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G. Chambers Williams III: New Acura TSX model is an under-$27,000 Japanese sport sedan

Another all-new Acura went on sale this month: the TSX — an under-$27,000 sport sedan cheaper than any cars sold by Acura's Japanese luxury-car competitors.
Just where it fits into the mix of premium sedans remains to be seen, however — because with only a four-cylinder engine, it has less power than popular, lower-priced mass-market sedans such as the V-6 versions of the Honda Accord, Nissan Altima and Toyota Camry.

Honda was the first Japanese automaker to create a separate luxury division, rolling out the Acura Legend in the mid-80s as the first premium sedan from Japan.

Nearly two decades later, though, Honda still is trying to figure out what Acura is supposed to be. What it isn't — and apparently is not ready to become — is a brand as upscale and exclusive as Toyota's Lexus and Nissan's Infiniti.

While those two brands continue to move their vehicles upscale to compete against higher-end European luxury models such as Germany's BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Audi, Acura seems intent in filling a small gap between, say, Toyota and Lexus or Nissan and Infiniti.

Acura does offer one expensive car — the limited production NSX sports car at about $90,000.

But the brand has no true luxury sedan offering to match the Lexus LS 430 or Infiniti Q45, both of which sell for upwards of $50,000 and come with V-8 engines and rear-wheel drive, which is the preferred arrangement for big luxury-performance cars.

The closest Acura comes to either of those Lexus and Infiniti flagships is the 3.5RL sedan, which offers only V-6 power and front-wheel drive and lists for just over $43,000.

At the other end of the scale, Acura is the only Japanese luxury division to offer an entry-level vehicle that begins under $20,000 — the RSX sports coupe, which was introduced last year to replace the boy-racer targeted Integra sports coupe.

The cheapest Lexus, by comparison, is the $29,500 IS 300 sport sedan, and the lowest-priced Infiniti is the G35 sedan, at about $27,500 (Infiniti dropped the G20 sedan, which was priced in the low-$20,000s, two years ago and did not replace it).

Since the introduction of the RSX there has been a small gap between the cheapest Acura and the next models up the price scale — the 3.2TL sedan and 3.2CL coupe, which are in the $28,000-$29,000 range.

And rather than introduce a higher-price model to fill the larger void between the 3.5RL and the more expensive Lexus and Infiniti high-end sedans, Acura has chosen to roll out the TSX into the narrow space between the RSX coupe and the 3.2TL sedan.

The TSX lists for $26,490 (plus $500 transportation) with either a six-speed manual or five-speed automatic transmission.

Slightly larger than the RSX, yet similarly powered, it's difficult to get a handle on just at whom the TSX is aimed. It seems to be essentially a sedan version of the RSX, so perhaps it is intended for those who like the flavor of the RSX but need a sedan to haul the family around.

Because it comes equipped only with a 200-horsepower four-cylinder engine — with power similar to that of the S variant of the cheaper RSX ($23,770) — the TSX doesn't seem to be positioned to appeal to those who want the kind of performance they could get from, say, the 260-horsepower Infiniti G35 sedan for about $1,000 more.

What seems clear is that the TSX won't be competing directly against anything from Acura's Japanese luxury counterparts, Lexus and Infiniti.

Acura says that the TSX sports sedan "combines a 2.4-liter, 200-horsepower engine, drive-by-wire throttle control system and race-bred suspension with an ergonomic interior filled with the latest technology to deliver performance, refinement and style."

The company says the TSX is "designed to compete with other premium sports sedans from Europe and Japan," but it seems that the closest competitors would be from Europe rather than Japan. Those would include such cars as the Audi A4, Volvo S60, and Saab 9-3.

Acura says that the body of the TSX offers "best-in-class aerodynamics and crisp sports sedan lines."

The interior is sporty yet refined, the company says, with modern LED instrumentation, intuitive controls, and standard luxury amenities including perforated leather seating, leather-wrapped three-spoke sport steering wheel with integrated audio and cruise control switches, dual-zone automatic climate control, power moonroof, 360-watt Acura eight-speaker premium sound system with six-disc, in-dash CD changer, power windows and door locks, and keyless entry.

The double-overhead-cam engine uses Honda's i-VTEC variable-valve-timing system. It is an aluminum alloy engine that produces 166 foot-pounds of torque.

High-tech features of the TSX include the drive-by-wire throttle system, which has no direct mechanical link between the accelerator pedal and the engine; programmed fuel injection; Vehicle Stability Assist with traction control; four-wheel disc brakes with antilock braking system; choice of six-speed manual transmission with magnesium housing or five-speed automatic transmission with sequential SportShift; and a LEV-2 exhaust emission control system.

Other features include a 110,000-mile tune-up interval; four-wheel-independent double-wishbone suspension with multi-link rear; torque-sensing, variable power-assisted rack-and-pinion steering system; 17-inch alloy wheels with V-rated all-season performance tires; power moonroof; heated front seats; eight-way power driver's seat with adjustable lumbar support; tilt and telescopic steering column; and high-intensity discharge headlights.

And, yes, you can bank on the TSX having Honda's legendary quality.

The only factory option offered is the $2,000 Acura navigation system with voice recognition.

You can see the TSX at Gunn Acura on Interstate 10 West, the exclusive San Antonio dealer.
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