Used Car Shopping, Yuppiemobile Edition: 2021 Acura TLX A-Spec

Acura seems to be having a moment lately, with big revivals in styling, driving dynamics, and interior design in their latest generation of vehicles. And while they’ve come under some fire from commentators and potential buyers alike for their Type-S performance variants being unable to outdrag Kias–much less Audis–down the quarter mile, horsepower isn’t everything, and their lineup is the best it’s been in 10-15 years. The prior generation of Acura struggled to stand out and reflect the brand’s respectable heritage, and by 2015 the midsize TLX sedan had become a bit bland and cheap-feeling like the Accord it was based upon. This new TLX appears to be a sharp about-face.

Look at it sitting there with its flaring hips and NSX front end and shining blurple paint. It’s an edgy thing that appears fast while parked, and I’m fully rooting for it.  Go, Acura, go! Promises of a functional and engaging midsize sedan are made here; it is larger than its predecessor and comes with a standard 272-hp engine on a new chassis not shared with the Accord. This example had a mere 16,000 miles on it. Keys in hand and genuinely interested, off I go to see if it’s the complete all-rounder we’re looking for. Will promises be kept?

Um.  Well, let’s say that Acura still knows how to cook up a batch of their signature special sauce, and they used a large bottle of it on the TLX.  But they poured it into the steering and chassis, without leaving much for the rest of the vehicle. The transmission is mediocre, it’s useless as a sedan, and it compromises itself by posing real hard as an RWD platform while doing a poor job of acting like one.

The car immediately impressed me as I drove away. I think the steering and suspension tuning are astoundingly good, and that impression hit me very quickly.  After the numb, pavement-pounding BMW and years of our own crudely-tuned Camry, it’s easy to forget that a car can be responsive, feel light on its feet, and still deliver good ride quality. The TLX shines here, with a natural lightness and progressiveness to steering effort, a quick ratio that turns the front in quickly, chassis and suspension tuning well matched to that steering, and a compliant ride that dances with quiet grace over the winter-blasted pavement that rattled the BMW. It is an ideal blend of response and comfort for an enjoyable daily driver for me.  Road noise is kept quite low, and they put a reportedly best-in-the-biz ELS sound system in the car to take advantage of that. This car could eat up some interstate miles in comfort without getting remotely sloppy where the road bends. It’s fully undermined the case for the F30 BMW; nicely done so far.

Autoblog image


The engine is the equal of the BMW’s, which means it’s another flat and joyless two-liter which puts up some decent numbers. It received a sprinkle of sauce left from the bottle, but no one should be writing sonnets about it. About six seconds to 60; mid-upper 90s in the quarter. It’s quick enough, but the cheaper and lighter Accord with this same engine will easily jog away from it–which is probably why the Accord don’t get that engine no more. There is less turbo lag than in the BMW from a stop when single-foot driving, so it’s a bit more responsive when pulling into traffic; that’s a big plus.  But the BMW lets you remove the lag through light brake torquing, and the Acura doesn’t. At least, I couldn’t get it to.  If you exert the two-footed effort to make the BMW step out very quickly, it will. The Acura always hesitates. Outside that, they deliver very similar power and passing times, and the same kind of bland, indifferent buzziness overlaid with digital sound augmentation attempting to make it seem like something other than a small four.

Hey there, teeny engine. You’re no V6, but you do a pretty good job moving this hefty car.


The BMW’s ZF transmission is superior, however, to the Acura’s transmission, which feels like it would be happier in a Pilot than a sports sedan. It’s a 10-speed which is a bit slow to downshift, perhaps because it has about four gears too many.  Its indecisiveness makes sense to me; if you had a wide turbocharged powerband to divide across 10 close ratios, would you know what the hell to do with a given throttle input? I wouldn’t.

The paddle shifters are of little use, because they’re slower to react than those in our Camry, and rapid-clicking through so many close ratios to achieve a meaningful change in engine speed gets old quickly. It’s a letdown, but not a dealbreaker, given the chassis and steering. The Acura is acquitting itself well enough, and still has my full attention. There’s life in this car, a tangible purpose and character to the way it moves.

Mine didn’t have the AWD, but still managed torque steer rather well.


In poking around the build-‘n’-price feature on Acura’s website, I found this sporty looking A-Spec has no mechanical upgrades over the two lesser trims.  It’s an appearance and frosting package providing a few racier styling flourishes and access to luxury features like the big audio system and ventilated seats.  Only old people want wood interior trim, so it’s all severe metal in here to appeal to the serious driver, and there’s a flat-bottom steering wheel to further make you feel like Lewis Hamilton even though it turns the same rack and same wheels beneath the same suspension.  You can opt for a truly garish red interior that’ll activate your Type-A personality’s competitive side before the seatbelt is even buckled.  I’d personally go for a Technology or Advance trim, with their more mellow and tasteful attributes, because I’m now old and boring and willing to embrace it.

As with everything now, there are ‘drive modes’ to fiddle with, but with fixed dampers and only the throttle, shift, and steering assist mapping to work with, there isn’t much of a difference. Unlike the BMW, the steering remains appropriately light in Sport, but the transmission then clings onto low gears for way too long once the throttle is released. That’s annoying and unintuitive, so I’d just leave it in Normal.

There are a few neutral peculiarities.  I found the infotainment track pad a bit fiddly.  The transmission button array is an answer to a question no one asked, given by someone bent on solving problems that don’t exist and reinventing wheels that already roll.  I’m not sure if it is accomplishing its intended mission because I’ve no idea what that mission is.  Doesn’t look like it saves much console space over a traditional lever.  But if this is your car—not one of many press loaners you are bouncing among—you’ll get used to it in short order, no big deal.  We’re surviving here, this car is still in the running. C’mon, Acura!

I still prefer a shift lever with fixed detents, but there are worse push button arrangements out there.


The rest of the interior is where this car falls down, and it falls hard.  Really hard. We’re talking Red Alert, taking on water, call 911, brace-for-impact levels of problems here.  Simply put, I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a poorly-packaged sedan. It is five inches longer than our Camry and a certified blue ribbon porker at 3,800 pounds in FWD, two tons flat with AWD. Despite this, it has the functional rear seat legroom of my Fiesta. My knees are up against the nasty hard plastic backing of the driver seat, the headrest is rather close to my face, and my head is brushing the ceiling. Shoes catch in the footwells on exit.

This is a long car. Where on earth did it all go?

Not believing I could be the only one caught so badly off guard by the cabin space, I perused video reviews and the general conclusion was that it’s small but livable, which is a rather generous assessment.  Most of those folks weren’t tight up against the seatback. Most of them weren’t five-eleven, either, so there’s the dividing line. An average or shorter adult will fit behind an average or shorter driver, but if you’re a driver approaching six feet, the spot behind you is only for five-foot-nothings or kids old enough to be out of rear facing car seats but young enough to have not sprouted towards teen age. That’s a poor showing for a 195-inch car. It’s a poor showing for a 180-inch car.

The stubby little back doors don’t lie; it’s tight back here


Multiple reviewers went to strange lengths to justify or ignore the cramped cabin space of the TLX.  One thoroughly demonstrated the difficulties of getting child seats into the back of this car, writing he had to move the driver seat 5.5 inches forward from his normal position.  Five-point-five inches! I expected an excoriation for this, but he waved it off as a mere trifle: “This wouldn’t be a deal-breaker for me because…minor discomfort isn’t a terrible thing…I can still drive an hour or two at a time like that…It’s navigating parking lots that’s a little awkward with that steering wheel right in my lap and my legs more confined.”

Good grief!  All tied up and contorted in sycophantic apologetics so as not to offend. “Hey, yeah! I mean, sure I’ve got to sit right up against the wheel and drive using the cruise control buttons since my legs are now non-functional origami stuffed into the footwells and cannot operate the pedals, but you know–that just gives me a chance to test the awesome automatic emergency braking and conveniently lean forward an inch to gnaw on that steering wheel which Acura so thoughtfully made of leather so supple and rich that I no longer crave filet mignon. Thank you, Acura. Thank you for the privilege!”

That’s automotive “journalism” for you. Rant over, I guess.

Actually, no, because the cargo space is compromised as well. There’s no spare tire. Acura bolted the car’s battery right to the middle of the trunk well and surrounded it with a giant chunk of styrofoam to raise and level out the trunk floor.  The resulting space is a bit shallow and restrictive regardless of the rated capacity, which already barely exceeds that of a Corolla.  I didn’t know the company responsible for the brilliant Fit could make such astoundingly stupid packaging decisions.

You can order—i.e., pay and wait for—a complicated kit that slings a donut spare and jack tools over and around the battery (developed post-hoc by Acura to address complaints, if the owner’s forums are correct). It’s a rather clever looking gizmo, if I’m honest, but it should be standard equipment, and it wouldn’t be necessary at all if they’d put the battery under the long hood where it belongs.

Square peg in a round hole! This was obviously shaped to accommodate a spare, so this battery squatting there is a bit insulting.


The problem here is that Acura sacrificed the advantages of a front wheel drive platform to create an aesthetic. The stretched hood evokes the classic RWD proportions, but this car has a small transverse engine forward of the axle rather than a big longitudinal one aft of it. This chicanery steals length from the passenger cabin and results in the tiny back seat, yet 58 percent of the car’s mass is still resting on the front wheels. I thought the BMW’s weight distribution shenanigans were a bit much, but they achieved a 50:50 balance and a usable back seat in a RWD car a full foot shorter. So what’s Acura’s excuse? Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know–buy an RDX if you want space. But I don’t want an RDX.  I want this big sedan to fit adults in the back seat.

I’m pretty confident in my assessments above, but here’s where we wander into an opinion so contrary to the existing reviews of this car that it makes me a bit nervous:  I found the interior materials wildly overrated.  Reviewers praise and photographs flatter, but in person I thought it had a thin feel for a near-luxury product.  As the trend du jour, there’s stitching everywhere, but it takes more than that to create a sense of quality to me. The busy and deep dash is made of numerous adjoining panels that have a lot of flex when pressed, and the choice of surface graining and sheen across much of the interior looks more like it came from a Kia Optima than a $50,000 Audi competitor. The very tall center console is flanked by thin and hard economy plastics, and the glovebox is a lightweight unlined Rubbermaid bin that belongs in a base Civic along with the window switches taken directly from Honda’s economy parts cache. In contrast, the BMW’s dash feels like a thickly cushioned steel girder and the padded materials which continue onto the glovebox and lower door panels give that interior a far more solid, damped, and expensive feel.

The A-Spec has a lot of faux and real metal accents that do little to hide the abundance of hard unpleasant plastics elsewhere.


Part of it may be the accent choices in this A-Spec trim, which cut toward the metallic, industrial style designers associate with ‘sporty’ but which I find chintzy. Other trim levels have real wood inlays and full leather seating and two-tone color combinations which look fantastic in photographs. This would help elevate the visual perception of quality from 10 yards out, but still won’t address the abundance of hard plastics and thinner feel of the build.

Looks impressive from a distance or through softly-lit press photos, but the high-relief pebble graining, thin panel feel, and coarse scratchy plastic at the switches and everywhere below the armrest make this feel very mainstream in person—regardless of that nice wood panel and metal speaker cover.


This isn’t going well anymore.  We started out flying high and fast, but now the rudder’s kicked hard over and the yoke is buried, sending this review into an unrecoverable downward spin.  So I may as well continue by saying the interior durability also gave me pause. The rubber flashing strips between the door frames and interior trim panels were rippled and distorted in multiple locations—high and low, left and right.  The interior door grab on the driver side already had excess play in it, flexing and separating at the upper mounting point; something structural in there is loose or broken.  The faux suede fabric on the bottom cushions of the driver seat had already stretched and become wavy as if heavy derrieres had spent years flopping down on it. That’s a lot of wear for 16,000 miles. We have the same style of imitation suede seats in our 7-year old Camry with 89,000 miles and they still look new.  Now, I can accept that every car has its own life experiences and perhaps the prior owner was a hefty fella who settled hard into the seat and used that door grab as a leverage point to hoist out.  However, there were multiple other TLX listings with suspicious seat and armrest wear on cars only two years old. It’s looking like a pattern to me.

Rippled seat fabric on my tester and numerous others listed online


All-leather may not solve this. About 30,000 miles on this one, listed in a hot climate. What’ll it look like at 10 years?


At this point, before this review hits the ground in a fireball, it’s fair to ask if this car is overhyped or if I simply expected things never intended by the manufacturer. My answer is, if Acura had reallocated six inches of empty hood to the passenger cabin, not done stupid things in the trunk, and spent just a couple more bucks shoring up the furnishings so a $50,000 car didn’t feel disposable at two years of age, I’d be shopping around for an AWD Advance model with the wood interior, and I’m not kidding.  There are a lot of solid, hard-to-nail fundamentals done correctly in this car.  The chassis, ride/handling balance, and noise control are nearly enough to make up for the interior quality and mediocre transmission, but we need a midsize 4-door to actually be a midsize 4-door. There was a time when I’d be greatly drawn to a well-styled, nimble and comfortable sedan with the space utilization of a personal coupe, and that time may come again when the kids are gone.

Presently, however, the TLX is far too compromised for us in packaging, and the interior quality just isn’t there, so it’s 430i in a landslide if forced to choose between the two.  But I don’t have to choose! There are other candidates.  See you next time.