2009 Acura TSX: bells and whistles, but no charisma

2009 Acura TSX
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

If we accept that there is something interesting about every car, then the 2009 Acura TSX tests this proposition to the breaking point. Is it well made? Are Oprah’s diamond earrings real? Of course, it’s well made. It’s a lux’ed-up, Euro-spec Honda Accord, re-badged as an Acura and aimed at America’s young and upwardly mobile petit-bourgeoisie, assuming we have any left.

Is it well equipped? Like a Chippendales show. Acura has always employed the irresistible logic of more is better. The TSX (starting at $28,960) comes standard with a big, beautiful navigation system, heated leather seats, a moonroof and plenty of other upmarket swirlies. Acura simply refuses to yield the value equation. If one of its competitors offered a device to allow telepathic communication with small rodents, you can be sure that the TSX would offer Acura’s HamsterLink technology, and it would come standard with the nav system.

Is it attractive? I think the word is clinical. Rarely do you see a design that is so obviously driven by the marketers’ metaphorical imperatives -- high-tech but not alienating, sleek but safe, and precisely 23.88% richer and more upmarket than the Accord. Thus the curious polished metal orthodontia in the grille. This thing has a front toof like Ollie.

Does it drive well? Absolutely. If you are benchmarking front-wheel-drive, 3,419-pound sedans with 201-hp four-cylinder engines, it drives beautifully. A deep serenity presides over the ride quality, abetted by barbiturate-like quiet and cabin isolation. Push the car a little harder into turns and, yes, you’ll wish you had more steering feel -- or some -- and you’ll eventually invoke the disapproval of the stability control system. But the TSX has its shoes laced up tight. Lots of traction, plenty of agility and a willingness to do as it’s told that borders on slavishness.

But is the TSX interesting, compelling or unforgettable in some emotional way? Will it wake you out of a dead sleep with asphalt-gnawing desire? Will you lie and embezzle or pimp out your dog to get one? Probably not.

It’s an excellent car and well worth the money. But when it comes to charisma, compared to the likes of the Mercedes-Benz C300, the Audi A4, the BMW 328i, the Acura surrenders like Lee at Appomattox.

We’re left to puzzle the exact nature of charisma. One issue is the precision-caliper badge. Acura has gotten thoroughly shuffled out of the prestige ranks lately. A recent brand perception survey by Consumer Reports ranks Acura at the bottom of the list. Here’s the strange part. Honda ranked at the top, even though they’re the same company.

Usually, I dismiss big M Marketing as the lowest form of automotive expertise, the department of any company where people put their half-wit brothers-in-law and work-release types. But Acura must do better in getting the message out. The RDX -- the compact luxury crossover -- is the best product in its segment. The RL is an astonishing automobile. Who’s being paid to promote these products? These people should be shamed like Japanese companies used to shame their employees: They should be made to stand in front of their building in their underwear shouting abject apologies and self-recrimination while being berated by their superiors. The good old days.

Have you seen Honda’s new brand image commercial, the one with all the company’s products: jets, snowmobiles, outboard motors, ATVs, fuel-cell vehicles, even a knock-kneed robot named Asimo? Where is Acura? Surely if you promote your private-jet business, you can promote your luxury car division.

Well, I started out saying there was nothing that interesting about the TSX. Not true. Honda-Acura did something very bold with this car and that was not to gratuitously add displacement and horsepower in the redesign. Acura is, I think, the first luxury brand to step off the horsepower spiral and say “enough.” What’s under the hood is a stupendously fine 2.4-liter, high-compression four-cylinder producing 201 horsepower (what the previous model achieved with slightly more midrange torque). That’s a specific output of 83.75 hp per liter, getting very close to the magic 100/liter mark, while still achieving up to 30 miles per gallon on the highway (with an automatic transmission).

But, regarding charisma: From the first spin around the block, the TSX feels a bit like a luxury car wrapped around an economy car powertrain. The car is certainly quick -- around 6.5 seconds to 60 mph -- but you really have to wring the tachometer to get it moving, which produces some rather inelegant, blender-like sounds from the four-cylinder engine (peak horsepower at 7,000 rpm). Fine for a Civic, OK for an Accord, but lacking in that gratifying quality of effortlessness that luxury cars have, even entry-luxury cars.

This is a common rap against Acura, which does not have a V8-powered car in the lineup, nor does it have a proper rear-drive powertrain. But soon -- and not a bit too soon -- the company will have other options, including high-output diesels. I predict the TSX will be transformed by a torque-y, super-clean diesel.

Now that will be interesting.

2009 Acura TSX Base price: $28,960Price, as tested: $35,494Powertrain: 2.4-liter DOHC four-cylinder with variable-valve timing; six-speed manual transmission; front-wheel driveHorsepower: 201 at 7,000 rpmTorque: 170 pound-feet at 4,300 rpmCurb weight: 3,419 pounds0-60 mph: 6.5 secondsWheelbase: 106.5 inchesOverall length: 185.6 inchesEPA fuel economy: 20 miles per gallon city, 28 mpg highwayFinal thoughts: TSX, pronounced “tsk, tsk”

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