The 2018 Acura TLX is a pretty good luxury sedan when judged all on its own. It engine is reasonably powerful, its cabin quiet and well-appointed and its available SH-AWD option is a fantastic performance all-wheel-drive system.
Sadly, the TLX doesn't play all alone in a vacuum. It fights in a crowded segment, that of the midsize premium-to-luxury sedan, where it faces stiff competition from the likes of Infiniti, Lexus, BMW, Audi and more. Even brands like Mazda and Honda are stepping their game up and edging into the premium sedan market, slowly encroaching on the TLX's territory. Among these ever more numerous peers, the Acura has a tougher time standing out.
However, a 2018 mid-cycle refresh allows the TLX to put up a valiant fight thanks to a solid loadout of standard tech and driver aid features, some solid upgrades in the form of an A-Spec performance package and a value that's hard to ignore.
The TLX comes standard with a 206-horsepower 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine making 182 pound-feet of torque and mated to an 8-speed dual clutch transmission that also features a torque converter to smooth out around town performance. The four-banger is a front-wheel drive only affair and the best value in the lineup starting at $33,000.
However, if you've gone to the trouble of choosing the 2018 TLX over the 2018 Honda Accord, you're probably here for the V6. Check that box to step up to a 290 horsepower six-cylinder engine mated to a 9-speed automatic transmission with either front-wheel drive and rear-wheel steering or with Acura's Super Handling All-wheel Drive (SH-AWD) system. Our example featured the latter.
290 horsepower is a fairly significant advantage on-paper and on-the-road over the TLX's competition, most of which have stepped down to turbocharged four-cylinders when priced competitively with the V6's $36,200 (or $38,200 with SH-AWD) starting point. However, in daily driving it doesn't really feel much more powerful, partially due to the engine's reluctance to rev and partially to transmission, which is like a fun damper unless you take matters into your own hands with the paddle shifter.
At 267 pound-feet, the V6 has a smooth torque delivery that's good for relaxed driving, but the turbo-fours that the competition has switched to tend to make more torque at lower RPMs and rev more freely, which also somewhat explains the Acura's less lively street performance.
There are various "Integrated Dynamic System" driving modes -- Econ, Normal, Sport and Sport+ -- that adjust the performance of the transmission, steering, throttle response and all-wheel drive system, but I struggled to really feel much difference between the modes under most conditions.
The TLX V6 SH-AWD is estimated by the EPA to cruise for a combined 24 mpg (21 city and 30 highway). The addition of the A-Spec upgrades to our tester costs the sedan an mpg across the board, bringing the combined estimate down to just 23 mpg. Those aren't terribly impressive numbers and more cost conscious TLX buyers should at least consider the the four-cylinder model's slight economy advantage at 27 mpg combined (23 city and 33 highway).
Our TLX featured the A-Spec performance and styling package available to both the front and all-wheel drive V6 models. In addition to A-Spec badging inside and out, the package adds dark exterior trim, unique front and rear bumpers, larger exhaust tips and red accents around the cabin.
On the performance side, A-Spec models feature larger 19-inch wheels shod with meatier 245mm wide tires. The suspension gets stiffer springs with firmer dampers and the rear stabilizer bars are beefier to help prevent roll when cornering.
If you've opted for front-wheel drive, then the P-AWS rear steering gets amped up to kick in faster and more aggressively. Opt for SH-AWD like we did and the front steering gets beefed up for a quicker ratio and a heavier on-center feel.
Overall, the A-Spec models should feel tighter, firmer and more responsive than the standard suspension, but even with the upgrades the TLX felt soft and detached from the road beneath it. On the highway, numb steering and the wide tires' tendency to follow ruts in the road meant I had to work hard to just keeping the sedan centered in my lane. Tucking into a quick lane change or squeezing a bit of extra speed out of an off-ramp was satisfying enough, but the TLX mostly felt too mushy to take the A-Spec designation too seriously.
My opinion of the 2018 TLX's performance really turned a corner, so to speak, when I got it away from the boulevards and interstates and chucked it into a few hilly corners. It was here that I got a feel for how the SH-AWD system creates a fairly engaging and dynamic ride.
Even the SH-AWD equipped TLX model features a front-wheel-biased torque split. There's always some power heading to the rear wheels, but under most cruising conditions the lion's share of available torque flows through the front wheels. When accelerating or if slip is detected, the SH-AWD system can send up to 70-percent of the available torque to the rear and, when turning, it can torque vector to 100-percent of that rear grunt laterally to either rear wheel. This is the magic of the SH-AWD system.
When cornering hard, the TLX actively shifts power to the outside rear wheel, rotating the sedan actively into the turn rather than letting the nose push out into understeer. This means that I could maintain more speed and steady throttle through most turns rather than slowing to avoid understeer. Pick the right gear with the paddles to take the transmission's weird shift program out of the equation and you've got a performance formula that's surprisingly grin-inducing. At least, up to a certain point…
Push too hard and the TLX's weight and scale start to become more and evident. It's a big gal and the SH-AWD system can only do so much before physics steps in and tells you to calm right on down by pouring on all of that understeer that SH-AWD had been cancelling out. Plus, there's a good bit of body roll and pitch when driving with zest, even with the A-Spec upgrades. And though the steering is quite responsive, it doesn't offer much in the way of feedback.
I think Roadshow's Chris Paukert put it best when he said that "it would be tough to label the TLX a sport sedan."
Perhaps the biggest improvement to this mid-cycle refresh of the TLX is the second-generation On Demand Multi-use Display (ODMD) infotainment stack. This two-screen setup features a large 7-inch screen below and a larger 8-inch display up top.
It's an okay setup. The lower screen is a capacitive touch display and home to the audio source menus and climate controls. The upper screen is controlled with a physical control knob located at the bottom of the center stack and home to the rest of the infotainment functions including navigation and standard Android Auto and Apple CarPlay connectivity. The onboard maps and voice command work well and overall the menu system has been simplified and optimized. Acura claims the software is now 30% faster than the last generation.
But "okay" is hardly a glowing review; I've got a quite a few nits to pick. For starters, displaying the Android Auto and Apple CarPlay interfaces on the upper screen means drivers have to interact with them using the physical controller which is clunky and just terrible. I'd have preferred to see them on the lower screen where I could use them more naturally with touchscreen, but Acura really wanted to keep the navigation maps up top.
Speaking of the physical controller, I don't like it. The weird positioning at the base of the dashboard is awkward ergonomically and its proximity to the lower display and resemblance to a big volume knob created all sorts of confusion over the first few days. I'd end up zooming the map when I wanted to adjust the volume or looking at the wrong screen for a moment after tapping the Settings button.
I welcome the increased functionality and the refinements to this system and applaud Acura's constant efforts at improvement. And having seen the single wide screen of the next generation MDX in Detroit earlier this year, I know that better things are on the horizon for the TLX when it eventually gets a full redesign. For now, I can't help feeling like they're polishing up a fundamentally flawed infotainment system with two screens and two different control schemes.
One area where I have blessedly few complaints in the driver aid department. The TLX gets a lot of things right here starting with making the automaker's AcuraWatch suite of advanced driver aid tech standard on all models.
Even if you get the most basic four-cylinder model, your TLX will feature adaptive cruise control that works in stop and go traffic, lane keeping steering assistance and forward pre-collision alerts with auto-braking and pedestrian detection. Stepping up to the Tech Package adds blind spot monitoring with rear cross-traffic alerts while the top Advance trim level adds a surround view camera, which is extremely helpful when parking.
My only real nitpick here is that occasionally the lane departure system would warn me to put my hands on the wheel when they'd been there the whole time. I've had this happen on other Honda/Acura systems while cruising on straight highway segments and a light wiggle of the wheel clears the alert. I'm guessing maybe my touch is too light for whatever torque sensor they're using to detect the driver's hands.
The 2018 Acura TLX A-Spec is a solid upgrade over the previous model year. The dashboard tech is faster and, thanks to the inclusion of Android Auto and Apple CarPlay, more flexible. The A-Spec package slightly sharpens the performance and the driver aid suite is more complete.
However, this is just a mid-cycle refresh and many of our issues with this platform are still present here. The dual-screen ODMD infotainment is in desperate need of an overhaul, not just an update. The V6 engine is powerful, but it's also less efficient and dynamic than much of its competition.
Still, the TLX has one big advantage. Similarly equipped, it's cheaper than the Infiniti Q50, Jaguar XE and the competition from Audi, Benz and Bimmer. The 2018 TLX starts at $33,000 for the four-cylinder and tops out at $45,750 for the V6 SH-AWD Advance before destination charges. Our V6 SH-AWD stickered at $44,800. Its a solid value for an entry-level luxury sedan.
However, the TLX's biggest competition comes from within its own family tree. For the money, I think I'd rather have a fully-loaded 2018 Honda Accord -- a sentiment shared by most of the Roadshow staff. A Honda Accord Touring 2.0T boasts more torque than the Acura's V6, but with similar fuel economy to the four-banger. It features the same driver aid tech but with a better, simpler dashboard. It looks less polarizing and fully loaded it costs the same $33,800 that the TLX starts at. In fact, the only objective advantage the Roadshow staff could agree that the TLX has over an Accord is the SH-AWD option, which hardly seems worth the cost for most buyers.