Acura left its small, sporty sedan customers in the cold when it replaced its entry level Integra coupe and sedan with its rakish RSX coupe in 2002.
The early 2004 TSX sedan thus is meant to attract former Integra sedan fans, some of whom chose hot small sedans from Acura rivals when the Integra four-door was dropped.
The TSX thus fills a hole in the Acura lineup. Those who liked the Integra coupe can get the RSX, and those wanting a slightly larger sedan than the TSX can opt for Acura's best-selling TL four-door model, which is 9.2 inches longer. Annual TSX sales are expected to total 15,000 units.
Honda's upscale Acura division also hopes the front-drive TSX will draw potential buyers of competitors such as the Audi A4, Lexus IS 300, BMW 325 and Mercedes-Benz C-Class.
Those Lexus, BMW and Mercedes models have a more-balanced rear-drive design, and you can get an A4 with all-wheel drive. But the $26,490 TSX has superb handling despite a design that makes it nose-heavy. For the most part, modern suspensions and tires largely compensate for added weight up front.
"Also, many customers like the added traction of front-drive during certain driving conditions,'' said Acura spokesman Mike Spencer.
The TSX actually is an upscale, Americanized version of the smaller, more performance-oriented Honda Accord sold in Japan and Europe. But it's superior to the foreign Accord, being more powerful and luxurious for the U.S. market. It also has a different interior and a stiffer suspension because it's marketed as a sports sedan here.
TSX styling is clean, but should be sexier for such a sporty car. Just look at the racy RSX coupe. However the TSX has rigid construction and extremely good aerodynamics for low wind noise and better fuel economy. Acura even worked hard to make sure the doors close with a solid "thunk.''
The TSX comes in just one trim level and is so well-equipped that its only option is a $2,000 navigation system.
Standard equipment includes leather seats, with a power driver seat and heated front sport seats. There's also a power sunroof, AM/FM/CD with in-dash CD changer, automatic climate control with separate driver-front passenger controls, steering wheel audio and cruise controls, remote keyless entry, power mirrors and power windows with an automatic up/down driver window.
Voice recognition is linked to audio, climate control and navigation systems so a driver need not remove eyes from the road.
As for safety, the TSX is the first Acura to have standard side curtain air bags.
The TSX offers a slick, close-ratio six-speed manual transmission or a five-speed automatic transmission with a manual shift feature for no extra cost. For the first time on an Acura, the manual gearbox case is made from magnesium alloy, a material usually reserved for racing applications to save weight and provide more rigidity. However, Acura estimates that about 70 percent of TSX buyers will opt for the automatic transmission.
The TSX has a smooth, sophisticated 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine with everything from dual overhead camshafts to variable valve timing. It's fairly large for a four-cylinder and generates 200 horsepower and quick acceleration (0-60 mph in about seven seconds).
The engine loves to rev, with a high 7,100 rpm limit. Revs at 70 mph are a rather high 3,000 rpm in overdrive sixth gear. But the variable valve timing provides a broad powerband that allows decent punch at mid-range speeds.
Still, the manual transmission calls for a fair amount of shifting to get the fastest acceleration. At least it's a slick, close-ratio unit seemingly taken from a sports car. The clutch has a long throw, but a light action.
More low-end torque for faster initial acceleration would be nice, but lazy drivers can mope along in town at 30 mph in fifth gear without engine protest.
The TSX delivers an estimated 22 mpg in the city and 29 on highways with the manual transmission and does even better with the responsive automatic: 22 and 31. Premium fuel is required.
The quick-ratio rack-and-pinion steering is very responsive. And a firm-but-supple fully independent suspension provides a good ride. The track-tuned suspension has gas-pressurized shock absorbers and large stabilizer bars. It works with the car's robust structure and wide tires on large 17-inch wheels to deliver sharp handling.
A standard Vehicle Stability Assist system with traction control is linked to such things as the standard anti-lock brakes and lateral acceleration sensors to keep the TSX pointed in the right direction if a driver, say, enters a turn too quickly. Strong brakes have good pedal feel and provide short stops.
Front seats help hold occupants securely in place during sporty driving, and there's room for four 6-footers in the quiet interior. However, narrow rear door openings impede quickly entering or leaving the back seat.
The cockpit looks upscale. Controls are nicely placed, and the backlit gauges have large markings. But speedometer markings are a bit odd; for instance, the "20 mph'' mark is where the "10 mph'' mark is found on most speedometers.
An eight-inch dashboard screen comes with the navigation system. It displays information for the audio, climate control and navigation systems.
The large trunk has a rather high opening, but the inside of its lid has a handy pull-down bar to assist closing it. The split rear seatbacks flip forward and fold fairly flat to considerably enlarge the cargo area--although activating the seatback releases calls for a stretch from the trunk area.
The TSX offers a lot for the money. The car's conservative styling won't leave neighbors impressed, but TSX owners will know they have something special.
2004 ACURA TSX
Fast. Fun to drive. Well equipped. Standard manual or automatic transmission.
Needs sexier styling. Long-throw clutch. Narrow rear door openings.