When it first appeared as a 2013 model, the Acura ILX was ahead of its time. Honda’s luxury division saw great potential for a car that was premium without being large, and spiffed up its popular Civic with exclusive styling, a richer interior, more features, different engines, and zestier handling.
Acura beat its German competitors to the punch. The Audi A3 and Mercedes-Benz CLA compact sedans arrived soon after with the same formula: high-end style shrunken onto a compact car with a base price below $30,000. BMW is only now readying its own competitor. The ILX, facing only the less sporty Buick Verano, was almost in a class by itself.
However, Acura largely missed this opportunity by giving most ILX models a choice of two underpowered economy-grade engines. Only the rare buyer seeking a manual transmission got to have much fun, getting a larger engine and a slick-shifting stick that ably complemented the car’s agile handling. This reviewer implored Acura to make the 201-horsepower 2.4-liter more widely available.
The updated 2016 ILX, which incorporated precisely that change, accordingly showed great promise. Acura did unfortunately drop the manual transmission option, but it more importantly made the 2.4-liter engine standard, now hooked to an eight-speed dual-clutch automatic shared with the larger TLX. Fuel economy even improved over the old base ILX despite an extra 51 horsepower, to 29 miles per gallon in mixed driving; this reviewer observed an outstanding 35.9 miles per gallon in a weeklong test, which included primarily but not exclusively highway driving.
Sadly, though, Acura also changed the 2016 ILX where it arguably shouldn’t have, and didn’t make other changes that it probably should. The once-sharp steering has lost its edge; the ILX no longer makes use of its compact weight and dimensions to offer an extra-fun driving experience. Acura has elected to focus more on technology than sportiness, and the ILX’s at times feels haphazardly retrofitted. Plastic bulges on the front and rear bumpers, part of the 2016 update, feel like a tacked-on styling cue that’s ineffective in the luxury class. And while its luxury ambiance was okay by 2013 standards – especially given its lack of competitors at the time – it needed updates that it did not receive in order to stay strong against new competitors from both premium and mainstream brands.
The result is a premium car that feels too much like a budget one, even wearing a sticker price of nearly $36,000. And the extra power alone doesn’t make it a fun car when sporty handling – seemingly a primary reason for the ILX’s existence, compared to the similarly priced TLX – is no longer a key strength.
Regardless of what qualities you’re looking for in a premium sedan, you can probably find more of them in something other than the ILX.
Why to buy it
If you’re dead-set on a car in the compact entry-luxury class, there are some clear advantages to the ILX over its direct competitors. The base versions of the A3 and Verano are simultaneously less powerful and less fuel-efficient than the Acura (though the Buick uses regular fuel instead of the others’ premium). The ILX also beats the A3 and CLA for value, starting with a base-price advantage of a couple thousand dollars, and eventually reaching around $9,000 when they’re loaded up (according to pricing site TrueDelta.com) thanks to the Germans’ pricey options.
The ILX also comes with a healthy suite of technology, especially for safety: a blind-spot warning system, a backup camera with rear cross-traffic alerts, adaptive cruise control, automatic braking to mitigate the damage in an impending collision, and even automatic steering that can keep the car from drifting out of its lane. None of these features is exclusive to the ILX, but it’s not often you’ll find them starting from $33,000. Even the base model at $28,000 isn’t stripped down – it doesn’t have the aforementioned tech, and its seats are synthetic leather rather than the real deal, but Acura gives all ILX buyers a moonroof, heated front seats, automatic climate control, and a proximity key.
Speaking of price, note that the tested ILX includes a $2,000 A-Spec appearance package – larger wheels (18 inches instead of 17), a body kit, foglights, and revised interior trim. Skipping that package gives the Acura a further value boost.
The ILX’s new engine is also a nice blend of power, smoothness, and fuel efficiency, and there’s decent composure to its ride and handling.
Why to skip it
If you’re dead-set on a car in the compact entry-luxury class, yes, the ILX has some advantages. But perhaps a more helpful approach to car-buying is to focus on what qualities you’re seeking, as opposed to which general market class seems like the best fit. And by that metric, the ILX largely falls apart.
The reason for this class to exist is to bring some degree of luxury style, amenities, and refinement to a relatively agile, affordable, and fuel-efficient car – to the detriment of interior space.
Acura has a clear lock on the latter, at least. The ILX has a snug cabin, with narrow front seats for a luxury car, and tight rear quarters. Thick roof pillars and small windows make the car feel even more like a closed-in bunker. It’s still less cramped than a Mercedes CLA, but less roomy and airy than the Civic on which it’s based.
The positive ingredients, though, are harder to come by. Cabin trimmings are upscale of the economy-car norm, but the overall ambiance is not. Ride quality, noise levels, and the solidity of the doors are not what you’d expect north of $30,000. The supposed benefit of sporty handling isn’t really evident; Acura sacrificed some agility for ride quality for 2016, and giving the steering so much electronic control may have diminished its sharpness at the times the driver is fully in charge.
Also, while the ILX has a strong price advantage over its like-sized German competitors, its value quotient is less impressive compared to Acura’s own TLX – a roomier and far more polished car that costs just $1,500 more than a comparably equipped ILX, has sharper steering responses, and gives up just one mile per gallon of EPA fuel economy ratings.
Granted, the ILX’s full suite of tech features is available for quite a bit less money than on the TLX – you need to get a fully-loaded model for some of the goodies on the larger car. There’s also no TLX that’s comparable to the base ILX; the TLX with standard equipment is more in line with the mid-grade ILX Premium. But at the heart of their respective lineups, the ILX is merely a sacrifice for a slightly lower price tag – not a compact sports sedan you’d intentionally seek out due to any advantages of its own.
Setting aside its existential issue, some more quibbles mar the ILX experience. The complex eight-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission – essentially an advanced form of a manual transmission whose clutches are operated by the car rather than the driver – was prone to repeated stumbles during the weeklong test. And although you can manually tell the car when to shift as a substitute for a true manual transmission, advancing one by one through eight gears does not really add to the driving experience.
The dashboard controls are also a little fussy. Acura wisely ditched a sea of gray buttons in favor of a touchscreen, but at the same time retained a larger display screen above it, and left physical buttons for the climate controls in place. The result, while more attractive than before, is a bit of a hodgepodge in which it’s not always evident where to go for a particular function. For instance, the ILX displays climate information on the touchscreen but you can’t adjust it there. The TLX has a similar interior layout in general, but the control layout is more cohesive with careful integration of the various components.
If you just love it
If something about the ILX really resonates with you personally – the way it looks, the design of its cupholder, a particular rare feature, or anything else – and you’re not picky about how a car drives, you could well be satisfied with it.
Or perhaps not. Just 57 percent of ILX owners surveyed by Consumer Reports said they’d buy one again, among the lowest scores for entry-luxury cars. Granted, those were ILX owners who had the vastly inferior engine options of years past. But they also had livelier handling than this 2016 model offers, and purchased their cars before standards increased for interior design and quality.
The ILX can be appealing on paper, for bringing a premium badge and lots of features to a relatively attainable price without skimping on engine power. But be sure to give it careful scrutiny to help ensure that its noisy ride, tight interior, and rather tinny feel (for a premium car) won’t make you fall out of love with it down the road.
This review has repeatedly mentioned the Acura TLX as another car to consider for a little bit of extra money but no real other disadvantage, unless you especially want a certain feature that’s hard to come by on that model. And the Audi A3, a direct competitor, is a nicer vehicle than the ILX at a similar size, as long as you wouldn’t add too many of its expensive options.
There are some other cars to consider. If a smooth, quiet ride trumps sporty handling, the Buick Verano is fine premium small car. It’s less fuel-efficient than the ILX and doesn’t have all of its tech features, but it’s a strong value, uses regular fuel instead of premium, and has good suspension composure despite not being outright sporty. The brand’s slightly larger midsize Regal – equivalent in size, price, and handling to the Acura TLX – is another competitive choice.
If sportiness is a key factor, a base-model Cadillac ATS offers outstanding agility and a well-finished interior. Steep discounts on this fun but slow-selling model make its transaction prices more reasonable than its MSRPs would suggest. Note that its base engine is a little weak and coarse, but the overall experience still feels upscale of the ILX. The Infiniti Q40 – a renamed version of the G37 – is an aging model that still has high levels of performance and luxury at a compelling value, albeit with a standard V6 that won’t sip fuel like a small car with a four-cylinder.
Sport-seekers might also be interested in a fully loaded version of the Mazda3 or Volkswagen Golf and GTI compact cars, which have many premium qualities despite their mainstream badges, and are quite a bit more affordable than this Acura.
It’s easy to look at a car as a collection of pluses and minuses. And the ILX is not empty in the “pluses” column. But as a premium sports sedan that feels neither particularly premium nor particularly sporty, those pluses aren’t entirely relevant. The ILX simply isn’t the car that it set out to be, and for most tastes, better options will exist.
Photo gallery of the 2016 Acura ILX
Review: 2013 Acura ILX Premium
Review: 2015 Acura TLX Tech
Review: 2014 Honda Civic EX
Review: 2015 Mazda3 s Grand Touring
Review: 2015 Volkswagen Golf TSI SE
More about the 2016 Acura ILX:
Vehicle base price (MSRP): $27,900
Version tested: Tech Plus A-Spec
Version base price (MSRP): $34,890
Vehicle price as tested (MSRP): $35,810
Estimated transaction price as tested:* $32,334
Test vehicle provided by: Honda North America
Length: 181.9 inches
Width: 70.6 inches
Height: 55.6 inches
Wheelbase: 105.1 inches
Weight: 3,115 pounds
Trunk volume: 12.3 cubic feet
Turning circle: 36.8 feet
Engine: 2.4-liter I4
– Horsepower: 201
– Torque: 180 pound-feet
Transmission: 8-speed dual-clutch automatic
EPA city mileage: 25 miles per gallon
EPA highway mileage: 36 miles per gallon
EPA combined mileage: 29 miles per gallon
Observed mileage during test: 35.9 miles per gallon
Fuel capacity: 13.2 gallons
Fuel type: Premium
Assembly location: Ohio
For more information: Acura website
*Estimated transaction prices are based on data from Truecar.com and dealer quotes.