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By: Bob Gritzinger on 5/21/2012

Acura's engineers will tell you that the vowel in ILX stands for inomama, a Japanese word for intuitive handling that roughly translates to “it does what we expect it to do” as a premium sports sedan.

Acura's marketers say the “I” stands for “intelligent,” and that's OK, too. With three distinct variants including a hybrid, there are enough choices to make every buyer of Acura's new entry-level premium sedan feel smart.

What Honda's uplevel brand managers aren't saying—but it's not much of a leap—is that the ILX represents the return of the beloved Integra, or at least a sedan version of the RSX that exited the lineup in 2006.

With a dose of Acura luxury and civility, the Civic-based ILX seems to be in a class by itself. The closest competitor at the moment might be Buick's Chevrolet Cruze-based Verano, at least until the Audi A3 sedan arrives in 2014. Interior appointments are upscale but not too dressy, with a dual-cockpit layout that employs bright analog gauges and emphasizes driver command. The exterior styling seems sporty, but, from some angles, there is an odd sort of frumpiness. There's a hint of the bulbous Honda Accord Crosstour bustle in the rear and a shade too much overhang out front, but otherwise, it's stylish.

The ILX comes in three flavors, an enthusiast-oriented 2.4-liter, 201-hp four with a six-speed manual transmission; a 2.0-liter, 150-hp four-cylinder model tied to a five-speed automatic transmission; and a hybrid fitted with the same 1.5-liter, 91-hp four-cylinder engine, 23-hp electric motor and continuously variable transmission as in the Civic hybrid, with some revisions.

The hybrid's 38-mpg combined average fuel economy is the top economy choice; the 2.0-liter posts 28 mpg, and the 2.4-liter hits just 25 mpg. But the 2.4-liter model's 6.9-second 0-to-60-mph time tops the 2.0-liter by nearly three seconds. And all three powertrains exceed 30 mpg on the highway.

Three trim levels are offered: standard, premium and a Technology package. All are available on the 2.0-liter model, while the hybrid comes in the base standard trim or the fully equipped Technology package. The 2.4-liter comes exclusively in premium trim, which includes leather seats, a rearview camera, high-intensity-discharge headlights, fog lights and 17-inch alumi-num wheels. All models with 17-inch wheels also get active noise cancellation.

Enthusiast buyers should focus on the 2.4-liter four-cylinder with the six-speed manual gearbox. It really is the cream of the crop, with grippy handling and a well-balanced chassis, an eager high-revving engine and a near-perfect close-ratio gear set (shared with the TSX, but with revised lower ratios and a lower final drive ratio). The short shifter's precise, weighted feel makes flicking through the gears a delight, with the wide torque band making second or third the perfect gears for finessing through tight corners at speed with maximum powertrain control and balance.

“The ILX is optimized for single-gear driving,” said Takeshi Nakamura, chief engineer on the ILX. “We like driving in fun, manual-transmission vehicles, so we definitely had that idea in mind when we were developing this vehicle.”

Handling is so strong that it's hard to make the car understeer, even under power with considerable steering dialed in, which is surprising for a front-driver. But thanks to the 60/40 front/rear weight distribution, you can feel the back end starting to break loose just enough to allow a nice power slide. Ease off the power, and everything falls back into line, following the driving wheels wherever they are pointed.

The meat-of-the-market model is the 2.0-liter with a five-speed automatic, which is a perfectly acceptable option for those who have to make the autobox tradeoff. Acura expects some 75 percent of buyers will opt for this version, which offers steering-wheel shift paddles to bring some sportiness to the easy-to-drive package. It's sporty enough but hard to accept once you know how good the 2.4-liter manual car is.

The hybrid is the most fuel-efficient choice, but it's also the dullest of the ILX offerings. Between its continuously variable transmission and limited power, along with extra weight from the batteries, the car is a slug, taking 11.2 seconds to run to 60 mph. The hybrid also rides on a different suspension, tuned to handle the weight of the batteries.

If you loved the RSX, the ILX is all that with more refinement—and you won't have to hammer the top end of the rev band to enjoy the car's cutting-edge performance.

Read more: 2013 Acura ILX offers performance and refinement - Autoweek
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