NAPA, California — Acura’s entry-level sedan, the ILX, is no longer available with a manual transmission — boo freakin’ hoo. Acura threw enthusiasts a bone by offering the last ILX with the 2.4-liter inline-four and 6-speed manual transmission from the Honda Civic Si, but after spending a year with an ILX 2.4, we weren’t satisfied by the car that didn’t feel any more special than, well, a Civic Si. Buyers agreed, and manual-transmission cars made up only about 1 percent of the ILX lineup’s already lackluster sales. Acura is done messing about and is ready to do whatever it can — like abandoning the manual transmission altogether — to appease the masses, which scared us a bit when we went to Napa Valley to drive the recently refreshed 2016 Acura ILX.
All about the drive
But as we listened to Acura engineers talk about changes made to the ILX, the majority of which focus on improving the car’s driving dynamics, we were optimistic and thought that, perhaps, this new Acura wouldn’t be all that bad. Honda is a fiercely engineering-based company, and the ILX’s update goes deeper than you’d expect. The steering is retuned, the body is more rigid, the suspension dampers are stiffer, and a new powertrain features an updated 2.4-liter four-cylinder and an 8-speed, dual-clutch transmission, which trickles down from the larger Acura TLX.
We set out on California’s Route 29 and quickly fell in love with the dual-clutch’s quick, imperceptible shifts under normal acceleration. Thanks to its torque converter — absent in most dual-clutch transmissions — the 8-speed transmission avoids the clunky low-speed performance common among other twin-clutch gearboxes.
When the roads got curvier, we shifted into the transmission’s sport mode, which keeps revs higher and shifts even more quickly. Above 4,000 rpm, the direct-injected 2.4-liter four-cylinder sang, and the new engine’s broader torque curve made the ILX feel responsive and energetic as we charged up hills and zinged toward the 6,800-rpm power peak. The dual-clutch executed perfectly timed downshifts under hard braking and always managed to be in the correct gear as we exited tight hairpins. Our speed continued to climb, and the telepathic transmission caught on, shifting so well that we stopped using the shift paddles on the steering wheel to up- and downshift.
The last Acura ILX felt front-heavy and unsorted (its light, numb steering didn’t help), but the 2016 model’s retuned chassis has transformed the ILX’s balance and character into something much more engaging. Steering is significantly heavier, with more organic feel, and better damping keeps body motions controlled and composed.
We transitioned onto the highway, set the cruise control, and noticed that the 2016 Acura ILX is much quieter than before, at least on California’s pristine pavement. Only a bit of excess road noise permeates the cabin at highway speeds, thanks to increased sound deadening and active noise cancellation. The eight-speed’s wide ratio spread helps keep revs low, aiding an impressive 36-mpg highway fuel economy rating — only 2 mpg short of the now-dead ILX hybrid.
Substance over style
Mechanical upgrades have made a huge difference, but surface-level improvements to the styling and interior haven’t. Yes, the new LED headlights and taillights look prettier, but the small sedan still has an awkwardly long front overhang and a dowdy rear end that betray its compact-car roots. The previous model’s plain interior also sticks around, and we had trouble noticing Acura’s claimed improvements to the materials. The ILX’s drab color combinations, dated-looking display screens, and unintuitive infotainment controls don’t cut it. Competitors like the Audi A3 and Mercedes-Benz CLA-Class look better and more befitting of this entry-level luxury segment and its image-conscious buyers.
While the 2016 Acura ILX doesn’t look or feel as special as it should, it does comes well-equipped for the price, with a newly available suite of active safety features that represents the best of what Acura has to offer; adaptive cruise, lane-departure assist, collision-mitigating braking, and blind-spot monitoring are available as either a stand-alone, $1,300 option or as part of the optional Technology package. Even the fully loaded ILX we drove with the sporty A-spec package and all available tech features topped out at $35,810, well below the $40,000-plus you’ll pay for a comparably equipped Audi A3 1.8T or Mercedes-Benz CLA250.
Acura’s way forward
What hurts the automatic-only 2016 Acura ILX most, though, is Acura’s debilitating public perception problem. Premium buyers don’t aspire to own an Acura like they do a Mercedes-Benz, an Audi, or even a Lexus. While the ILX offers a more compelling value proposition than these competitors, its aggressive pricing means it competes in the same range as mainstream compacts that drive nearly as well, offer similar levels of equipment and technology, and look equally stylish — we’re looking at you, Mazda 3 and Volkswagen Golf.
That said, the refreshed ILX does feel much better than its predecessor from behind the wheel. This updated model is what the ILX should have been from the start, and the new car’s dynamic competence makes the 2013-2015 ILX feel half-baked. Acura has a long way to go until it catches up to the major luxury players in terms of design and prestige, but sweet-driving, engaging products like the 2016 ILX are a start — even if they can’t be had with manual transmissions.
2016 Acura ILX Specifications
- On Sale: Now
- Price: $28,820/$35,810 (base/as tested)
- Engine: 2.4-liter DOHC 16-valve I-4/201 hp @ 6,800 rpm, 180 lb-ft @ 3,600 rpm
- Transmissions: 8-speed dual-clutch automatic
- Layout: 4-door, 5-passenger, front-engine, FWD sedan
- EPA Mileage: 25/36 mpg city/highway
- L x W x H: 181.9 x 70.6 x 55.6 in
- Wheelbase: 105.1 in
- Weight: 3,093-3,137 lb