You Can’t Beat It With a Stick
NOT many Americans still want a car with a manual transmission. And for the Facebook generation, a car with a third pedal near the floorboard (it’s called a clutch) might as well be a Hudson Hornet.
For those reasons, fewer automakers — even exotic brands like Lamborghini — are bothering with stick shifts. So while a small cadre of enthusiasts can praise Acura for offering a 6-speed manual in its 2013 ILX , one wonders if the sales strategy will someday be studied in business schools as a cautionary tale of misguided marketing: the most powerful, desirable version of this compact sport sedan isn’t available with an automatic transmission at all.
Essentially, if you refuse to wrangle a stick and a clutch — or can’t sell your significant other on the arrangement — you may want to cross the ILX off your list. Save thousands and get a Ford Focus, a Mazda 3 or another sporty compact with a lot of features but no luxury pretensions. It’s really that simple. And the problem isn’t that the ILX is a bad car. The problem is that it is three cars.
One of these is impressive, and the others are largely forgettable, all because of the sort of self-sabotage that we’ve seen too often of late from Honda and its upscale Acura division.
The good news is that although the ILX is a deluxe makeover of the Honda Civic, most people would never guess they’re related. Once the most flavorful of compact cars, the Civic has been watered down like a cheap margarita. The ILX feels quite different: it looks better and drives sharper, and it is peaceful and pleasing inside.
Smart alecks will lazily accuse the ILX of being a Civic with leather seats, but one trip around the block would change their tune. The Acura’s fine road manners recall the slightly larger Accord-based Acura TSX.
Drop in the TSX’s 2.4-liter engine, which feels stronger than its 201-horsepower rating, and you have an under-the-radar sport sedan, a touch lighter and faster than the ever-reliable TSX. The base price is $30,095, about $5,000 more than you’d spend on loaded versions of everyday compacts.
And while a $30,000 compact sedan tends to set American eyeballs rolling, the combination of this engine — still one of the world’s great 4-cylinders — and generous features makes this version of the ILX, the 2.4L, an attractive proposition.
But here’s the catch: the 2.4L, the version that truly justifies its entry-luxury price, can be obtained only with a 6-speed manual transmission. Way to go, Honda: you just eliminated, oh, about 95 percent of the customers who’d even consider spending $30,000 or more on a small sedan.
Worse, when those manual-shift die-hards show up at the dealer, determined to get a top-shelf ILX — with all the luxury goodies that help to justify the price — they’ll also learn that they cannot have a voice-activated navigation system, even as an option. That feature, the sales representative will be forced to explain, is available on only the base model and the Hybrid.
The 2.4L buyer is also denied the AcuraLink satellite communications system, real-time traffic and weather reports and 15 gigabytes of music storage.
That leaves the two other ILX models for the people who demand an automatic transmission — pretty much everyone — and the latest in-car technology. Yet both seem like shakier propositions, including the starter model, the 2.0L.
Priced from $26,795, this is the ILX that screams “compromise” at the top of its little 2-liter lungs, with standard cloth seats and just 150 breathless horses from a version of the Civic engine. The base model is a car that dogs will chase, sniff and recognize as one of their own.
And once you throw in the options that make a “premium” compact premium, the price of the 2.0L can reach $32,295. That’s a lot for a sedan with an econobox engine and no more oomph than cars that cost around $20,000.
In comparison, the new Buick Verano offers a 180-horsepower 4-cylinder in its base model (with a 250-horsepower turbo version on its way), and the Audi A3 features a fat 200 horsepower from a brilliant turbo 4-cylinder.
Options on the 2.0L come in two straightforward groups.
The $3,300 Premium Package includes heated leather seats, a power driver’s seat, 17-inch wheels, a 360-watt audio system, high-intensity headlamps, fog lamps, a rearview camera and active noise cancellation, which quells annoying sound frequencies that intrude into the cabin.
The package also features a Pandora Internet radio interface and a Bluetooth-enabled feature that can read incoming text messages out loud. It even lets drivers send six preset replies using voice commands.
Then there is a $2,200 Technology Package that adds the navigation system and surround-sound audio.
And while the ILX 2.0L is offered exclusively with an automatic transmission, it is the prosaic 5-speed from the Civic. You can get 6 speeds on any number of bargain-basement compacts.
There is a third model, the ILX Hybrid, which seems to have the market potential of an Uggs store in Sudan. Starting at $29,795, or $3,000 above the base ILX, this model adopts the Civic Hybrid’s 111-horsepower gas engine and gives it an electric motor assist.
Add on the Hybrid’s $5,500 Technology Package (which includes every available feature save 17-inch wheels), and buyers are looking at $35,295 for a small hybrid that can’t break 40 miles per gallon. (The government rating is 39 m.p.g. in the city and 38 on the highway. For comparison, the strikingly styled Lexus CT 200h tops the Acura with a 43/40 m.p.g. rating.
Asked about the odd lineup decisions, Acura executives said the 2.4-liter, manual-only ILX was positioned as the high-performance model. For customers who prefer an automatic, the executives added, there’s always the TSX.
My hunch is that once its dealers’ howls stop reverberating, Acura will relent and offer an automatic on the most desirable ILX, the 2.4L. While at it, Acura might drop the base engine entirely, along with the pretense, to establish what the ILX is supposed to be: an entertaining Euro-style sport compact.
For now, that ILX 2.4L is good enough to send people to remedial shifting school to brush up on their clutch work.
Across the line, Acura revamped the Civic stem-to-stern with a lighter and stiffer structure (including aluminum bits); more sound deadening, thicker laminated windows and aerodynamic covers below the floor; a nearly 7 percent faster steering ratio with more precisely machined gears; and a sportier suspension, including dual-stage shock absorbers and lower-friction bushings.
The stability system borrows advanced controls from Honda’s Asimo humanoid robot, with faster reactions and an ability to make automatic steering corrections to counter skids.
The resulting car can’t break-dance like the adorable robot, but it is handsome and entertaining. Even for those who choose the more frugal powertrains, the Acura feels like a legitimate entry-luxury car down to its smartly tailored cabin. Guiding the Acura over a gravel-choked road, its solidity and quietness made an instant impression.
Aging boy racers who loved their old Integras or RSXs may be let down by this more subtle approach. But the top-shelf Acura is no poseur, save for its modest all-season Michelin tires.
The Buick Verano is a stylish and reasonably charming car. But the Acura feels more fun and sophisticated — as does the TSX compared with the Buick Regal. The ILX beats the Verano on engine performance, quick and sensitive steering, suspension and bump control and shifter feel. (The turbo Verano will have a chance to even the score.)
Honda recalled about 6,000 ILXs this month to repair a potentially faulty door latch, though no customers had reported a problem with the car.
Helping to wring every drop from the 2.4L’s 7,000-r.p.m. engine and 170 pound-feet of torque, the Acura’s shifter and clutch are the smoothest synchronized pair this side of a $100,000 Porsche 911S. This powertrain scoots the ILX from a standstill to 60 m.p.h. in about seven seconds, roughly two seconds quicker than the starter model.
But you’d better check your watch for the unhurried Hybrid, which arrives at 60 m.p.h roughly four seconds after the sporty ILX 2.4L.
The 2.4 engine does consume slightly more gas, with a 22/31 miles per gallon rating versus 24/35 for the 2-liter model.
I happened to drive the ILX back to back with Acura’s redesigned RDX crossover. Both the sprightly RDX and high-end ILX chalked up all the performance and features you’d expect in their categories. Yet the RDX doesn’t dabble in multiple powertrains or raise shifter barriers to potential buyers. It’s a tremendously versatile crossover and feels like a clear bargain against rivals like the Lexus RX 350, Audi Q5 and BMW X3. As such, the RDX is just the kind of all-aboard winner that Acura needs to re-establish itself as a smart, practical choice among luxury brands.
But aside from hybrid fanatics with $30,000-plus to burn, the ILX seems limited to fans of shift-it-yourself compacts at a relatively high price. Because either group might struggle to fill a high school gym, Acura should act quickly to expand the appeal of the ILX before it slips through the market’s cracks.
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