2011 Acura TSX Sport Wagon: First Drive

December 8, 2010

Carmakers [in 1998]: “SUVs are the new minivans, because young parents hate the minivan’s Soccer Mom connotation. Also wagons are a non-starter for precisely the same reason.”

Carmaker [Acura, in late 2010]: “The new-new: wagons.”

If you’re scratching your head, you aren’t alone, but the spin from Acura’s Vikki Poponi, the brand’s ASVP of product planning, is that a certain segment of just-minted Gen-Y parents stigmatize crossovers just as their own parents stigmatized minivans. Shorthand: said 20-somethings rode to soccer practice in 2000 in the backseat of a Lexus RX.

So the logical conclusion if you won’t buy an SUV, minivan or crossover is that you, the new mom or dad, must buy all that’s left—a wagon. Or, even better, Acura’s brand-new $30,960 TSX Sport Wagon.

Sold as the Accord Tourer in Europe, the 2011 American edition gets a more deluxe interior, retuned suspension and lightly altered appearance. What we don’t get on this side of the pond is a diesel engine option or a six-speed transmission. There’s just one engine, the 201-horespower, 2.4-liter four-cylinder, and only a five-speed, manually-shiftable auto-box transmission. (More on all of this, below, along with driving impressions.)

So, with all that spin does that mean that Acura is abandoning crossovers? Don’t be silly.

Acura’s MDX and RDX crossover sales are booming, both up nearly 50 percent so far this year. And Acura itself only predicts sales of the TSX Sport Wagon to be a modest 4,000 units in 2011, and estimates that the entire entry-luxury wagon slice of America’s auto pie is a dinky, 10,000 or so units. (For reference, baked into said slice are cars like the $29,000 Volvo V50 T5, $35,940 Audi A4 Avant and $36,200 BMW 328i Sport Wagon.)

But Acura wants a few bites out of this tiny sliver of sales. And because the entire brand is growing, with excellent numbers out of J.D. Power on initial quality as well as making cars that score very high residual value, Acura wants to use its momentum to push into spaces where the brand hasn’t previously offered options.

IHS Global Insight’s Aaron Bragman doesn’t believe the car will get to its predicted target, however, and doesn’t buy the wagon-is-the-new crossover spin. “It’s likely to be something of a sales disappointment. Wagons in general are not staging much of a comeback in the U.S. Crossovers can get all the car-like handling characteristics and room of a wagon (if not more), plus a higher seating position for better visibility.”

 

The Drive
Well, not ALL the handling characteristics of a car. The TSX Sport Wagon reminds this reviewer of what the considerably taller RDX cannot be, and even what the Subaru Outback has lost by continuing to grow taller and heavier.

It’s true that those vehicles get AWD and the TSX Sport Wagon is really just a TSX Sedan with a taller rear end (identical wheelbase; slight growth in length and height when including standard roof rails on the Wagon). But its additional 130 pounds of booty gives the TSX Sport Wagon superior front/rear balance vs. the sedan (57 front/43 rear vs. 60/40 for the sedan), not to mention cargo capacity that’s actually quite close to what you can get from an RDX: 25.8 cubic feet with the rear seats up in the TSX Sport Wagon vs. 27.8 cubic feet in the RDX. Drop the rear seats in the TSX Sport Wagon and you may not have the tall ceiling of the RDX, but the rears fold totally flat and the cargo capacity of 60.5 cubic feet is almost identical to that of the RDX.

Further, while the aforementioned Subaru boasts a larger cargo hold, it’s not not nearly as sharp handling an offering. You probably don’t cross-shop this Acura with that Subaru, but vs. those aforementioned bogies Acura itself is targeting —BMW, Audi, Volvo—it beats them all on total cargo, save the Volvo (also not as sporty a drive, by the way).

And while we’re talking better, the TSX Sport Wagon ekes out superior fuel economy stats (22 city/30 highway) vs. its German/Swedish competition, and of course it smokes the compact five-passenger luxo-crossover competition, too. (In case you’re wondering the RDX gets 19 city/24 highway.)

Beyond the digits, the Sport Wagon is truly sporty. Steering is light but talks to the driver and though it’s an electrical system rather than a mechanical one, it resists feeling either numb or dead, or weighting up at the wrong instance.

The engine in the Acura is also a real pleasure, rev’ing cleanly and freely to redline, and the revised TSX’s transmission will hold gears in Sport mode right up to the rev-limiter, and paddle shifters tick off shifts up or down fairly quickly, if not as smartly as you get in Audi’s DSG.   

This is, after all, an automatic transmission, not a dual-clutch manual, and you’ll find that shortcoming when you bomb into a turn expecting to be able to downshift from 3rd to 2nd gear, only to find that the electronics refuse your request. Ah, you want a true manual instead? That’s a no go, and you can blame your fellow Americans. Acura says fewer than 5% take the manual gearbox in the TSX sedan, which is a true shame because Acura/Honda make some of the very best manual transmissions on earth.

 

For a front-wheel drive car, the TSX Sport Wagon does very well in most circumstances, understeering predictably when pushed, but allowing a high degree of playfulness. If in fact the newly-nesting mom or dad is going to buy this car they’d never push it as hard as we did with Baby on Board at least, which leads me to believe it’s absolutely entertaining enough for most buyers.

Those who like really raucous wagons? Maybe not. For one thing, it’s just too nose-heavy vs., say, that 3-Series. Also, the suspension errs on the side of being smooth, but uneven, rolling pavement makes it feel soft-kneed rather than buttoned down, although this is only a first-impression takeaway. More roads, more time, and more varied conditions would be necessary to draw any absolute conclusions about handling.

The Acura TSX Sport Wagon's interior is clean and smartly laid out, the seats are supportive and comfortable, and cabin noise is pretty hushed. This isn’t quite the uber-sexy quarters you can find in the A4 Avant, but Acura gives you a pile of standard amenities, like leather seats and HID headlamps, that are all extras from Audi.

And that’s all part of Acura’s formula, believing that if the new-new is wagons, the new economy for entry-luxury buyers is bang for the buck. And these days that’s a pretty sound argument.

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