Acura TSX Sport Wagon — Practicality with a dose of luxury

 By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

The Acura TSX Sport Wagon is a charming addition to the Acura lineup and is the beneficiary of spectacular timing, its greatest attribute being its fuel-sipping 4-cylinder engine rated at 30 miles to the gallon in highway driving, just as a new era of rising pump prices began accelerating.

A selling point certainly for a very pleasant and entertaining entry-level luxury hauler as gas prices again take a bigger bite out of the family pocketbook. Perhaps that’s why Acura decided not to put its V-6, an optional choice in the TSX sedan, in the newly minted wagon.

Why a wagon in the new age of crossovers, and a wagon in the Acura lineup that’s currently led in sales by the mid-sized MDX crossover? True, crossovers are without question all the rage, but Acura has seen the need for an alternative — even as it pushes MDX and RDX crossovers out the door.

Wagons have always been a worthy alternative to the sport utility crossovers with better handling and superior fuel economy, but with about the same space. For instance, cargo space in the TSX wagon, measured at 60 cubic feet with seats folded, is almost identical to its Acura RDX crossover sibling. So the sport wagon may be just the ticket for the young family on the go or the empty nester who values space, economy and the sports sedan experience.

Acura in 2011 only expects to sell about 4,000 copies of the TSX wagon, but they are
banking on even broader sales once the public has an opportunity to get up close and personal with the car. It has an attractive stance, a looker that can stand up to the competition including BMW, Audi and Volvo in the small luxury wagon segment.

We discovered on the winding roads north of San Francisco and trips back and forth across the passes of the Santa Monica Mountains in Southern California that the TSX is a joy to drive, surprisingly lively considering the only available engine is a 2.4-liter four-cylinder making 201 horsepower and 170 pound-feet of torque. Obviously the TSX is not a performance champion, but its overall balance and stability on the twists and turns makes it a contender.

Acura officials say there will be no manual transmission option because so few people buy it. They point out that last year only three percent of TSX sedan buyers opted for a shift-it-yourself model. For that reason we wish Acura had taken the extra step and replaced the respectable but aging five-speed automatic with the new six-speed that will be found in the upcoming 2012 Acura TL, providing better gas mileage and perhaps improved performance.

Even though we see a need for another gear, the five-speed automatic is about as good as it gets with smooth unobtrusive shifts. And when the right foot calls for a kick-down, it’s there without hesitation.

The Acura is energetic enough to offer rewarding driving without having to constantly keep the accelerator pushed to the floor. When it is necessary to approach the 7,000 rpm redline, the engine delivers a melodic sound, extremely easy on the ears, unlike so many harsh, buzzy 4-bangers in small cars.

For comparison purposes, the sport wagon has been measured from 0 to 60 in 8.7 seconds with a quarter-mile time of 16.6 seconds. Mileage is 22 mpg city/30 mpg highway and 25 mpg combined according to the EPA.

Good news for the budget minded, the TSX wagon comes well equipped for a base price of $31,820. That’s just $1,350 more than the comparable sedan. As with all Acura products, there are no options. So if you want everything available, opt for the Technology trim level at $35,470 including destination charge.

The technology package includes Acura’s excellent voice recognition navigation system and the outstanding ELS surround sound audio system with 10 speakers. The upgraded audio system plays either standard CDs or music DVDs. We were blown away several years ago when we first heard Acura’s cutting-edge sound in a TL. The 10-speaker 415-watt premium surround system takes the music into a new dimension. It rivals most home entertainment systems in its sweeping sound with outstanding treble and base clarity and separation. It’s awesome.

The Tech trim level also includes Acura’s equally awesome navigation system with voice recognition making it one of the easiest to use. Even the nav’s knob/joystick controller is generally intuitive, so you won’t need a degree in Information Technology to operate the system.

Acura also keeps the most used functions on the center stack. Radio pre-sets and climate controls can be easily accessed on the console or through steering wheel controls. The navigation together with the premium audio system, a review camera, a hard disc drive, dual zone climate controls and a power tailgate make the Technology trim level worth the $3,650 price of admission.

Safety includes a full range of airbags, stability and traction control, and four-wheel disc antilock brakes with brake-force distribution. The wagon’s crash safety has not yet been tested, but in 2010 government crash testing, the TSX sedan earned a perfect five-star sweep for all frontal- and side-impact tests. The TSX likewise aced the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety tests, scoring “Good” (the highest possible) in both frontal-offset and side-impact tests. So we expect the wagon to fare as well.

Unfortunately, two safety items which we really care for are not available.  All-wheel drive for one, although most of the competition offers it, wasn’t on Acura’s radar. We believe that a family hauler which can be loaded up with lots of weight in the rear should avail customers an all-wheel drive system. The second item is the excellent Blind Spot Warning system found in a number of Acura and Honda vehicles but not here. If Acura didn’t want to over-pack the Tech trim level it should be made available as a standalone option even though that goes against Acura’s marketing theory of no individual factory options.

We found the driving position to our liking. The seats proved supportive and comfortable and reaching a “just right” position behind the wheel was accomplished. Rear-seat passengers are also treated to livable seats, and except for tall folks leg room should prove adequate.

The new sport wagon is stylish (with the exception of Acura’s trademark big blade grille), it offers entertaining driving dynamics on the twists and turns, it features intuitive controls and the latest technology, and it will haul as much cargo as a compact crossover. And the gas bill will be much less than with a similar-sized crossover.

It seems like a winner especially for the family on the go who can afford a dose of luxury with their transportation.

Base price: $31,820; as driven, $35,470
Engine: 2.4-liter 4-cylinder
Horsepower: 201 @ 7,000 rpm
Torque: 170 foot-pounds @ 4,300 rpm
Drive: front wheel
Transmission: 5-speed automatic
Seating 2/3
Wheelbase: 106.5 inches
Length: 189.4 inches
Curb weight: 3,599 pounds
Turning circle: 36.7 feet
Luggage capacity: 25.8 cubic feet
Cargo capacity: 60.5 cubic feet
Fuel capacity: 18.5 gallons (premium)
EPA rating: 30 mpg highway, 22 mpg city
0-60: 8.7 seconds (Car and Driver)
Also consider: Audi A4 wagon, BMW 3-Series wagon, Volvo V50

The Good:
• Fuel economy of a sedan, cargo capacity of a crossover
• Stylish inside and out
• High level of technology

The Bad:
• All-wheel drive not offered

The Ugly:
• Middle-of-the-road performance for the segment