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Luxury sedan sales may be declining in the Age of Ute, but entry-level cars are still key to setting a premium brand's tone and attracting entry-level customers.

As evidence look no further than BMW and Acura, which announced major new product evolutions this week for their 3-series and ILX sedans, respectively.

Though the 3-Series has been much more successful than the ILX in the U.S. market, both product launches mark important moments for the Japanese and German brands as they seek to get back to their sporty roots. At a whopping $15,000 below the BMW, Acura wants to make a statement that its athletic, affordable DNA is back, while the all-new Bimmer hopes to rekindle the performance flame it lost with enthusiasts. 

The Bavarian automaker unveiled its all-new seventh-generation 3-Series at the Paris Auto Show on Monday. The BMW 3 was the second-best selling premium compact sedan  in 2017 behind the Mercedes C-Class. But the Bimmer has long been the performance benchmark for the class as well as the brand.

Yet that reputation took a hit in recent model years as BMW endowed its sixth-gen car with more room and technology. Enthusiasts cried foul, accusing the Nurburgring-tested brand for going soft.

"Greatness eludes our former darling," wrote Car and Driver of the last model, which failed to make the magazine's respected Top 10 list for the first time in three decades. "It is no longer a paragon of its kind. We wouldn’t turn up our noses at a 3-Series if one showed up in the driveway, but it’s no longer the sports sedan other companies have in their sights."

Stung by the criticism, BMW promised in Paris a return to its peerless handling form. 

The new car is 121 pounds lighter than the outgoing model with a 25 percent stiffer chassis and a whopping 37 foot-pounds more torque from its base 2.0-liter turbo-4.

"When developing the ... new BMW 3 Series Sedan, a number of clear priorities were used: enhanced driving dynamics, agile handling characteristics, high-precision steering and superior braking performance," said BMW.

Attention has also been placed on upgrading the interior, which has lagged behind the big, digital displays developed by Teutonic rivals Mercedes and Audi. For 2019, interior volume will remain roughly the same, but the 3 gains a base 5.7-inch digital instrument display and 8.8-inch console screen. Optional is a 12.3-inch instrument display and 10.3-inch dash screen.

Also supersized will be the 3-Series sticker price which will command $41,245 for the 330i entry model.

Acura sees price as opportunity for the reworked ILX. The entry-level car has suffered in sales as the brand's athletic reputation atrophied.

The ILX cuts its price an unheard-of $2,200 to just $26,895 while packing best-in-class standard equipment like adaptive cruise-control, automatic emergency-braking and power sunroof.

The refreshed 2019 ILX follows the all-new Acura RDX compact SUV which has redefined the brand with cutting-edge handling, interior volume and standard technology. 

While the ILX will not get a new foundation before 2020, the 2019 model gets an entirely new wardrobe to match its RDX sibling. That includes the brand's signature Diamond Pentagon grille, "Jewel Eye" LED headlights and more-sculpted wheels. The ILX will have to wait for its next generation to adopt the RDX's True Touchpad digital console technology.

"The critical mission of ILX is to bring new buyers into the brand, and our entire product and pricing strategy reflects that focus," said Acura's North American chief Jon Ikeda. "We believe that what we've done with ILX from a design and technology standpoint, together with aggressive pricing, will strengthen its position as our gateway sedan."

As a value-play in the compact SUV segment, the front-wheel drive, 201-horsepower ILX can't approach the rear-wheel drive, 255-horse BMW 3-series in performance, but it is based on the Honda Civic platform, one of the best-handling small cars in autodom.

When outfitted in the ILX's sexy feature-loaded A-Spec appearance package with red leather interior, the $32,545 ILX will still undercut the entry-level Bimmer by some $10,000.

For customers still hungry for a luxury sedan, the menu looks tasty.

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne. Catch “Car Radio with Henry Payne” from noon-2 p.m. Saturdays on 910 AM Superstation.

 

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