Back a million years ago – OK, it was the ’90s – my family used to vacation up in Canada, a chilly northern bizarro-land for a budding car-spotter. There were Asünas, which were rebadged Geos, Ladas from Russia, and these strange little Acuras everywhere. Up front, this Acura looked like a contemporary Toyota Camry, but from the A pillars back, it was unmistakably a Honda Civic. Known as the EL, the car never made it to America, unless of course a Canadian driver took a wrong turn near the border and ended up in Niagara Falls, Sault Ste. Marie, or Poker Creek, Alaska.
But it was an interesting car, slotting below the now-legendary Integra and serving as the gateway to Honda’s premium brand. In 2005, the EL became the CSX, and for fear that the average American buyer would confuse it for a freight train (probably), it was again sold only in the Great White North. By 2012, Honda thought we were ready for a Acura-badged Civic, and launched the ILX, a car that’s sold on both sides of the border.
Of course, there was one big problem: ILX was based on the new ninth-generation Civic, which was one of the most disappointing cars in Honda’s history. When it was refreshed for 2013, the Civic was blasted by critics for its shockingly (for Honda) cheap interior, indifferent fit-and-finish, and harsh ride. This led to one of the most comprehensive single-year redesigns in recent memory, and by 2014, the Civic (and ILX) were largely back on track.
That was a generation ago, and today, the Civic is flying especially high. Which brings up another problem: With a five-door hatch to augment the sedan, red-hot Si model, and the specter of the Type-R looming over the lineup (it’s coming stateside eventually…) the Civic lineup is arguably the best it’s ever been. But is it so good that it eclipses the Acura? That’s what we’ll find out in this week’s Buy This, Not That.
Tale of the tape
Honda worked hard to help the public forget the mistakes of its ninth-generation Civic, and it’s done all that and more. There’s something for just about everyone here, but unfortunately, customers may need to wait a few months to get exactly what they want. The 2016 North American Car of the Year is available as both a sedan and coupe for now, ranging from the sub-$20K LX model, to the Touring, which tops out at around $30K with all the option boxes ticked. From here the only way for the Civic is up; the Si model will arrive to scare the bejesus out of the Volkswagen GTI and Ford Focus ST in early 2017, and will likely be priced along the lines of the Touring. The five-door hatch will probably bow at around the same time, and giant-slaying Type-R is expected to arrive before 2018, and be priced to compete with the Ford Focus RS in the $35-$40K range.
Power comes from a pair of four-bangers — a 154-horsepower 2.0-liter i-VTEC on LX and EX models, and a turbocharged 1.5-liter that puts out 178 horsepower. For now, the LX is the only model offered with Honda’s fantastic six-speed manual transmission, but it’ll also be available on the sportier, and more powerful, Si and Type-R models. For everyone else, gear shifts come from the company’s smooth dual-clutch eight-speed automatic, one of the best in the business.
Inside, fit and finish is Honda quality – that is it punches well above its weight. The deluge of cascading screens and buttons of previous generations has been replaced with a simple, elegant dash, dominated by a big touchscreen and digital instrument layout. The HondaLink infotainment system is simple and intuitive, and the Civic is available with virtually every convenience and safety aid in the Honda arsenal. And on the outside, the car’s aggressive yet inoffensive new sheetmetal should appeal to most customers while making the rival Toyota Corolla look as boring as, well, a Toyota Corolla.
On the other hand, the 2016 ILX has a simpler story — one of “something lost, something gained.” Facelifted for 2016, the Acura has ditched the aging 2.0-liter base engine and five-speed automatic transmission, and made Honda’s 201-horsepower, 2.4-liter Earth Dreams (yes, that’s its official name) the sole powerplant. The good news is: Power is up somewhat. The old base car made 150 horsepower and 140 pound-feet of torque, while the new mill is good for 201 horses – same as the old range-topping 2.4 – but has 10 more pound-feet of torque. It’s mated to Honda’s smooth dual-clutch eight-speed automatic, making for a comfortable and responsive drive.
Unfortunately, premium sedans in the ILX’s segment (in the $28-$35K range) are expected to be a little sporty, and this is where the Acura falls short. Where it once was the industry leader in bringing upscale performance-minded cars to the masses, Acura pulled the ILX’s six-speed manual transmission option in 2014, and its suspension is set up for comfort, not corner-carving. And as decent as the Earth Dreams’ fuel economy is (24 city/35 highway), a lack of a hybrid option (a mark against the Civic too), may keep green-minded buyers away too.
Inside, the ILX is comfortable and well-appointed, but no more so than a well-optioned Honda. Fit-and-finish, and overall quality are superb, but with its heavily hooded infotainment screen (at 7 inches, it’s the same size as the Civic’s), and acres of black plastic, it looks dated where the Civic looks chic and modern. That theme continues to the outside, where despite Acura’s lovely trademark “jewel-eye” headlights, the ILX is clean, handsome, but ultimately uninspiring.
The ILX is by no means a bad car, but it has three big problems that just can’t be ignored: It’s easily overshadowed by the car it’s based on, it’s a sporty sedan that lacks the performance needed to set it apart in a cutthroat segment, and finally, it’s been put in the awkward position of competing with Lexus, BMW, Mercedes, Audi, and well-optioned Civic Touring models. And once Honda’s performance Civics hit the streets, that in-house competition will only increase. In a perfect world, the ILX would be the spiritual successor to the Integra: rakishly sporty, comfortably upscale, and a legitimate sport sedan bargain. Nobody who loves cars has ever mistaken an Integra for a Civic; the ILX won’t have that luxury unless big changes are made. The new Civic is unquestionably world class. In our opinion, Acura’s entry-level car deserves to be too. Add this one to the growing list of accolades for the latest Civic.