- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 11, 2003

For people who enjoy driving for its own sake, a sports car is the way to go. There’s nothing quite like the rush you get snaking through the curves on a mountain road in a Mazda Miata, BMW Z4, Porsche Boxster, Nissan 350Z, Chevrolet Corvette or Toyota MR-2 Spyder. No SUV need apply.

Trouble is, with the exception of the new Mazda RX-8, sports cars are all two-seaters. That’s part of their charm, but it also means that they are toys that not everybody can afford.

The alternative is a sports sedan, which delivers some of the same tactile sensations, but can also carry a small family limited to one car. Sports sedans — and even a few sports wagons — can accommodate four or five people, with room for their luggage.

There are any number of credible contenders, with almost every manufacturer world-wide offering at least one model. Though the definition is somewhat murky, a good sports sedan should offer exceptional handling, more power than a typical family sedan and, for the truly devout enthusiasts, a manual transmission.

Acura, the luxury division of Honda, uses the sports sedan designation for its capable TL model, especially the S-Type, which is a midsize with six-cylinder power but no manual transmission.

Expanding the choices, Acura has developed the 2004 TSX, an all-new sports sedan that was spawned from the smaller Japanese and European versions of the Honda Accord. It slots nicely into the Acura lineup.

With an overall length of 15 feet 3 inches, it’s 11 inches longer than the RSX sports coupe and about nine inches shorter than the TL sedan.

To Acura watchers, the TSX could be regarded as a replacement for the old Integra four-door sedan, which was dropped because of poor sales when the Integra was transformed into the RSX.

Presumably, the new TSX, as a stand-alone model, won’t suffer the same fate.

Though it is intended to compete against the likes of the BMW 3-Series and the Audi A4, the TSX is available only with four-cylinder power.

But it’s a nifty high-performance adaptation of the same 2.4-liter four that powers the U.S. Accord.

With Honda’s variable-valve timing system, 16 valves and twin overhead camshafts, this little beauty smoothly spins out a solid 200 horsepower with a good measure of torque, or low-speed pulling power.

Vibration and harshness have been neutered to the point where, at idle, it’s hard to tell the engine is even running.

The power gets to the front wheels through a six-speed manual transmission that is one of the best on the planet.

Shifts are positive, smooth and easy, with none of the clunky feel characteristic of some shift linkages.

With the stick, even a not-so-skilled driver can propel the TSX to 60 mph in the six- to seven-second range.

A marginally slower five-speed automatic with a manual shift mode is offered as a no-cost option.

As might be expected, the TSX has a fully independent suspension system that is snubbed tightly for handling capability.

But in the tradition of great sports sedans, it also can soak up pavement bumps and depressions without losing its composure.

Though the ride is not overly soft, it’s not uncomfortably harsh either.

The TSX interior is, in a word, classy. Instruments, dash and controls display a modern simplicity of design and quality of material.

Instruments and readouts are illuminated and easy to see day and night.

The leather-covered seats, both front and rear, are deep and supportive with plenty of bolstering to keep people in place during enthusiastic driving.

In the outboard seats in back, there’s a surprising amount of head and knee room, despite the intrusion of the standard sunroof.

There’s a seat belt for a center passenger, but it’s an uncomfortable perch that should be used only in an emergency.

Amenities include side-curtain air bags, antilock brakes, traction control with vehicle stability assist, 17-inch alloy wheels, dual-zone automatic climate control, heated front seats, a motorized glass sunroof, remote locking, a manual tilt-and-telescope steering wheel, a premium sound system with eight speakers and a six-disc in-dash CD changer, and power windows and mirrors.

All of this comes with a $26,990 price tag.

The only factory option available is Acura’s voice-activated navigation system, which responds to about 70 different voice commands.

It costs an additional $2,000 and was installed on the test car.

Looking toward the same sort of people who are attracted to the BMW 3-Series and the Audi A4, the TSX has a price advantage.

On the other hand, a shrewd buyer could go over to the Honda store and get a six-cylinder Accord, which is less expensive than the TSX but offers 240 horsepower in a larger package, albeit with an automatic transmission.

In the end, however, part of the attraction of the TSX is its six-speed and near-optimum sports-sedan size.

Despite carrying about 60 percent of its weight over the front wheels, the TSX has a nimble, balanced feel on the back roads as well as in the maze of urban traffic.

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