2021 Acura TLX long-term update: The infotainment learning curve

Our TLX's True Touchpad interface is tricky to learn but easy to master. Mostly.

Phantom Violet Pearl looks so much better in person than in photos.
Steven Ewing/Roadshow

Our long-term 2021 Acura TLX is an easy-to-like luxury sedan, and we've been piling on the miles in recent months. But rather than talk about its pleasant on-road manners or nicely appointed interior, today I'd like to focus on what might be an initial stumbling point for some buyers: the infotainment system.

The TLX uses what Acura calls an "absolute-positioning" touchpad, controlling a 10.2-inch display. Essentially the pad is mapped one-to-one with the screen. When I tap on the lower-left corner of the pad, the icon on the lower-left corner of the screen is highlighted. It took me a hot second to figure this out, since it's not a typical trackpad setup like what you find on a laptop or inside a Lexus. But now that I've lived with the TLX for a few weeks, I've really gotten used to this interface. But it's not all sunshine and rainbows.

The touchpad measures roughly 2 inches by 1.5 inches, and there's a padded resting place for my wrist. You can change the touchpad's sensitivity levels between low and high, but I honestly didn't notice a difference. Ahead of the pad are hard buttons for Back and Home, as well as a toggle that changes the right third of the screen between navigation, audio information and a clock.

When you first start the car, the multimedia screen presents large tiles for navigation, vehicle settings, Apple CarPlay or Android Auto, Sirius XM radio, USB audio and a Wi-Fi hotspot. A quick swipe to the right brings up pages of other tiles like phone and Bluetooth audio. Swipe left across the pad and all the apps are listed in alphabetical order. A long press on the touchpad allows me to delete a tile from the home pages, but I can't figure out how to move a tile between the pages themselves.

The positioning system is neat, and on most screens the tiles are large and uncrowded enough to provide the needed wiggle room to use this tech while driving. On the audio pages for satellite and terrestrial radio, the bottom third is reserved for presets, with smaller tiles to switch up categories and channels for Sirius or scan and tune on terrestrial radio. It's pretty easy to miss those smaller tiles and accidentally select a preset when I really just want to just move up a channel.

The main touchpad measures roughly 2 inches by 1.5 inches.

Steven Ewing/Roadshow

On other systems, adding a preset is usually a long tap on a station tile and boom, it's done. However, in the Acura, I have to click on the bottom third of the screen and then go over to the end of all my presets to find the Add Favorite tile. Sounds intuitive, but it isn't.

Going back to the home screen, when I tap on navigation, there are two large tiles overlaying the map, one for Find and one for Nearby. Tapping on Find brings me to a page with menus for Search, Browse, Recents and Downloaded Places. Below those tiles are my saved favorite addresses. By tapping Search I get a handwriting or keyboard option. The handwriting option allows me to physically write in an address, though it's a slow process. The keyboard option is just as frustrating, however, as it is very difficult to use with the absolute positioning tech. There are just too many little divisions within a QWERTY keyboard for it to be feasible with one-to-one mapping.

Fortunately, the TLX has voice recognition, though it sometimes takes a few tries to understand harder-to-pronounce streets (like where I used to live, on Mokelumne Avenue). When I asked for a "drug store," it didn't find a local CVS or Walgreens, but instead gave me options with the actual phrase "drug store" in the name. If you want a Rite Aid, just say "Rite Aid."

You're better off using voice controls for the navigation system.

Steven Ewing/Roadshow

The Nearby page includes options for gas stations, coffee shops, restaurants, fast food, ATMs, banks and parking. In Settings, I can set my route calculation for faster time, shorter distance or a balance of the two. I can also minimize routes with traffic, highways or toll roads. You can change the map layout between 2D and 3D, and whether you want the map to rotate around the car or default to North up top. I wish there was an easier way to just mute the voice guidance without having to dig into a menu, but oh well.

The rest of the system works as advertised -- as long as I can tap the correct spot on the pad. I can customize driver-assistance settings like the forward-collision warning distance, blind-spot monitoring system, lane-keeping assist and road-departure mitigation settings. There are a number of cool ambient lighting options I can fiddle with, too, and hey, you can actually set Acura's tech to speak English, French or Spanish. What better way to practice a foreign language than with a robot who won't judge your terrible accent?

Again, the Acura's initial learning curve is steep, but once you've spent time in the TLX the operation really smooths out. What's frustrating, though, is that Apple CarPlay and Android Auto do not work with the absolute positioning, and instead, the touchpad functions like a swipe pad. You have to make individual swipes to toggle between the different buttons on the Apple and Android screens, which is super annoying.

The steering wheel has a lot of buttons and controls, but they're all easy to use.

Steven Ewing/Roadshow

Getting away from the touchpad for a moment, the TLX has a multifunction steering wheel, and it truly lives up to that name. There are 11 buttons as well as 2 scroll wheels that also toggle left and right. When I push the Apps button on the left side of the steering wheel I can use the scroller to dial through navigation, phone, audio and the like on the 10.5-inch color head-up display, and then click the wheel to select. If there are options within that selection they are accessed by pushing the wheel left or right.

The scroll wheel on the right controls the information displayed on the 7-inch screen between the gauges, giving me access to fuel economy, maintenance, speed, tire pressure, the all-wheel-drive system's power delivery and more. Some of these screens have selectable items, some do not. Often a screen will include directions, like "toggle left to exit" or "push to change." If you have to put user directions right on the screen, maybe your system isn't actually that intuitive.

However, the hard buttons on the steering wheel are great and neatly organized. On the left hand side are buttons for steering wheel heat, audio on/off, voice recognition, the aforementioned apps and a back button. The right hand side is where controls for adaptive cruise control and traffic jam assist live.

We've put about 7,000 miles on our TLX so far.

Steven Ewing/Roadshow

Finally, the controls for the head up display, heated windshield, parking sensors, traction control and gauge lights are all on the dash to the left of the steering wheel. Here, too, is a hard button to quickly turn the driver-assistance features on and off, instead of having to go into the infotainment system. This is great when I want to go for a nice drive on a twisty backroad and want to turn off the lane-keeping alert. Nothing will stop me from taking the racing line. Nothing!

I'll admit, my first few days with our long-term Acura TLX were frustrating as I learned to use the touchpad. But now that I've lived with it for a while, I actually prefer this setup to the nonpositioning touchpad that Lexus uses. I promise you will, too. Just give yourself some time to learn all the ins and outs.

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