Payne: BMW X4 M40i vs. Acura TLX A-Spec
Whoooooo are you? Who, who, who, who?
I couldn’t get Pete Townshend’s lyrics out of my head as I hammered a 2017 BMW X4 M40i to Louisville as part of a comparison with the new 2018 Acura TLX A-Spec. Alphabet-soup badges aside, these brands are at opposite ends of the compact luxury department these days. The mighty Bimmer: most expensive, most purchased, most coveted — a brand at the peak of its powers. And the Acura: least costly, less purchased, less known — a badge rebooting its identity after a decade in the wilderness.
And yet, in the diabolically complicated premium market, both cars beg the question: Who are you?
Are these two vehicles representative of their brands? And would I — a middle-aged (can’t you tell by my musical proclivities?) motorhead shopper squarely in the cross-hairs of the marketing departments of these performance brands — want either one in my garage?
The Louisville convergence of this pair seemed appropriate. It was Kentucky Derby season and the town was abuzz with well-to-do gamblers scouring bloodlines for the best horse. If the thoroughbreds were named BMW and Acura, you would bet on the former, given the Bavarian breed’s extraordinary run of winners: 3-series, M3, 7-series sedan, i8 mid-engine supercar.
But with the TLX, Acura is plotting a comeback.
Acura exploded on the luxury scene in the late 1990s with its sure-fire trifecta: the halo supercar NSX, Legend sedan and sporty Integra. Fun, fast and hip, the brand attracted Formula One superstars like Ayrton Senna who flung the NSX around Japan’s famous Suzuka race track like a rag doll. Oh, how we groupies buzzed about that one. It also attracted talented designers like Jon Ikeda from the University of California’s Pasadena School of Design.
“They brought me to Suzuka and there’s Senna and the whole team and it was insane,” Ikeda recalled in Louisville. “I was like a girl going to a Beatles concert. I got weak in the knees. It really intrigued me, and inspired me to pack up everything and move to Tokyo.”
But Acura lost its way a decade ago. Blame the Great Recession. Blame the Japanese earthquake. Blame global warming. Whatever. It also infected parent Honda and the company began rolling out products with all of the sex appeal of vanilla cones.
Honda was the first to wake up with its swaggering 2015 Civic that was designed to take on the Audi A3.
Now Acura is returning to its roots with another promising trifecta: supercar NSX, Precision design concept and sporty TLX A-Spec sedan. The luxury-maker has even appointed child wonder-Ikeda — now all grown up at age 52 — as its CEO. He hasn’t disappointed.
Ikeda recognizes that Honda’s Gen X buyers are the perfect recruiting class for a youthful luxury brand. Hundreds of thousands of Civic fans may not be able to afford a BMW, but they can reach the Acura. Especially an Acura with the DNA of the track-carving NSX hellion and the sexy face of the Precision.
Meet the TLX A-Spec.
Importantly, it doesn’t look like past Acuras. Gone is the chrome beak that was derisively referred to as (take your pick) the bottle opener, parrot’s beak and buck tooth. It’s replaced by an all-new Precision-inspired “diamond pentagon” grille. Where the old chrome beak was too Honda, the new face is reminiscent of Mercedes with diamond-shaped flecks emanating from the Acura logo like ripples in a pond. Together with Acura’s signature LED headlights (heavy with black mascara to appeal to those Honda boy-racers) it’s a distinctive look.
I hope Acura learns from BMW and sticks with it. Generations of buyers have coveted Bimmer’s iconic, twin-kidney grille because it symbolizes prestige and performance. So, too, the Cadillac’s shield grille. And Audi’s giant cow-catcher grille.
What is Acura’s look? Whoooo are you? Like Lexus, Infiniti and Lincoln, it hasn’t had an identity. Here’s to the diamond pentagon.
Speaking of identity, my Louisville aunt’s (we Paynes are thick in the South) first reaction to the X4 M40i was: “That’s a BMW? It looks like everything else until you see the grille.” Ouch.
Welcome to the Age of the SUV when everything is a five-door hatch. It’s a conundrum for BMW which built its reputation on sleek, coupe-shaped sedans. Whoooo are you?
Thus the X4.
With its coupe-like roof, it’s supposed to make the boxy X3 crossover look more, um, sedan-like. Ask my aunt if it works. But BMW has more tricks up its sleeve to make the SUV feel like the ultimate driving machine. An M-Sport package adds stiffer springs, bigger anti-roll bars, adaptive dampers and a ferocious, 355-horsepower, turbo inline-six stolen out of my favorite Bimmer, the M2 coupe.
The results are stunning for a crossover, with the 4,272-pound X4 M rocketing to 60 mph in just 4.4 seconds and hitting 0.95 Gs on the skid pad. That’s a whole G more than the Acura sedan. Heck, it destroys the Porsche Macan ute’s 0.87 G.
So entertaining was the snorting, quick-shifting, dual-clutch automatic X4 M to drive that I almost called the boys at Pontiac’s M1 Concourse for some hot laps, but then caught myself: Hot laps in an SUV?
That’s the problem it. If I want M performance, I want it in a sedan with optimal physics. A sedan like, well, the TLX A-Spec. Alas, for its wicked styling and sophisticated torque-vectoring AWD system, the rebooted Acura can’t yet justify a performance version. CEO Ikeda suggests a Type-S — just like the glory days! — is in the offing. But Acura has to walk before it can run.
A big help is its value. For a segment bargain of $33,500 the base front-wheel Acura comes standard with safety-assist systems and Apple CarPlay/Android Auto. My alluring $45,000 A-Spec adds all-wheel drive and blind-spot assist.
At $20,000 north of the A-Spec, the Bimmer was barren of safety assists — not even adaptive cruise, a puzzling oversight for a $67,000 chariot. And with its coupe-style roof it had less backseat headroom than the four-door Acura.
Bottom line? I’d pass on both these cars in their current form. I love the x-plosive X4’s engine — but would buy it in the M2 first. And I’ll wait for a TLX Type-S with more power to match the A-Spec’s sexy design.
We shouldn’t have to wait long. Acura knows who it is again.
Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at firstname.lastname@example.org or Twitter @HenryEPayne.
2017 BMW X4 M40i
Front-engine, all-wheel drive, five-passenger SUV
3.0-liter, turbocharged, inline
4,272 pounds as tested
$58,100 ($67,495 as tested)
355 horsepower, 343 pound-feet torque
0-60 mph, 4.4 seconds (Car and Driver)
EPA est. mpg: 19 city/26 highway
Sports sedan handling; same
heart as M2
Still looks like an SUV; where are premium features?
Excellent ★★★★Good ★★★Fair ★★Poor ★
2018 Acura TLX A-Spec
Front-engine, all-wheel drive,
3,850 pounds (est.)
$43,750 A-Spec base ($45,750 AWD
290 horsepower, 267 pound-feet
0-60 mph, 5.7 seconds
(Car and Driver)
EPA est. mpg: 21 city/31 highway/25 combined
Goodbye beak, hello diamond pentagon grille; state-of-the-art
Confusing, dual-screen infotainment system;
more power, please
Excellent ★★★★Good ★★★Fair ★★Poor ★