Review: 2009 Acura TSX

Honda's luxury unit, Acura, takes a unique approach to the highly-competitive entry-level sports sedan market: Rather than directly taking on the obvious German and Japanese rivals, the automaker's TSX sedan undercuts them on price, but not equipment or size, at the expense of underhood might.

Newly redesigned for 2009, the second-generation TSX replaces a successful first attempt at offering a cut-rate BMW 3-Series that doesn't give up nearly as much as its five-figure price difference might imply. We decided to take a look to see what all the fuss is about.

What is it?
By digging into the corporate parts bin and re-purposing the world-market Honda Accord as an upscale model for North America, Acura successfully tapped into a new segment of the market that the default-choice Germans had abandoned as they moved into pricier territory.

For the second-generation model introduced earlier this year, the TSX grew a few inches in each direction and gained some much-needed interior room. Starting a little under $30,000 for the base model, it offers merely one option, a $3,100 Technology Package with an especially-advanced navigation system, a CD changer and an upgraded audio system. Stay out of the accessories department and you won't drop more than $33,000 on a fully-loaded TSX like our tester. Visit a BMW, Mercedes-Benz or Infiniti dealer with that budget and they'll direct you to their used car section.

Note that there's a new V6 TSX headed to North America soon, which will still dramatically undercut the rest of Germany and Japan for an equivalently-powered option.

What's it up against?
The TSX's rivals list reads like a Who's Who of practical choices for decently well-heeled enthusiasts: The Audi A4 2.0T, BMW 328i, Cadillac CTS, Lexus IS 250, Mercedes-Benz C300, Saab 9-3 2.0T and Volvo S40 T5.

Until Audi, Ford and GM jacked up A4, S40 and 9-3 prices for 2009, they were the TSX's most obvious rivals because of their four-cylinder powertrains (five in the S40) and standard front-wheel-drive. The rest of the TSX's rivals offer bigger engines and rear-wheel-drive.

Any breakthroughs?
With the optional Technology Package, you gain an advanced navigation system that, unfortunately, uses a complex control and a low-resolution screen. It does feature voice-activation and a reverse camera, nice and unexpected treats for the segment.

But the real treat is the ELS audio system, with 10-speakers and DVD audio capability: Without a doubt, it's one of the best we've encountered, eagerly replicating highs and lows in ways that tickled our ears.

How does it look?
Crisp and toned, the TSX doesn't deviate heavily from its predecessor. From some angles, it is a bit more bulbous than before, but the overall appearance is deceiving: The TSX doesn't look as big as its 186-inch overall length might imply.

Acura toned down its new corporate snout for the TSX and we think you'll agree that beak-like matte-silver trim that surrounds the prominent grille badge looks way better integrated here than it does on the TL.

There's really little to complain about with the TSX's exterior; it neither offends nor especially excites, which won't keep people away from showrooms like some more extravagant designs might. It's a safe, conservative design that works well for this segment.

And on the inside?
Your grandmother won't like it, but if you're part of the iPhone generation - or, heck, even the Zach Morris cellular phone generation - you'll feel right at home inside the TSX. The TSX's center stack is a button fest reminiscent of the laptop you thought you'd left at work, and though it proves daunting at first, there's an owner's manual the size of the Lonely Planet guide to Europe that helps iron out your concerns.

In sunlight, the navigation display and the thin display for the climate and radio display wash out entirely. A non-reflective surface seems like a no-brainer to us, but maybe it's cloudy all of the time at Acura's North American headquarters in Southern California. No, probably not.

But things improve dramatically from there. Materials are top-notch all around, even if they don't quite approach the finely-crafted feel of the class leaders. There's no glossy wood trim here; in its place, you'll find painted plastic that reveals the TSX's lower cost of entry, but we don't see that as a demerit. We were most impressed by the solid, circa-1980 Mercedes-Benz-like "thunk" you hear when you close the doors - a nice touch that adds to the feeling of quality evident throughout.

Standard perforated leather seats are sports-car grippy, though we found there to be too much lumbar even with the standard adjustment turned all the way down. The leather covering the seats and the three-spoke steering wheel felt especially nice, though. That wheel is home to a pair of plastic paddle shifters on automatic-transmission TSXs - like our tester - as well as a whole host of redundant controls to help keep your hands away from the center stack.

But does it go?
On paper, with just a tick over 200 horsepower on tap - 201, peaking at a wild 7,000 rpm - the TSX is certainly down on power compared to its pricier rivals. And its mere 172 lb-ft. of torque at 4,400 rpm doesn't help matters. Further, it tips the scales at 3,417 lbs., a linebacker or so more than the lithe Germans. Things aren't looking good.

But then you turn the key.

Yet the TSX still manages to feel quite spritely despite the fairly modest specs for this class, especially keeping in mind that when the current BMW 3-Series was introduced in 2006, the entry-level (for the U.S.-market) 325i put out 215-horsepower, or that the 323i still offered in the Canadian market offers an even 200 ponies. The TSX isn't down by much.

The 2.4-liter inline-four cylinder is buttery smooth at idle and happily revved all the way up to its 7,100 rpm redline. Drivers used to the low-end torque of a larger-displacement motor, or a turbocharged motor in a Saab or Audi, will find there's a bit to get used to with the tach needle's desire to tickle the far end of its range. Performance isn't blistering off the line, but above 3,000 rpm, the TSX is certainly class-competitive. It won't struggle to merge or pass, it just won't quite do it with the alacrity some buyers might expect in this segment.

Even with all this revving, we averaged a solid 24.5 mpg over a week of mixed driving. That's about right, given the 21/30 city/highway rating the EPA gives automatic-transmission models, making the TSX among the most efficient in its class.

The five-speed automatic (a six-cog manual is a no-cost option) furnished smooth, prompt shifts, though its sport mode - pull the stubby lever all the way back - was a little reluctant to shift into fifth gear at highway speeds. Consider it best for around-town performance runs or country roads.

It's in those country roads where the TSX really shows off. Torque steer is negligible thanks to nicely-weighted steering that wasn't overly eager to return to center. The TSX's stiff chassis and compliant suspension smothered bumps while keeping the car firmly planted on the road, making it a genuine joy to throw around on curvy roads. It doesn't let you forget it is a front-wheel-drive vehicle, but it comes closer than almost anything we've driven. There's not quite the tossability of the Saab 9-3 here, but the TSX is tighter and more balanced, making it a more fun-to-drive car overall.

Why you would buy it:
An equivalent BMW 328i will set you back at least an additional $10,000. Besides, the TSX offers few, if any, compromises, as well as its own unique flavor.

Why you wouldn't:
You're a bird and you love the big brother TL's beak, or you're so brand-conscious that a non-German sedan just won't cut it. Get real, man.

Leftlane's bottom line
No, the TSX isn't quite as complete as the BMW 3-Series or the Audi A4 2.0T. But it sure is close - and it offers a personality all its own. It's a fresher design than the Saab 9-3 or Volvo S40 that, in these penny-pinching times, makes a lot of sense for those looking to step out of a more-established luxury design without losing much. The TSX is an intelligent choice made better for 2009.

2009 Acura TSX Technology Package base price, $32,060. As tested, $32,820.
Destionation, $760.

Words and photos by Andrew Ganz.