2020 Acura ILX A-Spec Review

Acura's smallest offering maintains course.

Following a thorough refresh last year, the Acura ILX enters the new decade largely the same as the 2019 model.

It squares off in a smaller market now than it did when it launched in 2013. Volvo killed off the S40 just the year prior, with the closest modern equivalent being its XC40 crossover. Buick dropped the Verano a few years ago too, and enters 2020 with an exclusively crossover-based lineup. You’re probably sensing a trend here.

But Acura remains committed to its traditionally-shaped models and, for now at least, that makes the ILX the least pricey point of entry for the Japanese brand. It shares its platform with the previous, ninth-generation Honda Civic. Can those economy car bones—even ones as sorted as the Civic’s—put up a fight against the tougher entry-level luxury segment of 2020? We spent a week with a fully-loaded ILX A-Spec, complete with Technology Package, to find out.

A Fresh Face, Decent Space

It might have one of the oldest skeletons on the market, but the ILX certainly doesn’t look it. The recent facelift brought it in line with the brand’s latest design language, and to our eyes it might be the best canvas for the style. The beaky nose of the launch model is out and a pentagonal grille is in, with jewel-like headlights framing it. Acura’s cleaned up the tail too, moving the plate down to the bumper. A demure, gloss-black lip spoiler sits atop the trunk—no faux carbon fiber here—though it looks positively extrovert compared to the single, tiny exhaust tip. Bathed in Apex Blue Pearl and sitting on 18-inch, 15-spoke wheels, the ILX is a handsome ride.

SEE ALSO: 2019 Acura RDX Review

The red interior certainly makes a statement when you pop the door open too. It doesn’t last very long, however: look to the dated dash architecture and you’ll be reminded of the old bones of the ILX. It’s busy, full of buttons and feels closer to a Honda than a true competitor to the techy Mercedes-Benz A-Class and clean Audi A3. Those leather-and-microsuede seats are comfy and supportive though, holding you in place through the corners and keeping numbness at bay on long highway stints.

On the plus side, there’s a surprising amount of space. At 182.2 inches nose to stern the ILX is larger than either of the Germans. Its 105.1-inch wheelbase outstretches the Audi’s 103.8, though stops shy of the newer Merc’s 107.4. The Benz shades it on front headroom too (40.3 inches versus 38.0), but the Acura outpoints them both on shoulder and legroom (55.6, 42.3 inches, respectively). Rear seat accommodations are naturally a little tighter, with head and shoulder room dropping two inches, and leg room chopped to 34 inches. Overall, the ILX and the Germans are all within an inch or so for second-row passengers. The stylish uptick of the ILX’ window line only happens beside their heads too, which means there’s still a good amount of natural light back there. Trunk space is a perfectly usable 12.3 cubic feet.

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More Tech Toys and Safety

Our tester arrived in range-topping A-Spec, er, spec, complete with Tech Package. This $1,900 option adds a 10-speaker audio system, Acura’s 3D navigation system, real-time traffic updates, dedicated smartphone app compatibility, and a color display nestled in the dials. That comes on top of the Premium package, itself an $1,850 option. Check that box and you get the 8.0-inch center display here, updated audio (including Android Auto and Apple CarPlay), blind spot monitoring and rear cross-traffic alert.

The base model doesn’t include the smartphone mirroring abilities, which feels chintzy in a luxury model, even an entry one. It does feature the full AcuraWatch suite of safety aids however, which includes lane keep assist and departure warning, adaptive cruise control, emergency braking and forward collision warning.

The optional rear cross-traffic alert is a boon in Toronto during the first real snow fall of the season. It has an impressive range, picking up errant cyclists on downtown streets and unseen cars in tight underground parking garages.

Try as we might we couldn’t warm to the little Acura’s infotainment system however. The two-screen approach is frustratingly unintuitive: the controls for the top screen are mounted directly below the lower one, which is a touch screen. We’re sure you’d eventually get used to it, but we spent more times than we care to admit trying to fiddle with the lower screen via the scroll wheel, or prodding at the top screen.

SEE ALSO: 2019 Mercedes-Benz A-Class Sedan Review

The native nav system is cumbersome, with odd zoom amounts. It’s laggy too, something that permeates the rest of the menus too, though to a lesser extent. The ILX can’t compete with the new A-Class’ ease of use here. We stuck to Apple CarPlay as much as we could.

How Does it Drive?

We had the ILX for a week in December in Toronto. A fresh blanket of snow started it off before quickly devolving to piles of brown slush. Needless to say, we weren’t going to be testing it for peak lateral gs.

That being said, all the right ingredients are there. Honda knows how to build an entertaining front-drive chassis. The KA24 engine, here putting out 201 hp and a stout 180 lb-ft, is the last of the old-school, nat-asp four cylinders from the Big H. There’s no longer a row-your-own transmission option, but there’s an eight-speed dual-clutch.

The results were mixed. On Michelin Pilot Alpin PA4 winter tires the ILX rode with a pleasant firmness that suits that A-Spec badge. There was a noticeable amount of road noise, especially at highway speeds, but it’s hard to say how much of that was due to the cold-weather rubber. Same goes with the steering response: the electrically-assisted rack has a solid amount of heft to it though little in the way of feedback. It feels commendably light because, well, it is: a fully-loaded A-Spec with Tech Package comes in at 3,148 lb.

Honda has put together one of the smoothest dual-clutch units in the business in the ILX. DCTs tend to trip up at low speeds, but the one in the ILX never set a foot wrong, feeling just like a traditional auto when trundling around in traffic. More of a knock against its sporting pretensions is its manual mode though: requesting a shift up or down leads to a wait time of around half a second, if not more. We tried it twice before just leaving the eight-speed to its own devices.

The 2.4-liter is smooth, and feels every one of its quoted pony count. It makes itself known when pressed, but doesn’t have the sort of singing voice that makes that a positive. It’s emblematic of the ILX’ larger issue: it falls between two stools. It’s not as overtly sporty as something like a Civic Si, but it doesn’t provide the cocooned progress of pure luxury either. That blend may be a selling point to you, or it can make the ILX feel like a car of two personalities.

Over the test week we managed just shy of 30 mpg on average. That’s better than the 28 mpg Acura quotes (24 city, 34 highway), likely thanks to predominantly highway driving.

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Verdict: 2020 Acura ILX A-Spec

The ILX is a fun but flawed machine. It feels like what it is: a fancy Honda Civic. That’s not a knock, per se: as nice as the Civic currently is, there isn’t an analog for the ILX in its current lineup. If you want something sportier (yet thousands cheaper) there’s the Si, with a slick-shifting six-speed manual and a muscular 1.5-liter turbo engine. Prefer more luxury? You could load up a non-Si Civic Sedan with every bell and whistle and still come up shy of the A-Spec Tech’s $32,675 (including $1,025 in destination). You’d be saddled with a CVT instead of the dual-clutch, in addition to less power and—to our eyes—worse looks. The Civic does outpoint its lux sibling on fuel mileage though, with regular fuel to boot.

And zee Germans? Just getting in the door of the Audi A3 requires $34,295 (also including $995 destination). Impressively the A-Class undercuts that, if only slightly, at $33,795 ($995 destination here too). Neither will match the Acura’s safety tech bundle without diving into the expensive options list. They can’t outperform it either, at least not in front-drive forms, though the A3 does post better fuel economy figures. It’s on its way out now anyway, with a new model set to arrive soon, sharing its platform with the new mark 8 Golf.

The A-Class is the one to beat: that digital dash is a big draw, and the driving experience in the new model is much improved over what came before. Plus, you get to say you own a Mercedes-Benz. Don’t underestimate the lure of that last bit for most people.

If you grew up during the import sport compact scene of the ’90s, loved it, and want to temper that with a dash of grown-up—but only a dash—you could do a lot worse than put the Acura ILX on your short list.