the company’s president, along with all Japan-based executives, had to take a 20% pay cut for three months as punishment for recalls relating to Honda, according to an Acura spokesman.

Now, the good news: I drove the 2.4L 4-cylinder version of the TLX recently in New York and experienced no such problems. In fact I found the TLX perfectly inoffensive, even mildly entertaining. The US$30,995 (RM109,412) sedan is a capable if lesser-known option against other entry-level offerings from Infiniti, Lexus and Volvo. (Like Lexus to Toyota and Infiniti to Nissan, Acura is Honda’s luxury car brand.)

If, that is, you can get past those pesky recalls.

Bigger — and smaller — than predecessors

Acura introduced the TLX to replace the TSX and TL models. According to the brand, it was built by a team of Ohio-based engineers — several of whom owned multiple TLs and wanted to continue that tradition. (I didn’t realise the TL had a tradition, but I suppose that’s beside the point.) Anyway, the TLX has quickly become Acura’s best-selling model after the MDX SUV, even despite the recall, selling more than 15,000 units since its introduction this year.

The car is indeed wider and longer than the TSX and current ILX but more compact that the TL and RLX. Confused yet? I find it difficult to keep all of these letter combos straight, and I do this for a living. It’d be great if Acura applied some simplification to these monikers.

Faster and more efficient

I found the TLX relaxing and modest as I drove it around Manhattan; its interior trim materials and general look nicely equal its entry-level premium price and brand image. The car is surprisingly quiet, thanks to improvements like acoustic spray foam applied throughout, triple door seals, acoustic barrier panels and something called “active noise control”. It’s also noticeably stiffer to drive than its predecessors, which makes for responsive handling and braking. (I have read reports that the transmission can jerk momentarily under lower gears, but I did not experience this.) Options from BMW, Audi and Mercedes are quieter and drive better — try the BMW 3-Series or Audi A4 — but they are also more expensive.

Back to the TLX: Fuel efficiency is 24mpg in the city and 35mpg on the highway — respectably above average for a luxury car of that size. The car shifts 25% faster than the V6 TL and is 150 pounds lighter to boot — a strong combination that gives the general affect of a modern, fresh, new sedan. It was long overdue.

Overly attentive technology

Where this car really shines, though, is in its technological improvements. It starts with the Integrated Dynamics System, which has buttons on the centre console that move it to econ, normal, sport to sport-plus modes. Acura also gives us collision warning, adaptive cruise control, lane-departure warning, blind-spot information and the multi-view rear camera that is becoming de rigueur for any sedan these days hoping to compete in the luxury space.

I also noticed that the paddle-shifting on the TLX is sufficiently quick, though not anywhere near track-ready. The new standard four-wheel steering system well mitigates understeering, which is sometimes an unwelcome by-product to front-wheel drive, and it noticeably helps the car better balance around corners.

There are also some polarising extras. Polarising because it depends whether or not you like company. One time cruising down FDR Drive my afternoon reverie was startled by the voice of a polite lady asking me to “please fasten” my seat belt. Another time the lane-keeping assist bossily took effect: it uses a camera placed near the rear-view mirror which, if you steer the TLX outside of the lane without signalling, causes the steering wheel to gently tug you back toward the centre of the lane.

It felt a little intrusive. But I could easily hold course to where I wanted the car to go; it didn’t actually take control of the wheel.

Winningly nondescript

From the outside, the Acura TLX expertly advances the brand. The welcoming shape of its front end, from the (standard) slanted LED headlights and well-sculpted fenders to the upward slope of its discrete front grill, looks inviting and capable. It is well proportioned through the long side-body, with a nice piece carved out along the front and rear doors and a short rear end that finishes the look on a strong note.

On the inside, the car reminds me in a way of the BMW i8. It looks very futuristic. The centre console touchscreen is a little too flat for optimal viewing at speed, but the panel is clean and unfettered by too many distracting buttons. The steering wheel is wide and thin, and the digital gauges are covered by nicely sloped roofs jutting out from the dash. Everything is subtly swooped toward the back, like gentle sound waves falling aside the car as it surges forward.

Options and standards

Bluetooth and a USB connection — surprisingly absent in many high-end cars — are standard. So are the power moon roof and faux-leather heated sport seats. Voice recognition, navigation, traffic and Zagat reviews are optional, as are rain-sensing wipers and remote start.

The leather-wrapped shift knob, woodgrain steering wheel and all-weather floor mats make the car seem pleasant inside. It feels a little bare — and is not as tightly constructed as a German automobile — but it more than passes muster. This car is a good value.

And that, really, is the point. The TLX is neither as beautiful as a Mercedes nor as cool as an Audi. It doesn’t have the swagger of a Jaguar. But it is efficient and affordable, a decided improvement over its predecessors. It is the best car Acura makes.

Which, given those recalls, perhaps doesn’t count for as much as it should. But things can be fixed. And no accidents or injuries were reported. Myself included. — Bloomberg

This article first appeared in The Edge Financial Daily, on January 5, 2015.