Click above for a high-res gallery of the 2009 Acura TSX.
2008 is shaping up to be a very busy year for Honda's up-market Acura division. With the unveiling of a new diesel engine and the revamp of their entire sedan lineup, Acura is attempting to reinvent itself as a credible player in the premium sedan segment. But ever since Acura's birth in 1986 as the very first premium Japanese brand, the automaker has suffered from an identity crisis. Acura has always been a mixed bag, as if Honda wasn't sure what it wanted it to be, and with a lineup that spanned the enthusiast-friendly Integra/ RSX, the rebadged Isuzu-built SLX and the competent but anonymous RL, consumers were equally confounded.
After complaints that the previous generation of Acura sedans were utterly devoid of style, the automaker decided to give all of its vehicles a bold, new face for the 2009 model year. However, as anyone who has ever followed the follies of cosmetic surgery knows, it's far from a sure bet. Although surgeons claim to be able to take years off a patient's face, the result is often just some weird mutation that looks like a bad photoshop job. Case-in-point: the 2009 Acura RL that debuted at this year's Chicago Auto Show. The new shielded fascia Acura applied to its "flagship" was greeted with howls of pain from virtually all who laid eyes upon it. The RL was followed a month later by an all-new TSX, and on the smaller sedan, the overall look was better received, but many of Acura's aesthetically astute critics remained. Now that we've had a chance to spend some serious time living with the 2009 TSX, we were prepared to move beyond its controversial exterior and see how it faired in the real world. Hit the jump to see how it did.
Photos Copyright ©2008 Sam Abuelsamid / Weblogs, Inc.
Like the outgoing TSX, this new model is essentially a re-badged version of the rest of the world's Honda Accord. Since the mid-nineties, North American Accords have diverged from those sold elsewhere, getting larger at a faster rate than its European and Japanese variants. The TSX has proved reasonably popular for Acura and, per usual, the new model gets more of everything -- beginning with the exterior. While the old model was relatively plain and slab sided, the 2009 model gets a significantly more aggressive stance thanks to the longer, wider, lower styling. The surfaces around the wheel openings are far more prominent than before and the character lines are sharply creased, drawing a few cues from the larger TL.
While the majority of the exterior changes are subtle, the one element that's drawn the most attention is the aforementioned grille. The shield that first appeared on the refreshed RL has drawn almost universal complaints from observers, but the implementation on the TSX is less prominent and better integrated than on its larger sibling. In the harsh light of day, it still doesn't qualify as pretty, but it has the potential to grow on owners. As always, such things are a matter of taste and your mileage may vary. Otherwise, aside from the grille and badging, this is essentially the same car as the Euro Accord that debuted at the Geneva Motor Show.
Thankfully, getting away from the contentious exterior is simply a matter of pulling on the chrome door handle. The front seats are the same marvelous units found in the Accord, providing excellent support in all the right places, particularly when attacking the bends. All the controls fall readily to hand and virtually the entire upper surface of the dash board seems to be one continuous surface. Like the Accord and other recent HondAcuras the central portion of the dash bulges out to ease the reach of the controls. The center of the dashboard's peak is occupied by the usual control knob for the Nav/Entertainment system and the graphical interface is basically the same as that used on other Honda vehicles, remaining straightforward and simple to use.
One enhancement Acura has added for 2009 is the integration of the XM traffic data with the navigation system to provide on-the-fly re-routing in the event of a backup on the way to Grandma's. Previously, a list of traffic incidents could be pulled up manually that would show the location and distance on an incident from the current position, but it wouldn't tell you if the problem was on your current route. Now it can automatically adjust its directions without any intervention. During our time with the TSX, we didn't have the opportunity to test its functionality, but if it's anything like the system in the Lexus LS we had a few months ago, it will be a big help during the summer travel/construction season.
The only real complaint we (okay, I) had with the TSX's driver's interface was the shift knob, which seemed to feel too small to be comfortable in hand. Again, this was a personal preference and others probably won't have an issue, particularly since the vast majority of Americans opt for automatics anyway. The shift mechanism itself is absolutely wonderful. Rowing through the gears of the six-speed was utterly effortless and there was never any doubt as to which cog I was headed for. The clutch effort was relatively light and smooth, providing a suitable place to work out the day's frustrations. All cars should have gear changing capabilities this good, so it's unfortunate that most TSX buyers will never have the opportunity to experience it.
The engine that sends propulsive force through the gearbox retains the same 2.4-liters of displacement as the 2008 model, but it has been revised to provide a much fatter torque curve. The peak power drops from 205 to 201 hp for 2009, while maximum torque climbs from 164 to 172 lb.-ft. It doesn't sound like much, but it feels vastly better than the old engine. While the outgoing mill felt lifeless below 3,500 rpm, the revised four cylinder actually feels capable of motivating this car at low revs. Even with the extra 150 pounds saddled to the new TSX, it feels much more pleasant to drive around town. When you take it out to play, the power-plant, like all Honda VTEC fours, loves to rev and quickly spins up to 7,000 rpm and beyond.
The engine speed can be clearly discerned from either the very pleasant engine note or the simple and clearly legible gauges. The needles are attached at the outer rim of the speedo and tach, leaving the central portion free for extra information displays. Regardless of the engine's rotational velocity, vibration is virtually non-existent.
The rear cabin has belts for three passengers, but is clearly contoured with a preference for two. The central section of the second row seat is significantly higher and any passenger relegated to that position should be shorter of stature and long in patience. The outer passengers should have no problem with either head or leg room, with an extra three inches of width and another 2.6-inches of rear shoulder room compared to the last generation TSX. While road trips for four won't be a problem, it's dependent on everyone packing light. The TSX's trunk only measures 12.6 cu. ft., a drop of two-tenths from the old model.
On the road, the chassis of the TSX is well sorted, with just the right blend of spring rates and damping to make the sedan a capable back road runner up to eight-tenths. Beyond that, the limitations of a front wheel drive chassis begin to intrude as understeer takes over. Hard acceleration also causes things to get a little wonky as the front tires struggle for grip and the newfound torque has the drive wheels heading off in directions other than those intended by the driver. Reducing forward velocity is also a pleasure thanks to a nice firm brake pedal, although like other Acuras, pushing too hard, too many times in succession can get temperatures elevated quickly.
While the overall driving experience is good, one issue continually caused complaints. The new TSX has electrically assisted steering. At speeds above about 40 mph, the effort to the turn the wheel is well proportioned and there is even a hint of heavily filtered feedback through the wheel about what's happening at the tire-road interface. Below that speed threshold however, the effort is a bit two light and there is a dead zone around the straight ahead position. The low speed steering feel is just a bit too artificial and disconnected, but since the electric assist is all software controlled, it's also an issue that Honda should be able to adjust, perhaps with a future update.
Overall, the new TSX is a handsome looking design (apart from the grille) with a much improved powertrain. For the most part it's a very pleasant drive and is unlikely to give anyone any huge reasons to complain. The annoyances are relatively minor as long as you keep in mind that this isn't a hard-core sports sedan. Our Vortex Blue Pearl tester was priced at $32,060, with technology package and no additional options were available. The base models come in just just shy of $29K. While the TSX won't be challenging any BMWs or the Infiniti G, it will get you from here to there in comfort and won't lose its head on curvy road as long as you don't explore the limits. It certainly has more visual identity now than it did in its previous incarnation. However, the question still remains, Who is Acura? That's a question this car still doesn't really seem to answer. Perhaps next year when the TSX is available with Honda's first US market diesel we'll have a better idea.
Photos Copyright ©2008 Sam Abuelsamid / Weblogs, Inc.