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First Drive: 2013 Acura ILX

No, it's not deja vu: you have seen the 2013 Acura ILX before. Acura showed off a thinly-disguised concept in January at the 2012 Detroit auto show and unveiled the production-ready sedan at the 2012 Chicago auto show, but the automaker only recently allowed us to try on its new entry-luxury small car on for size.

For The Kids

This isn't Acura's first stab at a smaller, entry-luxury offering. The company sold the Integra on our shores from 1986 through 2001, ported the third-generation Integra to North America as the RSX between 2001 and 2006, and then began selling the European-spec Accord as the TSX in 2004. Things were even funkier north of the border in Canada, where Honda badge-engineered the Japanese Honda Domani as the 1.6EL, and later turned to slapping Acura badges on Civics to create the CSX.

So, why return to this segment now? In a word: millennials. Acura acknowledges some ILX buyers may be traditional luxury buyers seeking to downsize in the pursuit of fuel economy, but by and large, it's hoping to draw buyers in their mid-20s to the brand for the first time, and potentially create life-long Acura customers. These buyers don't necessarily value traditional luxury traits like size or opulence, but instead insist a vehicle deliver great value, good fuel economy, modern technology and connectivity, and above all, reflect their personal style.

Fresh Sheetmetal

On that note, the ILX is a break from previous Acura small car attempts: it isn't merely an existing Honda product with Acura emblems and a new name that ends in either a "L" or an "X." Though it shares its platform and quite a bit of hardware with the ninth-generation Honda Civic that launched last year, the two cars share virtually no exterior sheetmetal.

Designers have only so much leeway due to platform hard points like subframes, suspension mounts, and so on, but the ILX's sharp, creased form helps hide its Civic origins. The front fascia -- complete with a slender version of Acura's pointed grille opening -- feels like an evolution of the TSX. In fact, the tall, rectangular lower air intakes shown on the "concept" at the 2012 Detroit auto show have been replaced with thin, tapered intakes that resemble those on the TL while a lower roof line, upswept rear windows, and a distinctive kink in the rear fenders help it look wider and leaner than the Civic.

If it also helps the ILX look larger than its Honda sibling, consider it an optical illusion. The two share a 105.1-inch wheelbase, and the ILX is only 1.8 inches longer overall. That said, the new ILX does slot in nicely beneath the TSX: it's nearly six inches shorter, overall, an inch and a half narrower, and two inches lower than Acura's previous entry-level model.

Acura was wise to share few -- if any -- interior parts with the Civic. The ILX's cabin is all-new from head to toe, starting at the dashboard: the Civic's two-tier instrument panel is replaced with a rounded, twin-cowl dashboard that both waterfalls into the center stack and curves into the front door panels.

A Few Unique Mechanical Touches

Beneath the surface, the ILX nearly mirrors its Civic sibling, mechanically speaking. Front suspension is still a MacPherson strut design, while a multi-link independent trailing arm setup lurks in back. Acura has revised bushings, rear suspension geometry, and added dual-valve dampers (or what Acura calls "amplitude reactive dampeners) at all four corners. The latter play a big part in helping the car remain firm yet compliant: one valve is actuated once the car hits most road imperfections, while another opens only during large, hard impacts. ILX models also receive a little extra torsional rigidity (an increase of 18 percent in front, 11 percent in back), a quicker steering ratio, and a thicker steering shaft.

When it comes to powertrain, the ILX cribs heavily from its cousin's parts bin. The base ILX offering is the exception to the shared content rule: while base Civics utilize a 1.6-liter, SOHC I-4, the ILX uses a version that's bored out to 2.0 liters, and equipped with a balancing shaft. Acura rates the engine at 150 hp at 6500 rpm, 140 lb-ft at 4300 rpm, and only mates it with a five-speed automatic transmission.

For buyers seeking additional fuel economy -- or the image of owning a green vehicle -- the ILX is offered as a hybrid, the first hybrid in Acura's portfolio. Predictably, its driveline, including the 91-hp, 1.5-liter I-4, the 23-hp electric motor, and CVT, are borrowed from the Civic Hybrid. EPA ratings are still pending, but Acura predicts the Hybrid should deliver 39 mpg on the EPA's city test cycle, and 38 on the highway.

The ILX 2.4-liter I-4 is most interesting to those looking for a small, premium car with a sporty feel. Though it shares its 201-hp I-4 with the Civic Si, the ILX's biggest block gains a harmonic balancer in an attempt to reduce NVH. Billed as the sport option, the 2.4-liter is only available with a six-speed manual.

How Does It Drive?

Despite all the shared content beneath the surface, the ILX does have a distinctive feel, especially in terms of ride quality. The adaptive dampers go a long way toward reducing the impact harshness found in the Civic, yet don't feel soft or wallowy. We found the ILX stays relatively flat during cornering, exhibits virtually no understeer, and isn't unsettled by mid-corner imperfections. Turn-in is sharp, though the electric power steering is perhaps a little light for truly spirited driving.

With only 114 hp to its name, the ILX Hybrid is predictably the slowest of the trio off the line. Even though Acura reprogrammed the throttle map to provide quicker throttle tip-in than its Civic sibling, the driveline quickly runs out of steam as speeds increase. Although the CVT is programmed to optimize fuel economy, paddle shifters on the steering wheel allow drivers to cycle through seven faux gears. Hold each one longer and acceleration improves, but it's obvious the Hybrid was crafted for something other than straight-line performance.

Surprisingly, the ILX 2.0 is pleasantly peppy; though it trails a few competitors in terms of power (including the Buick Verano's direct-injection 2.4-liter I-4), an ILX so equipped is relatively quick, thanks in part to a transmission that's quick to respond to throttle input with a downshift. Still, we found ourselves enjoying the 2.4-liter I-4 the most. Sure, the extra power is a bonus, but the manual transmission is one of the best to come from Honda to date -- the clutch is perfectly weighted and boasts linear take-up, and shift throws are smooth, short, and positive. Sadly, Acura expects the manual-transmission model to be the slowest-selling of the three ILX models.

What's Inside The Box?

Regardless of the model chosen, all three versions include a fair amount of standard content, including keyless entry, push-button ignition, a power moonroof, USB audio input, 16-inch aluminum wheels, a USB audio input, and a touchscreen audio system that -- when paired with a smartphone over Bluetooth -- offers SMS text message and Pandora Web radio functions.

In typical Acura fashion, adding extra content means buyers will have to spring for entire packages instead of individual options. An optional Premium package adds leather seating surfaces, an 8-way power adjustable driver's seat, a premium sound system, auto-dimming rear-view mirror, 17-inch aluminum wheels, HID headlamps, a back-up camera, and on the 2.0-liter model, an active noise cancelling system. Buyers can also step up from there to the Technology Package, which throws in navigation and an upgraded audio system.

Acura expects the 2.4-liter ILX and its manual transaxle to account for only a sliver of ILX volume, so it's not surprising that -- like TL and TSX models with manual transmissions -- its content options are limited. ILX 2.4 models include the Premium Package contents as standard equipment, but aren't available with navigation.

How much does this all cost? A base 2013 ILX 2.0L model carries a MSRP of $26,795, which includes a $895 destination fee. That's just below the asking price of a 2012 Audi A3 with a dual-clutch automatic gearbox, but in order to gain leather seating - a feature standard on the A3 - ILX buyers need to shell out another $3300 for the Premium package. Adding the Technology package on top of that requires forking over another $2200.

Interestingly, you won't have to pay any more for more power. The ILX 2.4L, which is bundled from the get-go with Premium package content, stickers for the same $30,095 (including destination) as an ILX 2.0L equipped with the Premium package.

Pricing for the ILX Hybrid starts at $29,795, allowing it to undercut the 2012 Lexus CT200h by $260. The Premium package isn't available on the Hybrid, but its content - sans the 17-inch wheels - is lumped into the Technology package. Adding that package drives the MSRP up $5500 to $35,295.

What's interesting is how the ILX is priced in regards to the somewhat larger TSX, which previously held the lowest rung in Acura's brand ladder. A base 2.0-liter ILX comes in at nearly $4200 below a base 2012 TSX, but it should be noted many standard features on the TSX - notably leather seating - require opting for the Premium package on the ILX. Do so, and that margin shrinks to a paltry $810. Pit the ILX 2.4L against the TSX Special Edition M/T - both of which share identical drivelines - and the ILX is only about $1800 less expensive.

Where Does It Fit In?

Given that the premium C-segment is still growing in the U.S (a new Audi A3 is due within a year or so), it's hard to say exactly how the ILX fits into a relatively young market. Even so, we expect it may have some competition from within Acura's own lineup. Product planners believe the ILX and TSX each cater to different demographics and boast their own personalities, but we can't help but the two will but heads, especially since the TSX offers a little more interior volume for a little more money. Will value-oriented buyers adopt a space-per-dollar mentality when visiting their Acura showrooms, or will they be swayed by the ILX's looks, refinement, and amenities? Only time will tell.

2013 Acura ILX

On sale: May 2012
Base price: $27,000 (est)

2.0-liter SOHC I-4; 150 hp @ 6500 rpm, 140 lb-ft @ 4300 rpm
2.4-liter I-4 DOHC I-4 (2.4L); 201 hp @ 7000 rpm, 170 lb-ft @ 4400 rpm
1.5-liter I-4, electric motor (Hybrid); 114 hp @ 5500 rpm, 127 lb-ft
Drive: Front-wheel
Transmission: 5-speed automatic (2.0L), 6-speed manual (2.4L), CVT (Hybrid)

L x W x H:
179.1 x 70.6 x 55.6 in
Legroom, F/R: 42.3/ 34.0 in
Headroom, F/R: 37.9/ 35.9 in
Cargo capacity: 10.0-12.4 cu ft
Curb weight: 2910-2987 lbs
EPA Rating (city/highway): 24/35 (2.0L), 22/31 (2.4L), 39/28 (Hybrid)