The 2021 Acura TLX is the latest luxury sedan from the company once known for the legendary Legend and its justified “Precision Crafted Performance” tagline. Keen to recapture some of that 1990s magic, everyone at Acura – from brand chief Jon Ikeda down – is focused on returning sportiness to the luxury automaker, one new product at a time. In the case of the TLX, has that effort paid off?
Numbers-wise, that appears likely. Underpinning every 2021 TLX is an Acura-exclusive platform, and each trim level (save the high-performance Type S) gets a turbocharged 2.0-liter inline-four. Shared with the RDX, the engine produces a stout 272 horsepower and 280 pound-feet, beating the old base 2.4-liter four by 66 and 98, respectively. It’s also got more twist – though a bit less power – than the formerly optional 3.5-liter V6, which made 290 hp and 267 lb-ft. A snappy 10-speed automatic transmission and available Super Handling All-Wheel Drive further the TLX’s spec-chart performance. But what about when paper turns to pavement?
Verdict added in February 2021. A vehicle's ratings are relative only to its own segment and not the new-vehicle market as a whole. For more on how Motor1.com rates cars, click here.
Doing Its Best
Acura went to great lengths to give the 2021 TLX sportier, more neutral handling. A return to a double-wishbone front suspension is a step in the right direction, keeping the tire contact patch consistent even in hard cornering or over bumps. The new platform is also 50 percent stiffer than before, thanks to high-strength materials like aluminum and press-hardened steel. Engineers also worked to even out weight distribution – an aluminum hood, front fenders, damper mounts, and bumper support reduce weight over the front axle, as does moving the battery to the trunk.
Unfortunately, there’s only so much that good science can do to counteract carrying 57 percent of a vehicle’s mass over the front axle. Chucked into a corner, the TLX responds with resolute understeer and a heaping helping of tire squeal, along with more front-end roll than I’d like to see. Both the A-Spec and Advance I drove had SH-AWD, which helped matters significantly when applying power, since the torque-vectoring rear differential can send 100 percent of the rear axle’s torque to either wheel, reducing understeer on throttle application.
On higher-speed corners, the TLX comes into its own, thanks to that sophisticated Super Handling system.
After a few minutes behind the wheel on some tight, low-speed roads, it became clear that the TLX drives best when entering a corner rather slowly – trail braking is your enemy here – then punching the gas pedal once the corner apex comes into view. Driven like that, the all-wheel-drive system conspires with nearly perfect transmission tuning and the grunty, lag-free turbo four to make great time down a canyon road. Furthermore, opting for aggressive summer tires might help initial corner entry as well – both cars I drove wore howling all-season rubber.
On higher-speed corners, the TLX comes into its own, thanks to that sophisticated Super Handling system that shuffles power between the wheels appropriately. Acura also deserves credit for an electrically assisted helm with decent steering feel and linear response. Although it’s odd the A-Spec doesn’t get the Advance’s adaptive dampers, both offer good body control – Acura tuned the standard dampers somewhere between the Advance model’s Sport and Normal settings.
A Confident First Impression
We’ve seen the 2021 TLX in photos and gotten a look at it under studio lights, but out in the real world, the Acura sedan looks even more purposeful and planted. Part of that is due to its larger proportions – the 113.0-inch wheelbase and 194.6-inch overall length are up over the TLX’s predecessor, with a longer dash-to-axle ratio and a wider track imparting a much more premium appearance. Crisp hood bulges look wonderful viewed from the outside and even better from the driver’s seat, and both A-Spec and Advance trims get beautiful 19-inch wheels that fill the fender openings perfectly.
The interior is even better. The dashboard’s attractive center stack looks like the control panel of a futuristic spaceship, its focal point being a large Integrated Dynamics System knob plucked right from the NSX. Genuine aluminum trim appears on the base, Technology, and A-Spec models, while the Advance gets aluminum and open-pore wood. A larger palm rest for the True Touchpad Interface (TTI), coupled with a high and well-padded center console, give the TLX near-perfect ergonomics; with the driver seat adjusted for my long-legged, short-armed frame, the steering wheel, pedals, and secondary controls fell within easy reach.
Luxury And Technology
When the road ahead straightens out, the TLX becomes Acura’s best luxury car ever. With no corner complexes or driving lines to focus on, it’s easier to appreciate the sedan’s stellar interior materials, supportive front and rear seats, and pillowy ride, particularly in an Advance model set to Comfort. Two tall passengers would have plenty of space in front, thanks in part to a wider interior that distances each front seat apart just a bit more – Acura says the TLX has class-leading “couple room.” And the rear seat is reasonably commodious, offering more stretch-out than the similarly priced Mercedes-Benz C300 and BMW 330i.
One of the TLX’s real party pieces is an ELS Studio 3D audio system, standard on A-Spec and Advance. As we’ve experienced before, the system provides crystal-clear high and middle tones, with excellent bass reproduction and immersive surround sound when playing compatible file types. It even helps improve the quality of streaming music. Audiophiles will love it.
When the road ahead straightens out, the TLX becomes Acura’s best luxury car ever.
Acura stuffed the 2021 TLX with its latest and greatest technology features, too. The novel touchpad works well, mounting a 10.2-inch infotainment display near the driver’s sightline, but out of reach. Inputs come by way of a small touchpad right on the center console whose functions mirror that of the screen – tap the upper-left of the pad to actuate whatever’s in that screen position. With some familiarization, the TTI is intuitive and easy to use.
A 10.5-inch head-up display on the Advance model also helps reduce distraction, but if the driver just can’t keep their eyes on the road – in that case, they honestly shouldn’t be driving in the first place – standard AcuraWatch is here to step in. The safety suite bundles forward collision monitoring, automatic emergency braking, adaptive cruise control, and traffic jam assistance with low-speed follow. Except for the base model, all trims also get blind spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic assistance, and front and rear parking sensors; unfortunately, a surround-view camera is unavailable.
The Competition Heats Up
Acura brought along some of the 2021 TLX’s potential competitors for some quick benchmarking, and in many respects, the Japanese luxury automaker has a lot to be proud of. Compared against the more expensive, one-class-up BMW 530i xDrive, the TLX boasts a more responsive powertrain and a much nicer interior, while the Mercedes-Benz C300 4Matic and Audi A4 are notably smaller inside. That said, the compact Benz and midsize Bimmer boast better low-speed handling dynamics, and we suspect a similarly priced 3 Series would widen the gap even further.
The TLX Advance is a decent sports sedan, offering a beautifully finished interior, smooth ride, aggressive styling, and zesty performance.
Even so, Acura has done a lot to make the also-ran TLX into a bona fide contender. At a base price of $37,500 (plus $1,025 destination) for the front-drive sedan, it competes with a smaller class of vehicle while offering size-up interior space and comfort. The A-Spec SH-AWD I drove demanded $46,250, while the fully loaded Advance SH-AWD cost $48,300 (plus dealer handling on both).
At $49,325 with destination, the TLX Advance is a decent sports sedan, offering a beautifully finished interior, smooth ride, aggressive styling, and zesty performance – low-speed handling niggles notwithstanding. Though imperfect, the 2021 Acura TLX is a vast improvement over its predecessor and an excellent alternative to the competition.
Gallery: 2021 Acura TLX: First Drive
2021 Acura TLX Advance