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2021 Acura TLX first drive review: Sharper image

Its striking design will make you look twice, but Acura's new TLX is more than just a pretty face.

2021 Acura TLX
The TLX is one of Acura's best recent designs. 

You can't talk about the 2021 Acura TLX without first mentioning its design -- at least, that's been my experience. Everyone I know is gaga over this thing, and with good reason. Low, wide, sporty and sleek, the new TLX really grabs your attention.

It's more than just a pretty face, too; the TLX is brand-spankin'-new from the ground up. And with its strong turbo power, long list of standard tech and comfortable, confident road manners, Acura's swanky compact sedan deserves much more than just a double-take.

Fashion forward

The 2021 TLX traces its design roots back to Acura's Precision Concept from 2016, but it's more or less the 2019 Type S Concept come to life. I've been over the details a million times, but they never get old. From the fastback profile to the slim headlamps to that hunkered-down stance, this new TLX is my favorite Acura design of the past... uh... really long time (yes, even including the NSX).

The TLX measures 3 inches longer, 2 inches wider and half an inch lower than its predecessor, which now just looks bulky by comparison. Acura's sedan is larger than key competitors like the Audi A4, BMW 3 Series and Mercedes-Benz C-Class, and I genuinely think it looks better than all three. There's a Stinger-like vibe to the silhouette, and that's not a bad thing, though Kia does get bonus points for its car's hatchback versatility.

The model seen here is a TLX A-Spec, which comes with 19-inch wheels as well as a few black exterior trim bits. The base TLX rides on 18-inch wheels while 20s are reserved for the upcoming Type S, which I'll get to in a minute. LED headlights and taillights are standard across the board, and I love the way the piano-black trim on the mirror caps visually reduce their size. Even the most basic TLX is super stylish, and that's awesome.

The cabin materials are top notch.


Comfy cabin with a few caveats

Though the interior is nicely appointed, man, the TLX's dashboard is busy. I like the soft leather surfaces and the contrasting metal and piano-black trim pieces, but there's a whole lot happening on that short center stack. I still reach for the Dynamic Mode selection dial every single time I want to adjust the audio volume, and the button-based electronic gear shifter is as weird as ever. At least the climate controls are cleanly organized and the center console is largely free of clutter, even if the volume and seek buttons kind of look like they're little islands off the coast of the touchpad. There are also a bunch of different ambient lighting themes for your perusal, all whimsically named after roads or race tracks from various corners of the earth.

What I love most about the TLX's cabin is its seating position. With its relatively thin A pillars, it offers a commanding view of the road ahead, and it's nice to be able to see the sculpting of the hood, even with the driver's seat in its lowest position. The beltline is pretty low, and neither the gauge cluster nor the infotainment screen exceed the height of the cowl. Ergonomically speaking, this is all good stuff.

That 10.2-inch multimedia display runs Acura's newest infotainment software, controlled by the company's True Touch Interface touchpad on the console. Acura tells me the updated TTI has improved touch accuracy, and I'll admit I'm not struggling with it as much as I initially did when this tech launched in the RDX crossover. The menu structure itself isn't too hard to navigate and the screen offers crisp, clear graphics. But the learning curve is still rough. You'd surely get used to it if you owned a TLX. Of course, the same can be said for nearly any modern infotainment system, really, save perhaps Lexus' convoluted Remote Touch UX. Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are standard, if they're your thing, and Acura says TTI updates can be pushed out over the air thanks to a standard 4G LTE Wi-Fi hotspot.

Where the TLX takes a back seat to other luxury competitors isn't with its infotainment tech, it's with the gauge cluster. Audi, BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Volvo offer fully digital setups, but the TLX relies on an analog speedometer and tachometer with a 7-inch screen between 'em. There's nothing bad about this setup per se, but I'd love to see Acura adopt some kind of reconfigurable display like Audi's Virtual Cockpit or BMW's latest iDrive. It'd go a long way toward zhuzhing up the place.

That center stack is awfully busy.


Turbo power and a nicely sorted chassis

I mentioned the Type S earlier, so let me get this out of the way: The hotter version of the 2021 TLX will launch next spring, and no, I haven't driven it. Check back in a few months and I'll tell you all about its 3.0-liter turbo V6, 355 horsepower, 354 pound-feet of torque, unique suspension tuning, Brembo brakes and all the other hotness.

The rest of the TLX lineup uses a 2.0-liter turbo I4 -- the same one you'll find in the RDX -- with 272 hp and 280 lb-ft of torque, which is competitive against the four-cylinder engines offered by rivals. Front-wheel drive is standard but you can opt for Acura's Super-Handling All-Wheel Drive system, while a mandatory 10-speed automatic transmission handles shifting duties.

The big news underneath is the TLX's switch to a double-wishbone front suspension rather than the less-sophisticated MacPherson strut setup found in the outgoing model. Combined with multilink rear suspension, the single greatest part of the TLX's driving experience is its ride quality -- beautifully balanced and composed while cornering, but super supple on the highway without feeling vague. My A-Spec uses the stock chassis setup, while Advance and Type S models receive adaptive dampers. I'm curious to see if there's a noticeable difference, but as it stands, I don't have a single complaint about this TLX's stock tune.


This sedan's steering reminds me that Acura and Honda have always been capable of mastering this integral bond between car and driver. The TLX's wheel itself is perfectly sized and its action nicely weighted, with crisp turn-in and plenty of communication about what the tires are up to. Overall, the TLX moves with a lightness reminiscent of the brand's older, more celebrated products. It's easy, pleasant and rewarding to drive.

I've always liked Acura's torque-vectoring all-wheel drive and it really helps increase the TLX's agility on winding roads. Even in the Normal drive setting, the TLX doesn't mind being hustled through a series of switchbacks in the canyons north of Los Angeles, and if you turn that huge Dynamic Mode knob to the right, you'll put the TLX in Sport, where the powertrain livens up a bit. (Also, the TLX-going-mega-fast graphic it displays on the infotainment screen is kind of rad, if a bit gimmicky.) Honestly, though, I'd stay out of Sport mode most of the time. The 10-speed automatic can occasionally be dimwitted here, either holding gears too long or not shifting quickly enough, and the steering wheel-mounted paddles don't offer quick responses.

I'm definitely eager to drive the TLX back-to-back with key competitors, specifically the Audi A4 45 TFSI and BMW 330i xDrive, because I really do think the Acura can stand toe-to-toe with these heavy hitters. The TLX has better steering feel and a more tossable aura, and it has the upper-hand on driver-assistance tech, too, with the full AcuraWatch suite standard across the board. This package includes things like full-speed adaptive cruise control with stop-and-go functionality, traffic sign recognition and blind-spot monitoring -- all things that cost extra on pricier German rivals.

A-Spec touches give the standard TLX a Type S vibe.


More than just a good value

The Acura TLX has always undercut its primary competitors on price, and that stays true for 2021. At $38,525 including $1,025 for destination, the TLX is much cheaper than an equivalent A4, 330i or C300 while offering a higher level of standard equipment. The Germans have slightly nicer cabin tech experiences, sure, but that aside, the TLX is a seriously well-executed package.

Of course, the TLX's biggest challenge remains the same: How do you convince someone who'd otherwise buy (OK, lease) a BMW 330i to check out an Acura instead? Thankfully, the TLX's sharp style should make prospective buyers look twice. More competitive and compelling than ever, those who do check out a TLX will be pleasantly surprised.