Acura fans, long have they mourned. The Legend, the Integra, the RSX and perhaps even the then-unloved five cylinder Vigor haunt their memories as they scan the fleet of anodyne automatic-only blobs currently on offer. Market forces have not been kind to the brand’s core virtues and their lineup has pivoted severely to compensate. Though the Integra is long gone, Acura kept its traditional spark well into the mid-aughts with the first generation TSX.
This lithe mid-sized sedan was apparently the perfect fusion of trim-and-light 1990s Honda with modern near-luxury and there is nothing currently quite like it. The ILX is a similar formula on paper, but one look at its unfortunate proportions reveals it to be the reskinned frumpy Civic-based economy car that it is. There’s simply no comparison; the TSX is still gorgeous 14 years after its debut and I wish more car companies would release such clean designs.
The car magazines adored the TSX, pouring praise upon it like a child drowning his Saturday morning pancakes in syrup. I had never driven one and had long been curious if the machine’s qualities matched the sheet metal and enthusiast opinion. About two years ago when I was seriously considering used compact sports sedans, I randomly spotted a 2006 TSX at a car dealership and thought it was time to find out. I impulsively pulled into the lot. What I learned was that the wrong transmission and prior owner can rub the shine from any automotive jewel.
I walk up to the Acura and see that I probably should have looked at the inventory listing on my phone before getting out of my car. This example was an automatic with 155,000 apparently hard miles, judging from the paint condition. Not a winning combination. Oh well, the salesman is already bearing down on me so let’s make him get the key. Duck inside and the seats are snug, which I like, but rather hard and use has made them a bit lumpy. The interior design is very clean and attractive with a low cowl, no styling nonsense, and fantastic forward sightlines. I like it immediately.
But the materials were never very premium here despite their flawless, scrupulous assembly. Better than the contemporary Accord for sure, but things feel a bit thin and cheap in operation. Everything that looks like fake metal and fake carbon fiber was indeed fake, and now the veneers are peeling and rubbing off to demonstrate that fact. Compounding this, the prior owners did little to care for the interior. The once-invisible passenger airbag hatch lines are cracking through the dash surface and the soft-touch plastics are ossifying. Ten years of unmitigated UV damage, I suppose. My ’96 Camry never saw the inside of a garage in 14 years and the interior still looked new, but I spent the big bucks for a sunshade.
The outlook improves when analyzing driving position and adjustability, and when gripping the thin and tactile leather wrapped wheel. Honda knows how to make a driving position. Things degrade again when you turn the key and the signature starter bark of a 1990s Honda precedes the familiar buzz and vibration of a 4 cylinder kicking noisily to life. I’m swept back to the days of our 1993 Civic even though it’s been nine years. It sounded and felt exactly like this. That is not a compliment. The vibration doesn’t fully dissipate as it idles, creating a high frequency ripple through the cabin. Refinement is badly lacking, and while that level of aural and tactile engagement works for a cloth-lined Integra, it clashes with this leather-lined visually refined sedan.
Pulling out into traffic, I notice the throttle and transmission response is quite agreeable. The throttle is linear and responsive without being overly sensitive, and the transmission is alert. Shifts are firm but not harsh. The 2.4 liter four cylinder engine is very smooth when revving, but is loud and doesn’t sound as refined or exciting as the magazines led me to believe.
Making a strong 200hp but weak 166 lb-ft, this engine is saddled with a narrow power band concentrated above 5000 rpm and a short-lived kick in thrust between 6000 rpm and the 7000 rpm redline. This V-TEC (yo) peakiness doesn’t mesh well with the five broad ratios in the automatic. Several times on my drive I floored it only to catch it between gears, where it struggled pathetically beneath the power peak but was unwilling/unable to shift into a lower gear. This car is pretty damned slow when this happens.
It’s not all that quick from a stop either, I’m guessing 8-9 seconds to 60. That’s too tepid for this class of car even in 2006. I wasn’t able to find a review of an automatic-equipped TSX on Car and Driver, and I can see why–it wouldn’t fit the narrative. The TSX absolutely needs the manual transmission if you want it to be anything more than a sleeker-looking 4-cylinder Accord.
The steering is less tactile than the RWD G37 I had driven before but an improvement over much of everything else. Turn-in is a bit lazier than I expected given the car’s reputation, and quick transitions provoke noticeable roll but the car still felt light and lean. Brisk passes through the roundabouts near the airport did not feel very secure to me, with subtle shifts in grip and composure felt through the body and wheel. One must keep in mind that the neglected interior condition of this car nearly guarantees it is running on original front end components that may be overdue for replacement.
The ride quality and auditory environment of the TSX are also viscerally reminiscent of that 1993 Civic. The firm but ultimately yielding suspension provides information about the road surface without abusing you and this is a balance I generally like. But tire noise creeps in early to make the car feel like a bit of a tin can by 50 mph, and memories surface of the dull headache I’d get from that old Civic on coarse interstate. This would be a fatiguing car on the freeway regardless of the transmission and that is not a good match for our intended use.
This poor car. I want to like it and in some ways I really do, but this particular Acura didn’t draw the proper cards and was ridden hard and put away wet. And then verbally abused and denied its oat bag. It certainly didn’t deserve it, I get the impression of a very well-built sedan astutely targeted to excel at a certain mission profile. Abuse and wrong transmission notwithstanding, I don’t think it would quite be for me. I find myself on the German side of what I’ll call the Acura-Audi Divide. Light, nimble, high-strung and loud vs. solid, planted, refined, and powerful. Lexus and Infiniti straddle this line with their RWD models and provide the reliability I’d want as second owner but neither is a home run for me. Everything’s a compromise, but the Acura TSX isn’t quite the right one.
I returned the keys to the sales desk with a curt “thank you” and ambled out. The salesman hadn’t accompanied me on the drive, which was nice for me because I could analyze the car in peace, and nice for him because I’d probably have been asking uncomfortable questions about where precisely they found the nerve to ask $500 over clean Blue Book retail for such a battered car.
This exercise was disappointing. The TSX didn’t get a fair shake here and I still don’t have a full grasp of this finale of classic Acura. But I saw enough to suspect this car would come alive with a third pedal and likely deserves most if not all of the praise. So have at them, Acura fans. Scour the classifieds for the nicer examples, baby them and appreciate them. Mod and slam them into some kind of Frankenstein’s monster that turns passengers into bobble-heads if that’s what you need to do to keep them on the road. Perhaps one day when the vogue trends of crossovers and flame-surface styling have passed, Acura will look back on the purity of this sedan and bring forth a worthy successor.