Come to a National Auto Sport Association track weekend and you’ll see a rowdy bunch of racers in older Hondas and Acuras, battling inches off each others’ bumpers for podium finishes in a growing Honda Challenge racing series. Talk to the same racers in the paddock, and you’ll find out that a decent number of them daily-drive another Honda or Acura. They are loyal, and for good reason. Acura has historically offered luxury-minded street cars that also appealed to driving enthusiasts, and the company claims its newest 2021 TLX is no exception.
The term “driver’s car” isn’t held to one real definition – it’s totally subjective. Generally, though, a driver’s car is one that may not lead in a numbers battle, but still feels engaging behind the wheel. It’ll inspire you to take a longer route home, just because you’re having such a good time. It has that something to make it feel interesting or special. Given Acura’s history, when they offered a 2021 TLX Advance for a week, I just had to evaluate the car from a fizzy-sensation-driver’s-car sort of lens.
What Is It?
This is a 2021 Acura TLX Advance, which is all-new for the 2021 model year and is the second generation of TLX to be sold. The TLX replaced the Acura TL, which was sold for four generations and replaced the wacky-five-cylinder Acura Vigor from the early 1990s.
Where prior TL and TLX models have shared platforms with parent-company Honda, Acura claims the 2021 TLX is on its own platform entirely. This is not – so they say – just a Honda Accord in a suit, but rather the stiffest Acura ever save for the NSX.
My 2021 TLX tester was equipped with the Advance package, which adds all sorts of nice features – including a set of adaptive dampers. Every 2021 TLX is powered by the same 2.0 liter turbocharged four, producing 272 horsepower and 280 lb-ft of torque. While front-wheel drive is standard (as is the Acura way, generally), buyers would be remiss to not order the “Super Handling All-Wheel Drive” system, abbreviated as SH-AWD. The only available transmission is a 10-speed torque-converter automatic with standard paddle shifters.
MSRP of my Fathom Blue test car came to $49,325.
Here’s Why SH-AWD is So Damn Cool
All-wheel drive has been utilized as a marketing tool for quite some time, and we’ve convinced new car buyers that it’s necessary in case there’s light rain two counties over. I wouldn’t normally devote so much space to drive wheels, but SH-AWD is very clever and very good.
While some all-wheel drive systems are the “slip and grip” style, SH-AWD is always engaged. The system prioritizes the front wheels, which is natural given the TLX starts as a front-drive sedan. When sensors detect weight being transferred rearward, the rear axle is progressively engaged more and more. Up to 70% of engine torque can be sent to the rear axle, and all of it can be transferred to the left or right rear wheel.
What’s most interesting, however, is that Acura has the rear axle (which is always engaged) overdriven by 2.9%, constantly. If you’re adding this up, the TLX can push a good bit of torque to the outside rear wheel, which is moving a bit faster as it is, and do it very quickly.
And what that all means is that you can stab the throttle through a corner and feel this 4,000 pound sedan pivot right through it with minimal understeer, if any. Acura calls this “inward yaw” and the effect can be felt at city speeds or a more vigorous back-road pace.
Driving the 2021 Acura TLX Advance
Beyond the fancy all-wheel drive, Acura’s added a few other fascinating components to the 2021 TLX, in terms of steering and stopping.
Steering uses a variable-ratio rack, which means your steering inputs will have more or less effect on the front wheels depending how far off-center you move the wheel. I can’t say I noticed much of an effect beyond noticeably quick and easy parking-lot maneuvers.
Braking is now handled by an electrically-assisted “brake by wire” system that Acura first employed on the NSX. Brake by wire uses a computer module to take the input your foot provides on the brake pedal and actually do something about it. While a benefit is improved control over pedal feel (and likely, easier integration with driver assistance systems), I do wonder how the system works to mask a soft pedal, should you drive your TLX with too much Vigor (hah) and overheat the brake pads or fluid.
Acura offers a few drive modes, controlled by a comically-large dial in the center stack. I came to appreciate the dial’s size, though, as I’d flip between Sport and Comfort often according to road conditions. Drive modes adjust steering feel, throttle response, and suspension stiffness. Transmission modes are controlled by poking the “D/S” shift button. Though paddle shifters work at any time, the car hands almost all control to the driver if the transmission is in Sport and a paddle is pulled, only upshifting right at redline. Otherwise, you can hang out in any gear you choose.
The turbocharged, VTECified four cylinder can feel a bit slow if the TLX is left to its own devices, as power falls off toward the top of the tachometer’s range. Sport-mode-everything and paddle shifter use really transforms power delivery, and when you hit that sweeping off-ramp or quick set of back-road curves, the TLX comes into its own. It’s eager to change direction, and yes, it’s pretty fun.
On the highway, the TLX also impresses, doing its most dedicated impression of a buttoned-up cruiser. I found the adaptive suspension’s Comfort mode to be floaty at highway speed, but not annoyingly so.
Hit The Road, FLAC
Though Acura packs an amount of technology and “luxury” amenities into the 2021 TLX, as expected, the standout reason to choose the Advance package is the ELS sound system. Built by Panasonic, ELS is a system that Acura first used on the third-generation TL (still the best TL ever) and has continued to evolve ever since. I still recall being blown away in a Crate & Barrel parking lot with my friend Tyson, his 2007 Acura TL Type-S, and a handful of DVD-Audio discs that we played at top volume. ELS left an impression then, and it held up in its newest iteration.
Acura’s “ELS Studio 3D” sound system is said to give an in-studio listening experience. ELS Studio 3D is a 16 speaker, 16 channel, 710 watt sound system, and it sounds fine with your standard $9-per-month Spotify plan that streams compressed music at 320 kbps, if you have it configured properly. Many Spotify users will only listen at 160 kbps, which is perfect for crappy earbuds but not nearly good enough for a nice system.
The path from fine to seriously impressive requires better source material. Acura provided some uncompressed “FLAC” music on a USB thumb drive, and I also signed up for Tidal, a music service that costs more than Spotify but allows streaming and downloading of entirely uncompressed songs. With my iPhone connected via USB – because Bluetooth also limits your quality – I spent a week listening to music of all genres by countless artists.
It is really, really wild to hear details in a song that you’ve listened to over and over for five years and never once noticed. That’s how good ELS Studio 3D is, and if you’re an audiophile, the Advance package upcharge is worth the money.
I came away very impressed with the 2021 TLX, and used quite a bit of fuel as I effectively did laps of my favorite local back roads for part of a Sunday. In the “taking the long way home” role, the TLX absolutely delivers on that ambiguous driver’s car question. It’s enjoyable to drive and fun to push hard(ish), but doesn’t beat you up like a dedicated sports car might.
My biggest wish was that the TLX had a bit of drama in the driving experience. It’s all very, impressively competent, but doesn’t necessarily have that special something that some enthusiasts need to hold their attention. Thankfully, the TLX Type-S is set to go on sale shortly. It’ll offer more dramatic styling and color choices, backed up by a turbocharged V6, Brembo brakes, and slightly-sportier interior trimmings.
So then, is the 2021 Acura TLX Advance a “driver’s car” in light of the TLX Type-S that’s almost on sale? Depends. If you value theatrics, wait for the Type-S. If you’re looking for a competent sedan that can slip entirely under the radar as “just another nice luxury midsizer,” but handle the occasional set of switchbacks as part of your “long way home,” the TLX Advance is well worth a test drive.