Article by Greg Wilson
Photos by Laurance Yap
Los Angeles, California – Dave Gardner, National Manager for Acura Canada, is worried that RSX, EL and Integra owners are looking elsewhere when it comes time to move up to a compact sports sedan. “We want to stop the migration of Integra, RSX and EL owners to European brands,” he said at the North American introduction of the TSX in Hollywood, California.
A quick look around the Honda universe convinced Acura North America representatives that the European/Japanese style Accord (which is completely different from the recently-redesigned North American one) would make a perfect Acura sports sedan…with a few modifications. Acura threw in a 200 horsepower VTEC 2.4 litre four banger, a 6-speed manual with a lightweight magnesium housing, standard 17 inch wheels and performance tires, and added a full complement of luxury interior goodies – and renamed the car, Acura TSX.
“The Acura TSX is designed to attract European intenders who might otherwise shop for cars like the BMW 3-Series, Audi A4, Mercedes-Benz C240, Lexus IS300, Saab 9-3 or VW Passat,” said Gardner. “Buyers in this segment want styling, a car that’s fun-to-drive with good handling characteristics.”
Great idea, really. While the European Honda Accord is too small and sporty to be a North American Honda family sedan, it’s perfect as a mid-range Acura sports sedan. And though it is smaller than our Accord, it is bigger than the current BMW 3-Series – its primary rival according to Gardner.
Typical buyers for the TSX, says Gardner, are 35 year old males with a university degree and a professional job. Hm, that sounds like just about everybody’s perfect demographic profile. The good thing is that anybody, even fat, old people without a university degree, can buy a TSX if they have about $35,000. Prices weren’t announced, but they are expected to be in the mid $30′s. The TSX will appear in Acura showrooms on April 7, 2003.
The TSX looks a lot like the 3.2TL – at least in a photo. But up close, it’s smaller and more distinctive, particularly the narrow horizontal rear taillamps. Most of all, I was impressed with the homogenity of the design, and its superb finish. There’s no excess fat on this car – front and rear overhangs are short, the wheels fill the fender wells, and the bumpers look more like 2.5 mph bumpers than 5 mph bumpers (the less bumper, the better in my opinion). It’s low 0.27 coefficient of drag is the result of its flush side glass, front chin spoiler, special wind deflectors in front of the tires, and underbody covers. Its excellent paint finish and narrow body gaps reveal a high level of quality in body construction (it’s built in Sayama, Japan), and the interior is also extremely well-finished.
My only complaint is that the TSX is not as distinctive as a 3-Series or an A4. I suspect Acura execs decided to give the car a strong Acura brand image by using the signature Acura grille, headlight and bumper design – at the expense of its individual distinctiveness. Yes, everybody will know it’s an Acura, but only a few will know it’s a TSX.
While narrower than a North American Accord, the TSX seats four adults comfortably, and according to Tsuto Sasaki, Deputy Project Leader for the TSX, it offers more interior room and a bigger trunk than the BMW 3-Series. Standard equipment is extensive: the interior comes with a standard 360 watt, 8 speaker sound system with a 6-disc in-dash CD player, perforated leather seats, moonroof, dual zone climate control, power 8-way driver’s seat, tilt/telescopic steering wheel, power windows, heated mirrors, cruise control, and for the first time in an Acura, standard side curtain airbags. And unlike the N.A. Accord, the TSX gets split folding rear seatbacks instead of a single folding seatback. However, Canadian cars don’t get the optional navigaton system because mapping software is not yet available.
A high-revving but surprisingly quiet and refined 2.4 litre twin cam 16 valve four cylinder engine with intelligent variable valve and cam timing controls pumps out a substantial 200 horsepower at 6800 rpm and 166 lb-ft of torque at 4500 rpm. That’s more horsepower than the BMW 325i, Audi A4 1.8T, and Mercedes-Benz C240 but a little less torque than all three. Still, with the aid of VTEC, this engine has a broad, even torque band and offers the quickest 0 to 100 km/h time in its class: just 7.3 seconds. Fuel economy numbers (with the manual transmission) of 11.3 l/100 km city and 8.2 l/100 km highway are better than the 325i and C240, and slightly less than the A4 1.8T – at least under ideal conditions. I’m willing to bet the turbocharged A4 get worse mileage when driven enthusiastically.
The car’s vehicle dynamics are really superb – you can throw the TSX into a decreasing-radius off-camber downhill turn without much fuss – the car is well-balanced with minimal dive under braking or pitch under acceleration. Much of the credit must go to it super stiff chassis which Acura claims has better bending and torsional rigidity than the BMW 3-Series. As well, its independent double wishbone suspension, low profile Michelin MXM4 215/50R-17 inch all-season radials, standard disc brakes with ABS and EBD all provide the balance and control you’d expect of a European sports sedan. And if all else fails, the car’s standard Traction Control and Vehicle Stability Assist systems will kick in automatically to restore traction and directional control.
Still, the TSX is a front-driver while the 3-Series and C-Class are rear-drivers, so its front to rear weight balance is not as even. And the TSX’s power-assisted rack and pinion steering, while quick and accurate, lacks the precision of the 3-Series which is unencumbered by drivetrain duties.
Shifting is fun in the TSX. The standard 6-speed manual shifter has a short, fluidic shift action, clutch pedal travel is short and pedal effort is minimal. Its sweet engine combined with a slippery, short shifter adds up to a very pleasurable driving experience, whether it’s just a trip to the coffee shop or a daily commute. My one concern was that Reverse gear is positioned over to the far right and down, just across from sixth gear. When moving from fifth to sixth, I always had this fear, probably unfounded, that I would put the transmission into reverse and ruin that magnificent magnesium transmission case.
I also had a brief excursion with the 5-speed automatic model, and can report that in the stop and go traffic around the undulating hills of Hollywood, California, the 5-speed auto shifted smoothly and responded well to throttle input. The auto tranny includes a manual sequential shift mode.
Price in the mid 30′s, the TSX is a few thousand dollars less than the 325i and C240, about the same as the 320i, A4 1.8T and 9-3, and a few thousand dollars more than the VW Passat 1.8T. But factor in its high level of standard equipment, much of which is optional on its competitors, its superior horsepower, refined powertrain, projected reliability and high resale value, and the TSX seems more of a bargain. It will certainly provide a compelling argument for RSX/EL/Integra owners to stay within the Acura family when it’s time to move up to the next level.