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").
We had to RTFM to get the most out of the voice recognition system.
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 don't know why the phone and navigation voice command systems can't be integrated.
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.
Things were fine for the first few days of our week with the car: The phone paired easily and was recognized by the system each time we entered the car anew. The trouble started when, upon leaving the car while on a call, we used the "Transfer" voice command to put the call into the phone. This happened easily, but thereafter we were unable to initiate or receive calls without them remaining in the phone rather than being heard through the car's speakers. Despite repeated attempts to reboot the phone and disconnect and reconnect, the only way we could successfully use the system was if the calls were initiated without Bluetooth active, and then transferred from the phone manually, which forced a fresh Bluetooth connection.
Having consulted a few forums that mentioned similar issues, we realized that a firmware upgrade to the phone might have solved the problem, so it's tough to blame the car. But given the warnings of side effects accompanying instructions for the upgrade, we decided it wasn't worth the risk for a car we wouldn't see a week later. Others who drove the car paired their phones normally and reported no problems, although none tried the transfer feature. No phonebook information is pulled from phones, but the TSX has its own phone book, which can store 50 entries.
Lack of support for MP3 discs is a baffling exclusion.
We found the audio system generally pedestrian in features and sound quality. An in-dash six-disc changer is nice but nothing out of the ordinary, except that most other manufacturers' now play MP3 discs. We frankly weren't entirely sure whether the TSX was even supposed to play MP3 discs, as little mention is made of them anywhere in the manuals or press materials. Again referencing online forums, we found owners who did successfully get MP3 discs to play, but none of the ones we tried were compatible. Acura does now include an auxiliary audio input in the center console, which did play music off our phone easily but didn't display any track info. We also looked in vain for a passthrough for the cord but had to close the lid on the cord to keep the phone accessible.
Materials inside the TSX were admirable, with perforated black leather on the seats and door inserts and faux brushed-metal accents in our test car. Fit and finish were excellent, in keeping with our expectations for any Acura. Interior storage spaces are convenient and numerous, and the rear seats can be folded for passthrough access from the trunk once unlocked with a keyhole on the rear parcel shelf, although the nav system's DVD player's placement on the underside of the shelf would make loading larger boxes a little dicey.
The steering wheel is positively packed with useful controls including both sets of voice-control access buttons along with the usual audio and cruise controls. The wheel itself is wrapped in perforated leather as is the shift knob for the six-speed manual. A digital display between the main analog gauges shows the odometer, mpg readouts, and status displays for the connected phone.
Under the hood
The 2008 TSX still uses the same 2.4-liter inline four-cylinder engine all TSXs have had, with i-VTEC variable valve timing. Power is rated at 205 maximum horsepower at 7,000 rpm and 164 pound-feet of torque at 4,500 rpm. A drive-by-wire throttle system works in concert with a computer-controlled direct ignition system to keep exhaust emissions low enough to conform to California's minimum LEV II standard.
The power is kept in check with a standard four-channel stability assist system, which can modulate the throttle and brakes to enhance control. Electronic brake assist applies full brake pressure automatically in panic stops.
The TSX isn't powerful enough to be exciting, but the shifter is a joy to use.
We usually prefer a manual transmission in our test cars, and the TSX's six-speed is a fun one to use. The stubby shifter and its short, notchy throws were reminiscent of the gearbox we enjoyed in the RSX Type-S we tested earlier. The manual transmission housing is made of magnesium alloy for a weight savings of about 6 pounds compared to an aluminum case.
Handling is helped by a front strut-tower brace, and the TSX feels relatively light on its feet. Powering out of corners is not as dramatic as in some other front-drivers, probably because the TSX doesn't produce enough power to really disrupt the chassis. The steering is precise, using variable power assist on the rack-and-pinion setup.
Fuel economy ratings have gone down from previous years, thanks to the EPA's new test cycle. The 2008 TSX is rated at 19 mpg (20 mpg for the automatic) in the city and 28 mpg on the highway. As in previous tests, we averaged between 23 and 24 mpg during mixed driving, according to the onboard computer.
The 2008 Acura TSX is still a contender in its class, but its class has gotten bigger and better since the model's 2004 debut. A navigation-equipped Mazda Mazdaspeed3 would be about four grand cheaper than our $31,005 (including destination charge) TSX, and the Mazda crushes the Acura in terms of performance.
But the Mazda does lack Bluetooth, and the TSX holds its own by virtue of offering all the major tech options and good versions at that. Assuming that the tech hiccup we experienced with our phone isn't widespread, the TSX brings a lot of tech to the table along with a quality feel and the Honda name. This has kept it afloat for years, but a life preserver in the form of a redesign with more power is needed soon.