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Acura TSX: Right on target
America gets a taste of Europe's Honda Accord. For the price, it's hard to beat.
June 3, 2003: 8:36 AM EDT
By Lawrence Ulrich, Money Magazine

NEW YORK (CNN/Money) - Long esteemed for consistent quality and value, Honda's luxury division has struggled at times to give its cars consistent personality. It didn't help when Acura cast aside terrific names like the Legend for its current jumble of alphanumeric designations.

Lately, they've been succeeding. Despite it's generic name, the Acura RSX became a winning successor to the Integra, and one of the flat-out best cars you can buy for around $20,000.

2004 Acura TSX  
2004 Acura TSX

Now comes the TSX, Acura's improved take on what lucky Europeans and Japanese know as the Honda Accord -- smaller, sportier, and altogether sexier than the Accord family car sold here.

And while the Acura is working a tight niche here, as an affordable, front-drive alternative to kingpins like the BMW 3-Series, it's hard to think of another sub-$30,000 sport sedan with such a complete game.

Sure, those high-strung rally sedans like the Subaru WRX can whip the Acura in pure performance. But underneath the superhero speed and comic-book styling, they're Clark Kent econoboxes. If you're over 30 and drive one, the message you send is that you live in your parents' basement and fight addictions to burritos, video games and Limp Bizkit.

The TSX, in contrast, is a sport sedan for grown-ups. It's notably nimble and fun to drive, but it's also stylish, luxurious, and impeccably engineered and built. It even makes sense as an affordable family car, as long as you're not regularly cramming six-foot-plus adults into the back seat.

The Acura is about a half-foot shorter than the U.S. Accord, and about two inches narrower, making the rear quarters a bit tight for long-limbed passengers. For comparison, a U.S. Honda Accord offers nearly three inches more legroom in back, and slightly more trunk space, at 14 cubic feet versus the Acura's 13.

In return for less real estate, you get a much better-looking, better-performing sedan. Acura squeezes 40 extra horsepower from the Accord's base 2.5-liter, four-cylinder engine, for a total of 200. A more-sinewy suspension includes a larger rear anti-roll bar, and 17-inch alloy wheels and performance Michelins are standard.

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The taut, wedge-shaped body seems conservative at first, but wins you over almost by the hour, until you realize what a truly handsome four-door this is. The pleasing design was heavily influenced by the all-new Acura TL sedan coming this fall.

The interior, in contrast, scores an immediate knockout. Every well-placed knob and switch, every ounce of leather, plastic and metal, makes an impression of absolute quality. The Swiss-watch precision of the clutch, brake and six-speed manual shifter raise a familiar Honda question: Why can't everyone else make them feel so good?

The sole cabin shortcoming was the voice commands for the otherwise solid navigation system, which sometimes balked at following spoken orders. I'd skip the nav unit, which adds $2,000 to the otherwise attractive $26,490 base price.

At that price, the Acura comes loaded with luxury and safety features that cost extra on many competitors, including leather, electronic stability control, a premium 6-CD, 360-watt audio system, and a moon walk's worth of air bags, including side- and side-curtain bags.

The good vibes continue on the road, where the spun-silk engine feels stronger than its 200 horsepower and 166 pound-feet of torque would suggest. There's not much muscle below 2,500 rpm, but thanks in part to variable valve timing on both intake and exhaust valves, the TSX can still hustle from 0-60 mph in less than 7 seconds.

Driving the battle-scarred FDR Drive in Manhattan, a revealing test of chassis integrity and suspension control, the Acura felt notably secure, balanced and confident at any speed. And its granite-solid chassis, also found in the U.S. Accord, resisted squeaks, rattles and vibrations over the nastiest surfaces.

The nicest surprise was how light-footed and fun the TSX felt, considering its 3,230-pounds -- no porker, but still about 120 pounds more than a comparable Accord. It's only when you goad the Acura to its limits, something few drivers will bother doing, that it betrays its front-drive DNA. Carrying 60 percent of its weight over the front axle, compared to rear-drive cars that achieve closer to the ideal 50/50 balance, the TSX can't hammer through curves with as much aplomb as the BMW 3-Series or Infiniti G35.

2004 Acura TSX
Rating: 4 Wheels
Vehicle type: Front-engine, front-wheel-drive sport sedan
Engine: 2.5-liter four-cylinder, 200 horsepower, 166 pound-feet torque
Fuel economy: 23 mpg city/32 highway
Base price: $26,490
As tested: $28,990

In its defense, the Acura costs much, much less, and its quality and craftsmanship outstrip several cars in the $30,000-to-$40,000 range. The trade-offs, if they're important to you, are rear-wheel-drive and a V-6 engine.

The new Nissan Maxima is aimed at the same market slice as the TSX: less costly than a BMW, more upscale than a Mazda 6, sportier than a Toyota Camry. But Nissan got lost on its way to the math department. One Maxima I tested ran the tab to a stratospheric $33,000.

The TSX frankly trounces the Maxima, which costs substantially more yet can't touch the Acura's style, luxury, craftsmanship and sporty feel. The Maxima is bigger, and its monster V-6 makes it quicker, but straight-line speed does not a sport sedan make.

For Type-A sedan drivers on a Type-B budget, the winner is the TSX.

Lawrence Ulrich writes about cars for Money Magazine. You can email him at  Top of page

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