Because of its solid and comfortable everyday driver demeanor, buyers of the new 2009 Acura TSX will probably opt for the five-speed automatic transmission, for ease of driving in traffic and urban settings. And that's unfortunate, because to appreciate Honda's capability to build truly efficient engines that deliver both economy and power, you just need to get the six-speed manual transmission.
Our TSX came with the manual transmission, and it made driving the car a joyful experience. Of course, the many cabin electronics didn't hurt either, if we discount the mass of buttons on instrument panel and steering wheel. Acura evolves its excellent navigation system further by adding weather reports and better integration with live traffic. We also had a pleasant surprise in audio sources, finding the TSX not only adds a USB port, but Bluetooth streaming as well.
Test the tech: Sun chaser
When we sent editor Kevin Massy to San Diego for a preview of the 2009 Acura TSX last February, he got caught in a snow storm during his test drive, which is ironic as one new feature in the car is live weather reports. The weather-reporting feature shows weather icons on the navigation map, including severe weather alerts, and it lets you look up current and three-day forecasts for most cities. For our tech test, foggy San Francisco weather convinced us to seek a sunnier clime.
The report shows clear skies and sunny weather in Santa Cruz, Calif.
We hit the Info button on the instrument panel and chose the Weather feature. Santa Cruz, Calif., a town south of San Francisco, seemed like a likely candidate for sun, so we entered the city name and looked up the current weather. It said clear skies, so we chose a Santa Cruz point of interest from the car's navigation system and had it show us the route. Freeways took us most of the way, which meant 70 mph to 80 mph in sixth gear. We were impressed that, even at these speeds and in top gear, the car's 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine still delivered some acceleration when we hit the gas.
It took us about an hour to get to Santa Cruz, which was a thoroughly pleasant drive in the TSX, but the sun was clouded over when we got there. We quickly looked up the weather report in the car, and sure enough, it said partly cloudy. Well, the weather reporting in the car was accurate, as far as we could tell. We just didn't count on the weather changing.
When we got to Santa Cruz, we found that the weather changed.
Ever diligent, we made another attempt, locating the town of Half Moon Bay, Calif., up the coast where our weather feature said skies were clear and people were happy. Well, we just assumed that latter part. Heading up Highway 1 toward our promised sun, we got to play with the gears some more, because of occasionally slower traffic. The TSX passed other cars with ease, especially when we dropped the gear down to third, its 201 horsepower accelerating the car quickly when we asked for it.
Here's what partly cloudy skies look like.
But in Half Moon Bay we saw the same gray skies we had seen in Santa Cruz. And checking the car again, the weather report showed partly cloudy. We couldn't fault the car, as its weather reports seemed accurate for the time they were delivered. We could only assume a partly cloudy sky hung perpetually over our heads.
In the cabin
The interior of the 2009 Acura TSX proves a reasonable antidote to crummy weather by offering a lot of toys, both entertaining and informational. And Acura provides no shortage of buttons to access them with. Acura doesn't really do options, so you can get the car either with technology or without, the difference being about $3,000. If you don't spend the extra money, you still get a Bluetooth hands-free system, also found in the tech version of the car.
This mass of buttons on the instrument panel is complemented by even more buttons on the steering wheel.
Unfortunately, when you move up to the techie car, complete with navigation and a premium stereo, this Bluetooth system isn't integrated well with the rest of the tech. Our ongoing complaint about the tech interface in Acuras is that you get one set of buttons for Bluetooth voice command, and another set of buttons for navigation and stereo voice command. And Acura still uses its big multifunction knob surrounded by a sea of buttons. Although we've reviewed many Acura models, we still had to look for the particular button we wanted.
Another thing Acura has yet to improve is the resolution of its navigation maps. They just don't look that good, especially when compared with a newer system we saw in the Hyundai Sonata. But the navigation system overall is quite good. It is still DVD-based, but we found map refresh and route calculation to be quick. And one thing we've always liked about Acura's navigation system is the complete points-of-interest database, listing every retail shopping location.
You can view a list of traffic incidents on the navigation screen.
Acura has offered XM NavTraffic in various models for a while now, but it takes the integration a step further by having the system intelligently route around bad traffic congestion if you've set a destination. Like other cars we've seen with this feature, it will only route around traffic moving below 20 mph, but it lets you drive into moderately slow traffic. The weather reports we discussed above are also delivered through XM satellite radio.
We were happy to see the ELS brand on the TSX's stereo, an indication that Grammy Winner Elliot Scheiner's company designed the audio system. ELS Surround is a Panasonic brand, the company that supplies the hardware for this audio system. We like how this audio system lets you adjust not only treble and bass, but also centerfill and subwoofer levels. The results in the TSX were very good, but it sounded as if there was a little less separation than we heard in the Acura RDX, the first model to use the ELS system. The ELS system in the TSX uses 10 speakers, including a subwoofer and centerfill, powered by 415 watts of amplification.
The USB connecter, which also serves as an iPod port, is new for the 2009 model.
Audio sources include a six-disc in-dash changer that reads MP3 CDs and DVD audio, XM satellite radio, an auxiliary input, a USB port that also offers iPod integration, and Bluetooth streaming audio support. Many cars go down to a single disc player when navigation is present, but not the TSX. And we were also impressed that audio streamed from the same phone we had paired as part of the standard hands-free cell phone integration. Even Ford's Sync system hasn't completely ironed out the switch from playing music off a phone to making calls from the phone.
For making calls, the cell phone integration is generally good, although adding entries to the phonebook requires you to push each entry from your phone to the car. We like the system found in the Audi A5 better, which uploads the entire phone book at once.
Another extra in the tech package is a rear-view camera, although it doesn't have any helpful overlays, as found in the Audi A5. We also have to mention our fascination with the speedometer and tachometer, which both use needles that reach over from the outer rim of the dials, instead of being anchored to the front center. The effect is high-tech and cool.
Under the hood
We praised the 2009 Acura TSX's engine at the beginning of this review. This 2.4-liter four-cylinder may not sound like much, but it moved the car along adroitly while delivering an average fuel economy of 23.6 mpg for our mixed city and freeway driving. The EPA gives the car a 20 mpg city and 28 mpg highway rating, so we fell near the middle of that range. The engine also brings in a ULEV II emissions rating from the California Air Resources Board, a good achievement.
The engine isn't huge, but it works very well for the size of the TSX.
The engine gets its apparent power by generating 201 horsepower at 7,000rpm, which is right at the car's redline, and 172 foot-pounds of torque at 4,400rpm. We were happy with the accelerator response around 4,000rpm generally, but again, we have to emphasize that the six-speed close shifting manual gearbox makes a huge difference. This gearbox feels good while shifting and lets you get the right amount of power for the job at hand. We haven't driven an automatic version of the TSX, but in other Acuras with the five-speed automatic transmissions, we felt the transmission sapped any possible enjoyment you could get from the engine.
This six-speed manual transmission makes driving the TSX very fun.
When attempting a fast launch with the TSX, we found that the traction control stepped on us hard. We revved up, dropped the clutch, felt the beginnings of the launch, then the car just bogged down. The torque would have spun the wheels if the traction control hadn't interfered. And as the TSX is a front wheel drive car, it exhibits torque steer, although we found it easy to keep a straight line with a reasonable grip on the wheel.
The handling seems tuned very well in the TSX. We've noticed understeer in previous Acura models we've seen, and plenty more in Hondas, but the steering in the TSX was nice and tight, with plenty of response. The suspension is also a good mix of comfort and rigidity, letting the car handle very well in hard cornering. During normal cornering we couldn't really feel that the TSX's front wheel drive nature, although it became more apparent as we gave it the gas to pull out of a turn.
Acura doesn't really offer factory options--you buy the 2009 Acura TSX with technology or without. Our test car has a set price of $32,060, inclusive of navigation, the sound system, and all of the other tech we mentioned. A $760 destination charge runs the total up to $32,820. You pay the same amount for the automatic version, but we advise against it. You can also get the car without tech for $28,960, but you will be missing out on a lot.
We give the TSX a strong score for its cabin tech, only marred by the mediocre map resolution. In this area, the TSX keeps up with current tech, but isn't breaking much new ground. Its performance rating is also strong, as the engine manages to deliver both economy and power. We would like to see the emissions rating get a little better, as other small engine cars are earning PZEV ratings. It suffers the most on design, as the interface is still muddled with buttons. And while the car looks OK, it's not striking.