When we heard that Acura would be launching another four-cylinder front-wheel-drive sedan, we couldn't help but ask why. Our cortexes fizzled at the repetitive notion of yet another high-revving Euro fighter from Honda, and when we heard that this new car, the TSX, would be but a tweaked version of the European and Japanese Accords, our tiny skulls nearly shattered from disbelief. Two Accords? Neither of them rear-wheel-drive? We wondered why Acura--the last of the Japanese upscale manufacturers to dispatch two cars to this overcrowded category--couldn't resist the pull of the segment-fragmentation chipper-shredder.
But "Why?" turns out to be the wrong question. Better to ask "When?" and "How much?" and "What took you so long?" Drive the TSX, and all doubts evaporate. The new sedan is easily the finest in the Acura range and a credible rival to Audi's A4, Mercedes-Benz's C-class, and, yes, even BMW's 3-series. These cars were catching a lot of upwardly mobile ex-Accord, and -RSX owners who felt they had no Acura to buy, calling attention to the phantom void in Acura's lineup. "We felt we needed something smaller to go up against the Europeans, to bridge the gap between the RSX and the TL," says Acura product planner Jay Joseph.
The TSX uses tricks from both. It has a refined and enlarged version of the RSX's i-VTEC four-cylinder, and it cribs from the TL its chic interior, double-wishbone/multi-link suspension, and shocking value equation. The leather-clad TSX's only options are a navigation system and the choice of a six-speed manual or a five-speed automatic transmission.
We drove the navi-equipped, six-speed TSX. After an easy familiarization with the mini-home theater between the front seats (it has an eight-inch screen), we tore up the Pacific Coast Highway to Mulholland Drive. During slow driving, the car's clutch takeup and shifter efforts seemed a bit flimsy--out of sync with the strong, self-centered steering, the firm ride, and the robust brake-pedal feel. Issues of control harmony straightened out with a few carefully administered doses of speed. When the TSX is driven quickly, its chassis has an anticipatory quality that only the best and most driver-oriented sedans share; the car places itself on the road. Grip from the Michelins was astounding, forcing us to recheck mid-flight to ensure that the standard Vehicle Stability Assist had been well and truly garroted. Precise responses from the broadly powerful engine and drive-by-wire throttle resulted in briefly errant, quickly recalled rear-tire paths.
Control and restraint are key TSX themes. Its interior has a taut, dynamic edginess, as if it belonged to an Accord that had been through six weeks of basic training. The exterior, too, is drum-tight and high-toned, yet this may not have been what Acura was going for. Joseph said that people buy the cars in this class for emotional reasons, then pointed to the at-best-compulsive/at-worst-anonymous styling as one of these. We wondered what he'd been freebasing and where we might score some.
But it may be just as well that the TSX isn't an overt piece of draftsmanship. It needn't be in order to sell the mere 15,000 units per year Acura is intending. Besides, in the long run, stealth works best, especially when you're on Mulholland and you spot a 3-series up ahead.