2021 Acura TLX vs. 2021 Lexus ES: Compare Cars

February 19, 2021

Mid-size sedans aren’t the mainstay of American driveways that they used to be, but they still offer practicality and value. We count them among some of the best vehicles on the market, especially in the premium and luxury segments. 

The 2021 Acura TLX and 2021 Lexus ES both exist in that space between mainstream cars and luxury stalwarts like Audi, BMW, and Mercedes. However, recent redesigns for both have brought them closer to true luxury. They’ve also gotten sportier and better looking.

We find a lot to like in both cars, but which is the better choice? 

2021 Lexus ES

2021 Lexus ES

2021 Lexus ES

2021 Lexus ES

2021 Acura TLX

2021 Acura TLX

2021 Acura TLX

2021 Acura TLX

The TLX’s redesign moves the cabin back to create a longer hood that imparts the look of a rear-wheel-drive car, though it’s still front-wheel drive. Angles and creases flow from the attractive diamond-pattern grille to create a cohesive design with wide wheel haunches and a rising character line that creates forward tension. A short deck completes the athletic stance. 

The Lexus isn’t the staid ES of days gone by. It’s bolder and sportier, with a large spool-shaped grille that’s better integrated than on most Lexus vehicles. The body is characterized by a grounded stance, a long roofline that resolves in a short deck, and taut, athletic lines.

We think the TLX is better looking, but not by much. 

The TLX also excels in performance. A strong new platform, quick steering, and a double-wishbone front suspension provide athletic moves. Available adaptive dampers balance the car’s agility with a smooth ride quality, and available all-wheel drive improves handling by controlling torque at the rear wheels. It’s spirited and fun to drive.

Acura injects a touch too much spirit into the new 272-hp 2.0-liter turbo-4. Well matched to its 10-speed automatic transmission, it launches the car from 0-60 mph in less than six seconds, and provides EPA fuel economy ratings as high as 22 mpg city, 31 highway and 25 combined. However, Acura lets in too much engine noise and pipes in more in Sport mode—so much so that it disrupts conversation. Some will find the engine note annoying. 

Lexus takes a different approach in terms of powertrains and handling. The base engine is a pedestrian 203-hp 2.5-liter inline-4 that’s weaker than the Acura’s turbo-4 but gets better fuel economy at 25/34/28 mpg. An available hybrid gets impressive ratings of 43/44/44 mpg and provides a slight jump to 215 hp, which enables a still leisurely 8.1-second 0-60 mph time. The top engine is a smooth and sonorous 3.5-liter V-6 that puts out 302 hp and cuts the 0-60 mph sprint to the TLX’s ballpark. The base engine comes with all-wheel drive, but all other ES models have only front-wheel drive.

The ES’s handling also isn’t as sharp, though it is quite competent on a winding road. Satisfying steering and a well-damped ride are its baseline, and the F Sport model adds more steering heft and agility. It’s not as sporty as the TLX, but the ES does provide some driving pleasure. 

2021 Lexus ES

2021 Lexus ES

2021 Lexus ES

2021 Lexus ES

2021 Acura TLX Advance SH-AWD

2021 Acura TLX Advance SH-AWD

2021 Acura TLX Advance SH-AWD

2021 Acura TLX Advance SH-AWD

Both cars exude quality in their cabins, and both offer color and trim choices that can skew toward elegance or sportiness, but the Lexus has more space for people and cargo. Unfortunately, both brands also opt for touchpad-based infotainment systems that we count among the worst on the market for ease of use.

The TLX has comfortable and supportive front seats with 12- or 16-way adjustments and standard seat heating. Its second row provides excellent thigh support and enough room for three across, but leg room can be tight for taller occupants. At 13.5 cubic feet, the trunk is small for the class. 

The TLX employs premium materials in a modern design with the infotainment screen set atop the dash. A rotary drive mode knob design borrowed from the NSX supercar implies performance, and rich leathers and woods impart luxury. 

2021 Acura TLX

2021 Acura TLX

2021 Acura TLX

2021 Acura TLX

2021 Acura TLX

2021 Acura TLX

2021 Acura TLX

2021 Acura TLX

The ES’s seats have 10-way power adjustments with available 14-way thrones and sportier buckets. The big advantage over the TLX is an additional 4.3 inches of rear leg room. The trunk is also slightly larger at 13.9 cubic feet, even for the hybrid.

Lexus wraps the ES cockpit in luxury, with soft-touch surfaces and wood or aluminum on all touch points. Lexus also borrows its drive-mode controller design from a supercar, the limited-run LFA of a decade ago. It’s an elegant cabin that would look right in a car twice the price.

That luxury is tempered by frustrating infotainment systems that require owners to control what happens on the center screen with a touchpad. Users have to look back and forth between the pad and the screen, and the systems require a degree of fingertip dexterity that shouldn’t be required to control infotainment.

2021 Lexus ES250 AWD

2021 Lexus ES250 AWD

2021 Lexus ES250 AWD

2021 Lexus ES250 AWD

2021 Lexus ES

2021 Lexus ES

2021 Lexus ES

2021 Lexus ES

Both cars come well equipped, and Lexus offers a larger lineup with more options. The TLX starts at $38,525, with all-wheel drive a $2,000 option. Standard features include heated synthetic leather seats, a 10.2-inch center screen, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto compatibility, a 10-speaker audio system, and 18-inch alloy wheels.

Lexus charges more for a car with a lesser engine but standard all-wheel drive. The base ES costs $41,450 and comes standard with an 8.0-inch screen, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto compatibility, synthetic leather, and 17-inch alloy wheels. We find the $43,360 hybrid model a better buy. 

Lexus offers a larger lineup, but the Acura comes off as a better value, so we rate the cars the same for features. 

Safety goes to Lexus, though likely just temporarily. The ES gets top ratings in crash tests from both the NHTSA and the IIHS, while the Acura has just IIHS ratings, where it earns the highest score. Once NHTSA testing comes in, safety will likely be a wash. 

Both cars come standard with automatic emergency braking, active lane control, and adaptive cruise control. Both also make blind-spot monitors and rear cross-traffic alerts available.

Our TCC ratings run neck and neck. The 2021 Lexus ES rates a 7.3 out of 10 while the 2021 Acura TLX rates a 7.2, which is likely to go to 7.3 when NHTSA testing is completed. We prefer the Acura’s looks and handling, but we like the space and safety record of the ES. In addition, the ES offers a wider lineup with a hybrid, while the Acura’s lone engine is better than the Lexus’ base offering. We recommend both cars and view the choice a matter of taste.

Summary

7.2
Expert Rating
The 2021 Acura TLX plants its flag among premium mid-size sedans with a racy design, strong turbocharged engines, and improved dynamics.
7.3
Expert Rating
The 2021 Lexus ES grabs some of the LS’ spotlight with its sleek shape and its sky-high hybrid economy.

Styling

8.0
Expert Rating
The 2021 Acura TLX takes on a sportier, more emotional design inside and out.
Read More
7.0
Expert Rating
The Lexus ES does the best job of interpreting the brand’s complex design language.
Read More

Performance

7.0
Expert Rating
The 2021 Acura TLX boasts a stiff structure and improved balance that help it drive smaller than its size.
Read More
7.0
Expert Rating
The Lexus ES shows off its range, in more ways than one.
Read More

Comfort & Quality

8.0
Expert Rating
Good space and high-quality materials make the 2021 Acura TLX’s cabin a comfortable environment for the driver and passengers.
Read More
9.0
Expert Rating
Well-wrought and spacious, the Lexus ES exudes quality.
Read More

Safety

8.0
Expert Rating
The 2021 Acura TLX has lots of safety features and good crash test scores.
Read More
9.0
Expert Rating
The Lexus ES nails its safety SATs.
Read More

Features

7.0
Expert Rating
The 2021 Acura TLX comes well equipped in a simple lineup.
Read More
7.0
Expert Rating
A good feature set is offset slightly by a frustrating infotainment interface in the 2020 Lexus ES.
Read More

Fuel Economy

5.0
Expert Rating
The 2021 Acura TLX is efficient for its size and power.
Read More
5.0
Expert Rating
Fuel economy soars in the Lexus ES hybrid; it’s average in other editions.
Read More

MSRP

from $37,500
from $40,000

Invoice

from $36,554
from $37,468

Fuel Economy - Combined City and Highway

25
26

Engine

Intercooled Turbo Premium Unleaded I-4, 2.0 L
Regular Unleaded V-6, 3.5 L

Drivetrain

Front Wheel Drive Read Full Specs
Front Wheel Drive Read Full Specs
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