sponsored by Mercedes-Benz USA
Between its $23,270 RSX Type-S coupe and $28,980 3.2 TL sedan, Acura located a gaping hole in its stable. So they took those two out to the stud barn to produce their new foal, the 2004 TSX sedan. It’s not wholly inaccurate to think of the TSX as a slightly smaller TL powered by a slightly engorged RSX drivetrain selling for a price just about average that of its sire’s and dam’s. The question is, does that sort of bloodstock produce a stakes winner? Or a nag?
Go ahead and read the rest of this article. That’s the end of that strained metaphor.
Accord, by any other name
If Acura is trying to hide the fact that the TSX is a version of the European market, Japanese-made Honda Accord, they didn’t give it much of a disguise. The sheetmetal, headlights, taillights, side mirrors, door handles and window trim are all shared between the two. In fact the only readily apparent difference between the two to a casual observer would be that in place of the Euro Accord’s big “H” in the grille sits Acura’s weirdly stylized “A.” It is an “A,” right?
But the similarity in appearance to the Euro Accord is not great burden. This is a cleaner, better-proportioned design than America’s Accord. The hood has a crisp drop and sharply drawn character lines, the roof is rakish and the tail ends with an abruptness that leaves it looking like the tight buttocks on a female Olympic hurdler. It’s a stretch to call the TSX beautiful, but it certainly isn’t bad looking. Maybe it’s a bit anonymous, but details like the crisply creased hood and multi-element headlights are sweet.
The chassis carries components familiar to anyone who’s been looking under Accords since the early Nineties — it’s old-school Honda. Both the front and rear suspension use double wishbone links as aboard the U.S. Accord and TL. But where America’s Accord puts 61.1 inches worth of track between the left and right hubs, the TSX’s track is only 59.6 inches. Hack 2.8 inches of wheelbase and 6.2 inches of length off the U.S. Accord and that’s the TSX’s 105.1-inch wheelbase and its 183.2 inches overall length.
Or is it an RSX?
If the chassis is downsized Accord/TL, the drivetrain is upsized RSX. The engine is yet another member of the Honda’s K-Series family of i-VTEC, DOHC, 16-valve fours featuring, of course, Honda’s VTEC variable valve timing and lift system and variable timing. In this case the K displaces 2.4 liters as it does in the CR-V, the Element and the U.S. Accord. But in all those Hondas the 2.4 makes just 160 horsepower, while in this Acura it’s ripping out a full 200.
To extract that extra power the TSX’s engine features a 10.5:1 compression ratio (in contrast to the Accord’s 9.7:1), demands the very finest premium grade fuel and spins to a 7100-rpm redline. In fact the full 200 horsepower doesn’t come until the engine is screaming at 6800 rpm — a perilous 300 rpm from the redline. The Accord makes its peak 160 horses at 5500 rpm. However the TSX makes its peak 166 pound-feet of torque (five more than the Accord) at the same 4500 rpm as the Accord.
What the engine feels like is the 200-horsepower, 2.0-liter i-VTEC four in the RSX Type-S with a more robust and friendly bottom end of the rev range. Thanks to twin counter-rotating balance shafts, the TSX 2.4 is also at least as smooth and quiet as the RSX’s 2.0, though it would benefit from a bit of aggression in the exhaust note.
Backing up the engine is either of two familiar transmissions. The six-speed manual trans that’s standard is similar to the unit used in the RSX, though with a different set of more broadly spaced ratio cogs feeding a more aggressive 4.765:1 (opposed to the RSX’s 4.389:1) final drive gear set. The optional five-speed automatic is pretty close to that used in four-cylinder U.S. Accords, with first, second and fifth gears shared between the cars while the TSX’s third and fourth gears are slightly shorter and more closely spaced.
While the TSX’s cockpit is smaller than in the U.S. Accords, it’s more elegantly trimmed. The Euro-spec Accord uses a dashboard similar to, if narrower than, that used on the Accord here. The TSX’s dash is unique and lacks the Accord’s distinctive V-shaped lower center. The LED tach and speedometer live under an arched hood sits and shine brilliantly. A navigation system like the Accord’s is available, but skip it and the dash center is less cluttered and more attractive. With the “Parchment” leather upholstery comes a band of faux wood across the dash and into the doors. Go for the “Ebony” or “Quartz” leather upholstery and that band is done in a plastic simulation of brushed metal. Don’t want leather? Don’t buy a TSX. And the TSX’s leather is particularly nice and perforated for comfort.
The front seats are comfortable and supportive, and feature eight-way power adjustment on the driver’s side and heated. The rest of the ergonomics are straightforward, the switches and controls are high quality, and everything is assembled perfectly. An in-dash six-disc CD changer feeding eight speakers is standard, and the dual-zone ventilation system is surprisingly effective.
But no matter what Acura claims, this car isn’t a five-seater. There may be a belt in the back for a center passenger, but the seat itself is shaped for two, it’s not very wide, and a center passenger would find their back digging into the drop-down center armrest.
A driver’s car
At 3230 pounds the TSX isn’t particularly feathery (it’s about 170 pounds heavier than the lightest U.S. Accord) but it drives with a light touch. The standard 17-inch, seven-spoke aluminum wheels wear P215/50R17 Michelin MXM4 all-season tires that that offer surprisingly good traction and feedback through the thick-rimmed, leather covered steering wheel. Dive into a corner and turn in is nearly instantaneous though with only a bit of effort the driver finds — as in virtually all front-drivers — some understeer. Electronic stability control systems are usually gratingly intrusive but Acura’s Vehicle Stability Assist (VSA) system works with some subdued sophistication by working the ABS system and the four-wheel disc brakes it controls. Still, the VSA’s best feature is its “off” switch.
The engine resets the already high standard for Honda fours — it has plenty of power, the torque is well distributed and it loves to rev. The six-speed shifts with the precision for which Honda gearboxes are famed and the ratios get the most from the engine. While generally speaking a V-6 is the preferred powerplant for a sedan this size, putting a heavier engine in this sweetly balanced chassis probably isn’t a grand idea. And this four is better than some V-6s (though not Honda’s own).
The TSX is simply the best-handling, most athletic four-cylinder sedan for sale in North America that doesn’t have a turbocharger or all-wheel drive lashed up to it.
Acura was still obsessing over prices as this was written, but the expectation is that they’ll start at about $25,000 when the car hits dealerships (and hits them hard — thankfully there are side and side curtain airbags are aboard) in April. That’s less than cars like the Audi A4 1.8T, BMW 325i and Mercedes C240 sedans — and on a dynamic level the TSX is fully competitive with them. But it’s not cheap compared to, say, the pretty dang wonderful U.S.-built Accord. Acura will bring only about 15,000 TSXs over from Japan every year for various reasons including production constraints and $25K seems about right for that sort of volume. But if they set the price down at, say, $22K they’d be able to sell at least triple that number.
2004 Acura TSX
Base Price: $25,000 (est.)
Engine: 2.4-liter in-line four, 200 hp
Transmission: Six-speed manual or five-speed automatic, front-wheel drive
Length x width x height: 183.3 x 69.4 x 57.3 in
Wheelbase: 105.1 inches
Curb weight: 3230 lbs (manual transmission without navigation system)
EPA City/Hwy: 21/29 mpg
Safety equipment: Side airbags, side curtain airbags, anti-lock four-wheel disc brakes
Major standard equipment: Leather upholstery, heated front seats, eight-way power adjustable driver’s seat, 17-inch wheels, power moonroof, six-disc CD changer, steering-wheel-mounted audio controls, keyless entry, Homelink remote control system, xenon headlamps
Warranty: Four years/50,000 miles comprehensive with roadside assistance