With the 2009 TSX, Acura has done a full remake of its entry-luxury level sedan. More than just bolting a slick new body on an old platform, the TSX is new from the ground up, as in, longer, wider and lower. In a couple measures, it's roomier, too.
Technology is what sets the new TSX apart. Acura's superb navigation system comes standard and can be operated using voice-recognition. The standard navigation system is the equal of anything in the class, while an optional system displays real-time traffic with congestion re-routing and local and national weather. An airlines display lets you track a flight's progress across the country. The top-line audio system sets a standard for the class, too, with superbly crisp surround sound. Hands-free, Bluetooth cell phone architecture is built right into the car's electronics.
The 2009 Acura TSX is a four-door, five-passenger sedan designed to competed with Audi A4 and BMW 3 Series sedans. It comes with one engine, a 2.4-liter inline-4, and a choice of transmissions, a six-speed manual and a five-speed SportShift sequential automatic. Although horsepower is off slightly, torque is increased by enough to make up any difference in sheer acceleration. Just as important, fuel economy is unchanged with the manual and improved with the automatic. The TSX stays with a front-wheel-drive configuration, whereas true sporty sedans are rear-wheel drive. That said, the TSX is one of the better-handling front-wheel-drive sedans and in its class, hard to beat as an everyday driver that can still be fun on a mountain road.
Styling stays true to Acura themes for 2009, but cleans up here and there to give the car a more aggressive, more buff look and to emphasize its more planted stance. The wider part, where it adds a couple inches between the wheels side to side, translates directly into a sportier driving feel.
Everything inside that matters is powered, including the adjustments on both front seats. Dual-zone climate control and heated seats and outside mirrors are standard. Safety hasn't been overlooked either, with everything from a full array of airbags to electronic stability control to tire pressure monitors included at no extra cost.
While it's not quite the case that if you've seen one Acura, you've seen them all, there's still a consistency to the marque's styling that ties all its models together. The '09 TSX is no exception to that rule. Although it stretches the mold a bit, as it should, there's still no mistaking it for anything but one of Honda's luxury line.
The front end nicely blends elements from Acura's other two sedans, the sporty TL and the more serious RL, and from the MDX sport utility. The headlight housings, for instance, with their squinty lenses curling around the front fenders to reach deep into the arcs of the front wheelwells, look like a direct lift from the TL. The elongated, pentagonal chrome bar topping the similarly outlined grille pulls from both the MDX grille and the single bar slicing across the grille on the current TSX. The gaping lower air intake is a new design cue and shaves visual mass from what might otherwise be an overpowering front bumper while adding function by pumping needed cooling air into the engine compartment and reducing front end lift. Hood sculpting defines the TSX's centerline and front fenders.
The side view departs a bit more from the family look, but keeps just enough of the cues to stay true to its design DNA. This is especially evident in the side lenses of the headlight and taillight housings and the silhouette of the trailing lip of the trunk lid, all of which closely mirror the '08 TSX. In much sharper relief, though, are the sculpted character lines in the door panels. These add visual bulk and combine with edgy wheel arches remindful, again, of the MDX to make a stronger statement about the car's sporty aspirations. Door handles embedded in the upper crease give the view a cleaner look.
The rear aspect, sad to say, suggests of recent Toyota Camrys more than of the previous TSX in its overly busy styling. A deeply cut horizontal line slices straight across the rear vertical of the trunk lid, itself looking almost concave against the gently convex vertical of the '08. Taillights bridge the seam between trunk and fenders as before but bracket a license plate recess that's inverted from the '08 TSX, visually pushing the trailing lip higher and seeming to add sheet metal across the lower reaches of the trunk lid. The rear bumper cups the trunk opening with unflattering sedan like bulk, which makes the hot rod-spec dual exhaust tips look a little lame.
Liking the new Acura TSX interior is easy. It's comfortable without being plush, sporty without being sparse. Communication between driver and car is, for the most part, open and easy and unabridged.
The front seats are supportive, with enough side bolstering for reasonably rambunctious motoring on twisty roads. The bottom cushion could be deeper, but this is a common shortcoming in today's cars, save for a few, like the BMW 3 Series and new 1 Series with their extendable thigh supports. The front seat passenger still gets shortchanged with no height adjustment, which leaves even taller people feeling as if they're sitting in a hole. The three inches tacked onto the TSX's width went mostly to more padding for side impact protection, but front-seat hip room is up by a solid inch.
The rear seat is more like a bench than twin buckets, and space for the lower extremities is snug, measuring by the tape a mere one-tenth of an inch roomier than the '08. This despite the addition of more than two inches to the '09's overall length and almost an inch and a half to its wheelbase. Rear head restraints adjust for height, which is a plus for its occupants, although that even when at their lowest position they obstruct the visibility out the back window from the inside rear view mirror is a minus. All four doors have dual inside pulls, one horizontal and one angled up, for easy closing by passengers of any stature.
Gauges tell their tales with easy-to-scan graphics and floating needles. The steering wheel sports push buttons and toggles controlling more than a dozen functions, not counting the horn, making it look like it would be just as comfortable in a jet fighter cockpit as in a car. This may be just fine for fighter pilot Walter Mittys who fantasize about mixing it up with the other side's Top Guns, but for the rest of us, who just want to drive the car, it's a bit much. The center stack, however, with either the base sound and navigation system or the optional Technology Package, is one of the more intuitively arranged that we've seen, with large, finger-friendly buttons and a reasonably easy-to-learn multi-function joystick-like knob for the multi-layered information center-cum-map screen. The high-end audio setup does force the relocation of the CD changer down into the bowels of the center stack, where it's not as easily accessed as with the base system, which parks it at the top of the stack, but that's a minor complaint, and one that won't even show up on the technophiles' radar.
Storage is more than adequate. Every door has a molded-in space for a water bottle, the front doors room for the proverbial map, although given a navigation system is standard, think guidebook or CDs. The glove box has a partitioned nook for the owner's manual and associated booklets, leaving the rest for smallish flat items. The front center console hosts a bi-level storage bin and two cup holders. The fold-down center armrest has two more. There's a bin in the front footwells on each side of what once was called the transmission hump.
Trunk space is down from the '08, by between more than one-half a square foot to a couple tenths of a square foot, primarily because the navigation system becomes standard for '09 and the trunk houses some of its hardware. The usable space, however, is awkwardly shaped by the need to accommodate the rear suspension components, which is just as well, as the opening itself isn't particularly commodious.
Driving the new TSX doesn't deliver as much fun as an honest-to-goodness sporty sedan could/should for one simple reason: front-wheel drive. Not that it suffers too much torque steer or any of the other dynamics peculiar to front-wheel-drive cars, but that any car burdened with a front/rear weight bias of 60/40 simply cannot deliver the responsiveness and agility of a rear-wheel-drive car, like the two aforementioned BMWs, or an all-wheel-drive car, like the Audi A4 Quattro or the new Mitsubishi Lancer Evo X.
Nevertheless, the TSX is an enjoyable, moderately sporty car. Suspension balance is good, with spring rates and shock absorber tuning well matched at all four corners. The car takes corners at speed with noticeably more confidence and less body lean than the previous-generation model, thanks in part to '09's two-and-one-half inch wider track. Only when the corners start arriving in rapid succession and require quick steering adjustments first one way then the other do the car's limitations become apparent. Adding to the disappointment is the steering's numb feeling. There's no lack of precision or response to steering inputs, just very little tactile feedback from that all-important contact patch between tire and pavement.
Horsepower is down slightly from '08, but torque is up slightly, so any difference between the '08's and the '09's response to the pressure of the driver's right foot on the gas pedal is measurable only by a stopwatch. As in, sprightly, but definitely still not neck-snapping. Interestingly, the '09's fuel economy improves by two miles per gallon, to 21/30 city/highway, over the '08's with the SportShift five-speed automatic; it's unchanged with the manual gearbox, which, strangely, is rated by the U.S. EPA at one mpg less in the city and two mpg less on the highway.
The SportShift automatic's adaptive programming leaves a bit to be desired, however. Although it initially holds a lower gear longer when the car's on a grade or when it's being pushed hard through a series of corners, it often gives up too soon. Time after time, during our test drive on the two-lane roads in the mountains east of San Diego, just as we readied to ease back into the gas during the transition from one corner to the next, it shifted up a gear, dumping the engine out of the sweet part of its power curve. It was similarly impatient on grades, not waiting long enough before shifting up a gear and then shifting back down a moment or two later when it realized its error. Never was there any indication of brake fade on those roads, and ride quality over anything but the worst pavement was better than average. There was little wind noise, and the longer wheelbase and wider track minimized the dreaded rocking-horse effect over freeway expansion joints.
Gear spacing in the six-speed manual easily kept the engine in the best part of its power curve, although we still don't see the need for a transmission this mechanically complex for everyday driving; save for brief periods of testing the car's limits, we mostly ignored second, fourth and fifth gear. Clutch action was smoothly managed, and the curved shape of gas pedal brings its lower portion close enough to the arc of the brake pedal to permit relatively comfortable heel-and-toe downshifts.
The 2009 Acura TSX is kind of like the little engine that thought it could, but found out it couldn't. As decent a car as it is, and it is a very decent car, it's not the full-fledged sporty sedan it could be, and that Acura seems to want it to be. With all-wheel drive and just a little more power, it could give BMW and Audi a real run for their money.
NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent Tom Lankard filed this report from San Diego, California.