MOST people don't remember that Acura, not Lexus, was first to offer a compelling Japanese alternative to the German luxury automakers.
Two debut models were offered in 1986: the Legend, which was a proper luxury car, and the Integra, which wasn't.
Instead, the entry-level Acura was something even better - not an entry-level anything, but a properly excellent-handling little front driver with a willing engine and solid build quality. It was both fuel-sipper and hot-rodder, and when Acura put a bullet in the badge in 2002, they made, in my opinion, a huge blunder.
Since then, Canadians have had access to various Civic-based offerings from the high-class wing of Honda. Some were good, like the popular 1.6/1.7EL. Some, in retrospect, are just a bit too entry-level, like the CSX.
However, Honda and Acura both seem to have found their lost compass these days, with a reinvigorated focus on build quality and brand pride. One feels a duty to mention the return of the NSX halo car, with a vague hope that Acura can reclaim a little of that past glory.
But never mind the low-volume supercar stuff, Acura's reputation in this country is built in the driver's seats of the cars that sell by the thousands, not tens. Here, then, is a car much more important to the health and survival of the brand than any mid-engined poster-fodder: their new ILX compact sedan. Design
As a groundbreaking game-changer (or whatever other PR-speak you might hear attributed to this car), the ILX doesn't exactly stun from the curb. No flame-surfacing, LED-bedazzling, chrome-laden fender-venting found here.
Frankly, I like it quite a bit. It's a charcoal V-neck of a thing - dress it up, dress it down, hot date, big presentation, Super Bowl Sunday.
Acura's German competition has been doing the "one sausage, three lengths" thing for so long, it's nice to see the smallest Acura echo the best details of the TSX, TL and RL (now to be reborn as the silly-badged RLX). Not too many details though - in side profile, aliens would be hard pressed to differentiate this car from a previous-gen Mazda3.
ReLaX, Acura, I mean that in a good way. While the ILX is longer up front and shorter in back than the Civic from whence it takes roots, it's still a balanced-looking car. This Dynamic tester has nicely sized alloys (17-inch) that fill out the wheel wells, but even the standard 2.0-litre car looks stylish - and can be optioned with the 17-inchers if desired.
While the polished-aluminum-look accents and alloy pedals of the Dynamic option add a bit of sportiness to the interior, there's little you'd call radical in here. Like its exterior, the ILX's insides are conservative to a fault.
One bit of weirdness: this theoretically top-of-the-line Dynamic car has the largest engine (2.4-litre), but it lacks navigation. Technophiles must sacrifice horsepower for gadgets (but they'll get better fuel economy).
However, luxury must-haves like push-button start, a colour information display, Bluetooth handsfree and so forth are all readily available. As they would be if you highly optioned up a Kia Rio.
The front seats do a good job of being supportive, though there isn't a surfeit of lateral bolstering, and the rear seat is somewhat cramped in the headroom department.
The trunk will be large enough for most intenders, but has only a single large pass-through - the seat folds as one large piece rather than a 60/40 split. Hardly the end of the world, but try taking a skiing holiday with two of your closest friends.
Standard equipment in the ILX is a 150 h.p. 2.0-litre four-cylinder mated to a five-speed automatic transmission. Let's call this "Vanilla."
Eco-conscious, willing to give up a little trunk space and not in any sort of a hurry? A 115 h.p. hybrid option is on the table - low-fat Strawberry.
However, what we have here is "Chocolate": my Dynamic tester sports the 201 h.p. 2.4-litre engine straight out of the Civic Si. In fact, the car feels overall like a four-door Civic Si with an Acura badge on it.
It's the only ILX available with a manual transmission, and sports a light-but-slick six-speed shifter and typically Honda-ish clutch (that's a compliment). Steering is very light as well, and perhaps a bit numb, and the ILX does have a little more body roll than the Si would.
However, that extra bit of suspension compliance lends much-needed smoothness to the car. It's just the sort of thing you could ferry around your boss in without looking like an extra from The Fast and The Furious. It is, however, a tad too noisy on the highway to be a "luxury" car.
The willing, torquey four is just as good as it is in the Si - don't shed too many tears for the stratospheric-revving Honda powerplants of old - and the controls are light enough to make dealing with stop-and-go a doddle.
One caveat: even this Dynamic model doesn't have that special feel of an old Integra GS-R. While Acura will surely sell plenty of the standard cars, you can't help but feel that only the top of the range has enough of that old Acura charm.
Entry level for the ILX starts at $29,735 for the standard 2.0-litre car, nicely equipped with power moonroof, Bluetooth, intelligent key and so on.
Navigation and premium audio of the Tech package shoot things up to $34,235.
The hybrid option will set you back $36,935, and sees fuel economy improve to 5.0/4.8 litres/100 kilometres city/highway from the 2.0litre's 8.5/5.6 l/100 km city/hwy rating. If you've got a heavy city commute, might be worth it. A highway warrior?
The Dynamic hits a sweet spot at $31,395, and it's frankly too bad that its six-speed shifter will likely turn off the average buyer. With economy set at 9.8/6.5 l/100 km city/hwy, it's actually quite reasonable for long-distance travel and, as pointed out, has a little more character than the others.
Road engine; body roll; no tech package on sport model.
Strong acceleration; nimble handling; conservative styling; smooth shifter.
The checkered flag
Not quite a recapturing of the original Integra's spirit, but works well as a mildly premium compact car.
Competitors Volkswagen GLI ($27,590)
How many premium sedans am I going to compare VW's GLI to? All of them.
As a balanced package, the GLI goes directly up against the ILX Dynamic, and has the added benefit that you can option it with a quick-shifting automatic. The 2.0-litre turbo is also a very sweet-sounding powerplant, and some will prefer the VW's heavier German handling.
It's still my pick as the most complete Teutonic performance sedan on the market, but therein lies the catch: the Acura will surely have lower maintenance costs as the years stack up.