By on May 27, 2010

It was a gloomy April afternoon when I “won” my first “race”. Hours before, I had stood among a nervous, shuffling group of men as Tommy Byrne, the mercurial, self-destructive, and inhumanly talented Competition Director of the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, had explained what we would need to do to survive his “comp school”: Don’t crash the car, make sure you follow the rules, and don’t drive too slowly. Simple as that. I did not know at the time that I would finish the season with a controversial demotion down the podium of the NASA National Championship, and I certainly did not know that not all of the men around me would survive our first year racing together. I just knew that I wanted to win everything I could.

My car for that comp school was #26 in Mid-Ohio’s fleet of five-speed, four-cylinder Acura TSX A-Specs. (Correction: this was a six-speed. I never got it up to sixth. Thanks to hans007) Although I’ve raced other Hondas since, from the Pakistan Express ’89 Civic Si to the Compass 360R Mugen-motored Grand-Am ’08 Civic Coupe, that tough little sedan is burned into my mind. With this week’s announcement that Mid-Ohio has returned its fleet of 2006 TSX A-Specs to Honda, I thought I would take a moment to share my memories of the car with you. It’s depressing to consider, but in many ways that TSX was the last truly good Honda to come to these shores.

Comp School started with lead-follow exercises to make sure we all understood the “basic line” around Mid-Ohio and could maintain an acceptable pace on-track. I chose #26 at random, climbed in, and looked around. The TSX was a product of Honda’s decision to split the Accord’s development for different markets. There would be “wide-body” and “standard-body” variants. The United States received “wide-body” Accords and the Acura TL, which was a wide-body derivative. Japan and Europe received a “narrow-body” car which was more compact all-’round. The split happened in 1998. This is a photo of a narrow-body Accord of the ’98-’02 generation I took in the Bahamas:

It’s easy to see how the TSX was a successor to this car, and indeed, the Acura TSX is fundamentally the Euro Accord with a 205-horsepower “K24A2” 2.4-liter engine. The interior of the Mid-Ohio School cars was relatively intact, although parts of the dashboard and interior panels were cut out to accommodate the bolt-in rollcage. The selector for the manual transmission was loose, wobbly, and long-throw; I’d arrived for school in my Porsche 993 and was not quite prepared for the will-it-or-won’t-it nature of the TSX’s shifts.

I fell in a few cars behind Bryne and was immediately taken aback by his pace. I thought I was quick around Mid-O, but Byrne knew both the car and the track far better than I did. Eventually most of us managed to come up to speed. Another instructor, American Iron racer Aaron Bambach, picked up the stragglers in his TSX and herded them along.

After a variety of drills and “van-arounds” in which Byrne told us exactly how fast the TSX could handle each corner of the track when approached perfectly, we had a race from a rolling start. I began mid-pack, attacked from the flag, and finished well ahead of everyone else. On its Goodyear F1 GS-D3 tires, the TSX didn’t have much natural understeer and was very responsive to mid-corner corrections. Momentum driving was the name of the game, however, because the KA24 was utterly gutless. Let it fall anywhere beneath 5500rpm and the silver Acuras behind you would flash-zoom into your rearview mirror. I could not believe how slow the TSX was in a straight line. If Byrne wanted to make sure we never candy-assed it into a corner, using these cars was a solid way to discourage said behavior.

The next race was from a standing start, and I went from about eleventh to first in three laps. Bambach had mentioned that “trail braking is mandatory, not optional, for top drivers” and the TSX rewarded it in spades. His suggested entry speed for Turn 1 was 89 miles per hour, and at that speed there was a nervous, dancing energy to the Acura’s balance. For the last lap of the race, I diced with a Spec Miata which had also shown up for school; in the Esses I couldn’t see the Miata’s roof when it was on my right side. No sheetmetal was bent, however, and it was time for the final event.

This time, Bambach placed me at the very back for the rolling start. I moved forward with authority (enough so for one student to complain online afterwards that I had risked his life with a late pass) and found myself in third place. In the rear-view mirror, a TSX appeared, faster and surer than mine. It was Bambach, who had come out of the pit lane for the sole purpose of screwing with me. Over the right-hander in Nine, the TSX drifted the rear wheels all the way down the hill as Bambach’s car mirrored mine in a 100-mph angry ballet. He moved for the inside on Eleven. I shut the door without equivocation. I was starting to love the car… to enjoy it, anyway. These little Hondas took any direction you could give them except for “fast forward”.

The checkered flag flew with me still in third, having held off Bambach. No doubt Aaron wasn’t trying very hard, but I was pleased as punch. At the end of the day, the Acura felt as fresh as it had at the beginning, and over the course of five years and 330,000 miles in service, the fleet did not suffer a single engine failure. Make no mistake: these were high-quality cars in the authentic Honda tradition, and although they felt flimsy to drive, they were clearly built to last a long time.

We’d done it. We had graduated Comp School. Tommy shook our hands and told a few stories from his days as an Indy Lights and Formula One driver. I went home that day an authentic racer, surrounded by men whose spirits were as high as mine.

The TSXes are gone now, returned to American Honda as part of a lend-lease operation that prevents them from falling into the hands of nostalgia suffers such as myself. They were appliances, but they were good ones. Quiet, reliable, friendly around the track. In their place now, there are thirty-seven examples of the new “beaky” TSX. It weighs more than the old car and doesn’t seem to have any more power, so I wouldn’t look to beat my TSX times in it. Still, I’m not sure there’s any better way to start your racing career than with Tommy’s school.

I’m ashamed to say that I did not particularly notice John Engle on that April day. He was one of the quiet men; older, reserved but friendly. He was neither particularly fast nor particularly slow. Four months later, he was involved in an incident on Mid-Ohio’s back straight. The rumor is that he did not survive the helicopter ride. He is gone now, like the fleet of silver Acuras, gone to who knows where, never to return.

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44 Comments on “The Last Good Honda: Mid-Ohio Retires its TSX Fleet...”

  • avatar

    The beak TSX was my first press junket, and when I got back, I drove the 1st gen car for comparison. The steering on the beak car is dull and unresponsive, the motor gutless. The 1st gen car still felt like a Honda.

  • avatar

    Yes, those TSX’s were a good size, not all bloated like today’s cars…and not ugly either.

    But hey…the buying public wants Acuras with big bloated bodies, slushboxes and that hideous bling bling fang tooth grill

    The bulk of us Americans still equate big bloated heavy cars with luxury.

  • avatar

    i had a first gen tsx as well. an 05 one. it was an appliance, but as good as one could get.

    also the manual ones were 6 speeds and you wrote 5… yeah picking nits.

    too bad acura has nothing like it now in their lineup, its about as good and fun as fwd gets in a sedan form. i replaced mine recently with an audi.

  • avatar

    “This time, Bambach placed me at the very back for the rolling start. I moved forward with authority (enough so for one student to complain online afterwards that I had risked his life with a late pass) and found myself in third place.”

    That’s right…I AM dangerous…

  • avatar

    I have an 06 MDX, and recently was given a new MDX loaner while mine was in for service. I hated it. All I can say is that Honda, and Acura in particular has lost their way. Not only are the cars and trucks ugly, they just do not have the same feel of quality to them. We had purchased a new 2003 TL in the fall of that year but traded it in a few years later due to fear of the widespread transmission problems. I wish I had kept it. It was fast, well put together, and handled great for what it was. I have been a Honda customer since 1983, but they have lost me. Transmissions can be replaced, but ugly will always be ugly.Don’t the new tsx’s have electric steering now? Wonder how the students and instructors at the driving school feel about that?

  • avatar

    I guess I’ll have to hold on to my ’06 6-Speed for a while. It really is a great size and does everything good, but not great. The only thing great about it is the 6-Speed, it’s a very nice transmission, feels so positive and direct.

    For what it’s worth, I don’t find the TSX slow, but it’s all relative I guess. My ’04 Accord V6 was definitely faster, but it was also duller and fairly unreliable.

  • avatar

    Theres a nice read about Honda over at Edmunds –

    • 0 avatar

      That’s interesting, and I can relate to the feeling they just don’t have it anymore. I just got rid of my wife’s ’05 Pilot with 89k on it due to lingering mechanical issues. We replaced it with a CX-9, and felt like real bumpkins marveling over the power liftgate, Bose stereo and intelligent key that we’d never even imagined existed as Honda owners. I’m not looking forward to replacing my ’07 Accord, but the thought of getting some of the goodies I’ve been missing out on over the years in a different car is appealing.

    • 0 avatar

      Don’t be fooled by the tech. I own a Mazda 3 (2005) and my dad owns an Accord (2003). The Accord is far and away the superior car, in almost every way despite the fact that it doesn’t have auto headlights, rain-sensing wipers, steering wheel controls, a sunroof or really any tech bits. The sounds it makes, the quality and smoothness of the engine, the superior build quality and materials, design etc. Mazda uses the techno crap to cover up that it can’t compete in build quality with Honda, so really…don’t let it fool you.

  • avatar
    Jack Denver

    So why are these the “last good Hondas” ? The article doesn’t deliver what the title promises. That sounds like geezertalk anyway – the grass is always greener in the good old days.

  • avatar

    Please tell us about the faults of S2000.

    • 0 avatar

      Good point, but the (intended) topic seems to be mass market cars. (Also, the S2000 was designed more than ten years ago, and was discontinued.)

      Last week I borrowed a low-mile 1993? (2nd gen) Acura Integra from a relative. Sadly, it confirmed this blog opinion piece. I had almost forgotten Honda’s low front suspensions and hoodlines, but was reminded when sizing up the possibility of submarining under a pickup or SUV in a collision. I enjoyed the small size and responsiveness and disliked the buzziness. Unfortunately it was A.T. so there were awkward moments downshifting at a traffic light. Whee! They don’t make them like that any more. I’ve also borrowed a friends’ recent Acura TL-S – nice car but might as well have been made by a completely different company. But I don’t know if they could even sell cars like the 1980s-90s models in the U.S. market any more.

    • 0 avatar
      Jack Baruth

      It weighs nearly as much as a Boxster S while being gutless, cramped, ugly, and unreliable (in Honda terms).

      Also, it’s been discontinued.

    • 0 avatar

      but it still kicks ass in A-stock.

  • avatar

    I drove this car new in 06 and thought it a very reasonable Honda. I drove the TL and liked it quite a bit more. The engine had quite a bit more oomph, and the wider track made cornering at speed more stable. I was always surprised that although the TL felt heavier, it drove more nimbly that it’s little brother. Surprised to hear that the throw was long. I don’t remember the TSX shifter, but the TL is a very short throw compared to most of the others in its class.

  • avatar

    Jack, have you had a chance to drive the 2010 TL SH-AWD with the six-speed stick?

    I just spent a week with it and really enjoyed it..though I imagine our driving styles are slightly different.

  • avatar

    What I think you’re seeing is Honda getting rather too full of themselves, and it’s a very common disease in automobilia, one that’s taken root at Daimler, BMW and VW as well as nearly having brought GM to it’s knees It happens when you make an error in logic:

    “Since everything we do has been right, anything we do must be right because we’re the ones doing it.”

    Or, to put it simply, hubris.

    The TSX really is a perfect example of this: it is (was) a perfectly good car, but it’s likely that a big swinging dick (henceforth “BSD”; note that BSDs don’t have to be men) at Honda thought that electric steering would be a technical marvel. Another BSD thought up Acura’s grille. Yet another thought he knew more about suspension tuning. The end result is a vehicle that appeals to BSDs, and those BSDs can’t fathom how customers would think differently.

    You can see this whenever a company releases a product that makes you think “Who, exactly, did they have in mind when this thing was on the drawing board?” The answer is that they didn’t really think about who they were going to sell it to at all.

    By the way, this is very, very different than what’s befallen Toyota (and, I think, Ford in the past). In Toyota’s case we’re dealing more with paranoia and a resultant tunnel-vision that looks like hubris from the outside.

  • avatar

    When our 2000 TL was in service, we got a new (back then, now it’s the previous-gen) Acura loaner (I’m pretty sure it was the TSX). I prefer the TL, because it had the V6 and was more comfortable and quieter. The TSX by comparison was buzzy and loud. I’d rather take a previous-gen TL with the stick over a TSX.

    • 0 avatar

      The TL is a better luxury car, sure, but then it’s also a lot more expensive.

      And now you can get a TSX with a V6 and a curb weight that rivals the previous gen TL’s.

    • 0 avatar
      Car Ramrod

      But you can’t get the V6 TSX with a 6-speed. If I wasn’t paranoid about reliability and repair costs, I’d soon be looking for a lightly used A4.

  • avatar

    I find it amusing that a fairly light-weight car with 205hp is derided as “slow and gutless”. I suppose coming from a 993, but in the real world 205hp (even with Honda’s typical torque deficiency) seems far more than adequate to me.

    • 0 avatar
      Jack Baruth

      On a racetrack, EVERYTHING seems slow. The Switzer GT2 I drive on-track occasionally has almost eight hundred horsepower at the back wheels. After ten laps, you’re thinking, “Can’t we get to the next corner any quicker?” :)

  • avatar

    I never found the gas mileage that great for a 4 cylinder on a TSX

  • avatar

    SSLByron, are you saying that a Suzuki Kashisi or whatever it is called is better than a TSX? Would you choose one over a TSX if you were given a choice? Come on!

  • avatar

    VW GLI > Acura TSX

  • avatar

    25mpg for a 4 cylinder? Can’t you get this out of a small 6 (like a 325i)?

  • avatar

    Not to deviate too far from the original article, but I agree Honda has lost their way in recent years. In my family we’ve owned many Hondas, but none recently. They are no longer the leaders in ergonomics, value or reliablity that they used to be. Of course, they are still good quality vehicles – but they seem to have taken the American consumer for granted. Some of their recent interior designs have been horrible.

    But we do still own a 1999 CRV – the first small SUV on the market. Ours has leather seats and a 5-speed manual (same clutch after 127,000 miles). The 2.0 liter engine is not the quickest but still smooth as glass. The clutch shifts so lightly, the interior is very large considering the small exterior size, visibility is excellent over the short low hood, the interior ergonomics are near perfect, the 4WD works well in rain and snow, and we see 26 mpg. Typical brilliant Honda design of that time. Most important, that CRV is actually very fun to drive with the stick, pushing in and out of corners on its little 15 ” tires and routinely revving the engine to 5 and 6000 rpm., That CRV has a soul – something missing from the newer Hondas. I plan to keep it until it dies – but that might just mean forever.

  • avatar

    Great article on several fronts. I wanted to make it to Mid Ohio and take some courses when I was younger, but I never got the chance. I still think getting away to one of the weekend courses would be great.

    I’ve never owned an Acura, although I was seriously considering an RSX recently. I am trying to hold onto my 2000 Accord Coupe for as long as I can, however. It may not be all that quick, but it responds to driver input with the decisiveness and eagerness of a heavily caffeinated Jack Russell terrier. I now think of Honda as something akin to an old friend that lost its joy of life, and I’d like to find a way to help it turn off the TV, put away the cheese puffs and remember what it was like to run until it couldn’t stop laughing.

  • avatar
    John Horner

    My everyday daily driver is a 2006 TSX. I guess I should be happy that Honda went backwards with the newer generation TSX, because now I can continue to enjoy my ’06 for a very, very long time. Fuel economy wise, my car runs in the low 20s for local driving and in the low to mid 30s on the highway depending on speed. Not many conventional power train vehicles of its size do much better than that.

  • avatar

    Nice write up, liked the narrative. I had never bothered to look up what trail braking is until this article, turns out it is something I always considered normal driving on the back-roads of Upstate NY. Of course I learned it in another gutless Japanese wonder, toyota tercel (TT for short lol). It was like driving a road legal go kart.

    • 0 avatar

      That’s a good description of the Tercel. It was fun to drive as long as you weren’t running the A/C.

      I used to say that the A/C compressor button was near the gearshift to make it easy to shut off when getting onto a highway.

    • 0 avatar

      You had a/c on yours?!?! That makes me jealous, I have a lot of summertime memories being stuck both in traffic and to the back my seat’s pleather, always had change of t-shirt on hand lol. I had to check the weather if I wanted to take a girl out for a date in my car lest she be turned off by my backsweat!

    • 0 avatar

      Yes, I got the AC. Dealer installed. I had just moved to Virginia from New York and my co-workers told me I wouldn’t keep the car very long if I didn’t. Being that it was January, I decided to take their word for it.

      About 4 yrs into owning it, I heard an underhood thud as I pulled into my neighborhood. It was the idler pulley for the AC belt hitting the radiator. Mechanic showed me that the installer had left out a bolt.

  • avatar

    I was fortunate enough to take the Mid-Ohio Acura High Performance Driving classes in May 2006, in preparation for returning in July with my car for and Audi Club event. I had TSX #29. Those cars will be missed.

  • avatar

    Had a ’99 Civic Si and loved that little car. Everything the B16 lacked in torque it made up for in revs and the smile factor. Liked the looks of the TSX, but could not ever own a FWD car again. The new Acuras are so hideous, so positively disgusting to look at, it’s almost as if the entire line is made up of buck-toothed, cross-eyed inbreds. Put any one of them next to an Infiniti or a Lexus and you can’t help but wonder, WTF is Honda thinking???

  • avatar

    I have to agree on the “feel” of the newer cars being different. I drove my friend’s 2008 Civic Coupe for the first time the other day. The interior textures are weird, the engine sounds wheezy, the steering is way too light and has zero feel, the seats suck, and even the turn signal noise is horrible.

    I think I’ll hold on to my beater ’98 Prelude for a while longer.

  • avatar

    Unfortunately (or fortunately) you can’t make a honda/acura of the 90’s today, crash standards won’t allow it. A few car companies began selling safety, and Americans bought into it. cars that aren’t 4/5 star safety rated aren’t going to be brought to market. the average mid-size sedan is up about 1,000 lbs and 100 hp over the past 15-20 years…

    Now that doesn’t excuse the ugly stick Acura designers started using in 2009…

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