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Luxury and handling but no flair

Chicago Tribune

After giving navigation systems short shrift for years, when the 2004 Acura TSX sports sedan arrived with voice activation for not only navigation but also the radio, CD player and even climate control, I decided to give it a chance to impress.

“Radio on,” I ordered.

Silence.

“Radio on,” I repeated.

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No response.

“Radio on,” I screamed.

Nothing.

I then turned to four-letter words, none of which got the radio going.

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So I called Acura spokesman Mike Spencer. “Your voice-activated system doesn’t work,” I scolded.

“Did you say, ‘radio play’?” he asked.

Enough about the voice activation.

The 2004 Acura TSX basically is the European version of the Honda Accord. The sheet metal is the same, but the interior has been dolled up to give it the luxury Acura touch.

Although styling is subjective, I must wonder what the designer who settled on the look for this machine does the other seven hours and 59 minutes of the work day.

General Motors, Ford and Chrysler are coming up with stylish remakes of existing mid-size cars or dramatic designs for new mid-size cars. They insist the way to attract buyers from the Camry, Accord and Altima sedans is with sheet metal sporting some flair.

Camry, Accord and Altima and now TSX give the domestic automakers an easy target. The Japanese sedans are vanilla in a world asking for Neapolitan.

While talking with Spencer, I asked why the Acura line expanded with the TSX, a sedan earmarked for annual sales of only about 15,000 cars.

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The reason, said Spencer, is that when Acura dropped the Integra sedan and coupe after the 2001 model year, it replaced only the coupe, with the RSX. And although the Honda Accord offers a sports coupe, it doesn’t offer a sports sedan.

“We had a void in sports sedans, which is where the TSX comes in,” Spencer said.

A big enough void that about 50,000 Acura and Honda loyalists who didn’t want to move up to a larger $32,000 Acura TL S-Type were moving to the 3-Series at BMW, the A4 at Audi, the S40 at Volvo and the C240 at Mercedes-Benz, sports sedans priced from about $30,000.

Enter the TSX, which starts at $26,490, about $5,000 less than a TL S-Type.

But at 15,000 copies, how do you win back 50,000 loyalists who have been buying entry-level European sports sedans? “We wish we could get all 50,000 of them, but while our target is conservative, we’ll press the factory for more if we have the demand,” Spencer said.

I tested a TSX with the smooth-shifting, short-throw 6-speed manual transmission.

Though the exterior is the same as the European Accord, there are a couple of major differences other than the upscale cabin. The TSX is equipped for the U.S. market, meaning it comes with a 200-horsepower version of the 2.4-liter, 190-horsepower, 4-cylinder engine in the European Accord.

And it’s teamed with a 6-speed manual versus a 5-speed in the European model. However, also in keeping with U.S. tastes, the TSX offers a 5-speed automatic as a no-cost option, a transmission Acura expects to be the choice of at least 70% of buyers.

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The 2.4-liter engine is alert, but some may argue that it could use a little more low-end torque for quicker off-the-line response.

But you can’t fault the mileage at 22 miles per gallon in the city and 29 mpg on the highway with the 6-speed manual. The rating is 22/31 with the 5-speed automatic.

Where the TSX excels is ride and handling: The car has a firm but smooth ride without a lot of road disturbance. A double wishbone suspension with gas-pressurized shocks and large front and rear stabilizer bars work to reduce body lift in hard acceleration, body dive in hard braking and body roll in corners to ensure it sits flat when driven aggressively.

The mechanical connection between accelerator and engine also has been replaced with an electronic drive-by-wire system that continuously adjusts the sensitivity of the gas pedal to driving conditions. That means the system senses cruising the lot looking for a parking space versus pulling out to pass on the interstate, when you want an immediate response to a light touch on the pedal.

The quick-ratio, torque-sensing power-steering system contributes to TSX’s agility by responding to steering-wheel input without hesitation. Rounding out the package is the stability/traction-control system that regulates engine throttle and activates the four-wheel anti-lock brakes when needed to provide control and stability in acceleration, braking and cornering.

The final piece of the ride-and-handling package is the 17-inch Michelin performance radials. Whether merging, passing or playing on twisting country roads, you feel in control of the TSX. If only it looked as sporty as it behaves, and if only there was just a tad more low-end torque. Oh well, this is only its first year on the market.

When mapping changes for the future, Acura has a couple of other problems to eliminate. The rear-seat backs fold so you can slip long items such as skis through the trunk into the cabin. But they don’t fold flat. And you can lower the seat backs only by pulling a short strap that’s so far inside the trunk you nearly fall in trying to reach it. When the seat backs are down, there’s only a partial opening from trunk to cabin because part of the trunk wall juts into the opening -- an obstacle to carrying wide items such as a folding table.

As noted, the TSX starts at $26,490; the only option is the navigation system at $2,000.

As for the amenities that make this a premium entry-level model, standard equipment includes perforated leather seats , dual-zone climate control, premium sound system with six-disc in-dash CD changer, keyless entry, outside temperature display, dual trip odometers and tilt/telescoping steering wheel with audio controls.

There also are sunglasses holders as well as cup holders, side-window defoggers, two 12-volt accessory outlets, xenon headlamps, rear-window defroster, remote trunk/fuel-filler release, folding side mirrors and all the power goodies -- moon roof, windows, locks, mirrors and seats, which also are heated.

The TSX also is the first Acura with standard side-curtain air bags. The driver/passenger front air bags are the dual-stage, dual-threshold type with inflation speed based on impact severity. The TSX also comes with driver/passenger side-impact air bags. The passenger seat side-impact bag comes with seven sensors to determine height and position of the person in that seat. If sensors detect a child or a small adult leaning too far into the path of the side-impact air bag, it won’t deploy.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

2004 Acura TSX

Wheelbase: 105.1 inches

* Length: 183.3 inches

* Engine: 2.4-liter, 200-horsepower, 4-cylinder

* Transmission: 6-speed manual

* Fuel economy: 22 mpg city/29 mpg highway

* Base price: $26,490

* Price as tested: $28,490. Includes $2,000 for voice-activated navigation system. Add $500 for freight.

* Pluses: Simple to purchase because navigation is the only extra-cost option. (A 5-speed automatic is a no-cost option.) An alternative to keep Acura and Honda owners in the family fold when looking for something sportier than the RSX or Accord. Good performance and decent mileage. And a wealth of equipment such as anti-lock brakes, traction and stability control, 17-inch all-season high-performance radials, heated seats, power moon roof and dual-zone climate control.

* Minuses: The sheet metal design is uninspired.

Los Angeles Times


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