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Honda’s upscale Acura division has had a gaping hole in its lineup ever since it dropped the compact RSX (previously called the Integra) in 2006. The original Integra, which debuted two decades earlier as a sportier and more luxurious version of the Honda Civic, was highly regarded for its winning combination of lively acceleration, nimble handling and amenable accommodations.

Acura finally reentered that model segment for 2013 - just in time to catch the rising tide of interest in top-shelf small luxury cars - in the form of the ILX compact sedan. Same as its predecessor RSX, the ILX is based on the Civic and adds elements of sportiness and refinement with more formal-looking styling inside and out.

While the ILX is (refreshingly we think) no BMW 3 Series fighter, neither is it a stodgy and underperforming economy car. Its closest competition is a Buick Verano, though it’s arguably more fun to drive. The base model, which should be the line’s top seller, packs a quick-enough 2.0-liter 150-horsepower four-cylinder engine that’s exclusive to the ILX. It comes mated to a capable five-speed automatic transmission, though a six-speed (used in many compacts these days) would have yielded incrementally smoother performance and better fuel economy. Still, the 2.0-liter engine gets a respectable 24-city/35-highway mpg rating.

Those looking for additional gas savings can alternately choose the costlier hybrid-powered ILX that shares its gas/electric powertrain and gearless CVT automatic transmission with the Civic Hybrid. It’s rated at 39/38 mpg.

Our preferred choice, however, is the 2.4L version that packs the Civic Si’s peppy 2.4-liter 201-horsepower four-cylinder engine. While it comes only with a short-throw six-speed manual transmission, the combination is endearing and entertaining whether venturing around town or out pushing the car to its limits on a remote winding road. The gearbox shifts quickly and allows aggressive drivers to rev the engine up to its 7,000-rpm redline for maximum thrust. Still, we wonder if Acura wouldn’t be able to sell more 2.4-liter models if an automatic were alternately available for clutch-averse drivers. Fuel economy suffers a bit for the added power, however, at 22/31 mpg.

While the Acura ILX isn’t as flat-out sporty through the curves as some of its more stiffly sprung (and higher-priced) European competitors, it delivers an adept balance of ride comfort and handling abilities. The responsive ILX could be described at “tossable,” as it remains light and agile through sharp twists in the road, yet is sufficiently stable while accelerating through tightly arced on-ramps. What’s more, unlike many performance-minded models, the ILX won’t punish its riders with a too-harsh ride over bumps and broken pavement in the process.

The car’s interior is handsomely designed with seats that are both supportive and comfortable, with a dashboard that features easy-to-read gauges and ergonomically correct buttons and dials. There’s sufficient seat travel up front for taller drivers to stretch out, and adequate legroom left over in the rear can accommodate two adults, provided the front seats aren’t pushed all the way back.

Starting at $25,900, the ILX comes well equipped with all the essentials and includes amenities like a rear backup camera, automatic headlamps and smartphone connectivity features. Meanwhile, the 2.4-liter version includes leather upholstery, heated front seats and a power driver’s seat and is sticker priced at $29,200; the ILX Hybrid starts at $28,900.

The only downside to the car is its price, which overlaps at the high end with the slightly larger and better-equipped Acura TSX sedan and is on a par with many roomier and more-powerful midsize models, including the Honda Accord. Still, the ILX is priced far below comparable models from Audi and BMW and should be ideal for both empty nesters and up-and-comers looking for a comfortable and capable small car that affords top-shelf accommodations.
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