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Expert Reviews 1 of 9
By Mike Hanley
March 20, 2008
They say you shouldn't bring a knife to a gunfight, and that phrase came to mind when I drove the redesigned 2009 Acura TSX. The TSX, which hits dealerships in April, has its share of good qualities — like a stylish exterior and interior — but it competes in the luxury sport sedan category, which is one of the more crowded segments of the car business. Shoppers there will find the TSX outgunned by competing models in terms of power and handling. The Look The TSX's all-new styling builds on the previous generation's athletic looks, but the new sedan is 2.4 inches longer and 3 inches wider than before. The TSX's wide stance, accented by bulging front fenders, is apparent when looking at the sedan head-on.
The face of the car has been updated via new headlights, a new grille that incorporates Acura's shield design, and an aggressively styled lower bumper. Around back, changes include more substantial rear fender flares that echo the front ones, as well as new taillights. Seventeen-inch alloy wheels with all-season tires are standard. All in all, the TSX is sporty without going overboard. Ride & Handling I drove the TSX in and around San Diego, on expressways, city streets and winding mountain roads. Even on the relatively smooth roads that this part of the country is privileged to enjoy, the TSX's firm suspension tuning communicated small pavement bumps to the cabin and wasn't especially forgiving on rougher surfaces. The benefit, though, is relatively flat cornering when driving the car quickly through tight turns. Despite this, one thought kept coming to my mind when driving: If the ride is this taut on nearly perfect roads, how is it going to be in places like Chicago (Cars.com's headquarters), where potholes that could swallow a small dog are commonplace in wintertime, and road quality overall is much worse than in San Diego? We'll know for sure once we get a TSX to drive in the Midwest, but right now it's not encouraging.
Even though the TSX's front-wheel-drive layout doesn't provide the balance of rear-wheel drive, as is found in the Infiniti G35 and BMW 3 Series, the TSX scraps admirably when powering out of a corner, resisting understeer and doing a decent job on the whole to maintain your desired line.
My biggest issue with the new TSX is its steering feel and feedback. Acura has replaced the hydraulic steering system in the previous car with a new electric power-steering system that doesn't offer very inspiring oncenter feel; unlike many sport sedans, it doesn't take much effort to turn the wheel left or right from its straight-ahead position, which means the driver has to pay extra attention to something that doesn't normally require any thought. By comparison, the G35 has solid oncenter steering feel that requires the driver to put some effort into turning the wheel. The previous TSX had this quality to some degree with its hydraulic system, but it's essentially gone in the new model.
There's also a lot of power assistance and not much road feel in the new steering system. That might be great for a large luxury car like Acura's RL, but it's not desirable in a sport sedan where a driver wants and expects greater involvement in the driving experience and a sense of what's happening down at the tires. The 3 Series is still the standard in this slice of the market when it comes to steering performance and feedback, and the TSX's steering system isn't in the BMW's league, though its assist thankfully lessens slightly once you get up to highway speeds. Going & Stopping The TSX is powered by a 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine that teams with either a six-speed manual or a five-speed automatic transmission. The engine makes 201 horsepower at 7,000 rpm and 172 pounds-feet of torque at 4,400 rpm (170 pounds-feet at 4,300 rpm with the automatic transmission). That's a loss of 4 hp but a gain of 8 pounds-feet of torque at 100 fewer rpm (with the manual transmission) when compared to the previous TSX's four-cylinder. With this engine, the TSX is at the low end of the sport sedan horsepower spectrum — some competitors offer more than 300 hp. Gas mileage is up to 21/30 mpg with the automatic and 20/28 mpg with the manual.
The TSX's four-cylinder is built to rev. It spins smoothly and emits a nice mechanical sound as you approach its 7,100-rpm redline. You have to let the engine rev high if you want to unlock its performance potential; shifting into too high of a gear to quiet the engine will make its power drop off. That's what happens to an engine with modest torque that peaks at a relatively high rpm.
Fortunately, the six-speed manual is a joy to shift. The transmission has medium-length throws and moves from gear to gear with impressive slickness, though extra attention is necessary when shifting into sixth. Clutch-pedal effort is rather light, so it shouldn't tire your leg when creeping through traffic. Within minutes of driving the car I'd gotten accustomed to where engagement occurred.
The five-speed automatic transmission loses the manual-shift mode that was incorporated into the prior TSX's gear selector, but it gains shift paddles on the back of the steering wheel that perform the same function. The automatic delivers smooth shifts and doesn't make you wait long when you floor the gas pedal before it kicks down. The steering wheel paddles produce fairly quick shifts, as opposed to the sluggish response that's all too common with many of these systems.
The TSX's four-wheel disc brakes have no trouble slowing the car, and the response from the brake pedal is very linear. It hardly requires any effort to apply the brakes; all it takes is a light touch of your foot. Even when braking hard you don't have to apply much pressure to the pedal. The Inside The TSX's cabin features all-new styling that includes a tiered dashboard, a new gauge cluster and controls, and an integrated control knob like the one in the Acura RL that's used to control the optional navigation system. The previous TSX's material quality was already good for its class, and it's been improved with this redesign.
Front power bucket seats with a memory feature for the driver are standard. With the adjustments offered by the driver's seat, along with the tilt/telescoping steering column, it's easy to find a good driving position. The seats themselves, which are covered in standard leather upholstery, are comfortable with their soft cushioning, but they also feature side bolsters that are large enough to keep you in place when trying to squeal the tires through a corner.
The backseat isn't as comfortable. It's small like a 3 Series' backseat, with limited legroom — my knees were pressed up against the back of the front seat — and I only had about an inch of headroom to spare. I am 6-foot-1, though, so small children should find it just fine. Cargo & Towing The TSX's trunk has shrunken slightly and now measures 12.6 cubic feet. Folding down the 60/40-split backseat lets you carry longer items inside the car, and the release levers for the backseat are located along the upper edge of the trunk. With both sections of the rear seat folded, the opening into the cabin isn't especially wide, but Acura wins points for including this feature as standard equipment; it's optional on the 3 Series and Mercedes-Benz C-Class. Safety Standard features include antilock brakes with electronic brake-force distribution and brake assist, side-impact airbags for the front seats, side curtain airbags, an electronic stability system, and active head restraints for the front seats. A backup camera is included with the optional navigation system.
The TSX also incorporates Acura's Advanced Compatibility Engineering body technology. ACE is designed to better engage vehicles of different sizes during a crash so the car's crumple zones are fully utilized.
Independent crash-test results were not available at time of publication, but results will be added here when they are released. Features The TSX's long standard features list includes heated front seats, a leather-wrapped multifunction steering wheel, a power moonroof, dual-zone automatic air conditioning, Bluetooth-based cell phone connectivity, an auxiliary input jack, and a USB port for playing an iPod through the audio system.
Optional features are bundled together in a Technology Package that includes a voice-recognition navigation system that can display traffic and weather information, a more sophisticated air conditioning system that uses navigation technology to factor in the effect of the sun on cabin temperature, and an ELS Surround audio system.
Offered on other Acuras, like the TL and MDX, the 10-speaker ELS Surround system is tuned by longtime sound engineer Elliot Scheiner and includes a six-disc changer that can play DVD-Audio discs as well as regular CDs. Acura says Scheiner's focus was to faithfully reproduce sound as it's heard in a recording studio, and the system does indeed produce impressively clear sound that's easy to appreciate, even if you're not an audiophile. TSX in the Market As an entry-level luxury car, the TSX satisfies reasonably well thanks to its long list of standard features and a refined cabin. When grading it as a sport sedan, however, it doesn't rate as highly, especially because of its touchy steering response. Competitors like the G35 or a base 328i offer a more engaging driving experience and — if you refrain from checking a bunch of options — are in the same price range as the TSX. That should finalize the decision for most enthusiast buyers, just not in Acura's favor.