September 4, 2014 at 10:37 am

TLX makes Acura X-citing again

Behold the irrepressible X.

Once the most neglected letter in the English dictionary. Once the mark of illiterates. Once only whispered in close quarters like “It’s X-rated” or “Hey, pal, XYZ.” Now it is proudly displayed from every facade in America. X-Men, X Factor, X Games, Xbox, Brand X. My cable company wants me to buy Xfinity. I apply Rain-X to my windshield. The No. 24 letter in the alphabet is No. 1 in the hearts of marketers everywhere.

In the auto industry X branding is an epidemic. SRX, XTS, Model X, xB, MKX, XL, XF, XJ, XC60, XC90, X1, X3, Xenophobia (okay, not that last one — but it would make a fine product for import haters).

X is the mark of youth, sportiness, edginess. But not necessarily success. Lincoln MKX hasn’t X-actly set the world on fire. Scion’s X-line may soon X-pire. And Acura’s X-vehicles haven’t X-ited either.

Until now. The MDX was 2013’s hottest luxury SUV in the scorching, midsize SUV segment with a 29 percent sales jump vaulting it to No. 3 behind — what else? — the RX and SRX from Lexus and Cadillac, respectively. With Acura’s small RDX a sales hit too, Acura wants to translate ute sales gains to its moribund sedan lineup.

Say hello to the new, 2015 Acura TLX. It is X-cellent.

The Acura is an All-American, designed and built in the USA. TLX product chief and former Ohio Northern U. basketball star Mat Hargett assembled a team of California designers and Ohio engineers to compete against the world’s best. With a fresh game plan, the imposing, 6’8” Hargett hopes to replay Acura’s sedan glory days.

Returns to fundamentals

It was just ten years ago that the Acura TL was the No. 2 best-selling, small lux four-door in the U.S. — its 71,000 in sales trailing only the vaunted BMW 3-series. “I think in 2005 the TL took the market by storm with great technology and stylish looks at an affordable price,” Hargett told me at a TLX test flog through Northern Michigan.

With the TLX, the Acura returns to those fundamentals after a series of marketing and styling miscues.

Alphabet soup lineup

Despite doubling its entry lux offerings — the TL was joined by the TSX — Acura’s sales fell by half since 2005. By replacing the bigger TL and smaller TSX, the TLX is Acura’s focus against the 3-series, Audi A4, and Cadillac ATS. The GLX fights on in the midsize category, while the Honda Civic-based ILX — launched in 2013 — tries to wrestle entry-level lux buyers from the Audi A3 and Mercedes CLA.

Okay, so Acura’s model lineup is an alphabet soup. So counting by numbers (Audi’s A3, A4, A5, for example) makes more sense. So at least Acura, like Cadillac, has learned the glories of plastic surgery.

While Caddy has leaned its bulges with liposuction, Acura got a nose job. Remember the beak? The previous generation TL’s signature chrome grille was variously compared to a parrot’s bill, a buck-toothed bumpkin, or a locomotive cow-catcher. None of them flattering.

'Red carpet athlete'

The TLX’s new honker would make a Hollywood plastic surgeon proud. The softened septum concentrates attention on the eyes. And the TLX peepers are a marvel. Like the MDX and GLX before it, the TLX gets 10 — ten! — “Jewel Eye” LED headlights. These are celebrity spectacles. Elton John would kill for these rims. Bono, get yourself an Acura.

Maybe the celebrity specs are why Acura press materials refer to the TLX as a “red carpet athlete.” But lux can’t live on looks alone. Indeed, the $30,000-$40,000 sedan segment has become the industry’s fiercest battleground.

We’ve had this conversation before. Earlier this year, I compared a $44,000, AWD Audi A4 with a $36,000 AWD Ford Fusion Titanium. Both 4-banger turbos. Both leather. But with the premium Fusion packing similar options to the Audi, it was hard to justify the extra cash unless you are brand obsessed.

So too the Acura TLX. At $31,890 base it compares nicely to a $33,700, starter BMW 3-series. But compare to its sibling Honda Accord — made on the same platform in Marysville, Ohio — and the math gets ugly. Observe: A loaded $35,025 TLX comes with a 206-horsepower, 2.4-liter, 4-cylinder (what, no turbo?) engine, while a $32,910 2014 Accord is topped up with nav, driver assists, and a throaty, 276-horsepower, 3.5-liter V6.

Whoa. You’ve gotta be seriously hypnotized by the Acura’s headlights — look into my eyes-eyes-eyes-eyes-eyes — to justify the lux brand.

Step up to Acura’s tech package, however, and the TLX value gets X-citing. Beginning at $41K, Acura offers its so-called Super Handling-All Wheel Drive option. That’s a TLX SH-AWD, FYI. A mouthful, but the SH-AWD system is worth every letter. It’s one of the best in the business.

Fan boys of Subaru’s torque-vectoring, 38-grand WRX STI take note. If you want a refined luxury ride to go with your sensational handling, the TLX is your cup o’ nitro. Acura was an early pioneer of the AWD system that speeds up the outer wheel — while slowing inner ones — to assist rotation through corners. So Michigan drivers can not only tear up twisty, Up North roads like M-119 in summertime — they can also conquer winter snows.

Against its formidable BMW 328i and Audi A4 classmates, the TLX more than held its own. Its AWD is superior to the Audi and the equal of BMW’s X-Drive (I told you this X thing is outta control) system. Though exhibiting more body roll than BMW’s superb chassis, the TLX rotates through corners with savage aplomb.

Inside the hushed cabins, space is surprisingly plentiful. With smaller entry-lux vehicles like the A3 and ILX in play, our test class has been given room to grow. The backseats of the TLX, 328i, and A4 all nicely accommodated my 6-foot-5-inch frame (Hargett the Giant was still pinched), a clear improvement from previous generations.

In interior quality, the Acura again beats the Audi — if not BMW’s gorgeous trim and architecture. But the Acura’s twin infotainment screens are more intuitive — and TLX is wired with tech-savvy blind spot warning, lane assist, brake assist — everything but X-ray vision.

Bottom line? The BMW is prettier, a hair-more-agile, less-user friendly for 52 grand — or a whopping $6K more than the Acura.

How much is a brand name worth? Which car do you want to park at the country club? You’ll have to answer those questions yourself. The TLX deserves your X-amination. And it’s just in time for Xmas.

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne.

2015 Acura TLX / Acura / Wieck
The interior of the 2015 Acura TLX is roomy, with intuitive twin ... (Acura / Wieck)