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2021 Acura TLX First Drive: A Seriously Strong Sports Sedan

After discovering how the regular TLX drives, we can’t wait for the new Type-S.

Conner GoldenWriterManufacturerPhotographer

MALIBU, California- You know, Acura didn't have to redesign and launch the new 2021 Acura TLX in the way it did. Not that an automaker has a duty to do anything at all, but placing significant investment into how its new premium sedan might appeal to an enthusiast isn't exactly a sure-fire way to make some cash. Catering to what car dorks think they want these days is a good way to burn a big pile of corporate greenbacks, regardless of the product's impeccable spec-sheet or bucket of go-fast goodies.

Acura's repositioning of the new TLX as a driver's car is more impressive still when you consider the fact parent company Honda—ever the enthusiast's best friend—is in a state of fanboy retraction, cutting the manual transmission from the Accord, and entirely nixing the adorable Fit and racy Civic Coupe families. It's not like the outgoing TLX was a salesroom dud, either; last year, Acura moved more than 26,000 TLXs in the U.S., and while this isn't within reach of the BMW 3-Series' 47,827 units, it handily outstripped the Lexus IS' 14,920 units, and it matched the 26,435 Audi A4s sold.

2021 Acura TLX: A Welcome Shift

So, Acura could have just as easily made another sharp-ish, easy-driving premium four-door and continued to let that stack of cash grow larger as the sedan segment continues to shrink in the coming years. It could have told the handful of true Acura enthusiasts left to pound sand, and not spent the time and resources developing an Acura-exclusive platform that incorporates a double-wishbone front suspension, NSX-derived brake servo, and according to the product presentation and supplied materials, a vastly improved dash-to-axle ratio. Color us surprised, intrigued, and excited for the new 2021 Acura TLX, all at once.

In the ongoing gradual march toward total crossover-vehicle dominance, and the eventual proliferation of electric cars, a new sedan designed from the lowest levels of production as something with drivers in mind feels like a warm cup of cappuccino and a tight hug in the midst of a storm. Adding to that, the thought of the forthcoming Audi S4-battling TLX Type-S model landing later next year hangs on us like our favorite hoodie. It seems there may be crepuscular rays lancing through the clouds, and we're totally here for it.

All this fuzziness before we even got a chance behind the wheel. Before that happened, we had to decipher just what went into the new 2021 Acura TLX, and where Acura's bread-and-butter sedan now sits in the hyper-competitive premium-sedan segment. The first thing you'll notice is the size differential compared to the old car; this is one of many new segment straddlers we're beginning to see fill in the gaps between the showroom superstars like sand between marbles. Acura knows it can't hope to compete with the eternally popular BMW 3-Series, 5-Series, and Mercedes-Benz C- and E-Class, so why not blur the lines a bit? For 2021, the Acura TLX goes upmarket in size, stretching an extra 2.9 inches in length, 2.2 inches in width, and surprisingly dropping half-an-inch in height. The wheelbase and track grow too, with an additional 3.7-inches on the wheelbase and 1.2 inches extra front track, and 1.5 inches for the rear track.

2021 Acura TLX: Looking the Part

Visually, the new TLX is longer, leaner, and lower. That dash-to-axle mention above was no joke; compared to the older car, Acura added 7.8 inches to the distance, giving the TLX a markedly more purposeful stance and sharp profile. Acura's trademark angularity still very much runs thick, but it's a much more cohesive and pleasing design overall. There's tension to the pinched, creased lines, and it works as a natural progression of what we've come to expect from the automaker.

The interior is redesigned to the same degree. Like the exterior, much of what you find inside takes cues from the current RDX crossover, especially in the center console. The same flat, waterfall-style control cluster for the 10-speed automatic transmission cascades from a large drive-mode selector knob, framed on both sides by seat heating/cooling and climate controls. A 10.2-inch HD screen sits atop the center dash, controlled by Acura's "True Touchpad Interface" just south of the shift cluster. The moderately aggressive and quite handsome steering wheel is similar to the one found in the RDX, as is the red-accented silver gauge cluster, lending a racy feel to the whole affair, regardless of how you spec your TLX.

2021 Acura TLX: What Was Two Is Now One

Speaking of spec, what's under that creased hood up front is the same across the board. Gone is both the base-level naturally aspirated 2.4-liter four-cylinder and the optional natty 3.5-liter V-6, now supplanted by a variant of the Honda K20C4 2.0-liter, turbocharged four-cylinder found in the RDX.

Compared to the crossover, power and torque remain the same 272 horsepower and 280 lb-ft, routed to either the front or all-four wheels via the aforementioned 10-speed automatic. This is down 18 hp compared to the discontinued V-6, but up 13 lb-ft; those sticking with the base-level TLX will reap the biggest benefits, as the turbo-four pumps an additional 66 hp and 98 lb-ft of torque against the old 2.4-liter.

Not too shabby for what Acura touts as a sports sedan. In that pursuit, the new 2021 TLX is a significant departure from the prior Accord-based TLX. It features an Acura-exclusive platform with a sizable roster of noteworthy dynamic and structural upgrades when superimposed over the old TLX, a product of developing the new sedan with plans for the future Type-S baked into the design. As mentioned above, one of the more substantial changes is the move to a double-wishbone front suspension from the previous strut design, working in tandem with a multi-link rear suspension setup, and dramatically improved structural appointments that increase overall torsional rigidity by an impressive 50 percent, Acura says.

There's a slight increase in weight distribution, now 57/43 front/rear compared to the earlier TLX's 60/40. Most hardware is reworked as well, including an updated electric power-steering system and a brake-by-wire arrangement that includes control componentry cribbed from the NSX. The fourth-generation of Acura's trademark SH-AWD system manages the new powertrain, capable of sending up to 70 percent of power to the rear wheels, and able to shift 100 percent of power from right-to-left via torque vectoring. All this go-fast stuff, and we're not even close to the Type-S yet.

Moving back to suspension for a moment: Depending on which trim you pick, the new 2021 Acura TLX holds either standard "Amplitude Reactive Dampers"—a fancy name for Acura's two-valve damper design that allows for variable spring rates—or the TLX Advance's adaptive damper setup. Curiously, the TLX A-Spec is not available with the adaptive suspension, despite remaining the aesthetically sportiest of all of the non-Type-S TLXs.

2021 Acura TLX: So Far, So Good

All this is to say Acura put an impressive amount of engineering and work into returning the Acura calipers to their rightful place on the snout of a real-deal sports sedan. With a barrage of percentages, ratios, and charts flying at us during the pre-drive breakdown, and genuinely overjoyed and very enthusiastic Acura engineers and product planners rallying around the new TLX, it was difficult approaching the new premium sedan with anything other than sky-high expectations.

The day's drive route took us on a circuitous route through the Malibu hills and coastal roads that placed us in a variety of different scenarios and environs; both the roads and the region are ones in which we are intimately familiar with, so we improvised at some junctions to wring out the TLX properly. At some points, these roads turn serpentine and narrow to a fault; any small dynamic issues presented by the TLX would be magnified tenfold.

We started in the A-Spec with the fixed dampers, cutting a path up the backside of Mulholland Highway before landing beachside on the Pacific Coast Highway. Right off the bat, the 2021 Acura TLX feels sharp and well-balanced—an innate base level of confidence that encourages heavy right-foot inputs and late-ish braking. Even without the adaptive dampers, body composure is excellent, with minimal roll and predictable reactions during long sweepers and tight, technical turns alike. Steering is light and without much feel, but turn-in is quick and predictable. Considering the intended market, we'd say this is right on-beat, but for a sports sedan, we'd like a little more feedback.

2021 Acura TLX: Tire Troubles

In the TLX Advance, we defected from the route to explore the Advance's adaptive suspension more thoroughly through one of the more vicious sections of tarmac in Southern California. As expected, the adaptive suspension proved even more predictable and progressive, though not to such a degree we'd decry those who settle for the fixed suspension. Regardless of the spec, all TLXs rode smooth and quiet over regular surface streets, with all the poise necessary for the car's premium standing. When the quietness started to make us a little stir-crazy, blasting some surfy tunes from the Panasonic ELS Studio 17-speaker system was top-notch.

Unfortunately, in both Advance and A-Spec form, the new 2021 Acura TLX is under-tired for canyon-carving duty. The chassis greatly outpaces the standard Michelin Primacy all-season tires, with the relatively squishy rubber screaming at full volume even during low-ish speed maneuvers. However, despite the protesting, grip was maintained for most sane speeds, with understeer arriving only at the threshold of enthusiasm. For the majority of TLX buyers, this tire is perfect; for those who commute through the canyons, consider making a simple tire swap to fix the problem outright and have yourself quite the capable sports sedan.

2021 Acura TLX: Engine Chatter

Power from the 2.0-liter engine feels healthy, but since the 2021 Acura TLX isn't exactly the lightest compact/midsizer on the block, acceleration feels somewhere in the mid-to-low 6-second range. The SH-AWD Advance we grabbed the most seat time in spun the scales at 4,028 pounds, just a few pounds shy of a similarly equipped RDX. Of course, looking over the fleet of cars the TLX is up against, it falls somewhere between the 3,900-pound BMW 530i xDrive and the 4,100-pound Audi A6, and the Acura has noticeably more power and torque than those Germans.

it's heavy, but the 2.0-liter never dragged when stepping into the passing lane or charging up steep mountainous inclines. The transmission was similarly snappy, though it's understandably tuned more for slogging through the city than setting a lap record at Suzuka. If you do plan on whipping around your new TLX, there's a whole suite of drive modes ranging from Comfort, Normal, Sport, and Individual that remaps the throttle, shift points, steering, torque vectoring, and adaptive suspension, where available.

2021 Acura TLX: Worthy of Acura's Legacy

As far as premium sports sedans go, the new 2021 Acura TLX is a good one; with a new set of performance all-seasons and fine-tuned steering, the TLX would be one of the sharpest in both the compact- and midsize-executive segments, despite sitting comfortably between both. It gets even better when you look at how much this is going to cost you—not a whole lot, comparatively speaking.

The cheapest front-wheel-drive 2021 Acura TLX starts at $38,525, jumping to $40,525 to get a base-level TLX with the vaunted SH-AWD. This is right around—or less than—what you would pay for a base-level Audi A4, Mercedes-Benz C 300, and BMW 330i, and significantly less than the midsize BMW 5-Series, Mercedes-Benz E 350, and Audi A6, all of which share similar dimensions to the Acura. The TLX even features a baked-in suite of active driver-safety systems like adaptive cruise control, lane-keep assist, and automatic braking; the same cannot be said for the rest of the gang, though the smaller Lexus IS and Genesis G70 match the Acura in safety content, but not in size.

The new 2021 Acura TLX is a mighty fine effort and an excellent modern interpretation of the type of Acura sports sedan we used to enjoy so much. Like we said, all this brow sweat and engineering didn't have to happen—this is a rare case of enthusiasts getting a chance at the development reins, and it shows. With this level of attention to detail levied on the mass-market product, we can't wait to see what Acura has in store for the TLX Type-S.

2021 Acura TLX Fast Facts

  • A shift from sharp-ish compact to premium sports midsizer
  • Bigger than before, but far less expensive than the competition
  • New double-wishbone front suspension
  • Sole 2.0-liter turbo-four engine one of the more potent in the segment
  • Great chassis
  • Can't wait for the Type-S

  

2021 Acura TLX Specifications
ON SALE Fall 2020
PRICE $38,525/$49,325 (base/as tested)
ENGINE 2.0L turbo DOHC 16-valve I-4/272 hp @ 6,500 rpm, 280 lb-ft @ 1,600-4,500 rpm
TRANSMISSION 10-speed automatic
LAYOUT 4-door, 5-passenger, front-engine, FWD/AWD sedan
EPA MILEAGE 21/29 mpg (city/hwy) (AWD)
L x W x H 194.6 x 75.2 x 56.4 in
WHEELBASE 113.0 in
WEIGHT 3,709-4,028 lb (base FWD-Advance AWD)
0-60 MPH 6.5 sec (est)
TOP SPEED N/A