From the July 2003 issue of Car and Driver.
Referring to the 1961 Ferrari 250GT California he “borrowed” from his best friend’s father, the somehow sagacious and always rash Ferris Bueller eloquently proclaimed in the 1986 flick, “It is so choice. If you have the means, I highly recommend picking one up.”
Trying to apply that drooling dialogue to anything but a sexy exotic becomes a stretch. In the Acura lineup, the only candidate for this sort of lust is the NSX sports car. Not that all premium Hondas aren’t “choice” automobiles—it’s just that none but the NSX delivers the prestige and performance comparable to a Ferrari’s.
But today, when so many cars are well beyond good (trust us—narrowing down a 10Best ballot is painful), the term “choice” seems appropriate not just for exotics but also for those select cars that deliver something special, something intangible.
Take Acura’s new sports sedan, the TSX. It’s a car that distances itself from its rivals not by performance numbers (although they’re generally as good) but rather by how it performs. The TSX goes about its business so smoothly and so silkily that precision could be its middle name. And it is targeted squarely at those Gen Xers who so fondly remember the words of the wise Ferris.
That now 30-something demographic—a majority married, more than half males, pulling in about $80,000 a year, according to Acura—is whom the brand is missing with the just-out-of-college RSX and the wife-and-kids TL. So enter the gap-filling TSX, a $26,990 rebadged European-market Honda Accord equipped with either the six-speed manual tested here or a five-speed automatic with a manual-control feature. At that price, Acura’s demographic prediction makes sense. Acura TSX buyers won’t be the same guys dropping 30 large on Mitsubishi Evos or Subaru STis—what wife would allow her husband to buy a car with a wing the size of an ironing board? We all know who makes those calls.
Rather, the 15,000 TSXs allotted for the U.S. in the first year will likely be cross-shopped with the V-6-powered Mazda 6 s and, if the “A” badge holds the elite kind of water Acura believes it does, the Lexus IS300 and the European status symbols, the Audi A4 1.8T, the BMW 325i, the Saab 9-3, and the recently introduced Mercedes C230 Kompressor sedan. But only the Mazda can match the Acura’s equipment level at a similar price.
For just under $27,000, the TSX comes loaded. That means perforated leather seats (heated up front), dual-zone automatic climate control, a power sunroof, a 360-watt stereo with an in-dash six-CD changer, high-intensity-discharge headlights, and 17-inch wheels. Tack those features onto an Audi or BMW, and you’ll understand the meaning of base price. The only option on the TSX is a $2000 navigation system with voice recognition.
Sit behind the TSX’s leather-wrapped, three-spoke steering wheel, and it appears as if all the money went into the materials and the fluidity of the parts. The sumptuous leather, the tasteful metallic accents, the LED gauges, and the top-grade plastics are befitting a car costing twice as much. The dash covering is made sans PVC, a material that can wreak havoc on quality control, and instead is manufactured using a high-caliber spray-formed urethane skin technology. All the materials scream luxury, and all the parts whisper smooth. Every knob, switch, and moving part seems to be glazed with Teflon. In fact, the moving parts of the tilting and telescoping steering wheel are coated with a resin for ease of operation.
Put the TSX in motion, and it quickly becomes evident that Acura allocated plenty of money elsewhere. An epitome of refinement, the 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine with i-VTEC (Honda’s latest variable-valve-timing system) generates 200 horsepower at 6800 rpm and 166 pound-feet of torque at 4500 rpm. Similar to other high-revving Honda four-bangers, the TSX mill doesn’t deliver much grunt below 3000 rpm, but as the tachometer creeps toward peak torque, the engine pulls strongly to 6000 rpm, at which point the cam profiles go long for the 1100-rpm sprint to the redline. Never does the engine feel as if it’s working hard. Even when i-VTEC kicks in at six grand, the engine spins like an athlete “in the zone.” It offers maximum performance with little sweat.
The engine wouldn’t be nearly as satisfying if not for the gem of a gearbox. Housed in a magnesium case for weight reduction, the six-speed manual features multicone synchronizers on all gears and 45-millimeter (about 1.75 inches) shift throws (an S2000’s are about 35mm) that result in a pleasingly light, crisp action; a flick of the wrist is all that’s required to row from gear to gear. Consequently, the powertrain harmony makes for brisk acceleration: zero to 60 mph takes 7.2 seconds, which is as swift as the Lexus IS300, quicker than the Saab 9-3 Vector (7.3), but a few ticks slower than the BMW 325i (7.0) and Mazda 6 s (6.8). It should be noted, too, that the TSX’s 5-to-60-mph street-start time (7.7)—a more realistic indication—is only half a second slower than the clutch-burning launch, indicating that the closely spaced gear ratios make the most of the 2.4’s power band. The quarter-mile time of 15.6 seconds at 91 mph is quick as well, and a mere 0.2-second behind the torquier Bimmer, Lexus, Mazda, and Saab.
The TSX’s four-wheel independent suspension employs unequal-length control arms aided by a 25.4mm (one inch) hollow anti-roll bar and strut-tower brace up front and a five-link independent setup with a 15mm bar in back. Compared with the four-cylinder mass-market U.S. Accord, which has no strut-tower brace and a smaller (14.0mm) rear bar, the TSX is tuned stiffer and exhibits less body roll. Despite this firmness, the ride hasn’t really suffered. The TSX doesn’t feel as soft as the Accord, but it somehow soaks up the bumps just as well. If anything, the ride could be a step firmer—the Subaru WRX’s comes to mind.
On the skidpad, the TSX pulled 0.85 g, which easily tops its four-cylinder Accord sibling (0.77) and bests adhesion numbers from competing front-drivers—the Saab 9-3 Vector (0.83) and the Mazda 6 s (0.84)—as well as the rear-drive Lexus IS300 (0.78). The only car the Acura couldn’t outgrip is the BMW 325i (0.86).
A higher skidpad number is plausible if Acura were to fit the TSX with softer-compound summer rubber. The standard 215/50VR-17 Michelin Pilot HX MXM4 tires mounted on seven-spoke, 17-inch alloys provide commendable performance, but all-season tires are a year-round compromise. We’d gladly welcome a stickier summer tire such as the Yokohama AVS ES100 offered on the RSX Type-S Factory Performance.
With a chassis as good as the TSX’s, the car is begging for more than just grippier shoes. Another 20, 30—Do we hear 40?—horsepower would really show off the chassis’s capabilities. But remember that the TSX is young, and Acura is bound to spice it up as it ages. Otherwise, there’s little to criticize about the TSX dynamically. The steering, as with the Audi’s A4’s, is light, direct, and precise from lock to lock and exhibits a firm on-center feel with zero play. The brakes, with pie-size 11.8-inch vented front discs and 10.2-inch solid rear discs, furnish sure stopping power and direct progression, decelerating the 3246-pound TSX from 70 to zero in 185 feet.
When driven near the limit, the TSX is a very predictable car. It has no surprises in store, delivering only what you’d expect in a well-balanced (60/40-percent front-to-rear weight distribution) front-driver. That means some understeer and body roll when rapid entry speeds and acute corners are unwilling to cooperate, but like we said, the dynamics are predictable. As is the remedy: Ease up on the throttle, allow the tires to scrub speed, and then show the throttle more love once the nose tucks in. As far as handling characteristics, the TSX is reminiscent of the dearly departed Honda Prelude, a multiple 10Best winner and champion of our “Best Handling Car Under $30,000” (June 1997). Each possesses a point-and-shoot mentality that allows you to drive the snot out of it with little fear of getting a bloody nose, and each inspires more confidence the faster and harder it’s driven.
Our advice is this: If you’re in the market for a less-than-$30-grand sports sedan, check out the TSX. It’s not the quickest to 60, or the fastest around the skidpad, or the shortest stopper, but it’s the purest form of precision in its class.
In a segment where choices abound, the TSX is “choice,” indeed. Your keys, Mr. Bueller.
The TSX is no head turner, and it doesn’t look all that impressive on paper, either. Its test numbers are about the same as those we chalked up for an Integra GS-R four-door in March 1997, even though the TSX has a 30-hp edge over the Integra. But test data don’t necessarily tell the whole story, and this car is a case in point. Acura’s small four-door fits like a custom-made driver’s suit and delivers the precise shifting, athletic feel, and quick steering of a Euro sport such as the Audi A4. It’s also smooth and quiet, with lots of luxo goodies baked into its attractive price. The lesson: You don’t always have to hit home runs to win the game. —Tony Swan
This one actually had me pawing my own checkbook. The roomy cabin is trimmed with executive-suite materials and squeezed into a taut body of just-right dimensions. The controls feel Vaseline-coated and ball-bearing supported. The steering wheel carves the asphalt like a surgeon’s scalpel, the finger-touch shifter seems ripped right from an S2000 along with all six of its gears. The big four whips up big torque. It sounds serious, vibrates little, and drinks less. The suspension sops up road clatter but obeys orders with Germanic discipline. If Acura sends us a haul-more body style (wagon, anyone?), the dealer can expect my call. —Aaron Robinson
The TSX is essentially the European version of the Honda Accord—it shares much with its larger American cousin—trimmed in Acura livery. Despite that genealogy, this TSX feels nothing like an Ohio-built Accord. The big, high-revving four-banger in the TSX creates a more overtly energetic ambience than the slick V-6 does in the Accord—even though the V-6 is quicker! The TSX’s chassis delivers a more athletic flavor, with greater grip than an Accord coupled to a sharper bite when you turn its steering wheel. It may share an Accord platform, but the buff and nimble TSX is very much its own car. —Csaba Csere
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