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car review

The 2021 Acura TLX Type S.Mark Richardson/The Globe and Mail

Acura used to be Honda’s performance brand. Then in the last decade it became Honda’s luxury brand, cosseting its drivers with thick leather and squidgy suspension. Now, the company has decided to put its focus back on performance, deciding that this new Type S is what really matters.

The regular TLX that was re-introduced last year is a comfortable 272 horsepower and 280 lb-ft of torque, which is fine for a nice sedan that costs about $45,000. There are four different trim levels that share that same 2.0-litre four-cylinder turbocharged engine, but the Type S now takes its place at the top of the ladder. It kicks out a much more satisfying 355 hp and 354 lb-ft of torque from an all-new 3.0-litre V6 engine.

While the regular TLX merely looks sporty, the Type S is actually sporty. It’s not thunderous in a track-only way, but its suspension is firmer (double-wishbone now for all TLXs in the front), its chassis is stiffer and its brakes are bigger. The engine finds its peak torque at a low 1,400 rpm. That means it’s not so important to master the transmission to keep each of the 10 gears in their optimal range, but frankly, the automatic shifting is intuitive enough that the car always seems to be in the right gear anyway.

There’s an extra ‘Sport Plus’ setting on the rotary dial that chooses the electronic drive modes. But you can’t just twist to it - you have to turn the dial to Sport and then hold it there for a while, like a failsafe trigger, just to confirm that you really want it and you’re ready for it. When it kicks in, the transmission drops to a lower gear and the active suspension firms a little more, and the exhaust even sounds louder.

It would be good to take the Type S to a track to see just how well its all-wheel drive works when it’s matched to the torque vectoring at the rear wheels. This is a rear-biased all-wheel-drive system, and when you twist the dial to that magic Sport Plus setting, the car sends even more torque to the rear. On public highways, it felt good to push the vehicle around the curves, but it was barely challenged.

Tech specs

2021 Acura TLX Type S

Base price/As tested: $59,500 / $60,000, plus $2,375 Freight and PDI

Engine: 3.0-litre turbocharged V6

Transmission/Drive: 10-speed automatic / AWD

Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 12.3 City, 9.8 Hwy., 11.2 comb.

Alternatives: Audi S4, BMW M340i, Cadillac CT5-V, Genesis G70, Lexus IS 350

Looks

The TLX is a good-looking car to start with. Most onlookers won’t care if it’s a Type S or not, but the bright red, four-piston Brembo brakes and larger 20-inch wheels leave no doubt. The air vents are bigger for the V6, and if you’re looking from the rear, the four round exhausts replace the dual rectangular pipes of the less powerful alternatives. They’re a nod to the quad pipes of the 2008 TLX, back when Acura last made a truly sporting TLX.

Interior

The seats are very comfortable in the front, but it’s a bit of a squeeze in the rear.Mark Richardson/The Globe and Mail

Many of the accoutrements of the Type S can be ordered as options with some of the lesser priced versions, such as the flat-bottomed steering wheel and sporty leather-and suede seats, but only the Type S has logos on the headrests and wheel to remind you what you’re driving. That seems silly, but it’s good to be assured this is the real deal, not some lower-powered pretender to the Acura throne.

The seats are very comfortable in the front, but it’s a bit of a squeeze in the rear – not too bad, but passengers won’t want to be back there longer than they have to be.

Performance

The Type S isn’t about power: it’s about how it puts that power down onto the asphalt, and how it tracks around the corners.Mark Richardson/The Globe and Mail

The Type S comes standard with summer Pirelli tires – Pirelli winter tires are a $2,100 factory option – and when the rubber hits the road, the car does exactly what you would hope for. Honda makes no claims for acceleration times, but some American publications have registered sub-five-second runs from standstill to 96 km/h, which is very respectable, though not earth-shattering.

The Type S isn’t about power, though: it’s about how it puts that power down onto the asphalt, and how it tracks around the corners. This is where Acura’s “super-handling all-wheel drive” comes into its own. It’s a lot more complex than just the AWD of a Honda CR-V and it’s tuned for performance, splitting the rear wheels to push where needed. It seems to work very well, and would surely be rewarding at a track day.

The turbo is not perfect – there’s a delay when you blip down through the gears and stomp on the gas – but the lag is momentary and if you can keep the blower whistling, it will never be an issue. I predict that most owners will enjoy this quirk, rather than curse it.

Of course, there’s a penalty to pay at the gas station. Acura recommends Premium gas for best performance, and these days, it might be a tough sell for owners to push the Premium button on the pump. It’s not a requirement though, as it is for the German competition, and most people who use a Type S as their daily driver will probably buy Regular for the commute and Premium for the weekend. I saw an average consumption of 11.3 L/100 km, which is right around the claimed average but thirstier than the 9.8 combined rating of the regular TLX.

Technology

The touchpad controller on the centre console is an Acura aberration. On a bumpy road, this controller is nigh-on impossible to use.Mark Richardson/The Globe and Mail

Full connectivity is a given these days, and the wireless charging base for the TLX is one of the best in the business. Your phone tucks half under the centre armrest and plugs cleanly into the charging socket under the rest, so there are no stray wires.

But – and this is a big but, and maybe a huge one – the touchpad controller on the centre console is an Acura aberration. I dissed it in my review of the regular TLX and it’s unchanged this time around, and just as bad. Lexus has a similar system of making you move your finger around on the touchpad while driving, but at least the Lexus system is haptic, with a sticky pointer that mostly stays where it’s put. On a bumpy road, this controller is nigh-on impossible to use. Please Acura, ditch this as soon as possible.

Cargo

There’s a little less space than in the regular TLX, with Acura claiming 382 litres once the 60/40 second-row seats are folded flat. This is compared to 405 litres for the less powerful TLX that doesn’t have such large springs or an A-brace behind the seats to help further stiffen the body. I’ll take the A-brace any day.

Verdict

The Type S is the real TLX, and everything else is a pretender. You might be quite happy with a pretender, especially if you mostly commute, or if you rarely have the opportunity to open up the performance of your car, in which case you should save yourself a few thousand bucks by buying one of those other trims. If you want the real TLX however, which finally gets Acura back to what it should be, then the Type S is your only option.

Mark Richardson/The Globe and Mail

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