Sunday, April 10, 2022

Car Review -- 2022 Nissan Altima 2.5 SV

 Hey everyone, I know it's been some time since I've updated this thing.  Remember when I said I'd update it every week?  Well.....since my last post, I've.....

-- Flown to Florida for a few days.

-- Spent a few days in NYC.

-- Chaperoned students at TWO all-county festivals, one of which transitioned directly into a midnight-oil-burning jaunt to Syracuse for the annual NYSBDA symposium.

-- Conducted my first pops concert at the school since 2020.

-- Music-directed and conducted the pit in Germantown's production of Matilda (the kids did AMAZINGLY well!).

-- Etc. etc. etc.  

Needless to say, I've been busy.  It's no excuse, but here we are, and I'm back with the first of what will be a few reviews of various cars I've driven over the last few months.  We're going to start with the 2022 Nissan Altima 2.5 SV sedan I rented in early February for an action-packed trip to the Syracuse Auto Show, followed by a kickass band director clinic at Frog Alley Brewing in Schenectady, followed by a trip to NYC to see Billy Joel perform at Madison Square Garden, and followed by the trip back home with a stop in Germantown on the way for a rehearsal.  I put about 600 miles on that Altima over the course of two days, and I have some thoughts, so buckle up!

I was fairly underwhelmed when I got into the car for the first time, but this could have been because the fine folks at the Albany Airport Hertz kiosk didn't leave much space between the Altima and its neighboring car.  Consequently, entering the Altima was an exercise in contortion, and it may have affected my immediate thoughts.  

For context, the 2.5 SV version of the Altima is one step above the base 2.5 S version, and it's priced just under $26K before delivery.  The base Honda Accord LX goes for just OVER $26K, and the base Volkswagen Passat SE goes for just over $27K, for comparison's sake.  While the Altima is the least expensive of those three vehicles, it was missing quite a bit of content that is included in the base trims of the aforementioned rivals.  Specifically, I would've really liked to have automatic climate control, heated front seats, lane-keeping assist, and adaptive cruise control, most of which are included in the Passat and Accord at that price point (the base Accord does not include heated seats).  That said, the Altima did include a few goodies that would've cost extra on the other two cars, such as parking sensors (extra on both) and blind-spot monitoring (extra on the Accord).  Still, given that I'd be driving 600 miles, mostly on the open highway, adaptive cruise control and lane assist would've been REALLY nice, and given New York's winter temperatures, heated seats and automatic climate control would've been appreciated.  

Feature omissions aside, I noticed a few things pretty quickly, and some other things more gradually, as follows:

-- The car had the base powertrain -- a 2.5 liter naturally aspirated four banger with a CVT (continuously variable transmission).  While it wasn't a screamer by any stretch, and while my 2003 Acura CL could SMOKE it in a drag race, not once did it feel underpowered, and not once did the CVT bother me.  The latter point in particular is unusual, as CVTs tend to peg the engine near the redline under hard throttle, especially if the car is underpowered.  This one was very smooth, and did a decent job mimicking a normal "stepped" automatic when I wasn't burying my right foot.  It was not offensive, it got the job done, and if I was buying an Altima, I most likely would not splurge for the optional turbocharged engine.  

-- Nissan hasn't quite figured out how to nail the ride/handling balance the way Honda has with their latest Accord.  The Altima is less refined in its highway ride, and more easily disturbed in that setting, without returning any kind of appreciable handling benefit.  Actually, the Accord out-handles it as well and even invites spirited driving, which is something the Altima just did not do.  

-- All of that said, the Altima is pretty quiet on the open road, and maybe even more so than most Honda products.  In that sense, it was quite relaxing.  

-- Ergonomics and driver comfort are a couple other things Nissan got VERY right with this one.  In particular, the door armrests and center armrest were all very well-padded, and set at an ideal height for meaningful elbow rest.  The controls generally fell to hand quite readily, and a particular shout-out goes to the in-dash information screen, which displayed just about every piece of pertinent information in a clear fashion without looking cluttered or being hard to read.  That, and it was easily adjustable via the steering wheel controls.  The center infotainment screen also worked quite well, and I got the hang of it pretty quickly.  

-- Building on the driver comfort accolades, Nissan's Zero Gravity seats were outstanding.  The premise is that the seats are supposed to make you feel like gravity isn't a thing, and while that's an unattainable objective overall, they came damn close.  Not once did my ass get sore after all of that time on the road, even after repositioning following the expected Roy-Rogers-cheeseburger farts.  My only beef with the seats was the inadequate lower back support, and the lack of a power lumbar adjustment through which I could remedy it.  Overall, though, the front seats were excellent.  

-- A couple other beefs:  Some of the switchgear, while perfectly functional, felt cheap (map lights, window switches, wiper and headlight stalks).  The cupholders were small and couldn't easily accommodate my good-sized water bottle.  The trunk wasn't huge, and neither was the resulting pass-through when the back seats were dropped.  The backup camera seemed to pick up dirt more easily than most I've experienced (why more automakers haven't adopted Volkswagen's brilliant hide-away camera is beyond me!).  The passenger's power window didn't have auto up-down.  The parking brake was a geriatric foot-pedal design.  

-- A couple other accolades:  Fuel economy was pretty darn good.  I averaged somewhere around the mid 30s for the trip (including nearly 40 mpg for the leg out to Syracuse), which wasn't bad given the weight of my right foot and the abundance of stop-and-go traffic in NYC.  Also, the base audio system wasn't terrible.  It clearly wasn't a premium system (Nissan offers a Bose setup in the higher trim levels.), but it did the job, and it wasn't offensive, unlike some other base audio systems (Volkswagen Jetta S, I'm looking at you.).  

Overall, the car grew on me throughout that weekend.  Would I buy it over an Accord?  Probably not.  Would heated seats, auto climate, radar cruise control, and lane assist have helped my trip be even more relaxing?  Undoubtedly.  Should those features be included (or at least available as options without jumping all the way up to nearly the top of the trim latdder)?  Most definitely.  (Some of the features can be added as options on the SV trim.).  But ultimately, will those who buy it end up with a solid car that'll do its intended job quite well?  Absolutely.  

Happy Sunday, everyone!

Monday, February 14, 2022

Valentine's Day Thoughts 2022

 I often find myself in a reflective mood on Valentine's Day, and this year is no different.  The thought that popped into my head this morning while driving to work can be traced back to my flute techniques professor at Crane . . . the inimitable Mr. Ken Andrews.  More specifically, I was brought back to Ken's definition of the word support -- in his words, support could be defined simply as "pressure resistance."  While Ken's use of this definition was doubtlessly connected to flute playing, given that flute is one of few wind instruments with no inherent resistance, I find the concept of support to be a relevant one to today's topic in several ways.  Let's dig in, shall we?  We shall!

As humans, we often like to pride ourselves on our ability to be independent, strong, self-sufficient, etc.  We don't like asking for help.  We don't want to be a burden.  We don't want to seem needy.  I think this applies to most if not all of us.  All of this, despite the fact that so much would be easier if we were more willing to accept SUPPORT from one another.  Life carries a LOT of pressure.  We are only equipped to resist so much of it.  We are designed to have help from our friends (ahh, that quote takes me back to the Wonder Years).  Let's keep an eye out for each other, offer help when we can, and just check in and offer our support when we can, so we can help our friends better handle and better resist the pressures that are weighing on them.  Even, and especially, if they won't ask for the support on their own.  

Similarly, and perhaps more importantly, let's try and allow ourselves to accept help from our friends, even at the expense of some of our pride.  I think it's quite a common thought for us to be terrified of burdening others, or coming across as such, while in reality if we were the "others," we would PREFER to know how to help our friends in need.  So much of what is preventing us from deepening our connections with each other, from helping each other out, from being vulnerable enough to ask for help when needed, etc. etc. etc., is all in our heads.  Our own human nature prevents us from supporting each other and accepting support from each other.  My challenge to all of us: Take your friends at face value when they say they're here for you.  They really are.  I really believe that.  

Additionally, our SOCIETY could do a better job of supporting all of the above, and helping us to resist our pressures as proud humans to "do it on our own."  I am BEYOND grateful to have a handful of extremely close friends of different genders, some of whom have romantic partners and some of whom do not.  Some folks are not as lucky as me in this sense, and I wish they were.  My hope is that the concept of people feeling comfortable enough to be their authentic selves, and feeling comfortable enough to be vulnerable with and fully supportive of each other, gets normalized far more than it has been.  

How is this all relevant to Valentine's Day?  Well, let's take a look at what love is at its core.  Here's my take on it.  When you love someone (romantically, platonically, or in a familial way), it might look like this:

1.  Taking care of yourself as best you can, so you are the best person you can be to those around you.  This is important.  So often we treat those we love the most with the least respect.  If anything, they deserve the MOST respect.  And that means taking care of ourselves, and asking for support when needed, so we can be as kind, caring, and yes, loving, as possible when around them.  

2.  Getting help when needed.  If something is affecting your ability to be your best self around those closest to you, or if something from the past is (consciously or subconsciously) sabotaging your current friendships, relationships, etc......why not get some help to unpack it and work through it?  Seems like it can only help!

3.  Allowing your friends, partners, etc., to help you.  They want to.  Trust me on this.  You're worth it to them, even if your mind may tell you otherwise.  

Take care of yourselves, everybody.  Take care of each other.  Let others in your life take care of you.  Be each other's SUPPORT systems.  Our world is a minefield.  We're stronger together, even if our pride tries to tell us otherwise.  

Happy Valentine's Day.  

Thursday, January 13, 2022

The Importance of Celebrating the Little Good Things

 Disclaimer:  This post is not (at the core, anyway) about cars or chow.  However, it is about "so much more," or at least I think it is.  I hope you find it helpful.  (Please read all the way through if you can.)

I've been thinking a lot lately about the past two years, and specifically the effects they have had on us as people.  Collectively and individually, we have all been through some level of trauma, and our bodies and minds are only now starting to come to grips with it.  Our individual and collective patience is exhausted, which causes us to enter "fight or flight" mode far more readily than we may have in the past.  We may also find ourselves thinking in the binary far more easily and far more often, rather than looking at the totality of (insert thing here).  

When we hear of something and perceive it as a threat at any level, we may find ourselves inclined to completely panic and lose all hope.  And in many situations, that panic and loss of hope may well be 100% justified.  I have long believed, and do more so now than ever before, that if we don't stay informed and actively seek to better our world, it will not get better and it will actually regress.  Furthermore, if we brush things off with the attitude of "it can't be THAT bad" or "I can't do anything about it anyway," the issue at hand won't stand a chance of being resolved or fixed.  If enough of us have this attitude, how can we trust that enough people out there WILL do the necessary work to fix the issue at hand?  

For me, personally, it is downright discouraging to see some of our political leaders actively making it harder to vote, and other political leaders seemingly championing bipartisanism (in the form of the frequently-abused Senate filibuster) more strongly than securing everyone's right to vote.  This, combined with gerrymandering efforts, as well as the fact that some elected officials represent disproportionately small numbers of people, causes me to lose nearly all hope that our country's proud tradition of majority rule will survive the next couple years, let alone the next decade.  I am more unnerved about our country, politically, than I have been in my entire lifetime.  I can't help but think that I'm not the only one, and what fleetingly gives me hope is that enough other folks out there are as pissed off as I am.  With enough folks sick of the status quo, perhaps things will change for the better, and the particular institutions that need updating to ensure democracy's chances in the 21st century will actually be updated.  

(Just to be clear, if my preferred candidate or party loses an election, I will absolutely accept the results.  I may not be happy, but I will accept the results.  This is, of course, assuming that all voters in the geographic area relevant to that election had a fair and easy opportunity to cast their ballots, without ANY voter suppression.  It is our responsibility as citizens to ensure that this is the case, and that NONE of our elected officials suppress anyone's votes out of fear of losing future elections.)

Another area that has been incredibly discouraging as of late has been so many elected officials', and even the CDC's, apparent act of 'throwing in the towel' with respect to containing COVID and keeping our most vulnerable folks safe.  A disease prevention agency should NOT be dumbing down its guidance with the goal of preserving the economy, unless doing so PREVENTS A DISEASE.  People should not be getting away with failing to wear their masks in indoor settings, and our employers, elected officials, law enforcement officers, etc. should not be turning a blind eye to those who flout COVID safety measures.   As someone whose profession demands in-person work (and for good reason), it enrages me when folks don't do everything within their power to bring this pandemic to an end as quickly as possible.  Those whose jobs CAN be done remotely as successfully as in-person should be allowed to telecommute, no questions asked, for their safety and that of those around them.  Those whose jobs MUST be done in-person must be masked, and it must be enforced.  And those who have to work in-person during this pandemic DESERVE hazard pay.  It's long overdue, especially for our health care workforce and critical infrastructure workers.  

Accepting that everyone is inevitably going to get COVID is NOT the right answer, and it incenses me that so many, including the institutions and organizations that are supposed to be guiding us, are just throwing the towel in.  

It's not that hard to do the right thing, folks.  It's not that hard to put your selfishness aside and not be a dick.  

All of that said, it is CRUCIAL to remember that no two people have the exact same lived experience, and in some cases, someone who seems like a monster for (insert reason here) might just be in need of some kind education and some love.  We are complex creatures, and we need to remember that when dealing with one another.  Yes, we need to stay on top of our game and call those out who are bringing our world down in any way, but we need to look at the big picture and let its innate complexity guide our interactions and our takeaways of any and all situations.  

At this point, if you're still reading, I apologize for so much angry word-vomit.  Or maybe I don't.  I thought about deleting it and starting again, but context is important.  I want to establish how easy it is to feel helpless and hopeless about so many things in our current world, and help those who feel that way to know that they're not alone.  But I also want to share a little bit about how one can balance their minds out and still appreciate the good that's out there, because despite what we may think, there still IS a lot of good out there.  CELEBRATING the good things is crucial, not only as a way to stay sane these days, but because good things are intrinsically worthy of celebration.  Here are some good things that I've been privy to as of late, that I have celebrated internally.  Maybe you've been privy to some similar good things in your orbits:

-- A student NAILS something they've been struggling with for a while.  In my world as a music teacher, this has been a brass player getting a clean-sounding high note, grasping a difficult rhythmic concept, falling in love with jazz improvisation, finally cracking the code to translating written rhythms and pitches into actual sound on an instrument, etc.  The list goes on and on, and quite frankly, it's so inspiring to witness these successes as they happen.  

-- The sunrise pokes through the clouds on the drive to work, and just looks stunning.  This happens quite a bit, and it's spectacular to witness.  

-- A friend or family member has something amazing happen to them.  It could be the birth of a child, it could be scoring a role in a production or a promotion at work, it could be patching up a relationship (platonic, romantic, professional, or familial), it could be gathering the courage to leave a toxic situation, it could be anything that betters their life and/or their health.  These little "wins" are beautiful and should be celebrated.  

Success looks different for everyone.  What might seem like a huge deal to someone might not to someone else, and vice versa.  It doesn't matter.  What matters is that we cherish and celebrate these little things as much as we can, because doing so lifts us up and lifts those around us up, and these little pick-me-ups are as crucial as ever now.  

What are YOU celebrating these days?  Leave it in the comments!

Sunday, January 2, 2022

Super Easy Crockpot Pulled Pork Sandwiches

 Happy 2nd day of 2022!

In keeping with the "chow" portion of this blog, today's post is dedicated to an easy yet delectable recipe that I made yesterday.  My friends, I present to you . . . super easy crockpot pulled pork sandwiches!

Step one:  Put a frozen or thawed (in the refrigerator of course, for safety) pork butt or shoulder in the crockpot.  Rub it all over with some Dinosaur BBQ Cajun Foreplay spice rub (or similar), and sprinkle a little bit of black pepper on it.  Pour a couple cans of root beer over the pork.  Turn the crockpot on low and let it cook for approximately eight hours.  

Step two:  Enjoy your day and, if you're home, bask in the ambience of the pork as it cooks while watching your favorite game show.  

Step three:  When the pork is finished cooking, lift it out of the crockpot and into a large bowl.  Separate the fat and return it to the crockpot (or dispose of it, or save it for "science").  Shred the pork with two forks until it looks like pulled pork.  Add BBQ sauce and mix it together.  I typically use a combination of various Dinosaur BBQ sauces (equal-ish parts of Sensuous Slathering, Wango Tango, and Roasted Garlic Honey).  

Step four:  Lightly toast two halves (yay, I can do math) of a brioche bun (or whichever type of bread you prefer).  Use "bagel mode" on your toaster to ensure that the sliced side of the bun is toasted more than the outside.  Plop some Hellmann's real mayo onto the bun and spread it nice and thin (and for the love of everything holy, don't use Miracle Whip).  Add a heaping helping of pulled pork, and top it with some pickle slices and/or some sliced Colby Jack cheese.  (If you want to melt the cheese, add the pork to a plate, top it with the cheese, microwave it for 30 seconds, and THEN add it to the bread.)  Top it with the other half of the bun, slice it down the middle, and ENJOY!

Happy Sunday, and GO GIANTS!!!  

Saturday, January 1, 2022

Happy New Year

 Happy 2022, everyone!  

It has been quite some time since I've updated this blog.  Since my last post, I have certainly driven some incredible cars, eaten some delectable chow, and done so much more, but I have not been diligent in translating all (or even some) of that to words.  Cue resolution #1:  I will update this blog at least twice a week.  

In prior years, I have come up with laundry lists of resolutions, reflections on the prior year, thoughts on how our world can be made into a better place, etc.  Doing so seems a bit futile this year, given that so many of us are consciously and/or subconsciously recovering from the collective trauma that has engulfed us from March 2020 through and including the present time.  As such, I will share but two ideas that I feel would help all of us, individually and collectively:

1.  We need to open to the possibility of being in the wrong, and if we are in the wrong, we need to forgive ourselves and then learn from it.  It's human nature to want to be "right," to want to win arguments, to want to be a "better" person than someone else.  That said, none of us are perfect, and we are all going to be "wrong" sometimes.  How best to handle the inevitable screw-ups that lie in our futures?   We need to be kind to ourselves and stop expecting absolute perfection.  And then we need to do the work to open our minds and learn.  Only then can we grow as people and, by extension, as a society.  

2.  We need to take better care of ourselves.  This one is complex and, in some ways, easier said than done.  This can also be viewed many different ways, but the angle I'd like to focus on today is that of asking for help.  It's human nature to give off the aura that we "have it all together," whether or not we actually do.  This is especially true when our past experiences of asking for help have been met with indifference or refusal.  That said, if we find ourselves stuck in patterns and/or reactions that paralyze us from growth and/or damage our relationships with others (be these relationships familial, platonic, romantic, or anything in between), we need to seek out the help that we need.  The help that we need might look different from person to person, but asking for it is crucial, and so is accepting the reality that there is absolutely nothing wrong with seeing a therapist.  Only once we take that step of seeking help can we begin to break toxic cycles (particularly those that have lasted for generations), and only then can we even come close to being the best people we can be, not only for ourselves, but for those near and dear to us.  

If we all can take even one baby step each toward (a) opening our minds to new learning and growth, (b) seeking out help when we need it, and (c) encouraging someone near and dear to us to be kind to themselves, I think that not only would we as individuals reap some pretty damn great rewards, humanity as a whole would benefit substantially as well, and our world might look a little less bleak than it does at the present time.  

Let's do what we can to make this a great year!  

Be well,



Wednesday, August 4, 2021

Car Review -- 2021 Acura TLX

 Last fall, when I took my 2003 Acura CL in for some new oil, I drove a new Acura ILX around for a day and wrote about it.  I commented on how, despite its lineage being traceable to the 2012-2015 Honda Civic (which itself is TWO generations removed from the current Civic), it had enough "special sauce" to generally separate itself from its humble roots, especially considering its under-$30K price point.  At the time, I was anxiously awaiting my chance to sample the all-new 2021 Acura TLX, which debuted on its own all-new and Acura-specific platform.   No Honda-in-disguise funny business here!  

I should add that the anticipation was extra intense, as I've previously owned the 2021 TLX's predecessor from two generations ago (RIP to my 2012 Acura TL SH-AWD six-speed).

At long last, when my 2003 CL's power steering pump gave up its ghost and needed replacement, I sampled the 2021 TLX for a couple days.  My questions were as follows:

1.  Was it a true Acura, and no longer just a gussied-up Accord, given that it no longer could justify any perceived deficiencies due to sharing a platform with a Honda model?  In other words, can it genuinely compete against offerings from other well-established luxury brands without any qualifiers?

2.  Should someone in the market for a TLX splurge on one of the three available upgrade packages (four if you include the high-performance Type-S model), or is the base model so well-equipped and well-done that upgrades aren't necessary?

3.  Does a base TLX make more or less sense than a fully loaded Accord Touring 2.0T, and should the two even be cross-shopped, despite the fact that both cars go for around $37K, give or take?  

After driving the TLX for two days in my daily life as a school band director with a 47-mile one-way commute that involves highways and back roads, the answers are quite complex.  Let's wait to address each of the aforementioned questions until we take a look, in isolation, at the various aspects of the TLX.  So, in no particular order, here we go with some immediate takeaways:

1.  The driver's portion of the interior is a VERY nice place to spend time, despite this being the base model.  Fit and finish were both excellent, and material quality was outstanding for a $37K car, and even for a $40K to $50K one.  This version had leatherette upholstery, but I would not have known had I not read the press release for this car; the seats felt like they were covered in real leather.  The front bucket seats were extremely comfortable and supportive.  Other than some low-rent plastic covers on the door-mounted stereo speakers (which are replaced with authentic metal grilles on versions with the optional ELS audio upgrade), this interior punches far above its price class, and well above the current Accord (which itself is quite well-done).  

2.  All of that said, the rear seat is unforgivably small and cramped.  I am exactly six feet tall and, with the front seats positioned such that I could comfortably occupy them, there was barely any rear-seat legroom and ingress/egress were exercises in contortion.  Furthermore, even though there are climate vents for the rear seat, some other amenities that might be expected at (or even below) this price range are noticeably lacking.  I'm referring to things like USB charge ports, 12V power outlets, a dedicated climate zone, etc.  

3.  As far as generic features and amenities go, again, this car punches well above its price tag.  Unlike on several European luxury cars, where expected amenities often cost extra, the standard equipment list is massive.  This base model included items like full-speed adaptive cruise control, lane assist, dual-zone automatic climate control, heated and multi-adjustable front seats with driver's-side memory, one-touch up and down windows at all four corners, proximity key with push-button start AND auto walk-away lock (the car locks as you walk away with the key fob in your pocket -- BRILLIANT!), Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, and much more.  Some additional items are included in the various upgrade packages (Technology, A-Spec, and Advance) -- these include the aforementioned ELS premium audio system, built-in navigation, blind-spot monitoring, heated steering wheel, key-fob remote start, heads-up display, heated rear seats, and some others.  Overall, though, the features-per-dollar ratio is fantastic, even if most of the upgrades in the preceding sentence ARE included in the similarly-priced top-tier Honda Accord.  

4.  The TLX shares its 2.0 liter turbocharged inline-four engine and ten-speed automatic transmission with the Honda Accord Touring and, as much as I might miss the linear, rev-happy, and aurally-pleasing 3.5 liter V6 of the previous generation, this is a very strong powertrain.  The car never felt underpowered, and was always a downshift away from a quick burst of acceleration for merging or passing.  Additionally, the transmission was so well-sorted that I never needed to use the paddle shifters on the wheel to manually shift the car.  Yes, I would have loved to have a true six-speed manual, but only because I enjoy that irreplaceable mechanical connection between man and machine.  Otherwise, aside from the slightly industrial engine note that speaks to its lower cylinder count, I quite liked this powertrain.  

5.  Given that this was the base model TLX, with smaller wheels and tires than the three higher trim levels, I expected the ride and handling balance to skew more toward a comfortable ride and less toward crisp cornering.  Boy, was I wrong.  The ride was not uncomfortable by any stretch, but it was not glass-smooth, and certainly was not as absorbent as the prior TLX.  It was roughly on par with my 2012 TL, which rode quite stiffly and which itself was the performance-oriented version of that generation.  However, this car steered and cornered eagerly, crisply, and with excellent responsiveness, more so than expected.  It felt very athletic, if a bit "big" from behind the wheel.  I am a bit nervous that the upper-trim versions, with their larger wheels and tires, might ride TOO stiffly, even though they may handle even more impressively than the car I drove.  

6.  In my opinion, after owning and driving several Honda and Acura products, they generally tend to struggle with road noise suppression.  Unfortunately, despite the prior-generation TLX bucking this trend and delivering a very quiet highway ride, this model suppressed wind rush quite well but graced me with too much road noise for its price point.  Again, this was the base model; if anything, I suspect the higher-trim models with their larger tires would transmit even more road noise.  

7.  Ergonomically, things generally work well.  Most controls fall right where one would expect them to fall.  There is one glaring exception, however, and that is the infotainment system.  It is not a touchscreen, but rather a large, high-mounted screen controlled by a "true touchpad" where your finger position on the touchpad manipulates the corresponding position on the screen.  In theory, it should make sense.  In practice, it's obnoxious, less-than-accurate, and possesses a steep learning curve.  Using Apple CarPlay is especially maddening.  Even Acura's prior two-screen rotary-knob system in the ILX I reviewed last fall integrated better with Apple CarPlay than this newer system.  I could see this being off-putting to most folks who aren't highly tech-savvy.  

8.  It's no secret that I think Acura's ELS audio systems are among the best factory audio systems on the market at any price point, and that they're one area where Acura clearly stands head and shoulders above its parent Honda brand.  As such, I was initially disappointed that my loaner car had the base, non-ELS unit.  However, as far as base systems go, this one is very good.  Clarity, bass response, and presence are all excellent, and this system is entirely at-home in a base-trim luxury vehicle.  With a base system this strong, I absolutely cannot wait to sample the new and improved ELS systems in the upper trims of this car (particularly the ones with 3D audio made possible by four ceiling-mounted speakers).  

Now, let's answer our three leading questions:

1.  Is the car a true Acura?  Yes, absolutely.  It's obvious that this car is not a re-badged Accord thanks to its outstanding interior fit and finish, unique (and maddening) infotainment system, and exceptionally crisp on-road handling.  

2.  Should a TLX customer splurge on one of the upgrade packages or stay with the base trim and save some money?  If you're an audio snob (as I admittedly am), upgrading to a trim level with the ELS audio system would absolutely be the thing to do.  Ditto if you MUST have items like ventilated front seats, a heated steering wheel, built-in GPS, etc., or if you regularly take your car to the track.  However, if you don't absolutely need the best available audio option and can use your phone for navigation, you would likely be better served by sticking to the base model.  Not only will you save money, but you will still get a very sporty-to-drive car that gives up nothing in power to its pricier iterations AND likely comes with better ride quality and quietness (though, as previously mentioned, neither of these attributes are stellar or class-leading).  

3.  For $37K, does the base TLX or the Accord 2.0T Touring model make more sense?  This one depends on your priorities.  If you're a sucker for outstanding interior quality, excellent audio, outrageously comfortable front seats, brand prestige, and excellent handling prowess, I'd recommend the TLX.  However, in nearly all other situations, I'd recommend the Accord.  Here's why:

-- The infotainment system in the Accord is a responsive touchscreen system, and it is significantly more intuitive and user-friendly than the maddening touchpad system in the TLX.  

-- The Accord gives up nothing in acceleration, as both share a powertrain and the Accord saves some weight.  

-- Most importantly, if you ever carry more than one passenger, the TLX's rear seat is just too small to be usable by anyone larger than a third or fourth grader.  I wish I was joking.  In contrast, a six-footer can ride behind another six-footer all day in the Accord and, at this price point, would enjoy heated rear seats and rear USB charging ports while doing so.  

The TLX would make a great car for a single, tech-savvy person that loves to drive and appreciates attention-to-detail.  Unfortunately, its obnoxious infotainment system could be a deal-breaker for many folks, and its unforgivably small back seat knocks this car out of contention as a family vehicle.  

So clearly the TLX caters to a different buyer than the Accord, even when comparing similarly-priced versions.  And honestly, from an objective standpoint, the current Accord is just a damn fine car.  That said, why would Honda/Acura release two cars to compete with each other?  Maybe a logical fourth  question addresses how the TLX competes with its intended competition -- namely base versions of the BMW 3-Series, Audi A4, and Mercedes C-Class.  So.....

4.  How does the TLX compare with the aforementioned European luxury sedans?  I haven't driven any of them, and I have only had quite limited seat time in them at auto shows.  However, from what I know from my limited seat time plus objective data regarding features/specs/price, here's what I'll postulate:

-- None of these cars are known for their rear-seat room, but it'd be pretty hard for any of the German cars to do WORSE than the Acura on this front.  So don't expect any of them to match the space of the aforementioned Accord, but you might be able to fit larger kids or smaller adults in one of the Germans more easily than in the Acura, and they'd likely have more amenities to boot. 

-- I haven't tried the other cars' infotainment systems, but again, I'd be shocked if they didn't beat Acura in this area.  

-- Features-per-dollar and fit-and-finish -- Acura wins, ESPECIALLY at this price point.  To get the same equipment in the German cars, and to some extent, similarly classy interior materials, be prepared to dig deeper into your budget.  Value has long been an Acura hallmark, and it's as strong as ever in this car.  

-- Driving experience -- again, I can't comment much on this as far as the European cars go, but this Acura drives WELL.  While it might steer a bit "sporty" for someone cross-shopping an Accord, I have no reason to doubt that this car would keep up just fine with, and maybe even surpass in some areas, the driving experience of these German vehicles.  

So, all said and done, if you're looking for a premium-brand compact luxury sedan, and you never carry more than one passenger, you'd be an idiot not to thoroughly test drive and consider this Acura.  It fulfills its intended mission very well, especially in the sense of dollar value.  Just look elsewhere if you need a usable back seat or if you hate technology.  


Monday, September 28, 2020

2020 Acura ILX -- Some Thoughts

 One of these days, I'll give a more substantial update and I'll address the insanity that our world has seen over the past several months.   For now, though, my 2003 Acura CL Type-S six-speed is in the shop for a fresh drink of oil, and I'm driving a 2020 Acura ILX Premium sedan for the next day or so.  

Here's a little background on the ILX:

1. It's based on the LAST generation of the Honda Civic (the one sold from 2012 - 2015), and it has been around since 2013 with a few moderate updates here and there, but nothing substantial.  

2.  Over the years, it has gained several touches that make it more of a true Acura and less of a glorified Civic of yesteryear, such as:

-- The 2.4L four-banger and 8-speed dual clutch automatic transmission from the one-size-up TLX.

-- LED headlights and taillights, and the corporate gaping Acura schnoz.  

-- An upgraded infotainment system with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto compatibility.

-- Outstandingly comfortable leather seats shared with other Acura products, and not with the Civic.  They're even upholstered in a stunning espresso color on the car I'm driving.  

3.  However, in some ways, its last-generation roots are still obvious:

-- The adaptive cruise control cuts out at about 25 mph, and will not slow the car to a stop as it will on other Acuras, or even the current Honda Civic and Accord.  Mildly annoying.  

-- The rearview camera's guidelines don't rotate with the steering wheel unless you upgrade to the Technology Package, and there's a grainy-ness to the camera's display at night.  

-- The steering wheel is shared with none of the current Acura lineup, and as such, it struggles ergonomically with the placement of the many buttons that have been added over the years for features that the original car lacked.  

-- It still has a mechanical handbrake, which I love, but which is odd given that no other vehicle in the Honda/Acura portfolio has one.  It also lacks the "brake hold" function of those cars, which holds the car at a stoplight without requiring pressure on the brake pedal.    

And here's now it functions and drives in the real world, as well as my take on whether it's worth it's approximately $28,000 asking price (which also buys a fully loaded Civic or a nearly loaded Accord, but undercuts probably every other offering from a premium brand).   

1.  The seats are excellent.  They're definitely better than the chairs in the Civic and no worse than those in the Accord.  And the espresso leather is classier than the leather on either of those cars.  

2.  That said, I'd like some more premium interior trim to accompany the stunning leather.  Some wood trim would class it up a bit, and it'd be nice if the memory seat buttons on the driver's door didn't look like an afterthought.  A sliding center console armrest would also be quite nice.   

3.  Even though it only has a four-cylinder motor without a turbocharger, the car is very responsive and the power is delivered in a linear fashion.  And while I'm still bitter that the ILX no longer offers a true stick shift, the eight-speed dual-clutch automatic (physically, it's a manual, but the clutches are automated, so you don't really lose the performance or efficiency advantages of a manual)  is exceptional.  It shifts instantaneously and smoothly, and always keeps the engine in its powerband.  Unlike my 2019 VW Golf Alltrack with its 1.8 liter turbo four, the ILX doesn't run out of steam after you pass 4,000 or so RPM.  It's refreshing.  

4.  The LED headlights are excellent, but not as good as those on my Alltrack, and they don't swivel with the steering like they do on my Alltrack.  At night, swiveling headlights are one of those features that I don't know how I survived without for so many years.  

5.  Ride and handling are very good, and the car is very snappy and fun to drive.  It's also quiet at speed (noticeably more so than the Civic, slightly more so than an Accord, and comparable to my Alltrack).  That said, the car isn't quite as planted as any of the aforementioned cars, due to being built on the LAST generation Civic's platform).  It also understeers (resists hard cornering) noticeably more than my 2003 CL (thanks to the CL's limited-slip differential, which overdrives the outside front wheel when cornering) and my 2019 Alltrack (thanks to the Alltrack's trick all-wheel-drive system, which I believe can do similar tricks with its rear wheels).  

6.  The driver-assist features work well overall (adaptive cruise, lane-keep assist, etc.).  That said, it's disappointing that the car can't slow itself to a stop, which the current Civic, Accord, and everything else in Acura's lineup can do (except maybe the NSX supercar).  If the car had a stick shift, I'd understand it (my Alltrack, with its six-speed stick, has very good adaptive cruise), but on an automatic car, it makes no sense for the adaptive cruise not to function at all speeds.  

7.   The back seat is comparable to that in a Civic, and is nicely finished with the same espresso leather as the front seats, but it's not somewhere my six-foot self would want to ride for any length of time.  If you want to carry more than two adults for more than a minimal amount of time, the Accord is the only car I've referenced in this post that I'd recommend for that purpose (yes, even my VW Alltrack wagon has a fairly small back seat).  

8.  The stereo on the car I'm driving is the mid-level unit out of the three options on the ILX.  It has seven speakers, including a subwoofer, and 360 watts (I think).  It's at least as good as the TOP system in a Civic or Accord, and it's also at least as good as the base systems in several more expensive luxury cars.  It puts out solid bass, has good separation, and is quite powerful.   That said, it does give up a little clarity and cohesiveness to the Fender system in my Alltrack, the Bose system in my 2003 CL, and the 10-speaker ELS surround system that my previous 2012 Acura TL had (and which is offered as the top system on the ILX  with the available Technology package).  If you're an audiophile, I'd strongly recommend getting the Technology package; the ELS audio system is out of this world.  If you're not, you'll probably be fine with this system.  

9.  The ILX has Apple CarPlay, but it cannot be controlled by the touchscreen.  I thought this would be a problem at first, as I have come to love being able to control CarPlay with the touchscreen on my Alltrack.   That said, the center knob interface is very well-designed.  I could very easily control CarPlay using the knob and back button on the center stack.  And honestly, mounting the CarPlay info higher up on the dash makes it easier to safely use while driving.  

Now, let's talk value.  For the same money as this ILX, you could get a fully loaded Civic or a nearly loaded Accord.  You'd get newer tech (full-speed adaptive cruise, a better backup camera, a more modern infotainment system with touchscreen CarPlay, a more up-to-date gauge cluster that can show more data), better fuel economy (due to those cars' turbo motors and CVTs), slightly better ride and handling (due to those cars' more modern platforms), and more features and amenities in some cases (particularly with the Civic -- rain-sensing wipers, heated REAR seats, etc.).  

However, this Acura does offer some things that neither Honda does, such as a slightly quieter driving experience, nicer interior materials in many cases (particularly the leather seats, though the fake wood trim on the Accord looks more luxurious than the Acura's black plastic), more linear power delivery, a more responsive transmission, slightly better audio, and a longer warranty and a superior dealer experience.    That, and the ILX does come with the prestige inherent in being an Acura instead of a Honda.  

Back in 2013 when it first came out, the ILX was little more than a glorified Honda Civic of its time.  However, seven years (and a newer Civic) later, the ILX has been updated enough to make it feel far more like a true Acura.  It can't hide ALL of its Civic roots, or all of its "last-generation" baggage, but it does enough of the "Acura" things right that it should ABSOLUTELY be considered by anyone currently looking at a new Civic or Accord.  Unless, of course, a manual transmission is a must-have feature, as it is with me, which is why, despite how much I enjoy driving the ILX, I look forward to getting my 2003 CL back with new oil!