The 2015 Acura TLX is sized right, but no passion?

Larry Printz
Tribune News Service

For a number of years Acura fielded the compact TSX, a tarted up European Honda Accord that struck many consumers as being too small. Next in line was the porky TL, which was also a tarted up Honda Accord but American-made. Aside from the Acura faithful, many buyers found it too big.

So Honda's upscale division ditched both and has now fielded one sedan to replace them, the 2015 TLX. This time, it seems, they have found their automotive Goldilocks: this one is just right. While the TLX's wheelbase is identical to the TL's, overall length is almost four inches shorter, while also being slightly lower and an inch slimmer in width.

And the TLX has won its share of accolades, including U.S. News & World Report's "2015 Best Cars for the Money" and Kiplinger's Personal Finance's "Best Value Award." Even insurance salespeople like it, having earned the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety's "Top Safety Pick+" award.

If this were high school, the TLX would be voted most likely to succeed.

Certainly, this is a car that attracts attention thanks to front-end styling that is hard to ignore. Wearing the best rendition of Acura's pointy proboscis, the TLX's distinctive multiple jeweled headlights look striking, especially when paired with the test model's Crystal Black Pearl paint.

The proportions are pleasing as well, Acura describing them as belonging to a red carpet athlete. With a taut surface language and a presence that garners quite a bit of attention, the TLX looks sporting, at least when looking up front. Styling is much more sedate out back, but that's sadly common these days.

The 2015 TLX comes in three flavors and it starts with the base TLX, priced at $31,445 and powered by a 2.4-liter, 206-horsepower inline four-cylinder engine mated to an eight-speed dual clutch transmission. The mid-level TLX, which starts at $35,320, replaces the four with a 290-horsepower 3.5-liter V-6 with a nine-speed automatic transmission. Opting for Super-Handling All-Wheel Drive, rather than front-wheel drive, will require ponying up $41,575.

As you'd expect, these engines power other Honda models, but boast more juice than their lesser stablemates. Still, given all the family bits the TLX shares with other Honda products, can it be something more than a Honda Accord on steroids and wearing designer duds?

Well, let's consider that Acura is employing the latest in transmission technology, along with Super-Handling All-Wheel Drive, to prove that the automaker is serious about fielding a credible performance luxury sedan. Certainly using all-wheel drive helps push that point. Nevertheless, the dual-clutch employs a torque converter like a traditional automatic transmission and comes only with the smaller engine.

While that's disappointing, most drivers will be pleased to opt for a TLX like the test car: a top-of-the-line, fully loaded rig that proved very accomplished at its assigned task.

The V-6 engine and nine-speed automatic transmission were potent and responsive, indulging my tendency to press the throttle to the floor more than I should have. And why not? Reaching 60 mph takes 5.7 seconds, which is fast enough to attract the wandering gaze of the local constabulary. Although quick, it's not the blazing speed that Acura fanboys would want for Saturday autocross or a day at the track.

As is common on most modern premium products, the driveline can be electronically adjusted depending on your mood, offering Econ, Normal, Sport, and Sport modes that change the TLX's throttle response, chassis tuning and shifting.

While the TLX has superior moves to ordinary premium front-drive sedans, it's not quite up to the feel and agility of a true German rear-driver. It will do all that you ask of it when the road twists, however, offering a nicely balanced ride, with a firm feel that's countered by a trifling amount of body roll. Steering is nicely weighted, but like so many units these days, actual road feel is filtered out. Thankfully, so too is road noise.

The cabin is attractively trimmed, and feels like a premium product rather than a true luxury car. There's good visibility in all directions, and kudos to the designers for not sacrificing safety for style.

Speaking of safety, Acura offers a boatload of it, including adaptive cruise control, collision mitigation braking, forward collision warning, lane departure warning, lane keeping assist, road departure mitigation, blind spot information, multi-view rear camera, and a rear cross traffic monitor.

And given its all-in price that tops out at slightly more than $40,000, you'd expect me to be raving about it.

I am and I am not.

No question that this car is a great value, offering style, an upscale nameplate and an attractive price. It also offers unique bits that separate the driving experience from that of its lesser Honda brothers. But somehow, when it all comes together, this is very nice premium sedan that wins over your brain, not your heart.

There's nothing wrong with that, but for a premium brand, it makes for a big sales challenge. For while the TLX is a very good car, far better than the overstuffed TL it replaces, it's not a better car than the TSX.

And that's where the underlying Honda DNA allows it to both succeed and fail.

Without a truly unique identity and feel to set it apart from a less expensive Honda, its customer will always be a value-oriented premium car buyer, not a true high-end customer. That renders the TLX an ideal car for those who are rational, rather than passionate, about their rides.

2015 Acura TLX

Engine: 3.5-liter SOHC V-6

Horsepower: 290

Torque: 267 pound feet

Wheelbase: 109.3 inches

Length: 190.3 inches

Cargo volume: 14.3 cubic feet

Curb weight: 3,774 pounds

EPA rating (city/highway): 21/31

Fuel type: Regular unleaded

NHSTA safety rating: Five stars

Base price, base model: $31,445

Base price, test model: $41,575

As tested: $45,720