Occasionally I get surprised by a car in this job, and this was very much one of those times. I had an opportunity to drive the new 2021 Acura TLX Type S at a press rally in October and was immediately impressed. I drove it back to back with fun new stuff like the 2022 Subaru BRZ, 2022 Lexus IS 500, and more. So, when my colleague Joel Patel and I slid into the new TLX Type S, we figured it might be fun. It’s a lot more than that.
TLX Type S Overview
In some ways the Type S is it’s own thing within Acura’s lineup. When you click the handy “vehicles” tab at the top of their website, you can navigate to the TLX, but there is also a separate section for the Type S models.
Our tester was the TLX Type S with the performance wheel and tire package. Considering how little it adds to the MSRP, it’s a screaming deal for a better wheel and tire set. Just be mindful of the summer-only rating on the tires if you live in a place where it gets below 47 degrees or so. For those who don’t remember the Type S line form Acura, here’s a fun refresher from the promo materials I received.
I’ve got a soft spot for every single one of those cars. When I was first out of college I desperately wanted an Acura in Type S guise. I didn’t care which one, they were all cool. I had a friend who autocrossed with me in a later model TL Type S. Fitted with a six-speed and decent tires, he used it to beat some cars that were way more purpose-built.
Acura compares the new TLX Type S to cars like the Audi S4, Mercedes C43 and the BMW M340i, so think of it as not full RS, top spec AMG, or full ///M and more like the next tier down. I’ll get into some of the geeky bits below, but suffice to say that Acura’s engineers put a lot of time and energy into developing the new Type S version of the TLX.
The base TLX starts at $37,500 and you can get said base version with FWD or SH-AWD in base TLX, Technology, A-Spec, and Advance trim levels. All of which are powered by a 272 horsepower 2.0L VTEC Turbo four-cylinder engine. Meanwhile, the Type S slides in at a substantial $52,300 but you get SH-AWD as standard, plus you get a turbo 3.0L V6 putting out 355 horsepower.
Options are limited to which color you want, and that’s about it. Sure, there some accessories for the interior and exterior, but the TLX Type S is pretty well maxed out from the factory. Let’s see what’s what.
The TLX Type S is striking, it’s low and wide and has a very wide track (great history of widetrack sedans) with a long hood. Acura proudly notes that it’s the widest in the segment. We’ve come a long way from the Acura beak, so much so that I feel guilty even bringing it up. The new corporate “diamond pentagon” grill is much more attractive, a similar shape to the old “shield” but much better done. Acura notes that it adds 10% more airflow as well. The Type S is aggressive design done right, not too over the top, but just enough. The scoops and slats look purposeful, even where they aren’t.
The front splitter, quad-exhaust, tasteful black spoiler and other exterior accents are all racecar chic, and very cool in my book. The TLX is already a good looking car, but Acura turned it up to 10 on this one (11 is reserved for a TLX Type R). The Type S comes in a good variety of cool colors as well, including the Performance Red of our tester, plus Tiger Eye Pearl (yellow’ish gold), Apex Blue, and your basic white, black and grey.
Things are pretty solid on the inside as well. While Acura’s central dashboard stack, inspired by the new NSX, has been around for a bit, the design has held up pretty well. It’s certainly unique, but it has some user foibles here and there. More on that in a moment. I’ll start with the seats, they’re quite good. Not only do they look good, the mix of materials (Milano leather and Ultrasuede) is comfortable and nicely adjustable (16-way power with adjustable bolsters). Naturally they are heated and ventilated. The interior feels the part of a $50K+ car, with French stitching on the dash and a cool mix of customizable lighting.
It wasn’t all roses though. I’m only six-feet tall, but I hit my head looking over my shoulder to merge left the first time I drove the Type S. It was an odd experience, and on that I managed not to recreate during the loan.
I also could never get the vent behind the wheel to stop blowing air directly on my hand when it was in the “auto” setting. The vent is adjustable, naturally, but it just wouldn’t stop attacking my hand with air no matter how I angled it. This time of year my hands are dry enough, and I didn’t need help. Of course you can swap the air direction, but that takes it off of auto.
Rear seat room is good, but not amazing. It measures 34.9 inches, which is just under an inch less than what you get in a 2021 Audi S4. For those with little ones, it was very hard to get a seat belt buckle around a booster seat resulting in several instances of me having to pull over and climb back to help.
From an infotainment perspective, it was a mixed bag. The deal breaker for me was the lack of a touchscreen. I’m sure that will be remedied soon, but relying on the mousepad-like interface drove me bananas. I’m sure if I owned the car (and I have considered it) it might get easier. But I drove the hell out of the Type S for a week and didn’t warm up to it. Naturally, the ELS sound system is amazing, and continues to not get enough credit in the automotive world.
Like every other wireless charger, the one in the Type S cuts in and out as you drive and hit bumps. Also, if you aren’t careful, your phone can find its way into the center console from the wireless charger. Perhaps it’s the impressive acceleration, but I looked down at one point and it was gone, having slid through a small opening into the center console.
What sets the TLX Type S apart from other cars, and even the regular TLX, is how it drives. From the first time I pulled out of the press event with the car set in Sport+ and stomped on the accelerator, I was like “oh damn!”. It harkens back to the old Type S models, but it’s better. Sound is a massive part of the experience and the Type S sounds phenomenal. It doesn’t quite get to the “pop-and-burble” level, but it’s close. During downshifts, or on the overrun, the exhaust delivers a fun bark that is intoxicating.
That engine is pretty special, built around a new reinforced block it has a forged crankshaft and connecting rods. Low profile cylinder heads and valvetrain are also incorporated and the twin-scroll turbocharger gets things moving faster with 15.1 psi of max boost. The twin-scroll setup delivers air separately to the front and rear cylinders for more go-go boost. Acura mated it all to a new specially tuned 10-speed auto box with rev-matching downshifts.
Out on a winding backroad, the TLX Type S is simply one of the best cars I’ve ever driven. It’s balanced and poised, making you feel like you could just keep pushing. The SH-AWD system will scoot 70% of the power to the rear, and all I ever experienced was some (very mild) understeer.
Even if the wheel is still turned you can get hard on the throttle out of a curve and the system just does the maths and pulls you through. It’s incredibly hard to unsettle, which makes for a very confident driving experience. Some of that is also due to the reinforced body, and the spot on tuning of the sport dampers. The brakes are impressive as well, Brembos with an NSX-derived brake controller. Even after a hard session out driving, I didn’t experience much fade.
The driving modes are actually quite different from one-another. In most cars, the “Sport” button just bumps the revs a bit, and that’s it. Acura’s system tweaks not only throttle response and the base RPM level, but also the transmission’s shift map, torque vectoring, active damping, and more. It even makes the interior lighting go red when you pop into Sport or Sport+. The difference between the two sport modes is also striking, my favorite bit is that the Type S leaves the active exhaust valve open in Sport+ which just gives you the good sound all the time.
Criticisms are incredibly minimal, the ride is firm in Sport or Sport+, but that’s part of the beauty of the settings actually changing across modes to give you distinct driving experiences. Also, I couldn’t get it to drop to 1st gear as I was approaching a light. It just flashed “2” up there as if to say “no today Toretto”. I want more downshift blipy blips damnit!
Finally, a bit of an odd thing to note, but the headlights are amazing. They have low, wide, beams normally, but the high beams light up the sky like it’s daylight. I did get flashed by other motorists, even when the low beams on.
As the title says, the new TLX Type S is exceptionally good. It’s comfortable when you need it to be, or it’s a real loon when you push the go-button. If it were slightly cheaper, and a bit more available, while I was car shopping recently, there may be one in my driveway permanently. It matches the magic of the original Type S lineage, and if anything, it manages to one-up them. If you are in the market for a sporty sedan, definitely give it a look.