2021 Acura TLX SH-AWD A-Spec Review by Ben Lewis

Here’s a term: Brand-lag – when a manufacturer is making big strides, but it takes a while for the word to get out. A perfect example, we recently tested the Kia K5, loved it recommended it to friends, and were surprised to hear “Hyundai and Kia? Oh, I wouldn’t get near one of those.” Where you been the last few years? Their new stuff is great.

Acura is sort of in the same boat.  In the last few years though, Acura has really stepped up their game – we enjoyed the little ILX sedan, the sporty new RDX, and the NSX is supercar cool. But it is taking a while for the brand to get on buyer’s radar.

We think that’s about to change with the all-new 2021 Acura TLX!

Design by the House of NSX

Let’s start with the looks – this is a drop-dead gorgeous sedan.   Acura says it heavily influenced by the Acura Precision Concept, and it definitely cuts a larger swath than the previous model, being 2.2 inches wider, 0.6 lower, riding on a 3.7-inch longer wheelbase, with wider front and rear tracks. Parked next to a BMW 3-series it looks much larger and a heck of a lot meaner!

The front makes a bold first impression with a massive diamond pentagon grille with the outward “splatter” effect that’s very dynamic. Like the 2021 Lexus IS350 we are getting used to mega-grilles, and it really works on the TLX, with Jewel Eye LED headlights with four elements (Acura has always been crazy for multiple light formations) and Chicane LED daytime running lights. Sitting atop is a bold, carved and curvaceous hood that looks a mile wide and promises loads of power underneath.

The profile is aggressive as well, with a long hood line, sharp side creases, a serious coupe-like headline, and short tail, that gives a very pronounced short rear overhang. Our tester’s Shark Grey 19-inch alloy wheels finish off the silhouette and looks pure performance.

The rear carries the sporty theme through, with an upswept rear decklid, Chicane LED taillights that wrap around the corners, and massive dual tail pipes poking out under the rear fascia. Our tester was the hot A-Spec model, that along with those massive 19-inch rims, adds gloss black accents to the front and rear, darkened head and taillight treatment, and a stubby but serious rear spoiler.

We’ve seen the TLX in a number of colors and they all look great, but we were particularly knocked out by the Apex Blue Pearl, which is a rich, powerful color that just pops like crazy on the new bodywork.

From the Cockpit

Sporty and spacious, the larger exterior translates into copious amounts of room inside – the cabin feels wide and airy, with a pronounced center console giving off a strong cockpit vibe.

Step in and the TLX wraps around you with serious intent. The sportiest note comes from the A-Spec exclusive vibrant red Milano Premium Leather with black Ultrasuede®-trimmed seats. With 12-way power adjustments and heated and cooled seats, it’s easy to get comfortable up front. The rear seats are a little snug for this class, doable for adults for short trips.

Those expecting a full-on digital dash like our Mercedes A35 may be disappointed, but Acura reminds us how good and proper traditional analog gauges look, served up with red markings in our tester.  Standard practice, there’s 7-inch full-color Multi-Information Display between the gauges, that calls up a variety of info. It’s a pleasure to look at, especially through the fat leather-wrapped D-shaped steering wheel.

Among other treats for the eyes are real aluminum trim throughout the cabin, LED lighting with 27 (!) color themes, and a large 10.25 inch info-tainment display. Access is through a touchpad on the center console.

While we usually find these fiddly, Acura has done an excellent job of giving you clicking points in the four corners of the pad, as well as an up and down area, so you end up getting pretty close to what you want. At least a lot better than the Lexus ES250 we tested. We should also add that Acura includes a basic volume knob and left-right toggle that helps a huge amount.

You really appreciate that volume knob with the 17-speakers Acura/ELS Premium Audio System that sounds fantastic. Acura gives you the whole enchilada of tech, with Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, Navigation, Wi-Fi and all sorts of cloud-based services. 

We’re less enamored with the pushbutton controls for the automatic transmission. Yes, this is pretty common now on all Acura and Honda models, but we prefer an actual lever. Our recent Audi Q7 showed that a stick doesn’t have to be big or clumsy to still give the driver plenty of involvement.

 A New Level of Performance

A lot of the above we’ve come to expect from Honda’s luxury label, but it’s the drive that makes this the most exciting sedan we’ve experienced from Acura. Under the hood is a 2.0-liter, turbo 4-cylinder we first sampled in the RDX. It’s a powerhouse, too, with 272 horsepower and 280 lb.-ft. of torque (66 more hp, and 123 lb.-ft. versus the previous TLX).

We like this motor even better in the TLX. Put it in Sport Mode and you get a lovely engine sound piped into the interior, there’s loads of power down low, and it loves to pull hard to the redline. Sport Mode is your friend for the 10-speed automatic, popping of quick shifts, and keeping the turbo motor steaming ahead. Drop into normal or comfort mode, and the transmission mellows out for smooth and peaceful progress.

You could love the TLX just for the engine and transmission, but it’s the chassis that really makes it a standout.  It starts with the 4th generation of Acura’s optional Super Handling All-Wheel Drive, and like a fine European automaker, Acura has been continuously tweaking the system to make it better. In the TLX that means it can give more power to the rear wheels and also can shuffle it around much more quickly. It adds up to make the TLX feel more like a rear-wheel drive vehicle – giving a lovely way to balance the chassis with power.

It also helps make what is technically a large relatively heavy vehicle feel impressively light on its feet that would be at home at the local autocross as it is on your favorite twisty road. The steering is precise and light to the touch, and the SH-AWD helps point you into the corners, making you feel like a better driver than you probably are. The optional all-wheel-drive perfectly suits the sporty intentions of the TLX – we highly recommend it.

Acura also shows its skill with the suspension tuning, while adaptive dampers are available on only the top of the line Advance Package, we found the single-setting on the A-Spec to be perfectly measured, aggressive enough to enjoy a spirited drive, yet smooth and composed enough to be perfect for the everyday. The brakes give a nice firm read and make the perfect finishing touch to an exemplary drive.

Goodness Comes at a Price

The 2021 TLX is a massive step up over the previous model, and it is also a step up in price. The Standard TLX with front wheel drive starts at $37,500. Very reasonable for a gorgeous, capable sedan. The A-Spec like our tester starts at $44,250, plus $2,000 for the SH-AWD system we love. Apex Blue Pearl was a reasonable $500, and with $1,025 in Destination, we rang the bell at $47,775.

Aimed squarely at BMW’s 3-series, a comparable 330i comes in at over $52,000. That’s a big step up, and the Acura just kills the Bavarian in the looks department. Tighter budget? The Kia K5 GT is impressive value at $35,705, though it’s not quite a luxury brand or have the cache of an Acura.

The all-new 2021 Acura TLX is a serious player in the luxury/performance sedan market. Stunning looks, loads of tech and a superb drive. Look out BMW!