Last month, I got an advance look at the 2021 Acura TLX, specifically so that I could experience the new ELS Studio 3D audio system, which I wrote about here. This month, Acura made the new TLX available for limited drives by the media (including me). So, I got a chance to find out if the 2021 TLX is a worthy update to Acura’s premium mid-size sport sedan, or just a life-support system for my favorite new listening room. 

Good news. Not only did Acura give the second-generation TLX new sound technology, it managed a near total makeover, with a new chassis, powertrain, interior and exterior design, all while holding close to the line on pricing. 

Design-wise, TLX is sharper and sportier than before, with an assertive stance and fast roofline. It manages to accomplish the sport sedan goal of capturing the sense of forward motion while standing still. The car appears lower and wider than before (and it is, fractionally). The front end is particularly expressive, with the Diamond Pentagon grille, four-lamp LED Jewel Eye headlights on each side and a big Acura badge in the center. Acura’s paint process is great, resulting in deep, lustrous surfaces. In addition to appearance, TLX’s exterior was designed using computational fluid dynamics and full-scale wind-tunnel testing, which has resulted in a car that is not only attractive, but extremely aerodynamically sleek.

Inside, TLX has the tailored look that befits a premium spots sedan. Authentic materials — real leather, real wood, real metal – are used throughout, beautifully finished and fit. Where there’s plastic, the quality is high and soft touch where appropriate. 

Technology is on display in TLX’s cockpit. The shift-by-wire 10-speed automatic transmission is controlled through an NSX-style pushbutton interface in the center stack, rather than by a traditional gear-selector lever. Paddle shifters give direct gear access (though the transmission does an excellent job on its own). A 10.2-inch display hovers at the top of the center stack, mounted in landscape orientation. A knob provides direct access to the Integrated Dynamics System, allowing you to select drive modes (Comfort, Normal, Sport or Individual). With this knob, you can adjust throttle response, transmission function, Active Sound Control, Electric Power Steering, idle stop, interior lighting theme, and Adaptive Damper System (on Advance trim level) and Super-Handling All-Wheel Drive (if equipped). Unlike some drive mode systems, TLX’s really does change the character of the drive when activated, and being able to create and save an Individual setting is a welcome feature. Playing with it for just a few minutes, I found a setting with soft suspension and stiff steering that helped me tame the bumpy roads of Michigan without surrendering to vague handling. More familiarity with TLX will result in a deeper understanding of how the various settings and modes improve the driving experience, and savvy drivers will learn how to dial in their favorites. 

TLX’s new powertrain is a good one, replacing the four-cylinder/V6 options of the previous generation with a single turbocharged 2.0-liter inline four-cylinder direct gasoline injection engine tuned to produce 272 hp and 280 lb-ft of torque. Front-wheel drive is standard on the base models, and Acura’s Super-Handling All-Wheel Drive (SH-AWD) is available on all models. The EPA estimates fuel economy at 22 mpg city/31 mpg highway/25 mpg combined for front-wheel drive models, and 21 mpg city/29 mpg highway/24 mpg combined for all-wheel drive.

With four-wheel independent suspension (double-wishbone front/five-link rear) and stabilizer bars at both ends, TLX handles very well, remaining flat and composed through curves and swallowing bumps along the way, especially when equipped with adaptive dampers (Advance trim level). Acura only brought out SH-AWD versions of TLX to the launch event that I attended in Michigan. As a $2,000 upgrade, the sophisticated system seems like a good investment on any trim level of TLX, especially since it enables a torque split of up to 70% to the rear, and 100% from side-to-side. Electronics also activate torque vectoring in SH-AWD models, which directs power to the outside wheel in a turn, sharpening cornering behavior. This is all-wheel drive that makes TLX easier to drive in all conditions, not just in bad weather. 

TLX comes with the AcuraWatch suite of driver-assistance technologies, along with all of the modern safety features that you’d expect in a premium sport sedan. You can add Rear Cross Traffic Monitor, front and rear parking sensors, surround-view camera system and a head-up display (recommended).

Acura has a streamlined pricing structure, which makes it pretty simple to select the model that matches your needs. The base TLX starts at $37,500. The Tech model starts at $41,500. A-Spec starts at $44,250. Advance starts at $46,300. You can upgrade any trim level from FWD to SH-AWD for an additional $2,000. Every new Acura is covered by a four-year/50,000-mile new vehicle limited warranty. TLX’s powertrain is covered by a six-year/70,000-mile limited warranty, and the body is covered for rust perforation for five years. 

Acura has positioned the TLX as a segment-buster, straddling the line between compact and mid-sized premium sports sedans. They expect buyers to compare it with the Audi A4 and A6, BMW 3 Series and 5 Series, and Mercedes-Benz C-Class and E-Class, where it looks like a comparably equipped TLX comes in at a lower price than either compact or mid-sized competitor. I’d add the Lexus IS, Infiniti Q50, Cadillac CT5, and Volvo S60 to the list for consideration.

Oh, and did I mention the ELS Studio 3D audio system in the TLX? 

Driving the 2021 Acura TLX, I’ve decided that it is much more than a life-support system for the ELS Studio 3D. It’s a fun-to-drive, competitively priced premium sport sedan for independent-minded drivers who care more about how a car makes them feel than whether or not the hottest badge is on the grille.