When acura introduced the first TSX in 2003, we were prepared to be underwhelmed. A rebadged version of the European-market Honda Accord? More evidence that Honda was unwilling to give its premium brand a proper rear-wheel-drive sedan to go up against the BMW 3-series? We knew that the Euro Accord was smaller, more nimble, and less mainstream than the one engineered and built here for mass-market American tastes, but still.
As it turned out, we were smitten with the TSX from our first drive. Here was a sharply tuned, affordable, fun-to-drive sedan that proved once again that small can be beautiful. Sure, it was front-wheel drive, but it had one of the best front-wheel-drive chassis in the business. It had only four cylinders, but if any automaker knows how to build a good four-cylinder engine, it's Honda. Rarely, if ever, did we feel a desire for an extra two cylinders. This spritely, lithesome four-door immediately rose to the top of the front-wheel-drive sport-sedan class, circa 2003, rendering cars like the then-new Pontiac Grand Prix and Nissan Maxima largely irrelevant. Not inconsequential for Acura, the TSX also sold twice its original annual sales goal of 15,000 units every year since its debut.
Five years have passed quickly, and a new TSX has arrived. It is best to begin any discussion of this car by stating what Acura did not feel the need to add. The engine still has only four cylinders, and its displacement remains 2.4 liters. Power is actually down slightly, from 205 hp to 201 hp, although torque is up a bit, from 164 lb-ft to 172 lb-ft (with the manual transmission). The razzle-dazzle turbocharged four in the Acura RDX doesn't appear here, even as an option, due to packaging constraints and a desire to keep the TSX's price down. There is no all-wheel drive, and there is no dual-clutch transmission.And none of this is missed.
The TSX is still a pleasure to drive quickly. Or slowly. In heavy traffic or in light. On the twisty roads of eastern San Diego County's mountains and on the wide suburban boulevards leading back down into the city center, this car just feels good. It's light, in the traditional Honda/Acura way, but there is an underlying feeling of substance. Its high-revving engine requires more attention and input from its pilot to maximize performance than many of its more powerful competitors do, but this proves to be a rewarding, rather than onerous, task.
It's true, though, that the new TSX does not avoid the seemingly inevitable progression that afflicts all new cars these days: it is both bigger and heavier than before. The wheelbase, at 106.4 inches, is 1.3 inches longer; overall length is up by 2.4 inches; and the vehicle is a substantial 3.0 inches wider, with wider front and rear tracks. Curb weight has increased by about 160 pounds, although Acura saved about 40 pounds by using more high-strength steel in the car's body. Don't entirely blame Acura for these increases; blame the Europeans.
You see, Honda sells about 70,000 European Accords annually, which dwarfs TSX sales. Therefore, Honda's European product planners held the most sway during the development process, and they wanted a wider car that would provide more interior room and improve the car's dynamics. "Once we drove the car," says Acura's head of product planning, John Watts, "we agreed that the increased width does make it handle better. It also allowed us to retain the front wishbone suspension while also accommodating a diesel engine."
You heard that right: Starting next year, the Acura TSX will be the first diesel-powered Honda automobile ever sold in America. The engine will be an updated version of the 2.2-liter i-CTDi diesel already doing duty in the Euro-market Accord, where it returns about 40 mpg in the European city/highway cycle. Britain's AutoCar magazine has called this engine, which also serves in the Civic and the CR-V, "one of the best diesel engines on the market . . . a benchmark for refinement." The new oil burner will produce approximately 150 hp and 260 lb-ft of torque at only 2000 rpm, and it will meet the emissions standards of all fifty U.S. states without using a urea-injection system. One assumes that the same engine will make its way into the RDX and the U.S.-market CR-V as well, to take on the upcoming Volkswagen Tiguan diesel.
For now, U.S. buyers get only the 2.4-liter gasoline engine, which Acura says will return a combined 23 mpg (24 mpg with the automatic). The engine note rises harmoniously as you spin the i-VTEC four to its 7100-rpm redline, and power delivery is energetic even in the 70-to-100-mph sprint. The five-speed automatic now is equipped with steering-wheel-mounted paddle-shifters. Although the automatic rips through its shift points seamlessly, whether in D or the new S (sport) setting, we prefer the slick six-speed manual, which has revised ratios for second through sixth gears. As in the last TSX, this manual is the industry standard. Gearchanges are absolutely precise, the clutch pedal movement is perfectly weighted, and heel-and-toe downshifting is a breeze.
The test drives Acura arranged in the hills above San Diego for the TSX press preview in mid-February were compromised by a heavy snowfall that had Southern California drivers, including police officers in 4x4 SUVs, skidding, flipping, and rolling off the roads. Driving impressions? The Michelin Pilot HX MXM4 tires had good traction, but the TSX's rear defroster could barely keep up with the unexpected climate change. Luckily, we had the opportunity to return to the area the following day to take photos and drive on dry mountain roads, where the TSX demonstrated excellent body control and a willingness to play. Sure, you'll get some understeer when you're really pushing the car into hairpin turns, but you can still rotate the rear end through a corner. The brakes resist fade, and the steering - now electrically instead of hydraulically assisted - is communicative, even if it ultimately could use more feel and a touch more precision.
Like the newly face-lifted RL sedan, the TSX gets what Acura calls its "power plenum" grille, which is part of a new Acura family look. It's a handsome if somewhat anodyne effort at finally establishing a "face" for the twenty-two-year-old Acura brand. We could do without the two pointy extrusions in the bottom edge of the front air-dam surround, however, and the seventeen-inch wheels on our test car were pretty dull.
Acuras usually come well-equipped as standard, and one of the stated goals for the new TSX was that its owners would not be deprived of any of the goodies other Acuras offer. Thus the 2009 TSX is available with a technology package that bundles a state-of-the-art navigation system featuring traffic and weather reports with the incredible Panasonic ELS surround-sound stereo, which was engineered by Grammy-winning producer Elliot Scheiner and debuted in the TL sedan.
The TSX is the right sort of car for a new age of automotive enthusiasm that will rely on modest-displacement, low-cylinder-count powertrains for performance and efficiency. Do we expect keen 3-series drivers to abandon their BMWs for the TSX? Probably not. But the legions of people who reflexively look toward prestige German badges will do themselves a disservice by not checking out the TSX.