When I first walked up to the 2018 Acura TLX A-Spec, I had to circle it a few times. It looked good—really good, even. The color was perfect, the styling was right along those lines and it looked, surprisingly, like a genuinely enjoyable sedan. Then I got in it.
(Full disclosure: Acura wanted me to drive the new TLX so badly that one wound up in my driveway with a full tank of gas. Surely the neighbors wondered where the kid next door’s small car went, and why this large, vibrant blue one replaced it. Who knows! I hear that kid is sketchy anyway.)
It wasn’t that I was particularly upset about the car. It’s just that from how it looked on the outside, and its aggressive name, and how Honda in general has been turning out some its best sporty cars in decades lately, I thought the interior and performance would have a little more kick to them. I was wrong!
The Acura TLX A-Spec is, in the words of an Acura spokesperson, an appearance package with subtle sport tuning. That means it looks sporty, but isn’t much sportier than your average TLX, Acura’s midsize and middle-of-the-family sedan.
The A-Spec package comes with a 290 horsepower V6 (and, yes, VTEC) and a nine-speed automatic transmission. It comes with what Acura calls “dynamic Sequential SportShift” paddles that are not, in fact, dynamic, and Honda’s long-touted Super Handling All-Wheel Drive. Sure, I’ll give them that one.
There’s also the choice of black Alcantara or red leather interior on the car, and, though I’ve never seen it in person, go with the latter.
We at Jalopnik had heard good things about the A-Spec. We heard it was sporty and fun, close to what the Acura sedans of the 1990s were like, a return to form for Honda much like the NSX and Civic Type R have been. That is not the case here.
The V6 front-wheel drive A-Spec starts at $42,800, while all-wheel drive V6 like I had starts at $44,800. That was the MSRP of mine, complete with a nearly $1,000 destination fee that made the car $45,750.
In a world where crossovers are the only thing people care about anymore, it’s hard to pinpoint why a new sedan without some revolutionary technology or a major upgrade matters. Sedans aren’t what people are buying, for the most part.
But maybe that’s why sedans are important. If a company is going to have a decently sized sedan lineup—which, a lot of manufacturers do have leftover from a time when people bought them regularly—the company is going to need to make them convincing enough to sway the casual buyer from the dark side.
Look at Acura’s lineup in the U.S., for example: It has three sedans, the ILX, TLX and RLX; a crossover, the RDX and MDX crossovers; and the NSX supercar. Even though those middle two are the sales kings at Acura, it’s still a sedan-dominant lineup, so you’d think they would try to do something interesting here.
And the TLX does set itself apart in the looks category—especially for a huge, automatic sedan. It’s unique in a way that makes you stare instead of cringe, which is a good thing. Where it struggles is on the actual delivery.
Driving around town in the A-Spec was incredibly average. But average in a car that looks, from the outside, like so much more is disappointing.
The A-Spec had paddle shifters, but they weren’t fun or engaging. Each shift had an incredibly slow response time from the engine, which led to an awkward number of seconds of waiting for the car to actually upshift and the RPMs to go down after you’d already hit the paddle. It wasn’t even worth it to try.
Mashing the gas produced a mild sound but didn’t give you as much thrill as you’d expect from a car that looks the way the A-Spec does, but the averageness of its performance kind of grew on me as the week went on. Still, at no point does it feel like it has 290 HP. That’s still a respectable number for a sedan; you’d think it could do more than just feel average.
The brakes on the car were incredibly touchy in sport mode, to the point that if you put any pressure on them at all, you’d end up lurching, again, again and again, to a stop at even the lowest of speeds. It lurched even more in sport plus, for what felt like not much return in the other aspects of driving.
But overall, driving wasn’t a drag. It wasn’t what I would pay for with my own money, but it also wasn’t particularly bad. It just didn’t meet the expectations it set for itself with the A-Spec appearance package, which was disappointing.
Because I had this car around the time Hurricane Harvey hit and I live in central Texas, things were flooded here for days. There was no time, nor was it safe or practical, to take the A-Spec out on one of the two good roads we have down here in cow town for our aggressive-driving test. (The flooding is also why I had to use photos from Acura instead of my own. Sincere apologies.)
What I did get to put to the test on the AWD A-Spec, which saw almost no sunshine until the morning it left, was its resilience in the rain. I never had to think twice about accelerating, hard, through the waters that just kept getting higher as the days went on.
I purposely drove my fiancé whenever he needed to go somewhere because the water was so bad. People weren’t venturing out on the roads and I felt a lot more comfortable in the A-Spec than either of our FWD cars.
If you did get to drive the A-Spec aggressively and wanted to work the paddle shifters, though, the lag time seems like it wouldn’t be ideal or even safe on twisty roads. Given, I always quickly gave up on the paddle shifters and I had such little time with the car that I didn’t test if there was a large lag time in downshifts as well.
Perhaps the biggest miss on the car, being a “sport” appearance package, was that you had to press buttons to go from park to reverse to neutral and into drive. There was a “dynamic mode” button, too, there to ensure that bad manufacturer buzzwords will forever live on something more permanent and tangible than the internet.
But the buttons were a real drag. Anybody who wants a sporty-looking car, I would hope, would at least want some kind of shifter to move around. (Though we know that unfortunately not everyone who wants a sporty-looking car wants a true, manual shifter.)
Having to press buttons felt like I was in a knockoff of something like an Aston Martin DB11, which has buttons because it costs more than some nice houses and it can do what it wants. After all, I hear rich people like that kind of stuff. Reaching for them during quick three-point turns in traffic was never intuitive.
The backup camera also isn’t the best quality at night, but backup cameras aren’t my style anyway. Unless the seat is giving me a back massage, I usually prefer bare-bones technology in cars anyway.
From the outside, the A-Spec looks like an expensive car and it looks like one the buyer spent a lot of time mulling over. But when you open the door and sit inside, you get the vibe of a basic Honda from 2006—minus the touch-screens and navigation, that is. There isn’t much going on, the styling doesn’t grab your attention, and it doesn’t feel like a $46,000 car.
The Alcantara seats—a suede-like material—did not feel like something that belonged in such a pricey car, most likely because we humans have been conditioned to equate sitting on cow hides with luxury and expensive things. Hey, we’re not immune to it.
It just didn’t have the fanciness on the inside that you’d expect from something with that price tag. The stitching on the steering wheel also looks like I, being unexperienced with any sort of sewing devices and the type of person who would sew a couple of my fingers together on accident, did it with a blindfold on.
What really makes this car even close to worth its MSRP is the all-wheel drive, which is so stable it could make you feel comfortable doing a timed lap around a shallow swamp.
The problem with the AWD being one of the best features is that, at such a high price point, there are plenty of other things you can afford out there that have those same driving capabilities—not so much “performance,” but ability to handle adverse conditions on the road well—with more impressive interiors and better actual performance.
I spent a long time thinking on the buyer for this car—who the person might be, their goals in a daily driver, and things along those lines. Toward the end of my week with the car, I realized: The A-Spec is for the person who wants sporty, young looks out of a vehicle, but doesn’t want all of that packed into the car.
And that’s a fine person to be. It isn’t the type of person you’d probably run into at a car meet or stuffing their face with ice cream to numb the pain of losing America’s V8, manual Chevy SS sedan, but it’s someone who wants all of their friends to think they have good taste in stylish cars without actually wanting the performance that comes with that taste.
The car is also incredibly practical for someone who wants space out of a sedan—it’s a big car overall, and the trunk is gigantic. Hauling my loads of recycling didn’t even make me think twice, and I have a lot of recycling because I’m getting married in two months and packages arrive at the door every day. It’s an Acura, too, so presumably it will give you fewer headaches than something European.
The only problem with the A-Spec for that kind of buyer is the price point. It’s perfect for someone who doesn’t want to do the research or spend the time testing new cars to see which one is the best value for the money, because it really is bare on the inside for a $46,000 car. Worst of all, it makes the cardinal sin of being a poser car—something that looks like a sport sedan, but really is not. And that’s something we find unforgivable.
It looks good, though. It’s got that going for it.
Additional material from Patrick George, who also recently tested a TLX A-Spec in New York and was similarly unimpressed.