When the Acura TSX debuted in 2004 as the smallest sedan in the Acura lineup, it was well-received by the press and populace alike, drawing favorable comparisons to the benchmark BMW 3-series, among others. Here at CNET Car Tech, our first look at the TSX came with the 2005 model, which we generally liked despite its lack of Bluetooth integration and MP3 disc support.
The next two model years saw our ratings initially improve, as Acura made Bluetooth standard in 2006, but wane slightly in 2007 when MP3 playback was still unavailable and the TSX's once-impressive tech roster had become more run-of-the-mill. With the 2008 Acura TSX, in its fourth model year, very little has changed, and the competition has continued to catch up.
Still striking us as rather too understated in terms of exterior design, the TSX is ready for a freshening. Acuras have never taken bold styling risks (even with the midengine NSX) and historically, model updates have been evolutionary, so we don't expect the next TSX to blaze a new trail. The interior is similarly bland, but to better effect: Clear round gauges, hooded readouts, and lots of steering wheel controls never go out of style.
The TSX's cabin electronics, while very well-executed, are now merely standard fare in its class. Bluetooth, MP3 playback through an aux jack, touch-screen navigation, and satellite radio are all appreciated but also offered on all serious contenders in the "near-luxury" small sedan segment.
Test the tech: Car talk
The 2008 Acura TSX's one tech offering that does still stand out from the pack is its voice recognition system, which comes as part of the navigation system. As our test car was equipped with the $2,100 navigation system, and in previous tests we focused on the points of interest database, we decided to test the tech by mastering the long list of voice commands and keeping our hands on the wheel at all times if possible (except to shift and roll down the windows).
According to Acura's press materials, the navigation system understands 653 voice commands, no small undertaking to learn. But the vast majority of these are "add-on" commands that extend a much smaller set of main action words. Once this latter list is in the driver's arsenal, controlling the main interior functions of the TSX is pretty intuitive and responds to a few natural-language questions ("How far to the destination?") as well as its more restrictive set of specific commands ("driver temperature 72 degrees").
After a couple days of really making the effort to learn the system, we began to enjoy the feeling of ordering the car around rather than pressing buttons. Even the commands that take substantially longer to say than it would to reach out to the touch screen begin to make sense to use when in heavy traffic, at highway speeds, or other situations where the driver's eyes should remain on the road.
Voice control of the standard Hands-Free Link phone integration responds similarly well to spoken input, although it still frustratingly requires a separate pair of buttons from the navigation's in order to prompt the car to listen. With this system, we found that we could mitigate one of our main complaints (having to hear the available commands, then press the button before speaking each new command) by just interrupting the voice response with another press of the "talk" button. This still seems like too much waiting and button-pushing, but it's an improvement.
Essentially all the functions of the navigation, audio, climate, and car information systems can be accessed with voice control. Programming destinations letter by letter proved way too tedious, especially given Acura's recommendation that you use the phonetic alphabet ("Charlie November Echo Tango") rather than saying the letters themselves, but otherwise we found few command strings that were so long that nonvoice entry would have made a huge difference timewise.
We still find asking the car what time it is strangely enjoyable even after asking every Honda product we could for the past two years. This time around we also tried out some of the other more colloquial commands such as "Display current location" and the all-important "Find the nearest truck stop" (it wasn't very close). We also appreciated how getting into a hot car and cranking the A/C at our feet could be accomplished while we were also pulling out of the parking lot (press button, "air conditioner on," press button, "climate control floor", press button, "fan speed 5"), as opposed to sitting still and pushing all the necessary controls before moving off. We learned to make high fan speeds the last in a list of climate control commands as the system automatically lowers higher fan speeds when listening for commands.
In the cabin
So the voice navigation system listens and understands the driver, but what about the rest of the interior tech? The navigation system's other features are well-done, with a bright 8-inch screen and large touch-sensitive menu buttons. Resolution is good enough but will likely get an upgrade when the system is revamped, hopefully along with a boost in processing power, as zooming can bog down if numerous POI icons are visible. A joystick-button control is a nice extra method of control if for some reason voice input and the touch screen aren't enough.
Our experience with the cell phone integration was less pleasant. The same Sony Ericsson k790a we've had success pairing with almost every Bluetooth-equipped car that's come through the CNET garage, including other Hondas and Acuras, gave us some grief this time around.