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The 2021 Acura TLX Is An Incredible Stereo With A Damn Decent Car Attached

2021 Acura TLX
Photo: Acura
Jalopnik ReviewsAll of our test drives in one convenient place.

It seems as though Acura is starting to reclaim some of the sporty-casual lux energy that made the brand appealing originally. Like early Acuras, the 2021 TLX isn’t radical but it is nice looking, nice to drive and a lot of car for what it costs.

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(Full disclosure: Acura set up a socially distant presentation and driving opportunity to learn about and road test the new TLX near Detroit.)

We’re mixing up the review formatting a little bit here, because why not. Jalopnik Editor-in-Chief Rory Carroll went to the TLX launch event and drove the car, but instead of tapping out a regular writeup, Reviews Editor Andrew Collins interviewed him via chat to get a sense of what the car’s like.

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The resulting conversation has been edited for flow and clarity, but it’s pretty much intact as it happened.


Andrew Collins:

Alright, so I hear you just spent some time in the new TLX. Let’s baseline with some context, what did you do with it and what have you driven that might be similar?

Rory Carroll:

I drove the TLX A-Spec (sporty, lists for about $46,000) and the TLX Advance (comfy, closer to $50,000) back-to-back on a loop in the suburbs of Detroit. All backroads, and actually a pretty good place to test a sport sedan.

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The comparison part of it is interesting, because the TLX is still an outlier — the engine is transverse-mounted. You know, side-to-side. All the other sporty luxury sedans are longitudinal. It’s also kind of in between sizes, like Acura expects it to compete with the A4 and A6, it’s a hair longer and wider than the A6.

AC:

Hmmm, well, I guess the TL/TLX has always been what we’d call front-drive first, versus BMW and Benz, which are rear-drive historically. So I guess that makes sense?

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RC:

Ya.

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Photo: Acura
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AC:

Is Acura making a big deal out of AWD on this car, though?

RC:

They are, I think rightly so. The cars I drove had SH-AWD. That’s kind of what I was hoping to get to. I think Acura understands that the expectation in this class is a car that is RWD, with the option of AWD. So much of the new TLX is designed around that. Or rather, designed in response to that.

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You see it with the long hood; the general proportions of the car would lead you to believe it could be RWD.

And the handling is set up to get you as close to that RWD feeling as possible.

Like, it’s understood that premium sport sedans are generally RWD-based. But Acura isn’t going to develop a RWD architecture for this car. It’s had plenty of success with front-driven cars, anyway. Though, they made a point of noting that this car isn’t Accord-based, it’s an Acura-only platform.

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AC:

Describe that feeling of RWDness a little more broadly. Does it have something to do with where you can feel the weight of the car? And/or where it seems like the thrust is coming from?

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RC:

So, the weight of the car is clearly up front. But it feels pretty well balanced; the distribution is 57/43 front-biased. (The car weighs about 4,000 pounds.)

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The way the SH-AWD is set up, it gives you an approximation of RWD. But for example, in a roundabout, you do get something that approximates that loading-up sensation where the weight is over the wheel that is being driven.

It can send a lot of power to the outside rear wheel in a turn. From my notes here, it can send 70 percent to the rear, but 100 percent to the right or left side of the car. It’s still fundamentally going to understeer — most every car is set up to understeer. But in cornering you can bring the rear around out a bit. It’s fun, but to me it’s a different sensation.

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Photo: Acura

AC:

So it sounds like this is a pretty legitimate performance car, then. At least for “practical” fun-driving.

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RC:

Exactly.

I asked one of the engineers about it, and he said there’d been talk of allowing the car to really oversteer. But that was scratched due to safety concerns, at least from the A-Spec and Advanced cars. I would not be surprised to see the Type-S get a track mode that really allows you to pitch it.

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I don’t want to give the impression that it feels RWD, or that it wants to drift. it will let the rear hang out a little, but it’s not the same sensation you get from a RWD car.

That said, on the road I don’t think most drivers will ever be able to make that distinction.

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AC:

Does the engine have juice to match the handling?

RC:

The engine is really interesting AC. I’m glad you asked about it.

I mean, I was pretty sure you would, but... it’s a 2-liter turbo. So, nothing exotic there. It is tuned to deliver a lot of torque right away, though. Peak comes on at 1,600 rpm and stays flat until 4,500. The car does get up and run.

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But – and there are other turbo fours that do this now – because they’re calibrated just for automatics with a lot of gears, the sensation is different from what you’re used to.

There’s very little sensation of building speed as the tach climbs. Which is something that I would associate with Honda/Acura performance cars. You come out of a slow turn and mat it and it’s just on.

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Photo: Acura

AC:

And the transmission can keep up? Any paddle-shifting worth doing or is it better to just run it in D.

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RC:

Yeah, the transmission keeps up. It’s almost like a CVT, where it’s just uninterrupted. Clicking through the paddles is more fun, but you know, not really an event. The car is fun because of the way it handles, not because of the way it accelerates.

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It will downshift four gears at once, which is helpful, since it’s a 10-speed. But it also doesn’t always give you the downshift you want.

AC:

OK, it sounds like the thing is solidly decent to drive, which is nice to hear. But an Acura sedan is mainly going to get used between a house and an office. So how lux is the cabin, and where do you think the car falls on a scale between extremes of speed and comfort?

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RC:

The Advance trim is really comfy. The leather is nice, there’s that open pore wood trim, and all the metal look pieces are actually metal. The adaptive suspension is really good. It’s a legit luxury car. And the stereo, well, we will get to the stereo but it’s very. Very. Good.

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RC:

The A-Spec is a little more racy.

AC:

The cabin, you mean.

RC:

Ya. My car had red leather seats, carbon-fiber trim, red stitching, all that. I wish you could get the wood on the A-Spec.

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One thing that’s cool about the interior – and I assume this is because of the rake of the windshield – the dash for the driver is raised up like a pod around the steering wheel and gauge cluster. But to the right, it drops down. So you don’t get the sensation of a narrow front window where you’re looking out through a slit.

The car also has a regular-ass knob for the audio volume and traditional forward/back buttons to skip songs.

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AC:

Those are always welcome.

RC:

Yeah, it’s funny to watch automakers add them back to interiors.

AC:

I remember Honda’s PR people were so excited to say, “We brought the volume knob back,” a few years ago in, I think, the Civic. But of course, yeah, it’s one of those hardkeys that most drivers just like having and don’t want replaced with a touchscreen. Myself included.

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RC:

Yeah, it’s one of many things you should be able to do without looking.

AC:

Sounds like you were pretty impressed with this car in general, but is there anything you’d have changed? Any weak spots that stood out to you?

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RC:

The big thing is that I will always prefer a RWD car. Or RWD-based, at least. I will always want a manual transmission. And I wish I’d had a chance to drive it in the snow to get a better sense for what’s really happening with the AWD system. At road speeds, it’s hard for me to tell exactly what’s going on as it’s happening.

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But I think overall, it’s a good car. With a fucking unreal stereo

AC:

Hah, yeah, Acura loves its ELS audio systems. Did the press team trot out any specs or demos for on that thing to explain why it sounds so good?

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RC:

A few weeks before the drive, they offered to bring a TLX by the house so I could listen to the stereo. That didn’t work out, but I was kind of joking about it, like, “Man, they’re really proud of this radio.”

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But when I drove the car, they had preloaded a USB with lossless files. I tried it out, and it was pretty shocking. I don’t think the specs are super crazy but modern standards: 17 speakers, 710 watts.

AC:

What exactly blew your mind about the sound?

RC:

It’s like a high-end home system, crystal-clear and well balanced. But obviously your position is fixed. So it doesn’t degrade if you’re sitting on the wrong part of the couch. All car systems are like that, obviously, but this feels really special, really clear.

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The first track on the list was “Africa,” by Toto. Which is a song I’ve heard a thousand times. One of those songs that comes on the radio and you don’t necessarily turn the channel, but not a song I’d ever choose to listen to. The point is, though, in this car, it was an entirely different song. Like, at first I thought maybe it was a live arrangement or something. All kinds of little things I’d never heard before. The Acura TLX Changed The Way I Think Of Toto’s “Africa,” haha.

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Photo: Acura
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AC:

Dooo do do, dododoDO. OK so, real talk: Is the stereo good enough to be the main reason you buy this car?

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RC:

Let me put it to you like this: If a friend told me he spent $40,000 on a home stereo, I’d obviously think that was crazy. But if I went over and listened to it and it sounded that good, it would seem substantially less crazy.

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That said, most people who buy this car will be listening to Spotify or iTunes files that, no matter how good the stereo is, will not live up to the crazy level of detail that this stereo can deliver.

So I think if you’re someone who is aware of that stuff, and you care about having a great car stereo (I’m not) then I think this one has to be in the running.

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AC:

Alright, so zooming out from audiophiles, what do you think would be reasons to grab a TLX versus other stuff at similar size and power?

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RC:

I think price and value. This is one of those tweener cars where it kind of straddles the 3 Series and 5 Series, or C-Class and E-Class. But you get a lot for your money.

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I also think the new design is really good, really distinctive.

We were all kind of surprised at how well the outgoing TLX sold, and I think price/value had a lot to do with that. This one is still a good value, but it looks better and is a lot more fun to drive than the last one. I’ll be really interested to drive the Type-S.

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AC:

Yeah, I’m a lot more interested in that car now than I was before this conversation. And doubly so as I’m going through the spec sheet, because I totally forgot that the Type-S will have a whole different engine and is claiming like 80 more HP than these standard models. Sounds like Acura is getting back to being in a cool spot between nice-to-drive and comfortable without going too soft.

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Anything else we missed?

RC:

Looking at notes, I think that’s pretty good.

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DISCUSSION

Rory, do you have any actual experience with decent home audio gear? What does your home setup consist of? What about high end car audio? Simply curious, as someone without significant experience might think this sounds amazing, when, in reality, it’s very mediocre.