Acura TSX: Wimpy or Fuel-Efficient?

Acura's redesigned TSX has less horsepower than its previous incarnation but better fuel economy. No wonder it's selling so well

Editor's Rating:

The Good: Sporty suspension, low price, good fuel economy

The Bad: Busy interior design, lack of quickness

The Bottom Line: A European-style entry-level luxury sedan

Up Front

To my mind, there are two ways of looking at the new Acura TSX, a sporty, entry-level luxury sedan that has been redesigned for '09. On the one hand, you can view it as a wimpy, underpowered afterthought, a Honda Accord that hasn't been adequately adapted to American tastes.

Alternatively, you can view it as a turning point, an exception to the unwritten rule that every new American model must be speedier and more powerful than the one it's replacing—a European-style sedan that handles well but doesn't gulp gasoline like a drunk with a hollow leg.

The way gasoline prices have been going, I suspect the second view will prevail. TSX sales soared 53.7% in May, to 4,564—setting a monthly record for the model. It's too soon to know whether that increase is a blip or a trend, but it could be a sign that American consumers are finally ready for an end to the horsepower race. If the TSX does well, it also will be a welcome change for Honda's (HMC) Acura division, which saw its U.S. sales fall 13.8% in the first five months of this year, to 65,458.

Like most redesigned models these days, the new TSX is bigger and roomier than the old one; three inches wider, 2.2 inches longer, and 160 lb. heavier. Given the TSX's increased size, Acura could have plunked a V6 engine into the '09, dramatically increasing horsepower. Instead the company did something radical. It cut the power rating of the 2.4-liter, four-cylinder engine by four horses. As a result, the TSX's engine-power rating remains among the lowest in the premium compact sedan segment.

However, the front-wheel-drive TSX now gets slightly better fuel economy than before. The '09 is rated to average 25 mpg (21 city/31 highway) with an automatic transmission, and 23 mpg (20/28) with a stick shift. That's two mpg better than the outgoing TSX with an automatic transmission, and one mpg better with a stick shift. (In 280 miles of fast mixed driving, I got 25.3 mpg.)

The TSX also remains one of the least expensive cars in its segment. The base model starts at $29,675, whether you choose the stick shift or the automatic, and comes well-loaded with such amenities as leather upholstery, a power moonroof, and a premium audio system with standard XM satellite radio and a USB connection.

Otherwise, the main choice is to add a Technology package, which raises the price to $32,775, again with a choice of either transmission at the same price. The extra money gets you such features as upgrades to the already stellar sound system, a navigation system with real-time traffic and weather information, dual-zone climate controls, voice recognition, and a backup camera.

Behind the Wheel

The TSX's European origins are immediately evident in the way the car drives. Even while cutting the TSX's horsepower slightly, Acura increased its mid-range torque, or pulling power. To me it drives like an Alfa Romeo I recently rented in Spain. It isn't enormously fast off the mark: I clocked my test '09 TSX with a stick shift at about 8 seconds in accelerating from 0 to 60, while Road and Track magazine timed it at 7.5 seconds. That's 1.5 to 2 seconds slower than BMW's (BMWG) 328i.

However, the Acura is plenty fast for everyday driving. The high-revving engine provides decent acceleration when the car is under way, and there's lots of oomph for passing at highway speed. Plus, you can always shut off the traction control if you want to drive the car hard. I did so often and found myself squealing the tires when taking off from a dead stop.

Still, I have a few other quibbles. For one, I don't like the steering system. A front-wheel drive vehicle, by definition, doesn't have the same feel as a vehicle with rear-wheel drive.

The steering seems heavy and artificial at times during hard driving. On top of that, the steering doesn't respond instantly when you flick the wheel.

The new model's added width gives its interior noticeably more shoulder room than before. There's plenty of room in the front seats unless you're unusually tall or heavyset. However, the bench-style rear seat is cramped. With the front seat set for my height, 5 ft. 10 in., I had just enough knee space in the back seat to be comfortable, while headroom and foot space were both tight. On the plus side, the rear seats fold down in something like a 75/25 pattern, which is handy for carrying skis and other long objects while leaving room for two passengers in the back seat.

The TSX's dashboard design is too busy for my taste. It has so many different levels that it looks like it was designed by a steppe farmer. Plus, the controls for nearly every function are bunched together on the center stack to the right of the driver. The car's setup would be less complicated if its designers had moved a few of the switches down to the center console.

I also found that some of the tech gear in the TSX lacks practicality. For instance, in theory, the traffic alert feature in the navigation system allows you to choose a detour if you get stuck in traffic. However, when I came upon an accident while driving into Manhattan one Friday afternoon, the system suggested an alternate route via an exit only a few hundred feet ahead. Taking that advice would have entailed crossing three lanes in a gridlock traffic jam, a physical impossibility unless you happened to have a helicopter handy.

Buy It or Bag It?

The TSX lacks the speed and sportiness of models from rivals such as BMW, Infiniti, and Volkswagen's (VOWG) Audi unit. However, the Acura gets better mileage and comes loaded with high-tech gear at a much lower price. The '09 TSX's average selling price is only $30,905, according to the Power Information Network (PIN), about $5,000 less than the average '08 premium compact sedan. (Like BusinessWeek, PIN is a unit of The McGraw-Hill Companies MHP.)

By comparison, PIN calculates, an '08 Audi A4 sells for an average of $33,418, an Infiniti G35 for $35,716, a BMW 328i for $36,408, a Lexus ES 350 for $36,928, and General Motors' (GM) Cadillac CTS for $40,328.

If you want a faster car in the same low price range as the TSX, I'd suggest checking out another GM model, the new Pontiac G8 GT, which has a well-appointed interior, excellent handling, and a big V8 that propels it from 0 to 60 in a mere 5.5 seconds.

The downside is that the Pontiac is only rated to average 20 mpg, 5 mpg less than a comparable TSX. But that's the choice car shoppers increasingly will to have make: Power and speed vs. better mileage.

Click here to see more of the 2009 Acura TSX.