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Performance-oriented Acura TSX muscles in

‘More Acura’ — that’s the company’s promise for the all-new TSX compact sport sedan. MotorHead, by Dan Carney.
Image: 2009 Acura TSX
Acura’s new 2009 TSXAcura

“More Acura” — that’s the company’s promise for the all-new TSX compact sport sedan.

The TSX was launched with modest expectations in 2004 and it has quickly become a surprise hit for Acura, Honda’s luxury division.

While here in the states we have an especially porcine version of the Honda Accord — supersized just for American customers — the rest of the world drives a leaner model which we know as the Acura TSX.

That fitter, trimmer world model was sitting idle, and so keeping with the sports coaching philosophy of finding ways to get talented players into the game, the company renamed the Honda Accord everyone else gets as the Acura TSX and found plenty of Americans who appreciated the virtues of its svelte size, taut handling, accessible price and frugal fuel economy. Sharp, distinctive styling that strongly evoked the red-hot TL was another plus in a segment overstuffed with generic, forgettable designs.

Underneath, many of the attributes which made the TSX appealing remain intact in the 2009 version. There’s still a 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine driving the front wheels. The standard six-speed manual gearbox snicks through the gears with a lightness and accuracy representing one of many virtues Honda fans appreciate.

And it seems like the company was able to improve the historical lack of tactile feedback from the TSX’s clutch pedal.

Honda engineers have always emphasized lightness of action over visceral connection, but the TSX’s clutch pedal makes a welcome step toward reminding the driver that he is operating a machine and conveying a sense of what that machine is doing. This improvement will be lost on the majority of customers, however, because 92 percent of TSX buyers choose the optional five-speed automatic transmission, according to the company.

But don’t expect an engaging drive once the clutch pedal is released, because the TSX uses electric power steering, or EPS — commonly a recipe for disastrously numb steering and unfortunately that’s the case here.

While it’s far from the worst execution of this technology (the Toyota Corolla has an ironclad grasp on that title), the TSX falls well short of Honda’s own benchmark. With its S2000 sports car the company has demonstrated that it can actually build cars with electric power assist that transmit to the driver a sense of the activities being carried out by the machine under command, and it would be nice to see the new TSX’s steering tuned to a similarly excellent level.

Because it’s a dressed-up version of the global Accord, and because that car has been launched in Europe with Honda’s acclaimed clean diesel engine, the TSX will be Honda’s first U.S.-market diesel. The diesel engine won’t actually arrive until next year, but we already know that Acura has been able to meet U.S. pollution standards without using the expensive exhaust scrubbers that have made other manufacturers’ diesels prohibitively expensive for U.S. consumers.

Image: Interior of the 2009 Acura TSX
2009 Acura TSX

The new TSX enjoys the benefit of the ceaseless advancements made in consumer electronics, including a navigation system that now depicts real time traffic and weather data on the screen. Unfortunately, Honda’s BMW envy has led the company to ape the damnable iDrive computer interface employed by its German rival. So rather than the previous easy-to-use touch screen system, the TSX is now saddled with a central control knob that operates its functions.

This contributes to an “even more intuitive interface,” according to chief engineer Hiroyuki Ikegami, demonstrating perhaps the worst sense of intuition since President Bush looked into Vladimir Putin’s soul and spotted a man who could be trusted.

There is also the requisite high-decibel sound system that promises to bundle an entire Sony Records studio and all the label’s performers into the car’s trunk, providing the most authentic music experience possible. OK, not really. But top record producer Elliot Scheiner (just nod and smile, pretending you know who he is, because it doesn’t really matter) lends his name to a super-duper high-clarity audio DVD system that does in fact produce discernibly better music reproduction.

The interior of the TSX suffers from far too much of a particular variety of shiny silver plastic that comprehensively populates cars from Acura, or at least that’s my guess because each new model the company releases is slathered in ever more of the stuff. It started on the inside, flattering the dashboard with a richness that can only be conveyed by, well, shiny plastic.

This plastic looks “technical,” according to Acura executives, apparently unaware that the bits of shiny silver material on authentically technical devices are typically made of aluminum, stainless steel, titanium or the like. Shiny plastic is within the purview of the faux, rather than the authentic.

Perhaps Honda has discovered something here that other manufacturers have missed. Harley-Davidson designers are forbidden from using chromed plastic on their motorcycles. If it’s shiny and metallic on a Harley, it’s metal. Apple iMacs are encased in aluminum rather than aluminum-colored plastic. There’s no shiny plastic on Harleys or Apples, but maybe that’s because Honda’s purchasing department cornered the market on the substance.

Making bigger a car whose popularity was in part the result of appreciation for its compact size, and delivering technology for technology’s sake — these are two symptoms of the problem that has led to the TSX and other Acuras to becoming loaded with loathsome silver plastic.

Car customers want and appreciate honest virtue and value, not glitz and pork. But most cars out there are getting fatter too so the TSX will still look slim standing beside them, and a new 40 MPG diesel engine will attract its share of customers, even when it’s dressed up in Acura’s plastic.