Review: In Depth: Acura ILX

Design, interior and infotainment

Acura always held an odd spot in the auto world – the Honda luxury sub brand was a step up from its mainstream cars, but not quite on the same level of refinement and performance as rivals Lexus or Infiniti. Aside from the legendary NSX sports car, every Acura in history starts out as a front-wheel drive (FWD) car based off a Honda platform.

Sure, some models offer all-wheel drive, but they’re mostly FWD cars. That brings me to today’s vehicle, the 2016 ILX that Acura sent techradar for review.

Acura released the ILX as a 2013 model year vehicle and, for the first time since the discontinuation of the Integra sedan in 2001, the brand finally had a compact vehicle in the US, again. Initial reactions to the Civic-based compact were disappointing. I spent some time in the 2013 ILX and was not impressed. The interior used low quality materials and it didn’t offer much over a fully-loaded Honda Civic – all at a higher price.

Acura ILX

However, Acura went back to the drawing board and substantially updated the 2016 ILX with more premium interior materials, driver assist features and LED lights. The ILX Acura sent to techradar for review is the top-of-the-line Technology Plus and A-SPEC package configuration that carries an MSRP of $35,830 (the car isn’t available outside of North America).

The exterior updates for the 2016 refresh, while minor in the grand scheme of things, alter the looks for the better. The former projector beam headlights were replaced with Acura’s Jewel Eye LEDs, which use three bright LEDs for the low-beam and two for the high beams. The tail lights are LEDs, too.

Acura Jewel Eye

I’m impressed by the sculpted exterior, with its subtle creases and curves. The wheels are stylish, with black accents and a silver face – the look reminds me of fan blades. All combined, the exterior updates give the car a sophisticated look, but that’s where the likable bits of the car end.

Interior

Step inside, and you’re treated to a comfortable pair of sport seats with excellent side bolster support. The seats hug my 5-foot-7-inch and 195-pound frame, while the adjustable lumbar provides comfort for my lower back.

Acura splits up the dashboard with a thick strip of silver trim that brightens up the all-black interior. The surfaces above the silver trim are soft-touch and feel softer than the typical economy car. That’s where the premium quality ends. Everything below the silver trim is hard plastic befitting of an economy car, unfortunately.

Acura ILX

It’s not surprising to see better quality materials on frequently-touched surfaces, given the premium pedigree of the Acura brand. However, the car still feels more like a dressed-up Honda than a genuine luxury vehicle, given the cost savings on the interior.

Grab the leather steering wheel, and you’ll notice it’s not heated, which seems ridiculous when the mainstream Kia Optima includes it as standard equipment on the mid-level EX trim for $10,000 less.

Acura ILX

Look forward, and you see the analog gauge cluster with an LCD sandwiched between. The LCD provides trip information, access to vehicle settings, turn-by-turn navigation, music information and a visual representation of the available driver assists.

Overall, the Acura ILX interior is nicely laid out, using buttons and knobs for frequently accessed features, like the climate control and some infotainment functions. Sadly, the latter is exactly where things take a turn for the worse.

Infotainment system

The Acura ILX infotainment system is at the top of my list for one of the worse systems installed in a modern car. It’s a dual display system with an 8-inch LCD mounted high and center as the primary display, and a 7-inch On-Demand Multi-use Display (ODMD) is located below for control functions.

The ODMD features capacitive multi-touch technology with haptic feedback, but it’s still terrible. It has a frustratingly over-complicated user interface that involves a touchscreen with dynamic functionality, depending on what you’re doing, and a physical control knob that controls the top screen.

Acura ILX

Unlike the Honda Accord, which has a dual screen system with Android Auto and Apple CarPlay support, the refreshed Acura ILX did not get the superior infotainment system upgrade.

The system features HD Radio, SiriusXM, a single USB port, Aha radio and Pandora connectivity, Siri Eyes-Free and navigation with real-time traffic information, which is typical of all new cars. I’m not sure how the user interface made it past usability testing, or who approved it for production, but it’s not an easy system to get accustomed to.

By the end of my time with the Acura ILX, I simply gave up on trying to use the system for anything other than music. My problem with the ILX infotainment system isn’t limited to any particular function, it’s just painfully annoying to use.

The top display can show navigation, music information and phone information, while the lower ODMD changes its function by music source, and occasionally displays an onscreen keyboard for navigation input. If I’m listening to SiriusXM, the ODMD shows six music presets and the ability to tune to any station. But, if I want to view the stations by category or scroll quickly through the stations, I have to press the physical audio button located below the ODMD and use the control knob and the top display.

Things get more complicated when you’re trying to input navigation instructions, too. You have to press the NAV button below the ODMD to bring up the navigation functions on the top display, then navigate the menus using the control knob while the touch screen continues to show music controls.

If you want to search for an address or point of interest, you’re presented with two methods of input: the control knob or an on-screen keyboard. Neither methods are available if the vehicle is moving, of course.

Acura ILX

During my time with the ILX, I never had an enlightening moment wherein I thought the infotainment system made sense. Rather, I imagined it was a cruel joke played by sadistic Acura engineers. The entire infotainment system needs to be disposed of because of how clunky it is to use, unless you enjoy self-torture through technology.

I don’t particularly enjoy torturing myself on a daily basis, especially not for 36 grand.

The sad thing is, the earlier ILX with a single screen and control knob was much easier to use, and this refreshed 2016 model takes the infotainment system a step backward. It’s as if the Acura engineers took advice from Xzibit to make the ILX more appealing to which he said, “Yo, I heard dudes like screens, so…”.

ELS sound and Driver assists

Acura teams up with Panasonic for the ILX ELS Studio Premium audio system. The premium sound system is tuned with the golden ears of Elliot Scheiner, who has won a few Grammy’s. The ELS Studio Premium audio system promises to recreate music the way you’d hear it in a recording studio.

The ILX implementation features 10 speakers with six discrete channels. Each door has a mid-range speaker, the front doors have tweeters, a mid-range center-channel is in the dash while two surround speakers and an 8-inch subwoofer is in the rear deck.

Acura ILX

DTS Neural Surround rounds out the ELS sound system to create surround sound from all audio sources. Overall, the ELS Studio Premium audio system has a neutral tonality to it. The highs are crisp and the mid-range is smooth. There’s very little thump in the bass department, but that’s expected from studio sound.

I’m not fond of the ELS sound signature, since I prefer a heartier kick in the bass department. The relaxed sound from the ELS system complements classical music, but I enjoy EDM, hip-hop and the occasional Meghan Trainor who’s all about that … you know.

Driver assists

Acura makes the ILX available with the full AcuraWatch Plus driver assist suite, which includes adaptive cruise control (ACC), lane keep assist (LKAS) and automatic emergency braking (AEB). The ACC system in the ILX only works at speeds of 19 mph and above, and not the full speed range – like the new Honda Civic – or 5 mph and above, like the Hyundai Elantra.

The limitation of the ACC in a supposedly premium vehicle doesn’t sit well with me, especially when it’s mainstream cousin has a better system. Acura is charging more money for the ILX than Honda is for the Civic, and to have inferior technology in a segment that promotes bleeding-edge technology makes it a hard sell.

Limitations aside, the ACC is downright scary to use on highways with traffic lights. I had a lot of close calls where the system continued to maintain speed or aggressively accelerate to get to the set speed, when traffic was at a stop ahead, only to essentially hard brake to slow the car down at the last minute. This happens in all of the distance settings.

I can’t say that it’s a fluke with the ILX, because I’ve had the same experience in other Acura’s, like the RLX and MDX. The ACC in the ILX is definitely better suited for highway cruising than driving in traffic, unfortunately.

LKAS in the Acura ILX can help steer the car on straight and slightly curved roads to keep it within the lane markers. The system only works at speeds above 40 mph and needs to be turned on every time you start the car. The Mercedes-Benz Distronic Plus system, on the other hand, automatically turns on every time.

My experience with the LKAS is much more promising than ACC. The car doesn’t have trouble staying within the lanes on the highway, but it gets angry if it detects there’s no driver steering input. After three audible and visual warnings, LKAS automatically disables until you shut the car off and start it back up again.

I imagine the warnings are a precaution to keep Acura out of legal trouble, in case someone tries to rely solely on the technology and get into an accident.

After experiencing the ILX ACC and LKAS system, I understand why George Hotz’s hacked, self-driving ILX is meant mostly for highway cruising only. The system doesn’t work at speeds below 40 mph, so no amount of hacking can make it self-driving where it’s needed the most: stop and go traffic.

Acura names it’s AEB system the collision mitigation braking system (CMBS), but it’s the same thing. The ILX flashes a large “BRAKE” warning in the gauge cluster LCD with accompanying beeps if it thinks you should be braking. I managed to trigger the warning a few times, and found it more distracting than useful, since I have to glance down at the gauge cluster.

I prefer implementations that incorporate a bright flashing LED on top of the dash that projects bright warning flashes on the windshield to get my attention. Now, if the system detects that you don’t react, it can automatically apply the brakes to slow down or even stop the car. I never let AEB fully take over control, as it would be reckless of me on public streets, so I have to assume it works as advertised.

Acura ILX

The Acura ILX tester had a blind spot monitor that works at speeds above 20 mph. It’s a standard system with a warning indicator in the side mirrors that shows a single flash when there’s another car entering the blind spot, and constant flashes with an audible warning if you put on the turn signal.

It’s a non-intrusive system that works well without any annoyances, unlike ACC and LKAS.

Performance and living with it

Powering the Acura ILX is one of the smoothest powertrains Honda produces – a direct-injected, 2.4-liter Earth Dreams four cylinder with a redline of 7,000 revolutions per minute (rpm) matched to an 8-speed, dual-clutch (DCT) transmission. The K24W7 motor produces 206 horsepower (hp) a smidge before redline, at 6,800 rpm, with 182 pound-feet of torque while the DCT shifts smoothly and rapidly.

The US Environmental Protection Agency rates the ILX at 25 mpg in the city and 36 mpg on the highway, which makes it competitive on the highway but lacking in the city. However, the city fuel economy is a trade-off I’m willing to make for the outstanding powertrain.

Acura ILX

The powertrain and driving dynamics of the ILX are the best bits of the car. As annoying as the infotainment system and driver assists can be, all is (nearly) forgotten when I drive the car. The steering is precise, with the right amount of weight without sacrificing road feel, while the drive-by-wire system responds quickly to each movement of the gas pedal.

I commend Acura for the suspension tuning. The car responds quickly and confidently on windy roads with a solid chassis. I didn’t find the ride quality harsh either; it was comfortable, and I didn’t encounter any aches or pains after hours of driving.

Living with the car

The Acura ILX isn’t much of a family car. It’s a compact car that can adapt to family life, but it’s not the most ideal. I have two kids that need convertible car seats, which I managed to install via LATCH anchors and the seat belts without encountering any problems.

Acura ILX

However, with the seat adjusted for my height, my kids can easily kick the back of the front seats. I can’t imagine a taller person leaving much room available for the back seat either. A rear-facing car seat would be an even tighter fit.

One other annoyance I had with the ILX is the placement of the 12V accessory power jack. Acura places it in the center armrest, instead of the lower cubby where the USB port is. I always install my Beltronics GT-7 radar detector in every car I review, so the placement of the 12V power port is a stretch, getting in the way of the cup holders. It definitely makes it harder to grab my white chocolate mocha (no whipped cream) for a few sips while driving.

Verdict

Acura leaves me conflicted about the ILX. If the car came out around 2010, I’d be all over it. But the mainstream brands stepped up with more technology, better interior materials, more enjoyable driving dynamics and styling to match. The lines between mainstream, premium and luxury cars have blurred, and it’s hard to distinguish the different classifications nowadays. The ILX has a tough, uphill battle on both sides of the fence.

We liked

I find the ILX’s looks to be quite striking. It has an aggressive front end, with subtle curves that look classier and more sophisticated than the mundane Honda Civic. Acura may have simply dressed up the previous generation in a suit and tie, but it genuinely appeals to me.

A major part of the sharp looks come from the restyled, Jewel Eye LED headlights, an Acura styling trademark. The lights aren’t just for show: they’re extremely bright and light up the entire road at night as bright as day.

Acura’s LKAS technology gives it a leg up among mainstream compact cars and keeps it competitive with the Mercedes-Benz CLA. The technology is reliable when engaged and actively steers the car at highway speeds.

I’ve yet to drive a Honda or Acura that I didn’t enjoy. The Acura ILX is no exception and very enjoyable to drive. Steering is precise, despite employing an electronic power steering system, the drive-by-wire system is responsive, and the chassis responds well to curvy roads. The high-revving, 2.4-liter motor and 8-speed DCT brings everything together harmoniously.

The car doesn’t feel fast but it manages to make the run through a quarter mile at 14.7 seconds, which isn’t slow either. The ILX performance puts it squarely between compact cars and hot hatches, and that’s not a bad place to be for a daily driver.

We disliked

As enjoyable as the car is to drive, the infotainment system is simply awful. The situation is made worse when a similarly priced Honda Accord offers a better system with Android Auto and Apple CarPlay. Acura needs to abandon its proprietary dual screen system that is clunky and inconsistent to use.

You can get used to it after some time, but hopping into anything from Hyundai, Kia, Volkswagen and even Honda shows how far ahead the competition is for intuitive and simple user interfaces.

The ACC system in the ILX isn’t a system I trust for driving in traffic. When there’s free flowing traffic on the interstate, it’s fine, but I had too many close calls attempting to trust it on highways within the city. The aggressive acceleration and panic-inducing late-braking aren’t things I want to put faith in with my family in the car, which defeats the purpose of ACC.

Final verdict

Again, if the ILX came out 2010, it would have been an amazing, class-leading premium compact car. It is a car I would’ve considered purchasing when I was car shopping in that era. Back then, mainstream compact cars were bare, without driver assists and cheap interior materials. Plus, the unintuitive infotainment system would’ve fit right in with other 2010 luxury car makers.

However, the current crop of mainstream compact cars boast driver assist options, finer interior materials and intuitive infotainment systems, which makes the more expensive Acura ILX a tough sell. Acura has neither the brand cache of Audi, BMW, Lexus or Mercedes-Benz nor much to offer more over the mainstream Chevrolet, Honda, Hyundai, Kia, Mazda, Volkswagen and other brands either.

The Acura ILX is a stylish car that’s enjoyable to drive, but the infotainment system makes it hard to live with. And sadly, this luxury vehicle doesn’t offer enough over a mainstream compact car to command the $6,000 premium either.

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