Monday, August 31, 2015

Paint the Town Beige | 2015 Acura TLX Review

Everybody loves Las Vegas, it seems. Whenever a colleague of mine heads out on their vacation they choose it as their destination, not the French Riviera, not Australia or Asia but rather the city of sin. I have always found this perplexing because by all accounts there is nothing there. It’s in a desert. Its history is measured in decades. And because of casinos, the place is designed to suck dry the wallet of anybody who might just be passing through.

“No.” my colleagues argue, “There is just so much to do in Vegas. You have to go.” So I did. My friend, Sasha, and I were looking for a destination for our road trip. And after hearing of all the thrills from my colleagues’ adventures down there, I had to see what they were talking about.

For the trip, Acura kindly lent us one of their brand new models, the TLX. The ads say “It’s that kind of thrill,” so I thought it would be a perfect companion to the glitzy city.

The car replaces both the TL and the smaller TSX in a bid to simplify their lineup. It fills the gap with two engine choices instead of completely different models. You can get a 4-cylinder, or you can get a V6 with or without Acura’s very good Super Handling All-Wheel-Drive system.

Upon picking up the car, there were two things we noticed. How nice it looked in the flesh, and how capacious the trunk was. It was able to fit all our suitcases, sleeping bags, pillows and more, perfectly. A stark improvement over the old TL’s oddly shaped trunk. In fact only a backpack and cooler made it into the cabin.

Driving towards Boise was weirdly eventful. We witnessed the world’s slowest police chase in central Washington. Police chased a woman who drove with the flow of traffic, yet refused to pull over. It lasted over 20 minutes and required 3 cop cars to get her to stop.

In north eastern Oregon’s the aptly named Deadman Pass we hit some of the densest fog I have ever encountered. The reflection of the Jewel Eye headlights off the fog made it feel like we were driving into a concrete wall. Snow may be the worst to drive through. But Fog, at night, comes very close. So we slowed waaaaay down. Good thing too, because little did we know that that portion of Interstate 84 east of Pendelton is one of the most notorious sections of highway in the state. In fact, right at the end of 2012 nine people were killed and many more injured in a tragic bus accident on the Cabbage Hill we traversed. 

The next day we encountered high winds north of Jackpot, Nevada – the one place where no jackpot exists. This caused the unusual situation we had to dodge tumbleweeds. It’s like being in an 80s video game, only more realistic and where it isn’t so much that you lose points, rather paint. I got the highest score.

It was in that moment where the handling characteristic of the TLX made itself known. It’s a very stable car. The chassis is very solid and secure, exuding a suave confidence in any handling situation.

As the sun began to rest behind the dry, treeless desert mountains surrounding the great basin highway, we could orange glow reflecting off the clouds still miles away. With fire in the sky, Vegas does not hide. It beckons. For the tired motorist, there is nothing more stimulating than the dazzling display of the city of flashing lights. After two days of driving, we had made it to our destination.

As I spent time in the city, something just didn’t seem to fit. Me actually. The TLX too. Walking down the normcore sidewalks of the Strip, I couldn’t help but notice the city is a fascinating crockpot of Middle America cooking through their savings. I like my money, so I wasn’t going to gamble. Perhaps the most interesting things we did were to watch David Copperfield show us how his father helped him fulfill his dreams of magic and do the Fremont Street zipline (I really don’t like Freemont street though). And that was really it. Oh! and eat, lavishly.

It feels shameful almost, until you realize how flipping hard it is to get around in Las Vegas. Even with a car and the free parking at all the casinos, you still have to walk through the whole establishment to get back to strip. And although the TLX may have a great V6 engine, it spent most of its time off thanks to the model’s start-stop system, which - while not amazingly smooth - did help save some fuel in the unbelievable traffic. In fact, during the entire trip we averaged about 8.4 L/100km. That is actually really impressive considering the size of the car and that it was loaded.

Before departing the city for something less crazy, we needed to fill up. And Las Vegas’ gas stations liked neither our Canadian credit cards nor the TLX’s capless filler system. It felt as if the city didn’t want to let us leave, even though after 3 days in Vegas, we absolutely had to.

Out of the city it was time to reflect on the car. Acura went through a weird phase a couple of years ago and the new TLX is a bit of a response to that. The sharp angles and lines have softened compared to the old TL/SX. And that silly shield (beak) grill is much more subtle. In fact the front end of the car is the best part of the new design. It’s very solidly formed, like the Hoover Dam or the rock formations of Yosemite. The design is unfortunately let down by the rear, which is remarkably plain. Like us, in Vegas.

When we hit Death Valley there were a few things to note. It was a reasonable temperature when we were there at 22 degrees Celsius. In fact, I wore a sweater. And it was crazy silent, much like the Acura’s interior. It’s what you would expect from a mid priced, mid sized Acura. Borrowing all the elements from previously released RLX and MDX.

Like the infotainment and navigation system. While some of the redundancies of having one screen controlled by touch (for audio and climate) and the other by a knob (for everything except climate) is a bit puzzling, it’s not particularly confusing or slow. Though, I have no idea what the top screen would be used for on models without the navigation system.

A system I might add that has some annoying quirks. Firstly in Death Valley it would not show any of the park’s roads beyond the 400m zoom level. Once you zoom out farther it only shows major highways. Which meant that dragging the map around to find out the best route through Death Valley would have taken ages. In fact, we had to resort to using the paper maps posted at one of the rest stops.

Another annoying thing is putting in addresses. On the navi system in the old TSX/L you could input an address while driving using the control knob. This may seem dangerous but the system worked in such a way that you didn’t ever need to take your eyes off the road. When you stopped rotating the wheel it would tell you the letter you were on so you could select it. Also, you could get your passenger to do it. Now though, that’s gone. Inputting an address while on the go can only be done with the voice activation system which doesn’t even understand my broadcast voice. The system was so inaccurate I found myself more distracted than if the knob just worked. At one point, it took 45 minutes to input an address. Also you can’t scroll through navigation lists on the move, yet you can scroll through your iPod music lists. This makes no sense because, I don’t know about you, but my iPod lists are long. Here’s my safe solution. Use the passenger seat airbag sensor to activate the ability to use the system fully.

While I’m ranting I should add that the seats weren’t very comfortable for the long journey either. They lack adequate thigh support. So after many hours at the wheel we found ourselves constantly shifting our bottoms.

It was in the hills winding out of the famous desert where we could give a chance to let TLX shine. Perhaps there are thrills to be to be had at the helm of this 290hp, All-Wheel-Drive sports sedan. The new 3.5 Litre V6 that’s shared with the MDX is very nice. It’s naturally aspirated linearity is satisfying, and smoothness appreciated.

While lesser models use front wheel drive, the top level Elite we had for our trip was equipped with Acura’s superb Super Handling All-Wheel-Drive (Shawd as I call it). The system really helps push you around a corner by putting more power to the outside rear wheel. Through the tight hairpins of Route 190 I had to adjust my steering lock slightly when I hit the throttle mid corner because of how effective the system is.

Weirdly the steering system itself is best described as average. I didn’t offer much feel and wasn’t as sharp or quick as one would expect from a sports sedan. And like I mentioned outside the town of Jackpot, NV the handling is stable, safe and progressive. Not very thrilling.

As we progressed through our trip, we took a gamble to see if the road to Yosemite might open (it did). We encountered hail storms and snow in Lake Tahoe. We experienced the choice of Sizzler and got it wrong. And then, as we were rushing towards Crater Lake in the sunset it became apparent that through the rest of our journey the Acura TLX became less and less a focal point. Its AcuraWatch driver’s aids took over to let the rest of the car to fall back into background. Sure we talked about the car, but we also talked about life, fears and the future. You know, the types of conversations that bond friendships further.

Looking back on the trip, I see now that it was less about Vegas. The city of sin was only but a unique destination. And having driven the Acura TLX over 5000 km, it’s clear that it is not “that kind of thrill.” Thrills are only but a tagline. Instead the week was a journey with a friend to see some of the most beautiful sights in the west. And the car became a debatably comfortable yet supremely serene and stable capsule of conversation for the bits in between.

2015 Acura TLX Elite SH-AWD
It may not be thrilling, but it will take you far and wide  

Price as tested (SH-AWD Base Price): $49,642 ($42,122) inc. Freight + PDI
Engine: 3.5 Litre Direct Injection SOHC V6
Power: 290 hp @ 6200 rpm   Torque: 267 lb-ft @ 4500 rpm
Transmission: 9-Speed-Automatic
Fuel Consumption NRCan (city|hwy|combined): 11.2 | 7.5 | 9.6  L/100km

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