With cars such as the RL, TL, and TSX, Acura occupied a very narrow band of the sedan market, but now the ILX extends the brand down toward the compact segment, giving buyers real model differentiation. And the ILX brings Acura its first hybrid car.
I spent a day with the 2013 Acura ILX Hybrid in that cauldron of cars, Los Angeles. My CNET colleague, Antuan Goodwin, previously reviewed the ILX Premium, the non-hybrid, top-trim version of the car. When we had that car in at CNET HQ, Antuan pointed out where its Honda Civic foundation showed through the Acura veneer.
That's right, the ILX is based on the Honda Civic. Although not a case of brand engineering, as the ILX has a different body than the Civic, much else is the same, including the power train options. The ILX Premium used the same engine and transmission as the Civic Si.
The ILX Hybrid and Civic Hybrid also share a power train, a 1.5-liter four-cylinder gasoline engine complemented by an electric motor. The engine produces 111 horsepower and 127 pound-feet of torque, while the motor, powered by a lithium ion battery, makes 23 horsepower and 78 pound-feet of torque. The electric motor steps in to help the engine during acceleration and enables idle-stop, in which the engine shuts down when the ILX Hybrid is stopped in traffic. The power gets fed to the front wheels through a continuously variable transmission (CVT).
I like the looks of the ILX. The front end may be a little bland, but the rear fenders give it nice style. However, this exterior doesn't scream premium sedan, and would look perfectly fine on a Civic. The interior is where the real difference between Acura and Honda can be seen. The ILX Hybrid had power-adjustable leather seats and the complete electronics package, including navigation with traffic.
As I cruised around the streets and freeways of Los Angeles, the navigation system proved invaluable for route guidance, and I especially appreciated lane guidance when approaching a junction with 10 lanes splitting off in either direction. But the maps in this system suffer from the age-old problem with Honda navigation systems, where the street names are difficult to read due to jagged letters. The traffic avoidance proved of little use, too, the algorhythm not being bold or creative enough to steer clear of miles and miles of bumper-to-bumper traffic on the 405.
A clear Acura cue was the big dial/button/joystick in the center of the dashboard, surrounded by far too many buttons. Having used this interface in Acura vehicles for about five years, I consider myself a pro. As such, it was easy to enter addresses and select music from the stereo.
With the ILX Hybrid's electric power steering and CVT, driving is an unengaging task. The wheel turns easily, accompanied by the electric whirr of the steering boost. Throw the shifter in Drive and the car rolls unconcernedly forward. But as a hybrid, the car shows a few quirks.
The aforementioned idle-stop feature shut off the engine whenever I held my foot down on the brake, at either a stoplight or in slow traffic. Releasing the brake caused the engine to crank up again, with the abruptness of a waking giant. The operation of the hybrid power train is the same as in the Civic Hybrid, and includes the same amount of roughness. There is no means of disabling the idle-stop feature.
Accelerating the ILX Hybrid means a tortured grind from the engine as the tiny mill runs up its revolutions. At only 127 pound-feet of torque, this engine should not be able to move the somewhat plush ILX very well, but the additional twist from the electric motor makes for enough pickup to keep from being run over.
I was amused to see paddle shifters on the ILX Hybrid's steering wheel, which let me choose seven virtual shift points for the CVT. As a premium compact focused on fuel economy, the car has nothing sporty about its handling or engine performance. I would expect these paddles to go largely if not completely unused.
The ILX Hybrid carries a little more weight, about 100 pounds, more than the Civic Hybrid, which does not entirely explain the fuel economy difference. The Civic Hybrid gets 44 mpg in city and on highway, where the ILX Hybrid only gets 39 mpg city and 38 mpg highway. In my driving, which was biased toward traffic-heavy freeways, the trip computer ended up at about 36 mpg. Although, below the EPA estimates, the ILX Hybrid still showed itself to be frugal with the gasoline.
The base ILX Hybrid, without navigation, goes for $28,900, but the Technology version I was driving has a price tag of $34,400. That price seems a little high, especially when the ILX Hybrid has to face off against the Lexus CT 200h, a more economical car that feels a little more luxurious in the cabin.