Just when you think the German automakers have every angle covered, along comes a car that could switch an auto connoisseur's taste from schnitzel to sushi quicker than you can say Hefeweitzen.
Acura's new 2004 TSX sedan rolled into Acura showrooms this spring, but for a car that's been on sale for nearly four months, we haven't noticed many of them out on the road. And we can't understand why. If Honda, parent company of Acura, decided to send a fleet of its acclaimed Odyssey minivans around to pick up potential buyers from BMW, Audi and Mercedes-Benz dealerships, typical German sedan consumers would be impressed with a TSX test-drive. We certainly were.
The TSX was designed to fill the slot between Acura's racy-looking RSX coupe, and the larger Acura TL sedan. Such a position places it directly up against the lower end of BMW's 3 Series, Audi's A4 and the Mercedes C-Class sedans. Having just said good-bye to a 2002 Audi A4 that had been with us for 12 months, we were able to wipe away the tears after getting into the TSX. With its luxurious interior, slick shifting transmission and smooth four-cylinder engine, we quickly forgot about our previous A4 allegiance.
Only one engine choice is available a 2.4-liter four-cylinder that produces 200 horsepower and 166 pound-feet of torque. That's more power than either of the four-cylinders from Audi or Mercedes, and nearly 20 hp more than the inline six-cylinder in BMW's similarly priced 325i. As big fans of the A4 and the 3 Series, the TSX's sheer horsepower figures alone immediately grabbed our attention. After our weeklong test-drive, the TSX moved from just capturing our attention to holding it in a headlock.
The engine is as smooth and quiet as any other power plant present in a luxury performance car, and while it was strong up high, there is considerably less power down low. Keep it above 3,000 rpm, however, and it rewards you with solid midrange torque that extends right up to its lofty 7,110-rpm redline. A trip to our closed test track showed that the TSX could cover a quarter-mile in 16.3 seconds at 86 miles per hour a half second behind our last recorded number for a V6-equipped A4 (with an MSRP of $38,410). The lack of low-end torque was all the more apparent during acceleration testing, but as the times prove, the TSX turns up the power quickly once engine speed builds.
The smooth, short throws of the standard six-speed manual shifter are pure automotive bliss. Even the most jaded editor on our staff had to admit that the Acura's transmission feels as quick and precise as they come. Everything, from well-placed pedals to the leather-covered knob that fit perfectly in the palm of your hand, makes you eager to move through the gearbox.
A taut suspension keeps the front-wheel-drive TSX stable yet comfortable. We've gushed through many a road test about the superior handling characteristics of the BMW 3 Series, and when it's considered against the coveted BMW, we still have to express enthusiasm for the TSX. With limited body roll, and plenty of grip from the standard 17-inch wheels and tires (a necessary upgrade for its competitors), the TSX didn't disappoint. Should you get in over your head, the standard Vehicle Stability Assist (VSA) system can help get you and the car back on course. There was some dissent among our group about the precision and weighting of the steering, but we'd bet most buyers will find the TSX's rack-and-pinion setup more than adequate.
Slalom test notes from instrumented testing revealed the TSX's predictable handling manners at the limit, where only slight body roll and solid grip contributed to quick runs through the cones.
Distances in the 60-to-0-mph braking test were less impressive, as the Acura's best distance of 128 feet was considerably longer than the last 3 Series we tested, which turned a stop of 117 feet, or the last A4, which halted in 118. Not only were the distances a bit lengthy, but the pedal could be more progressive, and some front-end dive was displayed. Four-wheel antilock disc brakes (ventilated in front) are standard.
Describing the TSX's exterior can be quite challenging as there aren't many interesting or noteworthy design elements to consider. Parked next to the BMW and Audi, the TSX looks much less assuming dressed in its simple sheet metal, but after climbing inside, any slight displeasure about its exterior blandness is instantly forgotten.
Honda and Acura are well-known for their intuitive, ergonomically efficient interior designs, and the TSX is no exception. The expansive cabin is instantly inviting. Soft-touch leather abounds, with no cheap, hard plastic surfaces that allude to cost-cutting measures. Like its Acura siblings, the TSX is truly a luxury car. The sporty black perforated leather interior of our test car was highlighted by stylish brushed aluminum trim that adds just enough contrast without looking too flashy.
Smack in the middle of the TSX's center stack is a DVD-based navigation screen that will knock your socks off. Not only is the 8-inch screen painless to read, it's also easy to operate with or without using the voice recognition system. The dual-zone automatic climate control is integrated into the system, as is the kicking 360-watt, eight-speaker sound system complete with an in-dash six-disc changer and steering wheel-mounted audio controls. Within minutes of taking the wheel, we had adjusted the air conditioning and were scanning the preset buttons in search of a worthy tune.
The TSX's front seats are comfortable with plenty of padding in the bottom cushion, and good support from the back cushion. Drivers receive a standard eight-way power seat (an option in the A4 and 325i), but the passenger seat is only available with manual controls. Other standard luxury amenities include xenon headlights, a tilt and telescopic steering column and a power moonroof plus heated seats for those cool nights.
In terms of interior room, the TSX's measurements are comparable to those of the German sedans. The Acura takes the front legroom prize but only by an inch or so. Otherwise, in every measurable direction, the TSX, A4, 325i and C230 are within inches of one another. Rear-seat passengers will find plenty of toe room under the front seats and comfortable outboard cushions, but as in other compact luxury sedans, a fifth passenger will suffer in the center seat.
When planning a weekend getaway, the Acura's trunk offers 12.8 cubic feet of maximum storage capacity, which is a bit less than the Audi, two cubic feet more than the BMW and about equal to the Mercedes. The trunk lid closes effortlessly and features hinges that don't intrude into the cargo space when the lid is closed. In fact, all the doors are extremely easy to open and close, without ever once causing us to look back to make sure a door was truly shut.
Ultimately what makes us so fond of the TSX? When you combine its long list of amenities and comfortable ride, add in the refined engine and impressive transmission, you're smitten even before the phrase "good value" comes to mind. Money matters, whether you're buying your first car or your 10th, and at $28,490 (or $2,000 less if you skip the nav system), a fun-to-drive luxury car is a good buy. Even if it's Japanese instead of German.
Road Test Editor John DiPietro says: With such a bland exterior design (apart from the sporty greenhouse), I didn't warm up to the TSX immediately. But like some other cars of note, this Acura proves that beauty is only sheet metal-deep. Once past the generic five-point grille (how many carmakers are using this design now? Mazda, Acura, Kia ) and forgettable rear-end treatment and into the cabin, my opinion started to change. The interior is typically Acura, meaning clean, handsome and comfortable with a general feeling of high quality everywhere you look and touch. The controls and gauges are large and easy to read, as is the nav system, the latter being one of the most user-friendly examples of this technology extant.
Once I hit the road and blasted up through the first three gears, the TSX's inner beauty revealed itself. What a sweet engine this inline four could give a few European V6s a run for the money! The power band is impressively broad for a small engine that boasts such high output without the benefit of forced induction. The six-speed manual gearbox in this Acura was superb as well; quick and precise changes were a flick of the wrist away. And this car is a well-rounded performer. When I ran the TSX through some curves, its crisp steering and handling made it clear to me that Acura now has a genuine sport sedan in its stable.
Road Test Editor Erin Riches says: Much like the midsize CL coupe and TL sedan, Acura's compact TSX seems like a good value for entry-level luxury buyers. I'm not saying that it would be my first choice, but if you're looking at stripped versions of the Audi A4, BMW 325i and Saab 9-3, I think it would be worth your time to test-drive a TSX. Here's why: The Acura handles very well for a front-drive car. Its tight suspension allows the driver to make short work of curvy two-lane roads, and there's not much body roll. And it comes standard with 17-inch wheels, something you have to pay extra for on the other cars. Despite the firm suspension tuning and big wheels, the TSX cruises comfortably in traffic. I wasn't all that excited about the Acura's steering. There was nothing particularly bad about it I just prefer the weighting and road feel of the racks in the Audi and BMW. Similarly, the brake pedal didn't have the easy, progressive modulation of the BMW's. But then there's the Acura's shifter its action is crisper and more precise than any of the units you'll find in the European cars. The TSX doesn't feel like a fast car until about 4,000 rpm, but power below that threshold is at least usable for easy-does-it city driving.
Inside, our test car was laden with high-quality materials and amenities like leather upholstery, dual-zone climate control, an auto-dimming rearview mirror, an in-dash CD changer and a navigation system in short, stuff that would require the addition of a premium package on the other cars, while sending their MSRPs well into the $30Ks. I appreciated the telescoping steering wheel (typically found only in European cars) and the supportive front seats (though I think adults with large frames may feel pinched by the backrest's lateral bolstering try before you buy). The car that would stop me from buying a TSX is the Mazda 6. Maybe it's an unfair comparison since Mazda is generally considered a non-premium brand; however, when loaded up properly, the 6 offers mostly upscale cockpit accommodations and most of the amenities I would want. More importantly, its superb handling is accompanied by a level of communication from the suspension and steering that makes the TSX feel rather sterile in comparison. But maybe that's just me. If a luxury-branded car is what you must have, you should know that this Acura is the most refined example of a well-equipped entry-luxury sedan under $30,000 and fully deserving of any attention you give it.