Proof that front-wheel-drive can be fun

You’ll hear from many North American car buffs that the overseas markets, Europe, Japan, or even Australia, get the best cars. That’s because European and Asian tastes in cars tend to favour smaller, sharper handling, more fuel efficient cars that don’t necessarily have a lot of power, but manage to reward drivers in other ways. And apparently that’s not what most North Americans (or should I say Americans) want. They’re happier with larger, smoother riding cars with better mid-range torque at the expense of losing the traits noted above.

It takes just one look at Honda’s international Accord offerings to demonstrate this point. The Accord we’re used to is 156 mm longer, 52 mm wider, and rides on a wheelbase that’s 70 mm longer than the Accord sold in Europe. It’s also softer in both the looks and handling departments.

So it’s a good thing there’s Acura. As the luxury division of Honda, it also has a mandate to offer models sportier than those wearing a Honda badge in this country, S2000 notwithstanding. As such, Acura has bridged the gap between the entry level EL (that’s a Civic wearing Ralph Lauren duds) and the larger TL with the new-for-2004 TSX. And it just so happens to bear a striking resemblance to that lean Accord that’s sold on the other side of the pond.

The Lineup

Acura is somewhat unique with its approach to pricing, particularly with this TSX: $34,800 is the price, and standard equipment is what you get.

2004 Acura TSX
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There are a number of minor add-ons available, but the beef is included in the base price: six-speed stick or five-speed auto (no price difference); 17-inch alloys; anti-lock brakes; 360-watt, 6-disc CD changer; dual-zone climate control; HomeLink; keyless entry; power glass moonroof; xenon HID headlights; Vehicle Stability Assist; and leather seating, heated in front, power-operated for the driver.

That’s quite a list of goodies, and European competitors charge extra for most of those items. Really the only options are dealer-installed accessories for those who want to personalize their TSX.

My test vehicle was an Indigo Blue Pearl TSX with the six-speed manual transmission.

Nuts and Bolts

2004 Acura TSX
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Unique is a word I can also use to describe the TSX’s mechanicals when compared against its European competition. The TSX utilizes a transversely mounted 2.4-litre four-cylinder engine that drives the front wheels. It produces 200 horsepower at 6,800 rpm and 166 lb-ft of torque at 4,500 rpm. The engine’s redline can be found just north of the power peak at 7,100 rpm.

Where the competitors typically offer a variety of engines in their sport sedans, this four-banger is the only engine offering in the TSX.

Managing the power between the engine and the 215/50 R-17 all-season rubber is a six-speed manual gearbox. Throws are a short 45 mm between gears, one of the reasons the TSX is so fun to drive.

Suspension duties are performed by double wishbones at each corner that make for a fully independent setup. The suspension is mounted to a chassis that, according to Acura, is stiffer in bending and torsion than both the Audi A4 and BMW 3-Series – cars that the TSX was benchmarked against during its development.

The TSX relies on disc brakes (vented in front) at each corner for stopping power, with the help of a four-channel anti-lock system.

Inside and Out

Acura tends to be known for its conservative exterior designs. The TSX and its similarly styled big brother, the TL, will not do much to please those who want Acura to take more risks. These new designs, though, signal a good new styling direction for the company – strong family resemblance, sharp creases, and a clean, aggressive stance characterize the new offerings from Acura. The stylists struck a fine balance between distinction and appealing to the masses.

2004 Acura TSX

2004 Acura TSX
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The TSX’s interior is perhaps its strongest ammunition against its competitors: stylish and well built with high quality materials. The gauges are a model of simplicity – white-on-black with even LED backlighting.

Cool blue accents characterize the cockpit lighting elsewhere for a modern look. My ebony leather interior featured a titanium finished console and trim. With parchment leather, you get simulated wood-grained console and door trim. Audio and cruise controls find their home on the TSX’s thick leather-wrapped steering wheel, although surprisingly they’re not lit at night – somewhat of an oversight on the part of Acura’s designers.

Ergonomically speaking, everything is where it should be in the TSX. Not a surprise, considering the parent company’s reputation for no-nonsense, practical switchgear layout. But don’t expect this level of sophistication and style inside an Accord. Close, but not quite.

In general, the TSX is a car that just fits. It’s large enough to seat four in comfort, while still being compact enough to toss around should the mood warrant. To finish the package, the driver’s seat is ideally suited to those long highway stints behind the wheel.

The Driving Experience

One would expect a 200 horsepower four-cylinder – particularly one from Honda – to be a relatively torqueless, peaky performer with not a whole lot of usable grunt for around town point-and-squirt driving. That’s a reasonable assumption given vehicles like the Acura Integra GS-R and Honda’s S2000, but jumping to that conclusion would be a mistake.

2004 Acura TSX
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The engine lives to rev, mind you, but its thrust builds progressively through the operating range to a rewarding shove in the back as the tach needle points skyward. It would even be okay if the engine were peakier because it’s a pure joy to run that slick little shifter through its six forward gears.

The chassis does a commendable job of hiding its front-drive mechanicals by providing its driver with balanced, agile responses. Steering turn-in is crisp and immediate, yet there is no twitchiness when it’s time to point the car straight ahead.

With six gears in the TSX’s gearbox, top gear produces 2,600 rpm at 100 km/h, and the engine is calm, quiet, and composed at that speed.

The general absence of engine and wind noise amplifies the biggest drawback in the TSX driving experience: as in most Acuras, road noise is not adequately subdued for an otherwise refined piece of machinery.

To Sum It Up

The TSX is a formidable competitor at the sporty end of the near-luxury segment. Its price qualifies as a bargain against pricier European models. It’s well built and fun to drive, but the trade-off is less power and prestige than the more storied marques can offer.

Shopping Around

Virtually every automaker has an entry in the near-luxury segment, although there are significant differences in terms of style, performance, and luxury between them. The TSX also serves to fill the gap between high-end mid-size sedans and the Europeans.

  • Audi A4 ($33,600)

  • BMW 320i ($34,950)
  • Cadillac CTS ($39,200)
  • Honda Accord EX V6 ($32,700)
  • Infiniti G35 ($39,600)
  • Jaguar X-Type ($41,195)
  • Lexus IS 300 ($37,775)
  • Mazda6 GT-V6 ($31,995)
  • Nissan Maxima ($34,500)
  • Saab 9-3 ($34,900)
  • Subaru WRX ($35,495)
  • VW Passat ($29,550)
  • Volvo S40 ($31,495)

Technical Data:

Base price $34,800
Type 4-door, 5-passenger sedan
Layout transverse front engine/front-wheel-drive
Engine 2.4 litre 4 cylinder, DOHC, 16 valves, i-VTEC
Horsepower 200 @ 6800 rpm
Torque 166 lb-ft @ 4500 rpm
Transmission 6-speed manual
Tires 215/50R-17 all-season
Curb weight 1465 kg (3223 lb.)
Wheelbase 2670 mm (105.1 in.)
Length 4657 mm (183.3 in.)
Width 1762 mm (69.4 in.)
Height 1456 mm (57.3 in.)
Trunk space 368 litres (13.0 cu. ft.)
Fuel consumption City: 10.9 l/100 km (26 mpg)
  Hwy: 7.4 l/100 km (38 mpg)
Fuel Premium
Warranty 4 yrs/80,000 km

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