By DAN NEIL
RALEIGH, N.C -- The Acura TSX is the Stepford wife of sport sedans. Like one of the complaisant clones in Ira Levin's sci-fi feminist novel (and the deliciously dated movie of 1975), the new TSX does everything one could ask of it and offers still more.
Agile and athletic, fuel-efficient, luxuriously refined and loaded with standard features like a 360-watt sound system, leather upholstery, power moonroof and a stability-control system, the TSX undercuts a similarly equipped BMW 325i — a main rival for your affections — by $6,000.
My test car, with a six-speed manual transmission and a navigation system with voice recognition, had a list price of $28,990, including a $500 delivery charge. The well-equipped base model is $26,990. Anyway you slice it, that's a lot of clone for the money.
If the 2004 TSX has a weakness, it is the same as Stepford's selfless automatons: an appliance-like vapidity, a soullessness, a gravity for which there is no center.
Not long ago, the TSX's mechanical perfection was too much to hope for; these days, consumers can choose among accomplished machines that are also fun, irreverent and witty. I am thinking of BMW's saucy Mini Cooper, the Chevy SSR retro truck, the Honda Element box car, the Infiniti FX45 speedwagon — cars that make the TSX seem dull and programmatic.
The TSX was born of corporate expediency. It started life as the Honda Accord that is sold in Europe and Japan, a smaller and quicker version of the Accord that is so popular in North America.
Pressed into service to battle midsize sport sedans, this junior Accord is loaded to the scuppers with high-end features: dual-zone climate control, driver's eight-way power seat, seat heaters, ambient L.E.D. interior lighting, xenon headlamps, 17-inch alloy wheels and turn indicators on the outside mirrors, to name a few more. The car also receives significant upgrades in the performance department.
The TSX borrows its 2.4-liter 4-cylinder engine from the Accord, but Acura turned up the wick, increasing the compression ratio, dilating the intake and exhaust plumbing and reprogramming the variable valve timing and lift controls. The engine now produces an even 200 horsepower (40 more than the Accord) and 166 pounds-feet of torque. (The same engine, with essentially the same tuning, powers the hot Acura RSX Type-S hatchback).
This power plant is a screamer, with peak torque at 4,500 r.p.m. and peak horsepower at 6.800 r.p.m. Yet at less than 3,500 r.p.m., where a lot of day-to-day driving takes place, it feels a bit lazy. It behooves buyers to forgo the five-speed automatic transmission and opt for the six-speed manual, the better to keep the revs high around town.
But when it comes to full-on acceleration, the 3,200-pound TSX is admirably quick — it goes from a stop to 60 miles an hour in well under 7 seconds — with each gear yanking the car faster with rubber-band-style surges. At highway speed, slotted into the overdrive sixth gear, the TSX hums along with an electric smoothness, returning impressive highway mileage of 29 m.p.g. or so. Indeed, with its engine noise and vibrations meticulously dampened, the motor sounds like nothing so much as a whirring Braun coffee grinder smothered with oven mitts.
The TSX covets the ground held by sport sedans like the 325i, the Audi A4, the Saab 9-3 and the Lexus IS 300. Honda engineers stiffened the Euro Accord's suspension and added a larger rear antiroll bar. Riding on 17-inch Michelin tires, the front-drive TSX has excellent grip in the corners with only modest "body roll."
The steering is taut and linear and the brakes are strong and progressive. Considering the car's weight balance of 60 percent in front, 40 at the rear — compared with 50-50 for the 325i — the TSX handles well indeed, with sharp reflexes and good balance. It feels settled and composed when driven briskly, resisting the understeer — a tendency to plow ahead on turns — that is common among front-drive family sedans.
It resists up to a point, that is. Pushed hard, on roads that a rear-drive BMW or all-wheel-drive Audi would eat up, the TSX starts to flounder, its stability-assist system blinking fitfully as it tries to null out the nose-heavy understeer that suddenly becomes all too apparent. Of the current crop of high-end front-drive cars, I think the new Saab 9-3 is the benchmark for handling.
All that said, the TSX is certainly in the ballpark of the other cars. And when it comes to interior refinement and luxury it seems to be in a different league. The interior of the test car — draped in parchment skins, accessorized with titanium-look trim and a band of convincing simulated wood — looked like a very good European sedan. And, come to think of it, it is a very good European sedan.
The exterior styling, on the other hand, is a snore. While the shape is extremely aerodynamic — with a drag coefficient of just 0.27, lower than a Nissan 350Z sports car — it is the sort of nondescript design that seems to disappear in transit somewhere between the retina and the visual cortex.
Forgettable? It's hard to forget something that you never quite saw in the first place.
Perhaps it's the TSX's design — lovely without being attractive — that reminds me of the Stepford wives. Maybe it's the uncomprehending voice-recognition system built into the navigation system. When asked to plot a route to the nearest hospital, the robotic feminine voice directed me to the North Carolina Central Prison; when I ordered the temperature down on the climate control, it tuned the radio instead.
In any event, it is worth remembering the movie's ending. The Stepford husbands were quite content with their soulless and servile surrogates. If the TSX proves anything, it's that personality isn't everything.