2021 Acura TLX Type S Road Test Review

After spending an entire month with our long-term 2021 Acura TLX A-Spec, I had high hopes for the new TLX Type S. When you start from a good base, that means things can only get better, right? The chassis underneath the base TLX’s flashy sheetmetal is a thing of brilliance. This four-door is taut and responsive the way you expect a high-performance German sport sedan to be, and the SH-AWD system is one of the best in the business, hugely aiding its agility.

But not everything about the TLX A-Spec with its 2.0-turbo four-cylinder is perfect in the fun-to-drive column. The 10-speed transmission is mediocre at best, and while the engine makes a good noise, an Accord with its 2.0-turbo can outrun it in a straight line. There’s enough thrust to keep things lively, but it’s not going to raise your pulse.

Enter the TLX Type S. It marks Acura’s mighty return to performance cars (beyond the NSX), and it’s a chance for Acura to address our issues with the standard TLX. Let’s get into it.

The Type S boots out the four-cylinder in favor of Acura’s totally new 3.0-liter turbocharged V6. This engine is exclusive to the Type S for the time being, and it’s a winner. Don’t expect a high-revving classic Honda experience, though. Instead, just like the new turbocharged Civic Type R, this V6 is a torque monster. The peak 354 pound-feet hits low in the rev band at 1,400 rpm then carries on up to 5,000. Its peak 355 horsepower is made at 5,500 rpm, and redline comes shortly thereafter at 6,200.

Acura still found a way to make this relatively low-revving V6 sound more frenzied than it actually is. The trip up to redline in Sport and Sport+ (which opens the active exhaust valves) is music to the ears. It’s not punishingly loud, but the pitch increases with revs to a much higher note than you might suspect. Open the windows, and you’ll also get some turbo-spooling noises for even more drama. The personality and character level of this engine is off the charts compared to the standard 2.0T. Only BMW’s inline-six — in the M340i — offers up a similarly enticing noise.

The pull from this engine matches the sound it makes, too. Good luck finding a dead spot or weak point anywhere, because it doesn’t exist. There’s no cliff of torque at the end of the meaty rev band, and while the Type S might not win every stoplight drag race — Acura estimates an approximately 5-second trip to 60 mph — it’s plenty quick enough to have a hell of a good time in. It doesn’t bother me for a second that this Acura V6’s 355 horsepower is less than you’ll find in an M340i, AMG C 43 or Q50 Red Sport 400. Acceleration is plenty to get going way too fast on a back road, and the engine is an entertaining partner on the way there. Consider this box checked emphatically.

Next up in my list of complaints about the standard TLX is the 10-speed transmission. That version is slow to respond to paddle inputs, and the tuning in Sport mode frustrates by too often finding itself in the wrong gear when you want the revs to be up. Acura seriously overhauled this 10-speed for the Type S with a new torque converter, stronger internal gears, improved clutches and a dedicated transmission cooler. 

The revisions allow for 40% quicker downshifts and 30% quicker upshifts than before, and I believe it. Pop it into the new (Type S exclusive) Sport+ mode, and this transmission is in the top tier of torque converter automatics when it comes to shift speeds and gear-selection smarts. Acura transformed this 10-speed into a lovely gearbox, and it makes driving the TLX Type S significantly more fun and satisfying. The response times and shifting experience are similar to what you might get out of a BMW product fitted with the ZF eight-speed. Lots of shifting happens, too, because the first few gears are spaced so close together. That’s great fun getting off the line quickly, but I found it better to just let the computer handle things than keep up with the constant shifting. Things space further out in the mid and higher gears, which is where it’s more fun to use the paddles. That’s problem box number two, checked.

Acura manages to bring this extra performance to the Type S without sacrificing daily driving civility. Twist the NSX-style drive-mode selector into Comfort, and this Type S trundles along just as sedately and smoothly as the 2.0T. Shifts are seamless. The exhaust shuts up. And the ride coddles. It’s the very definition of a dual threat.

Improving the TLX’s handling was surely the aim of the Type S, but don’t shortchange what Acura started with. Acura has said that the standard car’s structure and chassis are built to “Type S” standards of handling, and it feels like that on the road. That said, the Type S does try to improve matters.

From the second you set off, the additional bracing, frame stiffeners, stiffer stabilizer bars and stiffer springs and dampers are obvious. The car feels more of a piece, which is an accomplishment considering how well the standard car drives. Don’t think the Type S brings this Acura up to Type R levels of handling prowess, though. Go get a Civic Type R if you want the pinnacle of performance from the Honda/Acura crew.

Instead, the Type S finds its home in a middle ground of performance, just like its M340i, S4 and AMG C 43 rivals from Germany. The optional Pirelli P Zero summer tires that wrap NSX-inspired wheels are an $800 must-buy. The grip provided by this rubber in combination with the torque vectoring SH-AWD system is a thing of beauty. It imparts in the driver enough confidence to simply flat-foot it through corners, leaning on the substantial grip and trick differential to sort things out. With a gentle flick of its tail, the Type S comes out the other side of a corner bolting down the road with a surprising amount of momentum. 

There’s a predictable, gentle lean as you arc through corners. I wish I could say the weight transfer and feeling of the front end were perfect, but the pesky four-cylinder ruined me. The V6 is more nose-heavy: 59/41 front/rear weight distribution compared to 57/43 for the four-cylinder. And that extra weight up front makes the nose feel slightly heavier compared to the four. The effect is similar to going from an EcoBoost Mustang to a 5.0. It’s not nearly enough to make me denigrate the Type S model’s handling, but it’s something that’s noticeable having driven both versions of the car. Even when equipped with the lightweight wheels on our tester, the Type S is heavy at 4,200 pounds — that’s 230 pounds more than our A-Spec, and sadly that weight gain is in the wrong spot.

Thankfully, the new and larger Brembo brakes are up to the task of bringing the TLX Type S to a stop. Brake fade was nonexistent on the road, and on the track at Laguna Seca, they held up just fine, too. The pedal is one of the best out there with a short and stiff stroke that reacts the second you begin to breathe on it. 

Those big red-painted Brembos with Acura spelled out on them look great tucked behind the wheels. Acura’s entire exterior package for this car is the perfect level of aggro, too. The only items that may be questionable are the gigantic quad exhaust tips prominently poking out the back. They sound the part, though, and they’re 100% real, so I’m still giving them a thumbs up. And do pay the extra $500 for this Type S-exclusive Tiger Eye Pearl paint — it’s the best color in Acura’s palette.

The big question left hanging here is, should you buy the Type S over its established German competitors? That depends on your priorities. A Type S, which comes fully loaded with every luxury feature Acura offers, can be had for thousands less than any of the Germans when equipped similarly. You may be about a half second slower to 60 mph in the Type S, but you’d pay a lot more to get that half second and all the equipment elsewhere. The conversation gets messier when the Cadillac CT5-V and Genesis G70 enter — both are damn good performance sedans. But the TLX Type S is earnestly mixing it up with the best of them, and there’s no doubt it’s good enough to earn a place in the driveways of driving enthusiasts everywhere.

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