2021 Acura TLX Review

Christian Wardlaw, Independent Expert | Sep 24, 2020

Introduction - Find the best Acura deals!

Acura says it is getting back to its “precision crafted performance” roots, and the redesigned 2021 TLX midsize sports sedan is a perfect example of the company’s new “less talk, more drive” ethos. Not only that, but a design renaissance is also underway at Acura, one revolving around the Acura Precision Concept vehicle that serves as the template for the shapely new TLX. 

Already applied to the company’s popular RDX compact crossover SUV, Acura will next apply its latest engineering and design philosophies to the all-new 2021 MDX midsize crossover and the next-generation ILX compact sedan. Together with the new TLX, these four core models, plus the company’s terrific NSX sports car, will lead the charge after Acura completes its reinvention.

With a release date of September 28, 2020, the 2021 Acura TLX arrives in standard form with available Technology, A-Spec, and Advance option packages. Prices start at $37,500 and rise to $48,300. About six months after the first new TLXs go on sale, the racy Type S arrives with more power and performance than you’ll find in the standard versions. Expect the price to start at about $55,000.

2021 Acura TLX Advance Gray Front Quarter View

Photo: Christian Wardlaw

For this review, J.D. Power evaluated the TLX Advance equipped with Super Handling All-Wheel Drive (SH-AWD). The window sticker came to $49,325, including the $1,025 destination charge.

What Owners Say… - Find the best Acura deals!

Before we discuss the results of our evaluation of the 2021 TLX, it is helpful to understand who buys this midsize premium car and what they like most and least about their vehicles.

According to J.D. Power data, 60% of Acura TLX owners are male (vs. 64% for the segment), and the median age of a TLX owner is 55 years (vs. 61).

Owners say their favorite things about the previous-generation TLX were (in descending order) the exterior styling, driving feel, feeling of safety, and driving comfort in a tie with the powertrain. Specifically, these five things about the vehicle rank highest in comparison to the midsize premium car segment:

  • Ability to hold personal items
  • Getting vehicle set up
  • Operating vehicle remotely
  • Usefulness of secondary infotainment functions
  • Getting in and out of the front seats

Owners indicate their least favorite things about the previous-generation TLX were (in descending order) the setting up and starting, interior design, getting in and out, infotainment system, and fuel economy. Specifically, these five things about the vehicle rank lowest in comparison to the midsize premium car segment:

  • Exterior styling
  • Power of engine/motor in a tie with the smoothness of engine/motor
  • Ride comfort
  • Vehicle protection
  • Attractiveness of screens/displays

In the J.D Power 2020 Automotive Performance, Execution and Layout (APEAL) Study, the previous-generation TLX ranked 5th out of five premium midsize cars.

What Our Expert Says… - Find the best Acura deals!

In the sections that follow, our independent expert provides his perceptions about how the 2021 Acura TLX measures up in each of the ten categories that comprise the APEAL Study.

Exterior

Looking almost identical to the handsome Acura Precision Concept car, the 2021 TLX is an attractive midsize sedan that showcases the automaker’s latest design themes to dramatic effect. 

2021 Acura TLX Advance Gray Rear Quarter View

Photo: Christian Wardlaw

Acura focused on what is known as the “dashboard-to-axle” ratio, moving the car’s cabin further back on the vehicle’s platform to visually reduce front overhang and facilitate a long hood and more dramatic front fenders. The resulting proportions mimic those of a proper luxury sport sedan, and thanks to the cohesive and compelling design, Acura need not resort to extraneous detailing to add character or make the TLX look “sporty.”

Choose A-Spec trim, and Acura paints the TLX’s wheels Shark Gray, blacks out the chrome detailing, installs a subtle body kit, and adds an NSX-inspired black decklid spoiler.

Interior

With the redesigned 2021 TLX, Acura’s new approach to interior design results in a low, expansive, and layered dashboard rendered in the high-quality materials commonly found in the company’s vehicles. 

2021 Acura TLX Advance Dashboard

Photo: Christian Wardlaw

Unfortunately, a design emphasis on the car’s Dynamic Mode control knob and electronic transmission controls, combined with Acura’s True Touchpad Interface approach to the infotainment system, limits usable storage space for personal items. Unless the narrow slots on either side of the center console suffice, you’ll need to use the cupholders, glove compartment, center console storage bin, or door panel bins to secure smaller items. There is, however, a handy wireless charging pad to the left of the cupholders.

Four different color combinations are available for the interior, depending on the exterior paint color. The A-Spec adds two exclusive interior treatments for a sportier look, including gauges featuring red markings on a bright silver background. Sadly, low contrast makes the instrumentation hard to read during the day. The simple white-on-black treatment in other TLX trim levels is superior.

Getting In and Out

Because they sit lower to the ground, sedans are usually harder to get into and out of than SUVs are. However, stepping into and out of the TLX isn’t a chore, especially if you position the front seats higher for a taller hip point.

The rear seat is a different story, and a couple of factors are at play here. 

Acura’s research shows that people who regularly use the rear seat to carry people are more likely to choose their MDX or RDX SUV models. As such, the company elected to prioritize the TLX’s exterior styling with a more pronounced tumblehome as the design tapers toward the rear. This approach, combined with the longer dashboard-to-axle ratio, crunches rear seat space well into compact car territory.

Furthermore, Acura panels the front seatbacks in hard plastic, a change from the softly padded seatbacks in the previous TLX. An Acura spokesperson explained that decision, asserting that the selection in materials ensures maximum legroom. That might be true, but the plastic is mighty unfriendly to knees and shins. So, while padded material might result in less competitive official measurements, it would improve both comfort and entry into and exit from the rear seat.

Additionally, the rear seat has generous outer bolsters and a sharply angled cushion to provide proper support. Both choices make it harder to exit the car.

Pop the trunk using the key fob, and the lid opens completely, revealing 13.5 cubic feet of space, down from the previous TLX’s 14.3 cubic feet. However, the trunk hinges are enclosed, which means you can safely pack using the maximum volume without concern. An interior handle helps you to swing the lid shut without dirtying your fingers.

Setting Up and Starting

Push the Acura TLX’s start button, and its turbocharged 4-cylinder engine comes to life. The sound isn’t as refined or sophisticated as the previous TLX’s available 3.5-liter V-6 engine.

Setting the car up is not easy because it takes time to acclimate to how the True Touchpad Interface works. The infotainment system does not offer touchscreen functionality. Therefore, you must use the controls on the center console or the steering wheel, or issue voice commands to operate it. And while the touchpad on the center console is usable without looking down and away from the road, it remains a distraction when you attempt to use it while driving.

Fortunately, the driver information center residing between the analog gauges is easier and more intuitive to operate right out of the gate.

Infotainment System

While Acura’s True Touchpad Interface (TTI) infotainment system isn’t an ideal solution, there is no question that the new approach is superior to what Acura used in the outgoing TLX. The previous car’s stacked dual-screen setup was yanked right out of the automotive history books, and few people will miss it.

Still, with companies like Audi, BMW, and Mercedes-Benz all adding touchscreen control to their vehicles, Acura’s move in the opposite direction is questionable. Even Lexus, which has come under significant fire for its similar Remote Touch Interface, has begun offering touchscreens in its models, like the upcoming 2021 Lexus IS.

In any case, the new TLX gets an improved iteration of TTI, which debuted in the 2019 Acura RDX. Continuing with its high-definition 10.2-inch static display mounted at the top of the dashboard, the TLX’s TTI uses a new operating system, has improved swipe response and handwriting recognition capability, and features a more comfortable wrist rest. Acura also added handy volume and tuning controls to the right of the touchpad.

System loading and input response times are acceptably brief, and the quality of the display’s graphics is light years ahead of the old TLX. The stereo controls on the center console (and steering wheel) are helpful, and the climate functions are entirely divorced from the infotainment system, another improvement.

Acura’s voice recognition technology performs well. It passed most of my standard command tests, but couldn’t interpret a request to find my favorite locally-owned restaurant when using the name of the establishment and the street name.

The top-shelf sound system for the new TLX is a 17-speaker, 710-watt component set tuned by Grammy award-winning music producer Elliot Scheiner. Named after him, the ELS Studio 3D surround sound system employs four overhead speakers and Twin Telford dual subwoofers.

How does it sound? With Acura’s prescribed setup and provided USB containing specific digital music files, it’s impressive. 

For comparison, immediately before driving the TLX Advance, I was piloting a Volvo S60 with its optional Bowers & Wilkins sound system. The Acura’s audio experience was nearly as good until I reset the tone and balance levels to original factory settings and switched to streaming Pandora, replicating the listening situation in the Volvo. With those changes, I was less impressed. But then, Acura isn’t charging $3,200 extra for its audio system like Volvo does for the Bowers & Wilkins setup.

Keeping You Safe

Using its Advanced Compatibility Engineering (ACE) approach to body structure design, reinforced with additional high-strength steel in essential locations, a new protective front door ring on each side of the car, and improved floor rigidity and load pathing, Acura bakes safety into each new 2021 TLX. 

We’ll need to wait until after official crash-test results are available to determine whether the approach is successful. However, Acura does engineer the new TLX to excel in the new oblique frontal-impact test that will become a part of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s (NHTSA) testing in the future. To help protect the front passenger in these types of collisions, the TLX has a new airbag design that it says can reduce brain tissue injury in oblique-impact crashes by up to 75%.

The automaker’s AcuraWatch collection of advanced driving assistance systems (ADAS) is standard. With the debut of the TLX, it expands to include improved pedestrian detection, a driver monitoring system, a traffic sign recognition system, and traffic-jam assistance. The latter works at lower speeds to handle stop-and-go traffic, lane centering, and safe following distances to make the daily commute more bearable.

With the Technology Package, the TLX adds blind-spot warning and rear cross-traffic warning. The Advance Package equips the car with visual ADAS alerts on the head-up display and a surround-view camera system.

During testing, the adaptive cruise control and lane-keeping technology revealed a need for additional fine-tuning and refinement. No doubt, the ADAS is superior to what the previous-generation TLX offered. However, braking application remains too apparent when the car is maintaining its following distance to vehicles ahead, and the numerous small and sharp steering corrections as the car attempts to center itself in a lane quickly become tiresome.

Powertrain

Previously, the Acura TLX had a choice between a 206-horsepower 2.4-liter 4-cylinder engine and a 290-hp 3.5-liter V-6. With the 4-cylinder engine, an 8-speed dual-clutch transmission delivered power to the car’s front wheels. With the V-6, a 9-speed automatic handled that duty. Acura’s torque-vectoring Super Handling All-Wheel Drive (SH-AWD) came only with the V-6 engine.

The 2021 Acura TLX replaces both engines with a turbocharged 2.0-liter 4-cylinder generating 272 hp and, more importantly, 280 lb.-ft. of torque from 1,600 rpm to 4,500 rpm. A 10-speed automatic powers the car’s front wheels, or all four of them when you order the next-generation SH-AWD system. Integrated Dynamics Control is standard, offering Comfort, Normal, and Sport driving modes.

While the old TLX’s V-6 engine was undoubtedly a powerful and refined gem, the new turbocharged 4-cylinder is an acceptable replacement making 13 more lb.-ft. starting 2,900 rpm lower in the rev range. Despite an active sound enhancement system designed to improve how the powertrain sounds within the cabin, the 4-cylinder doesn’t exhibit the same smoothness or as satisfying a note as the 6-cylinder.

One goal Acura had with the new TLX was to provide more distinct differences between driving modes. This effort is a success, and the car adopts a decidedly more aggressive character in the Sport mode. Unfortunately, when manually shifting, the transmission does not match revs, making the paddle shifters less enjoyable. This situation is especially disappointing since, left to rely on its software, the transmission tends to hold a lower gear for too long on tighter and more technical roads. 

Thankfully, a new Individual setting is also available for the new TLX, allowing owners to customize powertrain, steering effort level, and, with the Advance Package, suspension settings to specific preferences. My favorites were Normal for the powertrain (despite more pronounced turbo lag) and steering, and Sport for the adaptive suspension. 

Fuel Economy

Acura recommends premium fuel for the new TLX, and it reports EPA fuel economy ratings of 21 mpg in the city, 29 mpg on the highway, and 24 mpg in combined driving. 

With the TLX Advance in Normal mode, the car averaged 21.4 mpg on a driving loop consisting of mountain roads, freeways, and suburban streets. It was a hot day with temperatures in the 90s, so the automatic engine stop/start system rarely turned on.

Based on this result under these conditions, you can expect to travel a maximum of 340 miles if you drain the 15.85-gallon gas tank dry. Since you’ll be leaving yourself a cushion, expect 300 miles of travel between stops at the gas station.

Driving Comfort

As standard equipment, the new TLX includes 12-way power adjustment and heated cushions for both front seats. Ventilation becomes standard with the TLX A-Spec, and the TLX Advance is equipped with 16-way power front seats with adjustable thigh and side bolster supports. Premium perforated leather replaces the standard leatherette when you choose the Technology, A-Spec, or Advance packages.

If it sounds like the Acura TLX’s front seats are comfortable, you’re right. Moreover, the car feels wide, as though it competes in a class above with vehicles that are much more expensive.

Moving to the rear seat, the story is different. Legroom is tight, and the plastic front seatbacks are unkind to the knees and shins of taller people. The seat itself is excellent, providing impressive leg and back support. You sit a little inboard, too, making it tough to see how this car might carry five people at a time.

The climate system is effective, and rear-seat passengers enjoy their own air vents. However, when the automatic engine stop/start system does activate, it can get swampy on a hot day, and fast.

On the highway, some road noise encroaches upon the cabin, but mainly it is informative rather than irritating. Engine and exhaust notes are artificially enhanced, and, when revving the engine, the sound adds to the driving enjoyment.

Driving Feel

An adaptive damping suspension is standard with Advance trim, and it works well to reduce unwanted body motions regardless of the driving situation. Simultaneously, depending on the driving mode, it can also feel artificial, filtering out too much communication from the road surface. That’s why, with the TLX Advance, I prefer the Sport suspension calibration when choosing the Individual vehicle settings.

By comparison, the TLX A-Spec revealed a more engaging ride and handling character when driving with enthusiasm on mountain roads. In a suburban environment, however, the A-Spec felt busy and firm, reflecting the trade-off for the car’s more communicative personality through twists and turns.

Regardless of specification, the steering supplies quick and accurate responses combined with stable and secure on-center feel on the highway. When ripping along on mountain roads, the car’s nose feels lighter, perhaps due to the 57:43 front-to-rear weight distribution, an improvement over the old TLX’s 60:40 split with the V-6 engine and SH-AWD.

Speaking of SH-AWD, the latest version of the technology continues to put up to 70% of engine power to the rear wheels. Then, 100% of that can go to a single outboard rear wheel to create a torque-vectoring effect when powering out of corners. In the new car, the sensation is less evident than I recall of the previous TLX. Acura also continues to offer Agile Handling Assist on the TLX, a brake-induced torque-vectoring technology. It works at the front-axle to help tuck the car’s nose in tighter when rounding corners.

Braking is outstanding, and the pedal feel is remarkably good. Acura wanted the driver to sense immediate bite when applying the brakes, but without any suddenness that might toss the heads of passengers. As a result, the system delivers instant but light braking response, followed by progressively strong application as you push harder on the pedal. This approach definitely contributes to the TLX’s smooth driving character.

If there is a weakness in terms of the ride and handling, it has to do with the tires. They squeal and howl pretty early, well before the car reaches its maximum potential. This could be due to the new TLX’s weight gain over the previous car (216 pounds in Advance SH-AWD specification), but it’s also because the car wears 255/40 Michelin Primacy all-season tires. Acura says offering a summer tire option hasn’t proven popular in the past, so if you wish to resolve this, you’ll need to find a suitable alternative on your own.

Or wait for the more powerful and capable Acura TLX Type S to arrive.

Final Impressions - Find the best Acura deals!

When Acura combined the former TSX and TL models, creating the first TLX for the 2015 model year, the car always came across as a compromise, like it was trying to be two different cars to two different buyers.

With this redesign, that changes. Now, the 2021 Acura TLX is just trying to be a great sports sedan offering irresistible style and appealing value as it straddles the line between compact and midsize competitors. And by accepting that people seeking maximum interior room and cargo space will choose an SUV, Acura frees itself to pursue that goal unencumbered by traditional sedan design and packaging restrictions.

The result is not flawless. But it sure is appealing, and it is a clear improvement over the previous TLX.

Christian Wardlaw is a veteran digital automotive journalist with over 25 years of experience in test-driving vehicles. In addition to JDPower.com, his work has appeared in numerous new- and used-car buying guides, newspapers, and automotive industry trade journals.

The opinions expressed in this review are the author’s own, not J.D. Power’s.

No portion of these reviews may be reproduced, distributed, publicly displayed, or used for a derivative work without J.D. Power’s written permission. © 2021 J.D. Power

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