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Test Drive: 2013 Acura ILX

 

When Acura launched in the United States back in 1986 it did so with two cars, the bombastically named Legend sedan and the sporty Integra compact that, to many, became the true heart of the brand.

Over the years, as the automaker succumbed to the alphanumeric craze sweeping the luxury car ranks, the Integra became the RSX and then mysteriously disappeared after the 2006 model year without a new compact to replace it, until now.

The 2013 ILX is on paper and in spirit the return of the Integra, a relatively affordable, Honda Civic-derived gateway into the upscale arena. During the first Bush administration, it was what yuppies who couldn’t or wouldn’t do the BMW thing drove, and a lot of them did.

This time around the car comes with a green card, and features a fuel-efficient entry-level model as well as the brand’s first hybrid. Those with fond memories of the original might be more interested in the version tested here.

The ILX 2.4 is powered by the same screaming four-cylinder VTEC engine used by the high-performance Civic Si and is only available with a six-speed manual transmission. As far as enthusiast credentials are concerned, they really don’t get better than that.

Aside from the go-fast parts, the ILX 2.4 is much the same as the rest of the ILX lineup. Although based on the same platform as the Civic, the ILX 2.4 gets a unique, more stylish bodywork and an upscale interior that anyone who’s been in an Acura lately will find quite familiar.

As compacts go, this one’s on the roomy side and when outfitted with the premium package (standard on the ILX 2.4,) features elegant leather upholstery and two of the finest bucket seats in the business.

Oddly, as it is the version that I think you’d most want to go exploring in, the ILX 2.4 can’t be had with navigation – likely an indication that this is expected to be a low-volume model. In fact, aside from some accessories, there are no options available.

That’s fine, because it comes with a sunroof, a very nice 160-watt stereo, Bluetooth for both audio and phone, and a feature that reads your text messages aloud and allows you to respond to them from a set list that includes phrases like “talk to you later, I’m driving.” I actually sent that one as a response to a Twitter conversation that came through as an MMS and it posted there, as well. It made me feel so connected.

At $30,095, the ILX 2.4 is priced exactly the same as the $26,975 entry level ILX with the premium package option, so you’re basically trading a little fuel economy, and the sloth of using an automatic transmission, for fun.

Quite a bit of it, actually. I can’t say that I was very excited about the ILX, it was hard to get stoked over a tarted-up Civic, but that changed by the time I drove this model half a block.

The clutch is light and engages right where you expect it to, while the extremely stubby-little stick shift an absolute delight to flick around -- very low effort and never misses a gear.

But it’s the engine that will soothe you into submission, putting out such a smooth, Teflon-coated sound that all you want to do is rev it to its 7,100 redline. The music comes through quite clear in the otherwise quite cabin, which might be a turnoff to some shoppers but not the ones that this model is targeted at. Perhaps this is why the other ILX models offer a 10-speaker premium audio system option and this one doesn’t.

Take full advantage of the motor and the ILX 2.4 is a lively car with a chassis tuned to match. Special two-stage shock absorbers absorb little bumps in the road, but firm up as you throw it into a turn. The steering is precise and can vary the assist to subtly guide you on how to steer yourself through potentially slippery situations. If it works, it’s not very obvious about it, but if it’s an essential ingredient to the overall composure exhibited by the ILX 2.4 then it’s a fine addition to a mix that includes a reasonable 31 mpg highway fuel economy rating, just 4 mpg less than the entry-level ILX.

While all eyes this year have been on Toyota’s resurrection of the kind of affordable performance car the company was never really synonymous with in the form of the Scion FR-S, Acura has experienced a true second coming with the ILX.

Will it become a legend like the first one? Only time will tell.

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2013 Acura ILX 2.4

Base Price: $30,095

Type: 4-door, 5-passenger sedan

Engine: 2.4-liter inline-4-cylinder

Power: 201 hp, 170 lb-ft torque

Transmission: 6-speed manual

MPG: 22 city/31 hwy