Thursday, November 15, 2012

2012 $30k Mid-size entry luxury sedan comparo

As my daily driver, I own a 2012 Acura TSX Special Edition. Often regarded as a 2nd-tier entry against some of the more established (read “European”) competitors, the TSX often gets overlooked by buyers who believe that the competition offers something that the TSX does not. This past week, I had the occasion to spend a fairly extended amount of time with two of the competitors in the same class as the TSX and decide whether or not I made the right choice.

To be fair, the comparison will not be exactly 1-to-1 as my TSX is fitted with Acura’s fantastic 6-speed manual transmission instead of an automatic like the two test cars. This obviously colors the driving involvement, but given that both the Volvo S60 and Mercedes Benz C250 are fitted with advanced automatics with at least as many gears, there is not too much of an advantage offered to the TSX.

Acura TSX Special Edition

2012 Acura TSX Special Edition
I have now owned the TSX for approximately 6 months. It is mine and my wife’s only car and we got it brand new from a dealer in the DC area. The car was not available with any options so we have to do without a built-in navigation system or any kind of color display for managing the features in the car. That said, the car does come very well equipped right off the bat: leather and suede seating surfaces with memory for the driver’s seat, power passenger seat adjustment, HID headlights, Bluetooth hands-free and streaming audio, USB and aux inputs, dual zone climate control, 60/40 split fold rear seat, and much more. At an as tested price of $32,405, it is by far the least expensive car of the bunch, but still feels like it fits well within the group.

Volvo S60 T5

2012 Volvo S60 T5 FWD
The next car in our test is a 2012 Volvo S60 T5 that I had for a full week and just over 200 miles behind the wheel. This car, fitted with the Premier package includes the power moon roof, leather seating surfaces, and the keyless drive system (which incidentally was not functioning correctly) carries an as-tested price of $34,845. However, the car is clearly ahead of the TSX when it comes to the cars infotainment setup as the S60 has Volvo’s very large and well sorted SENSUS system with its large color screen, though the instrument cluster sports the same type of lower resolution single color screen as the TSX. Bluetooth hands-free and streaming audio are standard along with a USB port under the center console armrest. The car is fitted with Volvo’s torquey turbo-charged 2.5L inline 5-cylinder motor and 6-speed automatic transmission.

Mercedes Benz C250 Luxury

2013 Mercedes Benz C250 Luxury
The third car in our test is a 2013 Mercedes Benz C250 Luxury fitted with MB’s all new 1.8L turbo-charged inline 4-cylinder and 7-speed automatic transmission. This car was about as base as one can get for this vehicle and yet, still has an as-tested price tag of $38,945. The only options on this particular test vehicle were the heated seats and the Becker Auto Pilot navigation system. This was the only car in the test to not have real leather, though one would barely notice it as the interior felt sufficiently premium. The car came with the standard 5.8-inch infotainment screen with the same controller used with the COMAND system.

User interfaces

Slightly button happy center console of the TSX
The three cars take very different approaches to user their driver and passenger interfaces. The TSX is the most focused on driving, with a small radius steering wheel and controls that can easily be used without taking your eyes off the road. The only screens are small and relatively low resolution with minimal information outside of immediately useful info. Everything falls comfortably to hand exactly where you expect it, but it does take a fair amount use to get fully comfortable with the location of the rather plentiful array of buttons.

Volvo's now standard waterfall center consolde
Volvo, on the other hand, has taken their traditional waterfall center console that has become a staple of their interiors and added the SENSUS system to it, providing a vivid high-resolution screen on all S60s, including those that do not have navigation. The center stack is simple to use, but some of the small buttons do not fall to hand easily due to their small size, especially the number pad that is used for virtually all of the radio functions. The instrument cluster has two small low resolution dot matrix screens, similar to the one on the TSX.

The slightly busy but premium looking MB
The MB definitely shows where the extra money they are asking gets spent. The screen in the center stack is high resolution and the one large screen built into the speedometer is impressively colorful and provides a useful variety of information, though not all at the same time, annoyingly enough. The COMAND interface’s knob is easily within reach, but the entire system is hard to use without taking your eyes off the road and not particularly intuitive. Additionally, the audio system is probably the worst to use from an interface perspective. It was the only vehicle that I could not figure out how to access Bluetooth audio without reaching for the manual.

Driving Impressions

Each car carries its own unique driving characteristic that is reflective of the reputation of its maker. They each have areas where they exhibit the greatest strength and areas where they feel the weakest, but, surprisingly, there is little overlap in these areas.

Lack of polished exhaust tips cheapens the look of the Volvo
For sheer thrust, Volvo’s turbo-charged 5-cylinder in combination with the 6-speed transmission is king of this hill. Drop the hammer and grab the wheel with a death grip because the torque steer when the turbo boost arrives is downright shocking. Once the front wheels are pointing straight again, stay on the throttle and the car just lunges forward, the turbo’s slightly shrill chirp punctuating the deep intake roar that fills the cabin. This is a fun car to drive on straight flat roads, but introduce some corners and the composure begins to slip away quickly.

While the steering feel is good and seems relatively precise, the limits of grip get reached very soon and the car begins to slide around mid-corner before the stability control kicks in and reins everything in before things start to get even a little exciting. Volvo’s reputation for safety still reigns supreme as any effort to have fun in this car is sternly put down by the computer, its virtual finger wagging at you as if to reprimand you for doing anything even slightly foolish.

The MB is a bit plain but with good road presence
The Mercedes, on the other hand, disappoints greatly with the newly introduced turbo-charged 1.8L inline-4. The specs, on paper, for this motor should make for a lot of fun and coupled with the 7-speed automatic, should return fantastic gas mileage. Sadly, the case as the motor felt flat the whole way through the rev range and returned fuel economy that was sadly the worst of this bunch. Where the Mercedes shines is the complete smoothness with which it goes about its job. Absolutely nothing could upset the motor and transmission and it shifted smooth as butter at all speeds and all throttle openings. However, the downside to this is that the throttle lag saps any directness out of throttle inputs and frustrates all attempts at precision, making fun driving an exercise in futility.

This is disappointing because the body structure of the MB feels like it is hewn from a solid block of granite. Add in the fact that it is the only RWD car in this comparison, this chassis has the potential to be the stand-out driver’s car. The grip is easily the highest of the group and the steering feel is good, but where this car really disappoints is the ride. For a car that is starting to get up there in price and does every other aspect of isolation so well, it is sad that where it falls flat is the inability to provide a smooth ride, especially over low speed bumps. Several potholes encountered and speed bumps sent such jarring reverberations through the cabin that I had to recheck the badge to make sure I had not mistakenly taken some dressed up Geo Metro by accident. I even checked the tire pressures just to make sure that was not the problem and the tire pressures were correctly set to factory spec. This is extremely unfortunate because this car could have been great fun.
Slab-sided and chiseled, this is one of the better angles of the TSX

By far the most balanced of the group is the TSX. Despite sporting on paper what should be the weakest motor, the sensation from behind the wheel is that the 4-cylinder is surprisingly spry with impressively linear power delivery and is accompanied by a throaty intake roar. Fitted with the rifle-bolt precise shifter of the 6-speed manual, the TSX is an absolute joy to drive and feels the most like a true extension of the driver’s senses. Even the electronic power steering that I had previously hated on in the earlier years of the 2nd generation cars feels great in comparison to the Volvo or the MB. Sure it is still not quite as good as the direct feel in the 1st generation cars, but it is a significant improvement from when the car was introduced for the 2009 model year.

The general sensation from behind the wheel of the TSX is that everything feels very balanced. The suspension is tuned to be stiff without being harsh. The car is easily steerable with the throttle though still exhibits understeer at the limits though would benefit greatly with from a limited slip differential. Grip, however, is a bit lacking as the tires fitted from the factory are pretty terrible. With nothing more than a tire swap, this would be an even better car as it would also cure some of the tire noise that penetrates the cabin while under way.

In the end…

As I stated earlier, each car is a reflection of its respective manufacturer’s values. The Volvo feels safe but unfinished, the MB feels solid but staid, and the TSX feels balanced but dated. There is much to like about each car, but at the end of the day, they appeal to different segments of the market. For my money, the balance of the TSX combined with the availability of the manual transmission and a great value trumped all other factors.

The TSX is by no means without fault. It certainly has developed a few odd noises that are intermittent and come and go with the temperature fluctuations. It also is on the loud side, in large part due to the tires fitted to the car from the factory. Also, Acura could stand to fit the car with a better looking and larger diameter set of wheels that better complement the look and handling capabilities of the car. These are ultimately minor quibbles in the grand scheme of things, but can easily influence a buyer's decision. And finally, the look of the front end is still an acquired taste, just to be kind.

However, if I were to abandon my addiction to shifting for myself, I believe the choice would have been much more difficult. The Volvo combines a lot of things that I genuinely need with some of the most comfortable seats I have ever experienced in a car. It is likely the car that would give the TSX a run for my money.