2021 Acura TLX Type S First Drive Review: The Badge Is Back!

Yes, it’s finally here. Nearly 13 years after the coveted badge left U.S. shores, the 2021 Acura TLX Type S will reach U.S. dealers on June 23. Think of the Type S, and the Acura CL probably comes to mind—a vehicle that helped show Americans front-wheel-drive cars could be exciting to drive.

The return of the Type S sub-brand premiers with the TLX midsize sedan and will continue with the MDX three-row crossover. Acura says there’s more Type S news coming later this year, which makes us wonder if the popular RDX will also get the sporty badge. In the meantime, let’s talk about our experience behind the wheel of the TLX Type S, which included a portion at the track and on the road.

The Car

Powered by a 355-hp 3.0-liter V-6 with a twin-scroll turbo and 354 lb-ft of torque, the TLX Type S also employs a 10-speed automatic that sends power to all four wheels via Acura’s distinguished Super-Handling All-Wheel-Drive system. The 3.0-liter engine is a significant step up from the 272-hp, 280 lb-ft 2.0-liter turbo four that powers the standard TLX, and although the torque-vectoring AWD system is the same one that’s available across Acura’s lineup, it can send up to 70 percent of the torque to the rear axle and 100 percent of that torque to the right or left rear wheel.

Besides the new engine, Acura made important changes to the chassis, suspension, and transmission to make the TLX a true Type S. Torsional rigidity increased by 13 percent thanks in part to an “A-brace” located behind the rear seats. The front control-arm suspension’s springs are 40 percent stiffer, while the stabilizer bars on both axles are larger and firmer—by 9 percent in the front and 31 percent in the rear. The Type S’s dampers provide 4 percent more support in the front and 9 percent more in the rear, and the 10-speed automatic is tuned to shift 40 percent more quickly.

With the additional power, Acura upgraded to larger, stronger brakes. The four-piston red Brembo calipers in the front squeeze 14.3-inch rotors, while the rear rotors measure 13.0 inches. They are a massive enhancement compared to the two-piston calipers in the regular TLX.

The Drive

On WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca, the Type S sliced confidently through the corners. With the optional Pirelli P Zero summer tires and the lightweight 20-inch wheels—the sole option available in the Type S—the performance sedan showed great grip. The AWD system allows the driver to carefully rotate the car when exiting the corners in a way that provides the confidence to push harder. There’s no fear of spinning out, yet the handling is lively and zestful. The electro-servo brakes also play a key role—they’re grabby and provide excellent feel whether you’re entering the infamous corkscrew or slowing down for turn 1.

After six laps on the track, we left the driver’s seat with a smile. But if there was anything that we would have wanted, it was more power. The engine delivers its power in a quick and linear fashion, but we still walked away feeling like the Type S could take more. Despite driving in Sport+—a drive mode that’s only available in the Type S—and leaving the transmission in Sport to give full control to the paddle shifters, the Type S could have used more punchiness. The power-to-weight ratio hurts the Type S, as it carries more weight due to its larger size.

On the street, the Type S demonstrates its roots. Its electric power steering has been tuned for quicker response, and compared to the TLX A Spec that we drove up from Los Angeles to Monterey, California, there was a vast difference between the two. The Type S is quicker and feels more athletic. Think of the A Spec like a Crianza Spanish wine, which is aged in oak barrels for one year, and the Type S as a Reserva, which is aged for two more years. The Type S feels more mature, settled and flavorful, but it’s still not the Gran Reserva that’s aged for five years.

Press the down the throttle and the gearbox doesn’t hesitate to react—it’s quick to downshift whenever it needs to. In Sport or Sport+ the transmission will hold gears longer, and the steering and suspension deliver a sportier drive. When you’re on a date night, rotating the enormous knob on the center console to Comfort mode will calm things down, as the suspension, steering, and transmission are re-tuned for a more mellow ride.

Compared to the 349-hp, 369 lb-ft Audi S4—the Type S’s closest competitor—the Acura doesn’t feel as nimble or dynamic. It’s still quite fun to drive, but because of its added weight and larger proportions (its wheelbase is 2.0 inches longer, its length 7.1 inches longer) and virtually the same power, the TLX feels like a heavier, tamer sedan.

The Value

Although premium performance sedans generally don’t score high on value, the TLX Type S stands out. The starting price is $53,325, and it maxes out at $54,125 should you opt for the optional high-performance wheels and summer tires. As you can imagine, you get all the goodies inside—from heated and ventilated front seats to red or ebony leather throughout the cabin. Two USB ports and a wireless charger come standard, as well as a 10.2-inch infotainment screen that’s operated via a touchpad. Android Auto and Apple CarPlay are also standard, as well as a crisp and sonorous ELS Studio premium audio system with 17 speakers.

The cabin is quite different from the regular TLX’s—a Type S logo is located on the flat-bottomed steering wheel and the headrests. The seats use a mix of perforated Milano leather and suede with contrast stitching and have power-adjustable side bolsters, which proved useful during the drive on and off the track. There are a few available dealer-installed accessories like a carbon-fiber spoiler and rear diffuser, door-sill welcome lights, and a heated steering wheel, but overall, the TLX Type S is already pretty stacked for your money.

Decision Time

Compared to the Audi S4, the TLX Type S seems like a bargain, as the Acura is about $9,000 cheaper than the Audi. The aggressive design and larger proportions make the Type S stand out against the competition, and you also get more car for your money in terms of features. The question buyers should ask themselves is whether a similarly equipped S4 drives $9,000 better. We’ll answer that question once we pair them for a head-to-head comparison.

Acura has built a true performance sedan—one that’s fun to drive on the track and on canyon roads. It’s energetic, responsive, and sporty, and that’s exactly what Acura wanted to deliver with the TLX Type S. As enthusiasts, we’re excited to see the return of the Type S, but as a performance brand, there’s more Acura can do to satisfy our wants—the TLX could happily take more power, and we haven’t forgotten about the other letter in the alphabet that hasn’t yet returned to Acura. We said the Type S is like the Reserva of Spanish wines, will we get to try the Gran Reserva?

2021 Acura TLX Type S

Pros:

  • Competitive price
  • Attractive design
  • Good handling

Cons:

  • Heavy weight
  • Short on power
  • Poor legroom in the rear seat

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