Dan Frio, Automotive Editor
If you forget for a moment Acura's controversial styling direction of the last half decade, the 2011 Acura TSX Sport Wagon may actually be the luxury automaker's boldest move in recent memory. Testing a five-door edition of its bread-and-butter sedan in a market generally averse to wagons, Acura opens itself up to distraction and embarrassment. After all, times are tough for wagons, as the crossover sport-utilities have pushed them off the buying consideration list for many. Indeed, the Volvo wagon that once was an icon of the American landscape is gradually disappearing with the decision to discontinue the V70 wagon for 2011 and the impending end to the smaller V50.
Then again, Acura has hedged its bet with modest sales goals and ease of production; the TSX Sport Wagon is already sold in Japan and Europe as a Honda Accord wagon. And on second look, the company's strategy seems sound. At $35,470, a fully featured TSX Sport Wagon costs less than a base Audi A4 or BMW 3 Series wagon, has more room for stuff than the Audi, and gets better fuel economy than the BMW.
Then again, the TSX won't exactly quicken your pulse, nor does it offer all-wheel drive like its premium rivals. The Volkswagen Jetta SportWagen, meanwhile, offers more cargo room for less money, but is decidedly stodgier in its look and drive. The slightly smaller Volvo V50 is also worth consideration. At almost the same cost, the Volvo puts up better performance numbers than the TSX Sport Wagon and matches it for style.
The four-cylinder engine in the new 2011 TSX Sport Wagon makes enough power to get by, but not much more. The 201 horsepower and 170 pound-feet of torque generated by the 2.4-liter inline-4 are just enough to hustle this 3,594-pound wagon out of its own way. Fortunately, the standard five-speed automatic transmission makes the TSX feel faster than it is. Once you engage the Sport mode, the transmission hangs onto gears until the driver commands a shift from the paddles on the steering wheel. (The paddles also work in standard Drive mode, although the transmission will still shift at its own discretion.)
Conferring the "Sport" designation on the TSX wagon is a generous interpretation of the word, however. In Edmunds performance testing, the TSX Sport Wagon takes a relaxing 8.8 seconds to accelerate from a standstill to 60 mph — about the same as the diesel-powered Jetta SportWagen (another broad application of "Sport"). But what the TSX wagon lacks in power, it makes up for with respectable fuel economy, since it's rated at 22 mpg in the city and 30 mpg on the highway — better than the BMW wagon and with the slightest edge on the Audi.
The TSX Sport Wagon's stiff body structure and firm suspension calibration compensate for some of the engine's shortcomings, though. A unique hoop-style body structure reduces chassis flex, while a front double-wishbone and rear multilink suspension (in tandem with electric steering first developed on the Acura NSX supercar), offers crisp reaction in corners or during evasive maneuvers in traffic. Enthusiasts will enjoy the taut control of the suspension dampers, although for many the ride may be too firm.
At the same time, while the TSX Sport Wagon can hide some of its mass on twisty roads, its weight reveals itself fully when trying to stop. In Edmunds brake testing, this car requires 127 feet to stop from 60 mph, just average for its class.
Like the sedan, the 2011 Acura TSX Sport Wagon envelops the driver and front passenger in a similar cockpit-style layout. It's not tight, but there's a distinct compartment feel that won't suit everyone. But the firm, shapely seats further the wagon's sporting intent, as does the compact leather ring of a steering wheel. Even the leather-topped shift knob and boot feel as though they came from something with a racing pedigree.
Sealed pillars, thicker glass and generous sound-absorbing material hold road and wind noise at bay, making the TSX Sport Wagon quiet transport, but also adding to its overall heft.
A wagon delivers a different kind of utility than a typical crossover. As a vehicle, it is more like a car than a truck, so it's sleeker, lighter and more fuel-efficient. It is a passenger car in people-mover terms, offering easier ingress and egress and a quieter, more luxurious cabin environment. The cargo space it offers isn't necessarily large, but the low liftover height and flat load floor make it slightly more useful on a daily basis, especially because you don't have to get past an enormous crossover-style hatch to get to it.
With nearly 61 cubic feet of cargo capacity with the 60/40-split rear seat folded down, the TSX Sport Wagon beats the Audi A4 and essentially ties the BMW. Only the two bulky housings surrounding the Acura's rear suspension obstruct an otherwise flat load floor. A power liftgate rises to yield an opening that's 28 inches high, while the liftover height into the cargo area is just 24 inches off the ground, which makes lifting and sliding objects into the cargo hold a cinch. The rear area also offers a handful of secret stash compartments that would make a CIA director envious.
Acura marketing centers on advanced technology, and the TSX Sport Wagon features most of the modern convenience trappings you'd expect. The center stack is thick with buttons, most of them shortcuts to functions also controlled through the multimedia display. We found some features were better accessed using the chunky dial stalk and menu screens, while the buttons were saved for the most frequently used functions (like constantly toying with audio frequencies).
Opting for a TSX Sport Wagon with the Technology package not only nets a navigation system, but also a hard drive that stores 15 gigabytes' worth of music. It's a small feature of seemingly limited importance, especially as smartphones proliferate. The digital compression used to store large music files will make audiophiles gnash, but the sound is minimally compromised and most folks will wonder how they lived without it.
Design/Fit and Finish
Inside the TSX Sport Wagon, the driver interfaces — gauges, center stack, navigation — are arrayed with an artist's eye and encased in a wavy dash cowl that curves down into the center stack. Even though the brushed aluminum accents are in fact plastic, the whole presentation from dash to door panel is a muted and classy look. The "floating dials" in the gauge cluster are an additional styling flourish.
Leather-wrapped surfaces like the seats, steering wheel, shift knob and door armrests enhance the TSX Sport Wagon's premium feel. This is a car that could comfortably swallow whole sections of interstate thoroughfares and never leave you feeling tired or cheap after a long day. That said, we did notice that the hard plastic areas most prone to rough contact — seat bases, glovebox door — easily mar and scratch.
Who should consider this vehicle
The formula isn't inventive; take a successful sedan, stretch it and add a hatch. The 2011 Acura TSX Sport Wagon can serve multiple masters, ranging from the couple who rides mountain bikes on the weekend or the busy parent shuttling between soccer and piano lessons to the animal rescue volunteer taking a Great Dane down to the bark park. Anyone who covets civility and versatility — with occasional inspiration to hammer the throttle on two-lanes — will consider the TSX Sport Wagon money well spent.
But the TSX also competes in an inscrutable segment. Americans tend to like wagons of the German sporting persuasion, or those that evoke domestic muscle like the late, lamented Dodge Magnum. Japanese wagons haven't enjoyed much success since Honda dropped its Accord variant back in the mid-1990s. To attract enthusiast buyers to the TSX, Acura might need to offer its turbo four-cylinder or even a V6 matched to all-wheel drive.
Then again, if you're looking for a slightly more useful sedan — especially one that doesn't carry a penalty in fuel efficiency — then the 2011 Acura TSX Sport Wagon is a worthy consideration, one that might make Acura's gamble in a new market segment pay off.
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