In addition to being the worst crossword answer ever, the three-star 2015 Acura TLX SH-AWD sport sedan is a major step back toward relevance for Acura.

The brand, which Honda launched in the 1980s, invented the Japanese luxury car and built a handful of great ones. Mysteriously, it then checked out for a couple of decades. Acura produced a string of ever-less-relevant cars, hitting bottom when its beak-like Angry-Birds grille became a joke.

The TLX's looks, features and price suggest Acura's sabbatical is over.

The new TLX comes in front- and all-wheel drive. It runs with a tough crowd, competing with the Audi S4, BMW 3-series, Cadillac ATS, Infiniti Q50, Lexus IS and Mercedes-Benz C-class.

TLX prices start at $31,445 for a front-wheel drive model with a 206-horsepower 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine and eight-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission. A 290-horsepower 3.5-liter V-6 linked to a conventional nine-speed automatic transmission is available starting at $35,320.

Honda's modestly named Super-Handling All-Wheel Drive (SH-AWD) is available with the V-6 at prices from $41,575. AWD helps the TLX take full advantage of the engine's power and improves traction in bad weather.

I tested a top-of-the-line TLX SH-AWD with the Tech and Advance option packages. It had adaptive cruise control, lane-keeping assist, perforated leather seats, a power sunroof, LED headlights, voice recognition, Bluetooth phone and audio compatibility, ELS audio, blind spot and cross traffic alerts, remote start and more. It stickered at $44,700. All prices exclude destination charges.

That compares favorably with similarly equipped competitors, for instance undercutting a comparable BMW 335i xDrive by nearly $10,000.

The TLX's V-6 is less powerful than the competitors' six-cylinder engines, with the lowest torque and horsepower output in the group. That leads to acceleration that's adequate, but unexciting. The car is a fine highway cruiser, however.

The auto-stop system, which shuts the engine off when you're idling at a stop light or in traffic and restarts automatically, is not as smooth or quick as the best competitors. It saves fuel, but I turned it off frequently.

The nine-speed transmission is quick and smooth, though its controls seem nonintuitive. Rather than a shift, dial, or even conventional buttons, Acura chose a unique solution that places buttons at several different angles in the center console. In a weeklong test, I never got used to it.

The suspension absorbs bumps for a comfortable, quiet ride. The steering is quick and responsive.

Despite that, the TLX SH-AWD's handling is less invigorating than its sportier competitors. That's probably because the other cars all have a more equal front-to-rear weight distribution than the TLX SH-AWD's nose-heavy layout, which puts 60 percent of weight over the front axle. By comparison, the ATS has a 50/50 weight distribution; the 335i xDrive is 52.4/47.6. Both cars feel more balanced in quick maneuvers.

The TLX's interior is beautiful. The test car's comfortable seats were covered in perforated chocolate leather. Attractive dark red wood, muted metallic accents and soft materials complete the package. The front seat has plenty of room and storage. Rear passenger room and trunk space are also good.

The voice-recognition system was accurate, but slow. The controls for climate and audio are straightforward, but the center stack layout with two screens — one a touch screen, the other not — seemed a bit excessive. I couldn't figure out what it accomplished that a single good touch screen wouldn't do.

The exterior styling is understated and attractive, a welcome change from the gimmicky and angular look of recent Acura cars.

The TLX SH-AWD's fuel economy is at the top of its class. The EPA rates it at 21 mpg in the city, 31 on the highway and 25 combined. The key combined figure beats the competition by 1 to 5 mpg

The TLX SH-AWD is a welcome return to excellence by a brand that was missing for too long. Its looks, features, value and fuel economy should put Acura back on plenty of shopping lists, and win it a new generation of happy owners.

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2015 Acura TLX SH-AWD Advance

All-wheel drive five-passenger sport sedan

Price as tested: $44,700 (excluding destination charge)

Rating: Three stars (out of four stars)

Reasons to buy: All-wheel drive; fuel economy, features; price

Shortcomings: Handling; power; performance of auto-stop

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Competitive EPA fuel economy ratings

(Automatic transmission, all-wheel drive models)

2015 Acura TLX SH-AWD Advance: 21 mpg city/31 highway/25 combined. Premium gasoline.

Audi S4 Quattro: 18/28/21. Premium gasoline.

BMW 335i xDrive: 20/30/24. Premium gasoline.

Cadillac ATS 3.6-liter AWD: 18/26/21. Regular gasoline.

Infiniti Q50 Sport AWD: 17/24/20. Premium gasoline.

Lexus IS 350 AWD: 19/26/21. Premium gasoline.

Mercedes-Benz C400 4Matic: 21/29/24. Premium gasoline.

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Comparative base prices (excluding destination charges)

(Automatic transmission, all-wheel drive models)

2015 Acura TLX SH-AWD Advance: $44,700

Audi S4 Quattro: $49,800

BMW 335i xDrive: $45,750

Cadillac ATS 3.6-liter AWD: $46,600

Infiniti Q50 Sport AWD: $42,300

Lexus IS 350 AWD: $42,300

Mercedes-Benz C400 4Matic: $48,590

Source: Autotrader.com

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Specifications as tested

Engine: 3.5-liter, 24-valve V-6

Power: 290 horsepower at 6,200 rpm; 267 pound-feet of torque at 4,200 rpm.

Transmission: Nine-speed automatic

Wheelbase: 109.3 inches

Length: 190.3 inches

Width: 73.0 inches

Height: 57.0 inches

Curb weight: 3,774 lbs.

Where assembled: Marysville, Ohio

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Key features on vehicle tested

Standard equipment: Anti-lock brakes; stability control; electronic brake force distribution; brake assist; front-seat side air bags; driver knee air bag; curtain air bags; LED daytime running lights; XM satellite radio; text message capable; touch screen; Pandora Internet radio app; memory for driver's settings; power windows, locks and mirrors; heated front seats; power front seats; push buttons start; push button shifter; dual zone automatic climate control; power sunroof; 18-inch aluminum wheels; LED headlights; navigation; voice recognition; Bluetooth phone and audio compatible; real-time traffic information; ELS 10-speaker sound system; blind spot and cross-traffic alert; forward collision warning with automatic braking; lane-keeping assist; ventilated front seats; adaptive cruise control; remote start; LED fog lights.

Options: None.

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ABOUT THE WRITER

Mark Phelan is the Detroit Free Press auto critic. He can be reached at mmphelan@freepress.com.

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©2015 Detroit Free Press

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