2021 Acura TLX Type-S Brings Acura Back To Its Roots

2021 Acura TLX Type-S Brings Acura Back To Its Roots

For at least the last decade Acura hasn’t really known what it wants to be. It has traded away much of its sporty reputation for luxury crossover sales. It dabbled in performance hybrids to support its NSX supercar, but many of those have since been dropped. Acura lost its heritage, walked away from a history of delightful sports cars, coupes, and sedans, and muddled its signature. In recent years, the company has taken great strides to reviving its specialness. The TLX Type-S is the next step in that process.

(Full Disclosure: Acura invited me to foggy Carmel, California to test drive its new big-power all-wheel drive sports sedan TLX Type-S. I paid for my travel, riding a motorcycle to the event rather than flying. Acura handed me the keys to a new Type-S for a road drive in the morning and a lead-follow session with pro racer Ryan Eversley on track at Laguna Seca. I was also given a posh hotel room, excellent food, and delicious wine.)

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Image: Acura

The world of mid-level super-sports-sedans is getting pretty crowded these days with competent players like the M340i, C43, S4, Q50 Redsport, CT5-V, and G70 3.3T. They’re all around $50,000 starting price, they’re all in the 365 horsepower range, and they’re all reasonably quick and comfortable. In order to stand out from the crowd of mid-level manager sporty cars in varying shades of silver, Acura has given the TLX Type-S a bunch of standard equipment that you either can’t get in the competitive set, or you have to pay through the nose for in options. It also has Super Handling All Wheel Drive, which has always been great, and just keeps getting better.

Before we get started, just know I love sport sedans. This is maybe my favorite segment of the market, and I’ve watched it get soft and flaccid over the last decade or so. The German automakers have brought unexciting entries to this market, and while I’ve traditionally been an Audi S-series fanatic (I still own a 1995 Audi S6), I’m not particularly interested in the sporty sedans from the traditional players these days. They’re just okay. I need a bit more spice, and that doesn’t necessarily mean more horsepower.

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Image: Acura

What Is The Acura TLX Type-S?

Acura launched the new TLX last year as a moderately attractive (if a little conservatively styled) mid-sized sporty sedan with a detuned 2-liter turbocharged VTEC engine cribbed from the Civic Type-R. For 2021, the company has launched an even more powerful version, bearing an Acura-specific 3-liter twin-scroll turbocharged V6 engine. Despite being a hefty boy at 4,200 pounds, that engine makes 355 horsepower and 354 lb-ft of torque. That’s plenty to shove it around. The standard SH-AWD torque vectoring system also makes the car feel at least 500 pounds lighter than it is.

Priced at $52,300 it’s right in the middle of the market. It’s just a little more than a base S4 and just a little less than a base C43 AMG. That said, it does come equipped as standard with advanced safety electronics, adaptive dampers, 20-inch wheels, heated and ventilated 16-way power seats, and ELS Studio premium audio. Most of that stuff comes at extra cost in the Germans. Fine. Acura is playing the value card, but it seems to be the right one for this car to play.

It’s an important foundation for Acura to lay if it wants to rebuild its sporty image kingdom. It’s also a great piece of structural groundwork for even faster versions of the TLX. Perhaps the company could build something of a ‘Type’ that is ‘R’apid.

The Drive

It’s hard to think of a better place to properly run a fast sedan through its paces than the oak-dotted hills around Monterey, followed by a couple on-track sessions at Laguna Seca.

In the morning, Acura tossed me the keys to a Tiger Eye Pearl (that’s the gold color) TLX Type-S and told me to go get lost on the coast somewhere. There were a few different routes to choose from, but it was a pretty free-form drive experience. I headed down to 17-mile drive on the Monterey peninsula, heading out to Pebble Beach and up the coast to Cannery Row and back. There were plenty of tight twisting roads in the seaside forests to test the Acura’s responsiveness.

On the road, the car feels about as light on its feet and nimble as anything weighing over two tons can. In normal driving, it feels like a quick people mover, as you keep the suspension soft and throttle response reined in. Hit a fun driving road, pop it into sport, and the big sedan shrinkwraps around you, feeling much smaller than it has any right to. The steering is quick and delivers enough feedback. The tires are grippy. The SH-AWD works its techno-wizardry to make it feel like a much more compact car than it is. It’s like it rotates around the inside front wheel.

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I’ve only experienced something similar — the eerie feeling of a quite large and hefty machine feeling much smaller and lighter weight from the driver’s seat — from one other car: the Porsche Panamera. As it turns out, when I mentioned this to an Acura engineer, they mentioned to me that the company purchased a nearly $200,000 version of the P-car to benchmark the TLX Type-S steering and AWD tuning. Whatever they did, it damn well worked.

It goes without saying that I would prefer a sports sedan find its speed by lowering its weight rather than adding power and techno bits and bobs, but if you absolutely must deal with 4,200 pounds of heft, this is a pretty good way of doing it.

As with everything in this segment of the market, it’s astonishing how fast these cars are today. The medium-fast sedans of today are faster and better equipped than sports cars of just 15 years ago. 0-60 times in the 4-second range are plenty. Who honestly needs more than that? You can rip a 12-second quarter mile pass, and bring the whole family with you when you do it. It’s silly fast.

On Track

Illustration for article titled 2021 Acura TLX Type-S Brings Acura Back To Its Roots
Image: Acura

Thank god for big beefy Brembos.

While the driving experience on the street may not quite tell the driver the full extent of the heft carried by a TLX Type-S, it sure communicates that well at 110 miles per hour into the braking zone at the bottom of the hill for the Andretti Hairpin. This car is heavy. There’s no way of getting around that. But the braking system fitted to the car is adequate even for several laps of Laguna Seca with deep braking zones into turns two, five, eight, and 11. The pedal is strong and communicative, and it only takes a hard run on the brakes or two to gain confidence in the car’s ability.

When you mention Laguna Seca, everyone immediately jumps to the Corkscrew and the level of intestinal fortitude needed to negotiate it quickly. I would argue it takes flagrant boldness to keep the loud pedal buried over the blind hill on the start/finish straight. It feeds directly into a left-hand arcing sweeper into a hard brake zone. Beyond that, the corner immediately following the Corkscrew, Rainey Curve, is a fully-loaded high-speed sweeper with little margin for error. The Corkscrew, despite all the press, is practically a non-event, though it’s fun as shit when you get it right.

With Ryan Eversley up ahead in a brand-new NSX, there was no chance any of us would catch him, but following in his wheel tracks, we got an idea of what the TLX Type-S was capable of. After six laps at speed, I felt like I knew about a dozen places I could improve my lap time if I really pushed it hard, but it’s not my car and I don’t have the budget to pay for new armco barriers at one of the most storied racing circuits in the world. I’m not a novice driver, and this car is still capable of quicker lap times on track than I really feel comfortable chasing.

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While I didn’t clock any lap times in the TLX Type-S, there’s no question it was a quick sumbitch. Over 100 into turn two, over 100 into turn five, and much higher corner speeds than I expected all around the track. The steering is pretty engaging, and while I could have shifted with paddles, I chose to have the 10-speed automatic’s computer do its shifting for me. The last thing I want is to smash a paddle five or six times into a slow hairpin from V-max, and the computer can manage that pretty well. There’s probably another few tenths to be found if I did shift myself, but if a car has more than six gears, I don’t really want to shift it myself anyway.

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I’m not sure this is an out-and-out track machine, however. It’s just too heavy.

Still, it’s engaging to hustle around. Turn two is an excellent test of the car’s torque vectoring system, as it really wants you to believe you’re in a rear-biased sports sedan. Feed the throttle in at the apex, crank the wheel over, and power out to the kerbs at the exit. You’ll feel several degrees of yaw as the back end steps out to rotate the car around and aim it at the next corner. It’s a welcome and engaging sensation on track, and the grip and forward bite provided by SH-AWD is prodigious.

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Image: Acura

What’s Great

This is a great step in the right direction for Acura. To make a car that is genuinely luxurious inside but still capable of going stupid fast on a race track has always been the goal of a sports sedan, right? If those are the kinds of things you value in a daily driver, this is a great place to start.

The brakes are exceptional. The four-piston Brembos are strong enough to haul this big dude down from mega speeds in short order, repeatably, for at least three laps of Laguna Seca at a time. Good feel, good stopping, overall good.

The interior is really nice. This isn’t much different from the standard TLX, but I like how Acura lays things out. The materials are nice, the size is nice, and the light and airy ambiance of the light-colored “Orchid” interior is extremely welcome. This is a car that takes its fun extremely seriously, and the interior reflects that. It’s well-assembled, and looks pretty good.

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I might also be in the minority here, but I really like Acura’s center console touch pad much better than any touch screen. It’s reasonably intuitive, and once you figure out where your finger is, you can control the screen without looking down from the road. It’s not quite as good as a button-based interface — there’s not much positive click engagement from the pad — but it’s a massive improvement over a screen.

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I’m not an audiophile, but the standard audio package is really nice. Most of the music I listen to is lofi garbage quality anyway, and I can’t tell the difference in quality between a CD and satellite radio, so take that piece of information with as many grains of salt as you’d like. It sounded good. I don’t know anything about sound stages or depth of the treble or whatever, so you’ll have to test it yourself to determine if it’s fit for your discerning ears.

I’m a big guy, and I fit well in this car. At 6'2" and mostly torso, I didn’t have any headroom issues, and the seat was nice and wide and comfortable. For track work, it could have used a bit more bolster, but it wasn’t bad, and if it had been better optimized for track, it would be worse for the street.

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Image: Acura

I also really liked the wheels. While I don’t really want 20 inchers for my daily commute, they’re a striking design, especially on the gold paint car. They’re “NSX-inspired” which probably helps, and does connect the TLX to the NSX visually.

Power is good. More power is better. The standard TLX is pretty okay with 272 horsepower from a 2-liter inline four, but add an extra liter, an extra pair of cylinders, and another 73 horsepower, and it comes alive. This engine feels totally under-stressed, so it could probably be tuned to produce a lot more, either in the aftermarket or in future, faster, Acura products. Do I want to see this engine in a new sports coupe, a la the old RSX? Sure, why not? Especially if it is lighter.

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As per usual, the SH-AWD system is phenomenal. It can do all kinds of math in a fraction of a second, and allows the driver to basically plant foot, turn wheel, go fast.

What’s Weak

Heavy heavy heavy. At 4,200 pounds, this isn’t a lightweight track brawler. It’s a sturdy machine. Despite driving much lighter than it actually is, all that weight is still going to be hell on parts. Tires, suspension, brakes, fluids, and more will wear out faster as the weight of a car climbs. I’d hate to have the consumables and maintenance bill for a thing this stout and fast.

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Image: Acura

The engine is decent, and sounds okay, but it doesn’t have the character of a big-revs naturally-aspirated Honda engine of days gone by. The 3-liter is a bit uninspired. It’s not exactly lopey with a 6,200 rpm redline, but it doesn’t feel like a proper sports car engine the way prior Type-S models had. If I’m getting into a sporty Acura, I really want to zing it out to redline, but this one doesn’t really reward such behavior. Just let the turbo do its thing, and you’ll be going quickly in no time.

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Like anything fast these days, it’s video-game fast without theater or pomp. This car just “shits and gits,” as my grandfather would say. The torque curve is as flat as a table, and while that makes for a fast car with unbelievable lap times, it doesn’t imbue character or connection.

I know it’s cliché at this point for an automotive scribe to decry the death of the manual transmission, but this car would be at least 60 times better with a gearbox to row and a third pedal. I don’t care about paddle shifters or lap times or whatever, when I’m looking for a sports sedan, I want driver engagement, dammit.

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Image: Acura

Conclusion

Acura basically built this car for people like me. I want a car which will carry people, dogs, and occasionally things in a rapid and engaging fashion. Sport sedans are totally my jam. I can’t abide fast SUVs, and I am kind of too old to drive a two-door and expect my friends and family to squeeze into the back seat. This is the sports car for people who grew up and got stable jobs. It’ll totally baby, is what I’m saying.

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Unfortunately, this whole segment of the market kind of falls flat for me right now. Everything got too big, too bloated, too heavy, and too technologically advanced. Acura’s most recent Type-S machine, the TL, weighed some 500 pounds less than this.

Car And Driver’s Daniel Pund tested the OG Type-S — the gorgeous and capable 3.2CL — in period and called it out for being capable but not fun. “The Type S is so undeniably good, so well-produced, so good at the process of being what it is supposed to be,” Pund wrote, “that it has left us utterly unmoved.”

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It’s a shame to say it, but the new TLX Type-S is more of the same. By that token, it’s perfectly representative of what the Type-S brand exists to do. It’s a damn good car, but it doesn’t stir the emotions the way I thought it might. It sure is quick, though.

If you buy one, get it in gold. It’s such a good color, and it shifts so beautifully in changing light situations. From now until the day I die, every time I see one of these on the road, I’ll get a little bit excited. Just not excited enough to buy one.

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Jalopnik contributor with a love for everything sketchy and eclectic.

DISCUSSION

salmanorguk
Salmanorguk

That colour is fan-bleeding-tastic.

That it all.