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Acura is trying to catch premium compact magic in a bottle — again — with its new 2013 ILX sedan.

The Honda premium brand’s first go at a luxury small car, the 1997 EL, was initially a smash hit. In its first year, the Honda Civic-based four-door made up just over half of all Canadian Acura sales.

Since then, however, the type of vehicles Acura sells in Canada has changed dramatically.

Last year, trucks — the RDX and MDX crossovers — made up more than half the brand’s sales. Of the 17,340 vehicles Acura sold here in 2010, only 2,064 copies of the ILX’s predecessor — the Civic-based CSX — were sold in its last full year of production.

First drive: 2013 Acura ILX

More: Acura CSX more about comfort than speed

Acura wants to get back to selling more than 20,000 cars here annually. An all-new 2013 RDX compact crossover that goes on sale this spring and a forthcoming new RLX flagship sedan will help that cause. But the new front-wheel-drive, five-passenger ILX sedan is being counted on to more than double CSX sales numbers in a segment that industry analysts are predicting will explode.

One of the reasons CSX sales slowly declined was internal competition from the car it was based on.

As the Civic kept on adding formerly Acura-exclusive features (i.e. heated leather seats and the more powerful Si sedan) to its options list, the extra money Acura kept asking for its CSX seemed less and less appealing.

But this time around, Acura’s premium compact won’t be a Canadian-market exclusive. For the first time since the late 1990s Integra four-door, an Acura compact sedan will be sold to Americans. And the expected higher North American sales volumes means extra money was found in the ILX’s development budget for more differentiation between the Acura and the Honda, both inside and out.

One differentiation with the old CSX will be pricing.

Acura Canada would only say ILX pricing will be “below $30,000” when it goes on sale this spring.

Consider the 2011 CSX started at $24,290, and the new Buick Verano, the premium version of the Chevrolet Cruze, begins at $22,595.

Ambitious pricing? Maybe.

Especially when said Verano offers more horsepower and torque (180 hp/171 pound-feet) from its 2.4-litre four-cylinder engine than the ILX’s 155 hp and 139 pound-feet from its 2.0 L four.

Plus, with one more gear in its six-speed automatic transmission, the Buick scores about the same fuel economy as the Acura’s 9.5 L/100 km city and 6.5 L highway ratings.

Even as you move through the ILX lineup, the Acura compact may have some challenges in a very competitive market.

With its high-revving four-cylinder and slick-shifting six-speed manual gearbox, the new ILX 2.4 L is the enthusiast’s choice and the next model up the pricing ladder.

Its 201 hp is competitive with its chief rival, the $27,475 Jetta GLI. But its engine is down 37 pound-feet compared to the 207 in the VW.

Perhaps the hardest ILX to justify is the new Hybrid model, the first gasoline-electric Acura.

The hybrid ILX scores well in the fuel economy department — 4.4 L/100 km in the city, and 4.2 on the highway,

If it’s priced under $30,000, the Acura hybrid will look like a good value compared with the slow-selling $40,850 Lexus HS 250h compact hybrid sedan.

But because it uses the same 1.5 L gas-four and electric-motor hybrid system as in the $24,990 Civic Hybrid, the ILX is way down on power (111 hp/127 pound-feet versus 187 hp/130 pound-feet) compared to the Lexus, yet fuel economy is similar (the ILX scores 4.4 L in the city, 4.2 on the highway, while the HS 250h is rated at 4.5 L city, 5.6 highway).

So, beyond the extra 15 hp over the Honda compact’s base 1.8 L four, what do you get for your extra money with the ILX that you don’t with a well-equipped $24,390 Civic EX-L?

Well, for starters, you get a cabin that feels a lot more upscale than the Civic, which has come under criticism for its low-rent digs. Like the Verano and Jetta, the ILX comes with optional two-tone interiors.

But the Acura’s use of soft-touch plastics and fit-and-finish are no better than the Buick’s cockpit. The ILX’s centre console stack still has a lot of buttons to deal with, and the resolution of the graphics on the digital screen look more like they came form the Atari era, not the iPad age.

I was able to split a day’s test drive in and around Scottsdale, Ariz., in half between the base ILX 2.0 L in the morning and the ILX Hybrid in the afternoon, sandwiching a brief stint in the sporty 2.4 L during the lunch break.

The good news is, no matter what ILX I drove; the Acura is considerably quieter than its Honda counterpart. The roads in Arizona are relatively pot-hole-free, so it was no surprise to find its ride was more comfortable and quiet too.

However, despite Acura holding up its forthcoming 2015 NSX super car as a sign the brand is trying to instill some emotion into its products, the ILX is a luxury car first and foremost.

Even the sportiest version, the ILX 2.4 L, felt not as sharp as the older CSX in its reactions when pushed hard, with steering that offered little feedback.

So, is the ILX really a “premium” compact? Or is it just a Civic with a fancier set of clothes and a softer ride?

The idea of a Civic with more upscale styling and interior makes sense.

It’s one of the reasons Acura had so much success with the original ’97 EL, offering something different than the Civic was based on.

But it’s not 1997 anymore. (Heck, you can get heated seats and a heated steering wheel on a $22,000 Kia Rio these days.) And it will only get tougher for the Acura in the near future.

The likes of Audi, BMW, Infiniti and Mercedes-Benz will be jumping into the premium compact sedan market over the next few years.

By then though, we’ll know if the Acura ILX has caught premium compact magic, or ends up being more like the unsuccessful CSX.

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First Drive

2013 Acura ILX 2.0L/2.4L/Hybrid

EST. BASE PRICE: $26,000

ENGINES: 2.0 L I4/2.4 L I4/1.5 L I4 and electric motor

POWER: 155/201/110 hp

TORQUE: 139/170/127 pound-feet

TRANSMISSION: Five-speed automatic/six-speed manual/CVT

FUEL ECONOMY: L/100 km: 10.7 city, 7.4 highway

COMPETITION: Buick Verano, Volkswagen Jetta 2.5/Jetta GLI/Jetta TDI, Lexus HS 250

WHAT’S BEST: Stronger visual identification from Civic than CSX; quiet and comfortable interior; plenty of drivetrain choices.

WHAT’S WORST: No new ideas; is the pricing too ambitious?

WHAT’S INTERESTING: The ILX Hybrid is Acura’s first-ever gasoline-electric vehicle.

Acura takes shot at premium compact market with 2013 ILX sedan |
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