Acura's Sporty Luxe

Its new TSX can take on Mercedes and BMW.

It's a nifty little masquerade, the 2004 Acura TSX. The car is Honda's European-model Accord, dressed up with a new front end, grille, and all the luxury amenities of the company's upscale Acura line. The TSX is Honda's attempt to grab a piece of the ultracompetitive market for entry-luxury sports sedans, a segment whose benchmark is BMW's legendary 3-series.

The new TSX doesn't disappoint. Styling is conservative but smart, especially the rear end. The cabin is properly luxurious. Any quibbles I may have had about this sheep in wolf's clothing -- it is an Accord, after all, and there's not even a six-cylinder version -- disappeared once I got behind the wheel. If there's a question whether the Acura nameplate is sufficiently prestigious to compete, Acura neatly sidestepped it by pricing the car below other entries.

Far below. The TSX lists for $26,990. While that looks close to the $28,495 base sticker of the BMW 325i, say, or the Mercedes-Benz C230's $28,710, the TSX comes fully loaded. Moonroof. Heated leather seats. Manual or automatic transmission. Big 17-in. wheels. Xenon headlamps. CD changer. Add all of that to either of the extra-cost-option-happy European competitors, and you'll be at least $8,000 poorer.

The only factory option on the TSX is a $2,000 navigation system. I recommend that you skip it, because it also replaces some audio and air-conditioning controls with harder-to-use menus on a touch-sensitive screen. Changing the radio station, for example, would take three steps instead of a single punch of a preset button.

Otherwise, if you can build prestige into a car interior, Acura has done it with an elegant instrument panel and first-class materials throughout. Wide metal door sills and soft-blue ambient lighting welcome you into the car. The gauges are big, always lighted, and easy to read. Accent trim runs along the top of the doors and across the bottom of the dash, dipping to accommodate the center console: On cars with a dark leather interior, it's brushed metal; with lighter upholstery, it's a wood pattern.

Don't underestimate that four-cylinder, 2.4-liter engine. It's tweaked to produce 200 horsepower. That's more than the four-cylinder Audi A4 and even the six-cylinder BMW and Mercedes: It gets you to 60 mph in seven seconds. The European Accord is smaller and sportier than the U.S. version to begin with, and Honda has made the TSX even more so. The steering is quick and precise, and the tight suspension easily hugs corners and absorbs bumps in the road.

The more I drove it, the more I liked it. A precision-engineered Japanese car, bred for European tastes, outfitted with American luxury. About the only thing it lacks is a Bimmer or Benz badge on the front. That, and the high price.

By Larry Armstrong

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