Talk about a niche market.
The Acura ILX Hybrid competes against only one other car, the Lexus CT200h. Both are luxury compact hybrids that use power trains from less expensive vehicles. The CT200h utilizes the gasoline engine and electric motor combination of the Toyota Prius. The ILX borrows the Integrated Motor Assist system from the Honda Civic. And both offer different bodies, retuned suspensions, plusher interiors and more standard equipment to justify their higher prices.
It's fair to ask how many potential buyers will shell out the additional dollars to feel pampered while saving gas. In the case of our current test car, the 2014 Acura ILX Hybrid, the answer could be quite a few. Honda has done an excellent job creating a luxury subsidiary that offers high-quality vehicles.
Although the ILX is roughly the same size and shape as the Civic, it looks, feels and drives like a totally different car. All body panels and windows are different, the suspension is firmer, the interior features high quality materials, and the entertainment and navigation systems are much more sophisticated. Standard features include keyless access, Pandora interface, Bluetooth HandsFree link, power moonroof and aluminum wheels. Our test car came with the optional Tech Package, with added ELS surround audio system, Acura navigation system with voice recognition, AcuraLink Real-Time traffic and weather, and heated and cooled front leather seats.
In fact, the only thing that undercut the premium feel was the hybrid drive train, which was not up to the standards set by the rest of the car. Although we averaged just under 38 miles per gallon in a week of mixed driving, the IMA system felt surprisingly unsophisticated much of the time. Like most hybrids, acceleration was leisurely in the Eco mode and so-so in the Normal mode. The Auto Stop feature shut the gas engine off at every stop, and it shuddered every time it restarted. That's not unusual for Auto Stop features but, unlike most others, there was no way to shut it off. And the car groaned and surged backing out of our uphill driveway every morning, which was not the best way to start each day.
Shifting into the Sport mode improved the performace considerably, however. It turned the continuously variable transmission into a seven-speed manual shifted by steering wheel-mounted paddles. Though not as satisfying as a genuine manual transmission, engine/motor could be held in gear up to the red line before shifting to the next highest gear, resulting in quicker acceleration. The revs were also accompanied by a low growl out of the tail pipe, increasing the impression of sportiness.
Still, the underwhelming performance in the Eco and Normal modes was surprising because Honda, Acura's parent company, revolutionized the hybrid field this year with the astonishingly good 2014 Accord Hybrid. Unlike other hybrids that use conventional automatic and CVT transmissions, the Accord uses the electric motor as the transmission. This results in quick starts and smooth acceleration, while still delivering high mileage. If Acura could adapt that system for the ILX, it would solve all of the drive train issues.
As it is, drivers must be satisfied with the car's other pleasures, which are many. The ILX is wider and low, looking more like a small BMW than a Honda Civic. On the road, it offers a smooth, comfortable ride, even over rough road surfaces. The controls are easy to see and understand, which is not always the case in luxury cars. The interior materials are a good mix of high quality plastics hard and soft , and the upgraded 10-speaker stereo in our test car easily distracted us from the outside world. And although the battery pack reduced the available trunk space, we had not trouble stowing paper bags on the way home from shopping.
Strong points also include the regenerative brakes, which were excellent. On most hybrids, the brakes are hard to modulate as they transfer otherwise wasted energy to the batteries. Sometimes they grab at the slightest touch, other times the pedal feels soft. But the brakes in the ILX felt normal every time, which improved the driving experience enormously.
Compact cars offer many advantages. They are easier to maneuver and park, and offer better mileage than larger cars. Compact hybrids increase the fuel savings, and the luxury appointments offered in the 2014 ILX Hybrid make it more than a utilitarian fuel-saving device. Acura knows there a market for that, even if it's a select one.
Facts and figures
Model tested: 2014 ILX Hybrid.
Class: Compact sedan.
Layout: Front engine, front-wheel-drive.
Style: Four-door, four passenger car.
Engines: 1.5-liter inline 4 cylinder engine and electric motor (111 hp, 127 ft-lbs).
Transmission: Continuously Variable Transmission.
Fuel Economy: 39/38/38.
Price: Starting at around $30,000 ($35,495 as tested).