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2013 Acura ILX: First Drive (MSN Auto)

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Acura offers a premium compact without the premium performance.

Does a premium car have to have a premium engine? If the new Acura ILX is any indication, the answer is no.

Based on the Honda, the ILX is aimed at a younger buyer who doesn't care about performance, or so says Acura. Consequently, it is offered with two engines sourced directly from the Civic line and a third that is far from premium.

We're not so sure about this "performance is not important" philosophy. But given increasingly stringent fuel-economy standards, we just might see more cars that are premium in every way except engine performance. It's a future we're not ready to embrace.

Model Lineup
The 2013 Acura ILX is offered in three well-equipped variants defined by the engines. The 2.0L, which starts at $25,900, comes standard with cloth upholstery, dual-zone automatic climate control, Bluetooth connectivity, AM/FM/CD stereo, USB port, auxiliary input jack, sunroof, keyless access and starting, universal garage-door opener, rearview camera, xenon automatic headlights and 16-inch alloy wheels. The Hybrid, which starts at $28,900, adds a rear spoiler, while the 2.4L ($29,200) gets leather upholstery, stainless steel pedal covers and 17-inch wheels.

The Premium package (starts at $29,200) for the 2.0 and Hybrid adds leather upholstery, power adjustable driver's seat, heated front seats, auto-dimming rearview mirror, multiview rear camera, active sound cancellation, XM satellite radio, premium 360-watt sound system, and 17-inch wheels (except for the Hybrid). The Technology package (starts at $31,400) includes the premium sound system, XM satellite radio, a navigation system with real-time traffic and weather, AcuraLink communication system, and the 17-inch wheels.

View Slideshow: 5 Cars: Small Size, Big Luxury

Under the Hood
The 2013 Acura ILX is offered with three engines, two of which are directly out of the Honda Civic. The 2.0L features a single-overhead-cam 2.0-liter 4-cylinder that makes 150 horsepower and 140 lb-ft of torque. That's 10 horsepower and 12 lb-ft of torque more than the Civic's base 1.8-liter 4-cylinder. The 2.0 is mated to a 5-speed automatic transmission with manual shift capability. Environmental Protection Agency fuel-economy ratings are 24 mpg city/35 mpg highway.

The 1.5L Hybrid is powered by the Civic Hybrid's 1.5-liter single-overhead-cam 4-cylinder engine aided by an electric motor for a total of 111 horsepower and 127 lb-ft of torque. The Hybrid uses a continuously variable automatic transmission and stores its energy in a lithium-ion battery. Fuel economy ratings are 39/38 mpg. The 2.4L features the Civic Si's dual-overhead-cam 2.4-liter 4-cylinder that produces 201 horsepower and 170 lb-ft of torque. It comes only with a 6-speed manual transmission, and fuel economy ratings are 22/31 mpg.

Inner Space
Acura says Generation Y and younger Generation X buyers interested in the ILX want looks and comfort over performance. With that in mind, Acura didn't skimp on interior quality. The ILX has the same type of soft-touch dash, door panels and armrests as other Acuras, and a familiar control layout. It has a high-tech look with a central controller a la BMW's iDrive. This system uses a central rotating knob flanked by buttons to allow users to get to some functions, especially the navigation controls, quicker. It's somewhat complicated, but the ILX's younger, tech-savvy buyers should figure it out quickly and embrace the technology. Oddly, Acura doesn't offer the Technology package, and therefore the navigation system, with the 2.4L.

Buyers will recognize the familiar dashboard layout with the main controller in the middle of the center stack and an available 8-inch screen set up high.
The Technology package includes an 8-inch color screen and 15 gigabytes of space for music storage. Smartphone users can also stream Pandora through the vehicle and access text messages through an SMS text-messaging feature that reads texts aloud and allows drivers to respond with one of six preset replies.

Whether Cloth or leather, the seats are supportive. Front legroom is plentiful, but headroom will get tight for taller drivers. Rear seat space is only adequate. Adults of average size will fit in the front and rear, but if any of the occupants are tall, rear legroom gets tight.

Cargo space is just average. The rear seat folds down in one piece in non-Hybrid models, but doesn't fold flat, and the floor is stepped between the trunk and passenger compartments. The trunk has 12.35 cubic feet of space, which is average for the class.

Bing Images: Acura ILX

On the Road
While competitors such as the Audi A3 and Volkswagen Jetta GLI are motivated by peppy and fuel-efficient turbocharged 4-cylinder engines, the ILX gets a tepid 2.0-liter 150-horsepower 4-cylinder as its base engine. The similar Buick Verano doesn't have a premium engine, either, but its 2.4-liter 4-cylinder makes 182 horsepower for a starting price of around $4,400 less.

If your expectations aren't high, the 2.0-liter's modest power will be just fine. It'll let you keep up with traffic, but passing will require more planning than usual. Acura isn't giving a zero-to-60 mph number, but the lighter Civic does it in about nine seconds, which is on the slower end of the spectrum for 4-cylinder compacts. Of course, Acura is betting that a new breed of buyers won't really care about power as long as the engine goes light on gas. And that the 2.0 liter does. However, it could do better with the addition of direct injection and an extra gear or two in the transmission.

The Hybrid is slower still, likely around 10 seconds for zero to 60 mph, but it does almost as well in traffic. Power delivery feels a bit odd because the transmission never shifts, but buyers should like the fuel economy. Still, we would like to see Honda upgrade its hybrid system to better contend with the Toyota Prius, which gets 12 mpg better overall.

The one engine we do like is the 2.4-liter 4-cylinder. It delivers its 201 horsepower through a slick-shifting 6-speed manual transmission. The engine revs willingly and pushes the car from zero to 60 mph in about seven seconds. Acura expects only about 5 percent of buyers to choose the 2.4L trim, likely due to the fact that it is only available with the manual transmission. Why Acura would choose not to offer an automatic with the 2.4L is beyond us.

Otherwise, the ILX provides a pleasant and almost sporty driving experience. The electric-assist power steering is light and fairly quick, but it doesn't offer much road feel. Similarly, the car feels light and agile through turns. By comparison, the TSX, which starts at about the same price as the ILX 2.4L, has heavier steering and feels more solid and hunkered down on the road. We prefer the TSX.

Right for You?
The 2012 Acura ILX will appeal to buyers who want thrifty fuel economy and are looking to step up to a luxury brand. Acura touts the car's value, but we feel it is priced too close to, and even on top of, the more substantial TSX. The ILX does have a premium cockpit, but engine performance doesn't match the price, leaving rivals such as the Audi A3, Volkswagen Jetta GLI, Buick Verano and even Acura's own TSX as better alternatives.

(As part of an automaker-sponsored press event, Acura provided MSN with travel and accommodations to facilitate this report.)

2013 Acura ILX: First Drive - MSN Autos
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