Acura Gets the Brand Back Together, Again
Featuring First Drive of the facelifted ’19 ILX sedan
MARYSVILLE, Ohio — This marque's cultural high point came in 1994, when The Wolf (Harvey Keitel) warned Vincent Vega (John Travolta) and Jules Winnfield (Samuel L. Jackson) there had better not be so much as one scratch on his Acura.
The movie was Quentin Tarantino's Oscar-robbed "Pulp Fiction," and The Wolf had lent Vega and Winnfield his Acura NSX as part of his effort to clean up their botched plan to retrieve their boss' suitcase. And yes, it was product placement.
The movie came out just as the Acura NSX was getting some attention as not just the first Japanese car to retail for more than $60,000 in the U.S., but also as one that was worth it—an affordable Ferrari alternative that could be driven around town as easily as a Honda Civic. As an engine supplier, Honda had won the last of six Formula 1 Manufacturers Championships—four with McLaren, and two with Williams—in 1991, and for the last couple of years, the McLarens wore the Acura marque as its engine supplier for North American races.
For 2019, Acura has unified its styling, having eradicated the last of its much-derided "platypus" grilles from its lineup. Like everyone else in the industry, Acura's sport/utility business is leading its passenger car business. For the first three quarters of 2018, Acura outsold Cadillac by just 1,243 units, with 114,483 to hold onto fifth place among luxury/premium brands in the U.S. It's still well behind fourth-place Audi for the year, by nearly 53,000 units.
Acura marketing is playing up the marque's technological advances and its longstanding image as a driver's brand, led by its halo, the fabulous hybrid NSX supercar. The full-line event took place at the 170,000 square-foot NSX factory, where approximately 100 workers assemble the midengine car by hand. Here's a quick look at what I saw and what I drove:
2019 Acura ILX A-Spec
The compact ILX is the last Acura model to benefit from a redesign featuring the new, five-point grille and the dual hood strakes. The rear license plate pocket has been moved from between the taillamps down to the bumper, giving the tail a stronger, more massive look.
The new design is handsome, if a bit anonymous, and it doesn't fix the Acura ILX's biggest problem. The '19 model is a refresh, rather than a full redesign, and thus is based on the Mark IX Honda Civic and not the far superior Mark X Civic that premiered three model years ago. So the old 2.4-liter naturally aspirated four also is a holdover, combined with an eight-speed dual-clutch transmission with torque converter.
This unusual hybrid tranny is very smooth. It launches the car and shifts more smoothly than even the best wet-clutch DCTs, though it's a bit of a downer that there are no new Acuras available with a Honda manual, still among the best gearboxes available.
The four's 201 horsepower is adequate, though not special. The ride-handling balance seems just right for a premium compact with somewhat superficial sporting pretensions, with a smooth ride and some compliance in the corners (our Central Ohio drive route didn't serve up any particularly challenging roads). The steering is too light, though, and lacking in feel and feedback, and the rather heavy understeer is a reminder of how far the '16 Civic has come in this department.
In its defense, Acura has shaved $2,110 off the base price of the ILX, bringing it in at $26,895 for 2019, near the top-spec levels of the Civic. The A-Spec, with its special paint options and spectacular blood red leather seats with Alcantara center-seat trim, is $30,645 with the premium package and $32,545 with the technology package. The A-Spec still lacks a front passenger seat power lumbar control.
The ILX is the bestselling premium compact in its class, among Millennials, Acura says [the others in that segment are the Audi A3 and Mercedes-Benz A220]. Choose an A-Spec with Still Night Pearl dark blue paint over that blood red interior, and you've got a vibrant look that's hard to match in a Honda Civic, even the Si or Type R. Still, I can't help but think that if Honda could be convinced to let Acura spend development money on something that's not an SUV, an Acura based off the Type R, with a small rear wing and toned-down sedan body, slightly softer suspension but with the 306-hp 2.0-liter turbo and six-speed manual would make a dandy replacement for this car.
2019 Acura ILX A-Spec Specifications
|PRICE (as tested)||$30,645 - $32,545 (with Premium Package/with Tech Package)|
|ENGINE||2.4L DOHC 16-valve I-4, 201 hp @ 6,800 rpm/180 lb-ft. @ 3,600 rpm|
|TRANSMISSION||8-speed dual-clutch automatic|
|LAYOUT||4-door, 5 passenger, FWD sedan|
|EPA MILEAGE||24/28 mpg (city/highway)|
|L x W x H||182.2 x 70.6 x 55.6 in|
|0-60 MPH||7 sec (est)|
|TOP SPEED||130 mph (est)|
Editor-in-chief Mike Floyd has a thorough review of this supercar's mid-cycle update, which features new, stickier Continental SportContact 6 tires designed specifically for the car, and retuned adaptive dampers, electronic power steering, Super Handling All-Wheel Drive, vehicle stability assist and stiffer front and rear stabilizer bars to work better with the new tires.
I got a total of about nine laps in the 2019 Acura NSX at the Transportation Research Center's 1.9-mile road circuit, the first three on cold tires in sub-50 degree weather. I'd rather drive the old and new cars back-to-back to confirm Acura's claims that turn-in is quicker and rotation around the corners in the midengine car is more progressive and predictable. All I can say is that the turn-in is about as close to perfect as you could want, without the too light nose that plagues so many rear-engine Porsches, and progressive rotation that's easier to adjust than in a mid-engine 718. The Acura NSX is as easy to drive fast, confidently, as a BRZ/86 or Miata/Fiata, though with 500 horsepower being fed to the four wheels via Super Handling AWD torque vectoring.
Acura also showed off the NSX's new Thermal Orange Pearl paint option. Several cars were making their way through the model's bespoke factory during our tour. The only bad news plaguing the NSX is disappointing sales—it's hard to imagine what Honda or Acura might put in this plant to supplement capacity utilization. Acura says it has sold about 2,000 NSXes, all built in Marysville, Ohio, and shipped globally.
In the U.S., Acura sold 850 NSXes in 2016 and '17, while McLaren sold 1,193 of its Sport Series models here in those two years. Year to date, Acura has sold just 122 in the U.S., so far. So go check out the Acura NSX, rich enthusiasts.
2019 Acura NSX Specifications
|ENGINE||3.5-liter twin-turbo DOHC 24-valve V-6/500 hp @ 6500-7500 rpm, 406 lb-ft @ 2000-6000 rpm, plus three electric motors. Peak power: 573 hp/476 lb-ft|
|TRANSMISSION||9-speed dual-clutch automatic|
|LAYOUT||2-door, mid-engine, AWD coupe|
|EPA MILEAGE||21/22 mpg (city/hwy)|
|L x W x H||176.0 X 87.3 X 47.8 in|
|0-60 MPH||3.0 sec|
|TOP SPEED||191 mph|
2019 Acura RDX A-Spec
It's reassuring to see that young Billy Rehbock had as much trouble with the two-screen infotainment system as I had. Acura lent me a white RDX A-Spec to drive the 204 miles between Detroit and Columbus, Ohio, and back, and I gave up on using the navigation system when I couldn't find the keyboard to type in my destination address. Instead, I plugged in my iPhone and used Apple CarPlay.
The controls for changing radio stations, or to go between FM and XM are barely more intuitive, but once underway, the RDX was the right kind of SUV for this trip. It's not too big, although it feels more like a midsize two-row instead of a compact SUV from the inside, and it's comfortable and compliant without being too soft. Steering turn-in is quite crisp, and my only complaint about dynamics is the steering felt a bit busy on long, straight roads, needing a bit too much minor correction. May be the tires.
The A-Spec interior has the same leather-and-Alcantara red and black seats as the ILX A-Spec, but there's also Alcantara trim on the middle of the passenger-side dash. Nice touch.
In Marysville, Acura showed off the RDX's fourth-generation AWD software, which can shift up to 70 percent torque to the rear and up to 100 percent to a single wheel, just like Gen III, but more quickly. On a wet skidpad, the RDX was easier to drift than an AWD TLX with Gen III software, and on a rally-style rock-and-gravel twisty road, the RDX caught itself out of a slide more quickly, though the MDX with Gen III software was looser, and thus more fun to a frustrated rally driver like me.
The all-new, 2019 Acura RDX has crisper handling than most of its Asian and American premium competitors and with a much better ride than its German and Italian competitors. The 2.0-liter turbo is more refined, with more useful power than pretty much any other downsized turbo four in an AWD SUV. The Acura RDX has the rare combination, for an SUV, of crisp handling and good ride quality, like the Mazda CX-5, but with a more premium interior and a better, more powerful engine.
2019 Acura RDX Specifications
|PRICE (as tested)||$46,895|
|ENGINE||2.0L turbocharged DOHC 16-valve I-4/272 hp @ 6,500 rpm, 280 lb-ft @ 1,600-4,500 rpm|
|LAYOUT||4-door, 5-passenger front-engine AWD sport/utility|
|EPA MILEAGE||21/26 mpg (city/highway)|
|L x W x H||186.8 x 74.8 x 65.7 in|
|0-60 MPH||7.5 sec (est)|
|TOP SPEED||130 mph (est)|
Acura also gave us time to drive perfectly maintained cars from its Torrance, California museum: a '91 NSX Formula Red, '01 Integra Type R, and '03 3.2CL Type-S. I didn't get time to drive the NSX, though I drove a couple of the last first-generation models about 2004 or '05, and I can say the new NSX faithfully captures the spirit of that car. Acura doesn't need to replicate the stiffly suspended, high-rev/low-torque model of the '01 Integra Type R, though a new model following my suggestion above would make a good modern interpretation.