The sharply creased Acura TSX is something like the Swiss Army Knife among smaller, near-luxury sedans, and now among wagons, too. It does a lot of jobs well. If it's not the best car in its class by any particular measure, the TSX is good by many measures. It's very easy to live with in all locales and loaded with relative value.
For 2011, the Acura TSX sedan gets a slight facelift. There are also subtle interior updates for the 2011 TSX sedans, along with aerodynamic improvements and engine efficiencies that raise EPA mileage ratings by 1 mpg across the board.
Yet the big development is the new 2011 TSX Sport Wagon. With more than 60 cubic feet of easily accessed cargo space, the wagon makes a nice, quieter alternative to a small SUV or crossover. It delivers almost as much utility, better reflexes and better fuel economy than just about any SUV extant.
The 2011 Acura TSX comes standard with heated leather-trimmed seats, power everything, dual-zone climate control, a great sounding high-watt stereo, electronic stability control and a full array of airbags. It scores well in government and insurance industry crash tests. The Acura TSX competes primarily with the Audi A4, BMW 3 Series, and Lexus IS, and to a lesser extent with the Mercedes-Benz C-Class, Saab 9-3 and Volkswagen CC.
The TSX uses front-wheel drive, whereas true sports sedans and many of its competitors are rear-wheel drive. Regardless, this Acura remains one of the better-handling front-drive sedans available. It's grown bigger, heavier and more luxurious over the last few years, and as a result it plods a bit more than it once did. Yet the TSX is still hard to beat as an everyday driver that can be fun on a winding road.
Its standard 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine comes with a choice of manual or automatic transmission. It's rated at 201 horsepower, but it revs happily and, with the 6-speed manual, it's the most fun TSX to drive. It also gets great fuel economy, delivering up to 22 mpg city, 31 highway, according to the EPA. It's never crude or rough.
The TSX sedan is also available with 3.5-liter V6, delivering substantially more power and torque, with a 3 mpg mileage penalty. The V6 has a temperament all its own, distinct from the four-cylinder models. It's more substantial, perhaps, and heavier, with character more in tune with the luxury class.
Technology has always been a big part of the TSX's appeal, and this extends beyond the drivetrain and chassis. Updated for 2011, Acura's superb navigation system is the equal of anything in the class. It 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. Like the other features, voice command and hands-free Bluetooth cell phone architecture are cleanly integrated with the car's electronics.
The TSX delivers Acura's hallmark traits of smooth mechanicals, a feature-rich cabin and distinctive, if not necessarily pretty design. If it isn't a true sports sedan, it's very good being what it is: a stylish, efficient premium compact sedan with a sporty tilt. If passengers aren't too tall, the TSX is also a fantastically comfortable commuter car.
The TSX applies what Acura calls its Keen Edge design theme. Like it or not, the hard creases and prominent bulges stand out more explicitly than those on Acuras past. There is a consistency to Acura's styling that ties its current models together, starting with the prominent, stylized caliper logo, and there is no mistaking the TSX as anything other than a vehicle from Honda's luxury brand.
What stands out for 2011 is the newly introduced TSX sport wagon. The wagon is about four inches longer than the sedan, sharing the same 106.4-inch wheelbase, and the TSX sedan is already one of the largest cars in its class. It's more than seven inches longer than a BMW 3 Series and five inches longer than a Lexus IF, and it's wider than both.
There's no deceit in the TSX wagon, with nothing meant to imply that it is some truck-style, SUV or crossover. Its aesthetics rest in its utility. We like that, even if the large rear hatch and bulging rear bumper create a big rear end.
For 2011, all TSX models get a mild facelift: The chin spoiler in front has been revised. There's a new grille and new, bright garnishes below the front bumper around the fog lights. In back, the taillights and license-plate trim have been updated.
The 2011 TSX styling tweaks come with new underbody panels intended to improve aerodynamics. These plastic sheets essentially fare-in many mechanical components, smoothing airflow underneath the car and minimizing the aural disturbance it creates. In its quest to reduce noise inside the TSX, Acura has also improved the glass. The windshield now has a sheet of sound-deadening acoustic laminate between layers of glass, and the side windows are nearly 25 percent thicker than before.
The TSX's front end blends elements from Acura's other two sedans, the sporty TL and the more serious RL, and from the MDX sport utility. Its side view departs a bit more from the Acura family look, but keeps just enough of the cues to stay true to its Keen Edge design DNA. Any rear angle is more than a bit busy, and suggests recent Toyota Camrys more than the previous TSX. The rear bumper cups the trunk opening with unflattering bulk, which makes the hot rod-spec dual exhaust tips look a little lame.
With styling updates come a slightly revised pattern for the 17-inch wheels on four-cylinder TSXs. The five spokes now have a beveled lip, giving them a little more visual depth. The split five-spoke 18-inch wheels that identify the TSX V6 are unchanged. The six-cylinder is also distinguished by a V6 badge on the trunk and slightly larger lower grille inlets.
The 2011 Acura TSX benefits from a range of updates inside, beginning with minor appearance items like chrome door releases and contrasting stitching on the standard leather seats. There is also more sound insulation throughout. This all goes along with the introduction of the new TSX Sport Wagon.
Two other functional improvements stand out for 2011. The center-console storage box is now cooled by the air conditioning, keeping candy bars, snacks or even a canned soft drink fit for consumption on the hottest days. And the navigation system, already quite effective, has been updated with a full VGA monitor that greatly enhances resolution.
It's easy to like the TSX interior. The cabin is comfortable without being plush, and sporty without being sparse. Communication between driver and car is, for the most part, open, easy and unabridged.
The decorative trim is a dark gray metallic plastic, and everything else inside the wagon we tested was black, except for the trim around the main gauges and a couple of buttons. The effect is somber, dark, dense and boring. With the TSX's conventional stick key, which is increasingly rare in this class of sedans, it almost made the car feel dated. (However, some of us prefer traditional keys.) The TSX is anything but dated. We'd choose one with a two-tone interior schemes. The lighter color below the trim line makes the TSX cabin much more appealing.
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 many cars. Shorter drivers may have a hard time getting the lumbar support just where it should be, and the front-seat passenger gets no bottom-cushion height adjustment. That leaves some people feeling as if they're sitting in a hole.
Cabin measurements show the TSX with less front headroom than most competitors, but with more rear legroom than some and parity just about everywhere else. All four doors have dual inside pulls, one horizontal and one angled up, for easy closing by passengers of any stature.
The gauges are trimmed with bright chrome, and tell their tales with easy-to-scan graphics and floating needles. The manual shift paddles for the automatic transmission are mounted on the steering wheel rather than the column, so they turn with the driver's hands. The wheel sports pushbuttons and toggles controlling more than a dozen functions, not counting the horn, and it looks like it would be just as appropriate in a jet fighter. This is good for fighter pilot Walter Mittys who fantasize about mixing it up with the other side's Top Guns, or for those who like to keep their hands on the wheel at all times, but it could be a bit much if you just want to drive the car.
The seat warmer switches are easy to find, on either side of the grippy shifter, and all TSXs are equipped with a proper handbrake. At first blush, the main array of switches in the center stack looks dense, maybe even slightly intimidating. In fact, with a little familiarity, the TSX layout proves to be one of the better meldings of hard buttons and point-an-click joysticks currently available.
With either the base sound system or the optional Technology Package, the TSX presents one of the more intuitively arranged switch packages we've seen, with large, finger-friendly buttons and a fairly easy-to-learn multi-function knob for the multi-layered information/map screen. There's a hard button for all frequently adjusted climate and audio functions, so you don't have to use the joystick to change a radio station or air-flow direction.
The audio switches and joystick are located at the top of the stack, just below the display screen, with the climate controls below. The premium audio upgrade does put the CD changer down into the bowels of the stack, where it's not as easily accessed as the CD slot for the base system.
A Grammy winner helped tune the TSX's optional sound system. Rather than the kilowatt of power some high-end systems use, the Acura/ELS stereo uses a more modest 415 watts of amplification (or 460 in the wagon), 10 speakers and DVD-audio capability to deliver detailed sound that could very well be the next best thing to being there. It also features Song By Voice audio selection. The easy-to-load hard drive will store 15 gigabytes of music, or about 3,500 songs. TSX owners can leave their CDs at home.
The navigation system is more than competitive. Its graphics are outstanding so it's very easy to read, and it works more quickly than before. The Real-Time Weather feature is particularly effective, though it only works if the owner subscribes to XM. It provides forecasts that are very local, and even shows the local storm radar.
Interior storage is adequate. The front doors have a molded-in space for a water bottle and good size bins at the bottom. 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. There's also a bin in the front footwells on each side of what once was called the transmission hump.
The rear seat is more like a bench than twin buckets, and tall passenger might find space for the lower extremities snug. Those of average height should stay comfortable for at least a couple of hours.
Feature-wise, there is nothing terribly fancy in back, though the 2011 improvements include adjustable air vents on the back of the center console. The drop-down center armrest has two cup holders, but storage space is limited: pull-out pockets on the front seatbacks and small bins at the bottom of the doors. Rear head restraints adjust for height, which is a plus for rear-seat occupants, though even at their lowest position they limit visibility out the back window.
The trunk offers 14 cubic feet of space for the sedan. That's at least a cubic foot more than the Audi A4, BMW 3 Series, Mercedes C-Class or Lexus IF. Only the center section is flat, however, as the sides are shaped to accommodate the rear suspension components. The liftover height is low, but the opening itself isn't particularly commodious. Space is easily expanded by dropping the rear seatbacks with pull-levers in the trunk.
The TSX Sport Wagon provides 25.8 cubic feet of stowage space behind the rear seat. With the seatbacks lowered, the space expands to 60.5 cubic feet: more than comparable wagons like the 3 Series or Audi A4, and close to small SUV/crossovers such as Acura's own RDX (61.8 cubic feet) or the boxy Ford Escape (66.3).
The wagon's cargo area is nicely finished and easily accessible, through the side doors or hatch. The lift-over height is about 24 inches, and the opening fits a box or object with at least one dimension of 28 inches or less. With the rear seatback folded, there's nearly 70 inches of length. That makes room for bicycles or several golf bags.
The wagon's load floor is covered with velvety, low-pile carpet and equipped with multiple tie-downs to secure stowed items. There are four separate covered compartments in back of the TSX wagon, including one under the load floor that's about four inches deep. Its plastic tub works great for wet clothing or dripping containers. A window shade-type cargo cover comes standard, and the Technology Package includes a power-operated liftgate.
The Acura TSX is easy to live with, regardless of the model, and it's generally an enjoyable car to drive. Both the four- and six-cylinder engines rev freely, encouraging a heavy foot on the accelerator. All models deliver good fuel economy, a good compromise on the comfort/performance continuum, and good feel to the operating controls.
For 2011, the TSX gets mechanical updates across the line, matching those of the new TSX Sport Wagon. The automatic transmission is now equipped with a fluid warmer that ensures smooth shifting for owners in the coldest climates, while all owners benefit from internal friction reductions inside the engines. That translates to lower fuel consumption. TSX mileage numbers, already among the best in its category, increase 1 mpg city and highway. The four-cylinder models deliver up to 22 mpg city, 31 highway, according to the EPA.
What keeps the TSX off many enthusiast drivers' shopping list is its front-wheel-drive layout. While generally good for packaging and fuel efficiency, and the next best thing to all-wheel drive for winter traction, front-wheel drive doesn't offer the handling characteristics, agility or feel of a rear-wheel-drive car, nor an all-wheel-drive car biased to behave like rear-wheel drive, as is the Audi A4 quattro.
That said, the Acura TSX is about as crisp, and as much fun, as front-drive, near-luxury sedans get. It's a bit more deliberate than it once was, thanks to a 2009 redesign that made it larger, more luxurious and heavier. Yet both the V6 and four-cylinder models deliver good response, with composure that makes for an ideal everyday transport. The ride is quite comfortable, but the comfort doesn't come at the expense of mushy reflexes or rowboat wallow. The steering is accurate, and to most drivers it will feel quite racy. With its wider tires on larger rims, the V6 sticks to the pavement a bit more tenaciously, but the lighter, spryer four-cylinder is more fun charging down a winding mountain road.
With 201 horsepower and as little as 170 lb-ft of torque, the TSX's 2.4-liter four-cylinder has its work cut out when it comes to hauling around 3600 pounds of car and driver. This engine is willing and happy to do the job, and rejoices at rpm where others sound stressed. With nice easy clutch action and a crisp shifter, the 6-speed manual transmission is the enthusiast's choice, and it gets the most from the four-cylinder. Figure on 0-60 acceleration in the low seven-second range, and a lot of fun stirring the TSX's rev-happy engine with the manual.
The automatic, we're not so fond of. It has just five forward speeds, where others in this class typically have six or more, and that limits its flexibility and responsiveness somewhat. Even with the electronics in sport mode, the automatic can be slow to react to the driver's demand for more acceleration with the gas pedal. The only way to ensure quick shifts is to undertake them manually, in which case you might as well choose the 6-speed manual transmission. Most drivers will grow accustomed to the automatic's behavior, but the four-cylinder TSX just does not have enough power to exhilarate with this transmission. It's not something we'd look forward to driving, and Acuras are supposed to make us want to get behind the wheel.
The 3.5-liter V6 significantly changes the TSX's character, not least by adding 70 horses and 84 lb-ft of torque and knocking about 1.5 seconds off that 0-60 sprint. Acura's V6 is smooth and linear, and at higher revs it expresses itself with a very pleasant growl. Yet even here the automatic transmission can mute the engine's goodness. It doesn't generate the exhilaration or the involvement factor of the 6-speed manual, which isn't offered with the V6. The V6 model also adds 210 pounds of weight, all over the front wheels, knocking 3 mpg off EPA city and highway ratings. And it needs an extra 15 inches of space for a U-turn.
The brakes are stout in all models, stopping the TSX in short order, with solid pedal feel and an ABS system that virtually eliminates skips and jitters. It takes some fairly heavy abuse before the brakes begin to heat up and stopping distances increase.
Outward visibility is excellent from the driver's seat, especially forward and to the sides. The rear view is slightly hindered by rear headrests, a problem not unique to the TSX. The larger wheels and lower profile tires on the V6 add almost nothing to the minimal road noise that finds its way into the cabin. Wind noise is better muted than ever at highway speeds, and the most prominent noise inside the TSX is the mostly pleasant sound of the engines spinning at high revs. Noise, vibration and harshness control in the TSX surpasses the class standard.
The Sport Wagon? Essentially the same as the sedan in every respect, though buyers will have to be comfortable with the four-cylinder/automatic package, because it's the only combination offered. There is no increase in flex or shimmy in the wagon's body structure and no increase in noise, even as a slight boom in the expanse of space to the driver's rear. And the wagon's extra utility compared to the sedan is hard to beat.
The Acura TSX is one of the brand's best sellers, and its appeal is easy to understand. The TSX is comfortable, stylish and economical to operate with either the four- or six-cylinder engine. For 2011, the TSX is available as a five-door TSX Sport Wagon with as much cargo volume as a small SUV. The front-wheel-drive TSX doesn't qualify as a classic sports sedan. Yet for buyers seeking a well-equipped, easy-living sedan or wagon with sporty flair and a luxury-brand dealership experience, the TSX is hard to beat. And it's been improved for 2011. Among the sedans, our favorite is the base four-cylinder model with 6-speed manual gearbox.
NewCarTestDrive.com correspondents J.P. Vettraino in Detroit, G.R. Whale in Los Angeles, and Tom Lankard in San Diego contributed to this report.