A couple of months have passed since we took delivery of our new 2021 Acura TLX A-Spec long-term tester, and the miles are starting to pile on — the odometer just clicked past 6,000.
I was particularly eager to get behind the wheel of our TLX, as my first go-round in Acura’s new sports sedan left me feeling good about where Acura was headed with this car. That said, I only spent about an hour in the saddle during my first drive experience, and that time was on unfamiliar roads. The stint I just completed was a full month, and in that time I treated the TLX as if I owned it. So much so, that I completed the same mini road trip with it that I took in my 2001 Acura Integra GS-R last fall.
The destination was southern Indiana, an unexpected but heavenly place to test the handling of a car. Just go south or east from Bloomington, Ind., on the squiggly lines you see on Google Maps. I promise you won’t be disappointed. Photo evidence of both trips below, including my friend’s Alfa Romeo Giulia(s).
The TLX was an absolute peach on the hundreds of miles of winding pavement. Despite its BMW 5 Series size, the TLX handles like a compact car. Its chassis is rigid and unbending through every kind of corner. This isn’t the Type S (nor is it an Advance trim with the adaptive dampers), but it’s all the chassis you could want on a backroad. There’s enough give from the dampers to smooth out the bad spots, but it’s dialed in to provide unwavering stability in big weight transfers, too. Acura struck a happy balance.
Credit for this car’s poise under stress on less-than-ideal roads should also be given to the new independent double wishbone front suspension design. You can sense it sorting out dips and changes in the road as you’re battling through a rough corner. The big 255-section-width tires stay confidently glued to the pavement, communicating grip levels through the wheel and chassis as you go. The super-quick steering ratio from the new electric rack does a decent job of simulating road feel, but the best part about it is the rack’s sheer speed. Acura takes full advantage of this sedan’s rigid chassis with that quick, precise turn-in. It’s not quite as fast as the Alfa Romeo Giulia’s energetic steering, but the end result is a car that changes direction the moment your brain decides it wants to.
What really ties this car’s handling together is Acura’s torque-vectoring SH-AWD system. The latest generation of this top-notch equipment is now capable of sending as much as 70% of available torque to the rear axle and varying 100% of that to either the left or right rear wheels. Enter a corner; smash the go-pedal, and just let SH-AWD figure it out. As long as you’re tracing the line accurately with the steering wheel, the torque distribution will be sorted out and keep you dead set on the path forward before giving you a slight wiggle of the rear as you come out of the corner. Very few front-drive-based all-wheel-drive cars will be as engaging and fun to play with as this one. No matter what you do, this TLX will never feel like a front-wheel-drive car.
As happy as I was with the handling, I was nearly equally as frustrated with the transmission. Acura’s 10-speed automatic in the TLX just doesn’t perform when you ask it to, and the problems seem mostly software-based. Even with the car in Sport mode and the “S” transmission button pressed on the “PRNDL,” it’s helpless on a twisty road. Time and time again, the car would shift up into higher gears when I didn’t want it to. That left me and the 2.0-liter turbo-four hung out to dry around 2,000 rpm mid-corner or on corner exit, right when you want the rpms to take advantage of the torque-vectoring AWD system.
Acura told me at the launch that the shifting algorithm is largely based on steering angle to see if it should be holding gears or not. It’s now abundantly clear that relying on that algorithm to work is inconsistent at best. The solution? Throw it into manual mode. Acura’s paddle shifters are just fine to use, and while the transmission is a step behind something like the ZF eight-speed in a BMW 3 Series for speed, it’s not slow or lackadaisical. Its downshifting logic is rather smart, too, because if you pull the paddle before it’s safe to (read: you’ll over-rev the engine), it’ll wait until you’ve braked to a slow enough speed, then automatically trigger the downshift without a second paddle pull.
All of the open pavement and deserted back roads made me yearn for a more characterful engine, too. While the 2.0-liter turbo makes good power at 272 horsepower and 280 pound-feet of torque, it simply fails at being a fun companion to wring out when the road invites. Throttle response is dull, and even when you are hot-footing it, the car will never feel quick coming out of a corner at 30-plus mph. Its hefty 3,990-pound weight makes sure of that. The engine’s one saving grace is its sound, and partly (maybe mostly), the piped-in audio. Acura tunes in a proper growl to the cabin that intensifies in anger when you’re in Sport mode. It’s good at making you believe the engine is more voracious than its acceleration might portray — basically, it doesn’t sound like a vacuum cleaner. That said, if I were to (rather unfairly) compare it to the noise my Integra makes at 8,100 rpm, I’d be yelling take me back!
All elements added up, the TLX is an above-average sport sedan. It’s brilliant when the road goes back-and-forth without a break in the snaking, but the transmission is quick to frustrate, and the engine just merely allows it to get by with enough power to effectively feed its SH-AWD system. Nothing more.
Above all else, it makes me ecstatic for the eventual Type S that (in reading Acura’s currently available press material) has the potential to fix every loose snag or qualm I have with the A-Spec’s driving performance.
You will be able to find all other posts on our Long-Term 2021 Acura TLX page.