Acura TSX mixes well with the Euro sport sedans

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

Acura is comparing its all-new compact sport sedan to such vaunted makes as the BMW 325i, Audi A4 1.8T and Mercedes-Benz C240. After all it has its roots in Europe as does this list of heady competition.

That’s an indication of just how the new 2004-model-year entry is perceived by Acura. A late entry in the crowded entry-level sport sedan segment, the Acura TSX appears to be a winner — both price-wise and performance-wise.

The aforementioned German models are all rear-wheel-drive sports sedans while the TSX is propelled with the traditional Japanese front-wheel drive layout. Never mind, Acura says. The TSX works just as well as the vaunted Euro-sedans, and they may be right. 

In the interest of keeping its alpha naming scheme intact, the sedan is called the TSX. It slots in size and price between the RSX coupe and the 3.2 TL mid-sized sedans. Acura has been without a compact sedan since the Integra (the last of the whole named Acura products) was dropped after the 2001 model year. Now Acura has a clean slate featuring more letters than a bowl of alphabet soup; RSX, TSX, TL, CL, RL, MDX and NSX.

Including its name, Acura officials are quick to point out that the TSX has nothing in common with the old Integra. That’s not to say the Integra was anything less than a good car. It’s just that the TSX is a giant leap in luxury appointments and in several areas of technology.

The old Integra was based on a Honda Civic platform. The TSX is basically a modified version of the European Honda Accord with more power and more standard equipment.

The TSX has little in common with the bigger American Accord, however. It is 6.2 inches shorter and 1.7 inches narrower. And unlike the Accord, which has a choice of a 4 or V-6, the TSX comes with just one engine configuration, a 2.4-liter inline 4 that develops 200 horsepower and 166 pound-feet of torque.

The TSX combination of a wonderfully tuned suspension, a compact size that’s easy to toss around and a high-revving engine that was born to run, is enough to make a car enthusiast’s mouth water. This sedan is taut and tight and responds like clay in the hands of a master artist.

Enthusiasts will appreciate the close-ratio 6-speed manual transmission. It is a pleasure to use and allows the driver to get the most out of the engine. 

Driving the TSX is a pleasure thanks to its 4-wheel independent double-wishbone suspension. It is track-tuned to reduce lift, dive and body roll. Thanks to its Vehicle Stability Assist system that works in concert with the braking and drive-by-wife throttle systems, TSX is provided excellent control during acceleration, braking and cornering.

The TSX provided us with a delightful week of driving pleasure because of its emotionally appealing nature and perhaps, too, because we weren’t expecting this kind of satisfaction.
It’s nice to be surprised occasionally.

So what about those German models cited by Acura as the chief competition for the TSX? By coincidence, we tested a BMW 325i the week after the TSX departed. Driving the two back-to-back helped put things in perspective. There really isn’t a compact sedan in the country that offers the overall driving dynamics of the BMW. It’s a spirited machine, especially when outfitted with a 5-speed manual transmission.

But driving the BMW immediately after the TSX also pointed up just how good the Acura is by comparison, even though it has a front-wheel drive layout and has only four cylinders.

The contrasts in performance and handling between the BMW, even with its inline 6-cylinder engine and rear-drive architecture, and the Acura are small. The biggest differences are in price and image. People recognize a Bimmer. Prestige comes with driving a BMW. The Acura will have to earn the same respect as the years go by.

It’s in the price that the TSX shines. The fully equipped TSX has a sticker price of under $27,000. Even with navigation, the only option available the TSX lists for $28,990.

The BMW test car, without navigation, listed for $35,500. Comparably equipped, there’s an $8,000 difference. So that begs the question, is there actually $8,000 worth of differences in the two sedans? The answer is a resounding no.

You may prefer six cylinders and you may prefer rear-wheel drive, but unless you take your sedan on the track these dissimilarities will never be made known. For one thing, the TSX is virtually devoid of torque-steer, that malady in which the steering wheel pulls to the left or right in hard acceleration because the drive wheels are also the steering wheels. 

Mate the TSX to that 6-speed manual and the 4-cylinder engine is capable of propelling the TSX to 60 miles per hour in just over six seconds. That’s faster than the Bimmer.

Granted, the Bimmer perhaps has a bit more available mid-range torque. But unless you drive the cars back-to-back every day the differences are not noticeable.

Honda builds the world’s best 4-cylinder engines and the latest iteration of its variable valve timing and lift system is amazingly quiet with the sound of perfection and sophistication built in.
Unlike most of Honda’s VTEC engines, there’s no noticeable spike in power at about 5,500 rpm. Power just comes on in an increasing flow right up to its 7,100 rpm redline.

In a bit of a turnabout the manual unit delivers 21-mpg City and 31-mpg Highway. The automatic betters that figure with 22-mpg City and 31-mpg Highway.

Acura predicts 30 percent of the sales mix will be a 6-speed manual. And that’s good because the manual shifter in this sedan is like a precision instrument. A capable but not nearly as exciting 5-speed SportShift automatic will be the choice of 70 percent of buyers.

Styling may be this car’s weak point. That’s not to say there’s anything wrong with it. Its lines are crisp starting with the traditional 5-sided Acura grille and style lines at the top of the front fender flares rising to the rear give it some character. It is predictably Honda conservative and certainly not offensive. Perhaps more neutral in nature would best describe it.

Inside is a different story. The deeply bolstered, perforated leather bucket seats provide excellent support during hard driving maneuvers. Front seat occupants will find plenty of leg and headroom. Back-seat passengers will have to rely on their front-seat compatriots to adjust their seats to create adequate legroom. The same can be said for the compact BMW.

Audio and cruise controls are mounted on the leather-wrapped steering wheel. LED-illuminated instrumentation and intuitive controls as we’ve come to expect in Honda and Acura products, are clear and easily understandable making the driver’s job easier. The dashboard layout is terrific, a stylish flow of wood and soft surfaces.

Trunk room, at 13 cubic feet, is adequate and the rear seats fold 60-40 for more storage space.
The sedan comes fully equipped for $26,990. And in this case you may not believe what fully equipped means. It means loaded. Included in the "base" model are front and front side airbags, side-curtain airbags, Vehicle Stability Assist with traction control, antilock braking, 8-way power sports seats with leather trim, heated front seats, dual-zone climate control, power windows and doorlocks, keyless remote, tilt and telescopic steering wheel, power moonroof, a 360-watt sound system, 17-inch alloy wheels and Xenon high-intensity headlights.

Our test car added voice-activated navigation bringing the sticker price up to $28,990.

Personally, we could do without the two-grand navigation system (pull out the $2 map instead) and have one jewel of a sedan for $27,000.