Review: 2011 Acura TSX Sportwagon

Open wide! Acura dishes out an enthusiast-friendly wagon... but will it meet the demands of car guys (and gals)?

The angular dark red five-door you see here is the answer to your prayers - or at least that's what Acura hopes.

Enthusiasts, those Leftlane embraces, have clamored for more wagon offerings in the United States - a market once dominated with these family-friendly (vista) cruisers. Over the last 30 years, the cycle of cool saw families jump ship first to geeky minivans then to rugged SUVs and finally to milquetoast crossovers. In some ways, it looks like evolution is bringing us back into the wagon fold as crossovers become ever-more station wagon-like.

Not one of these family-friendly options is even remotely enjoyable to operate on the kind of curvy road enthusiasts consider heavenly, but those "in the know" have long snapped up compact and midsize European wagons for loved one hauling with alacrity.

The only problem? While there is no shortage of Internet wagon-loving fanboys, these masters of the keyboard simply aren't buying enough wagons. As a result, the offerings have dwindled... until now.

What is it?
Based on Honda's global compact and midsize architecture, the Acura TSX Sportwagon is the premium brand's first foray into the world of roomy five-doors.

That's not to say that Acura parent Honda is a novice. Outside of North America, you'll find this wedgy wagon with a Honda Accord badge. If you're one of the enthusiasts Acura is hoping to lure in, you probably already know that Honda split off its North American Accord from its primarily Japanese and European Accord a few generations ago. While the American Accord sprouted cupholders and a big back seat, the global car got in shape to square off against cars like entry-level BMW 3-Series and Audi A4 models.

The Sportwagon arrived in North America earlier this year as a 2011 model. Just one powertrain is offered, a 2.4-liter four-cylinder mated to a five-speed automatic. Want a V6 or a stick? You'll have to settle with a TSX sedan. Or you could move to France. Au revoir!

Any breakthroughs?
On sale for a couple of years overseas, the TSX Sportwagon hardly qualifies as "brand new." Still, it's the cheapest wagon you'll find from a premium brand in the U.S., and that alone is something of a milestone.

Our tester came loaded to the gills, but since Acura offers just two models and a choice of six paint schemes, that means you'll have an easy enough time finding an identical one at your local dealer. The upmarket TSX Tech Package adds navigation, an ELS audio system and a power tailgate.

What's it up against?
Since enthusiasts are apparently all bark and no bite, the wagon world has done nothing but shrink until now. But there are still a few options: The Saab 9-3 SportCombi, BMW 328i Sports Wagon, Cadillac CTS Sport Wagon and Audi A4 Avant. Note that each one has its own take on the traditional "station wagon" moniker.

Volvo, long synonymous with Euro-style five-doors, will officially exit the traditional wagon market for 2012 in the U.S.

How does it look?
Viewed head-on, the TSX Sportwagon is indistinguishable from its sedan brethren. That means that it gets Acura's latest beak/can opener (take your pick) fascia, a style that looks a little gawky until you park it next to the automaker's larger TL. By comparison, the TSX is a thing of beauty.

On lighter colors, the silver-finish front grille blends reasonably well, but our Basque Red Pearl (should we really name colors after this contentious region?) tester offered too much contrast for the grille bling.

The TSX Sportwagon's biggest changes occur out back, where a hangin'-out-there tailgate opens with the press of a button to reveal an enormous trunk. The tailgate slopes out toward the rear bumper rather than straight down, an effect maximized by a chunky rear bumper and lots of gate-mounted cladding. Angular tail lamps recall the regular four-door, as do details like twin exhaust pipes, five-spoke wheels and chrome door handles.

No, it's not the prettiest wagon, but neither is the TSX the market's sexiest entry-luxury sedan. Still, the clean look isn't likely to drive off potential buyers.

And on the inside?
Mirroring the TSX sedan, the Sportwagon receives aggressively bolstered leather-trimmed seats, a three-spoke steering wheel and paddle shifters, all of which give off a genuinely sporty vibe.

A symmetrical dashboard ensures easy conversion between right and left hand drive, but the center stack is busy with lots of controls for the Tech Pack's navigation system. A big twist-knob sprouts from the center of the upper dashboard, looking more like an unexpected wart than a simple control knob. Below, a stubby gear lever looks more like a stick than an automatic until you try to row through the gears.

While the seats are well bolstered, they're also too well lumbared, something we've noticed in other Acuras. At least they're well cushioned otherwise and we liked the perforated leather. The aforementioned three-spoke wheel is loaded with buttons, but we did like the premium leather.

That premium feel permeates the rest of the cabin, where no surface aside from the chintzy rough plastic surrounding the center stack switchgear belies the Acura's premium-level price tag. No, it doesn't approach Audi or BMW, but neither does the sticker price.

Climbing to the back seat, we found gobs of leg room but relatively compact headroom dictated by the standard moonroof. But the biggest surprise came in the rear, where that caboose offers plenty of room for luggage.

Acura has long billed itself as a purveyor of high-tech machines, but the navigation interface it shares with Honda is starting to feel a little dated. Easy enough to use and with a bright, but not especially high resolution screen, the system just doesn't keep pace with those we've seen in newer Chrysler, Toyota and Audi products. The ELS-branded audio system, however, positively rocks by placing an emphasis on clarity over pumping and thumping bass.

But does it go?
At around 3,600 lbs., the TSX is really a lightweight compared to other modern cars its size. Stretching closer to midsize territory than its European rivals, the TSX has to work its 2.4-liter four-cylinder to keep up with traffic. That engine, shared with Honda's U.S. Accord, puts out 201 horsepower at a redline-tickling 7,000 rpm and 170 lb-ft. of torque at 4,300 rpm.

Although the five-speed automatic's paddles make the most of the power available, the TSX needs to be revved well above 4,000 rpm to really scoot along. That's something we can't say about its closest rivals, the turbocharged 9-3 SportCombi and A4 Avant. Fortunately, the 2.4-liter doesn't mind zipping the tachometer closer to redline, so the power is more accessible than it looks on paper.

Because we found ourselves revving the TSX, we recorded a dismal 18 mpg in the city, about 2 mpg lower than the EPA's rating. On the highway, however, we had no problem besting the EPA's 30 mpg figure.

Electric power teering is light on feel but especially quick, so the TSX feels decently nimble and tossable. A firm suspension - double wishbones up front and a multilink setup out back - gives it a supremely planted feel through the twisties. Although not as genuinely fun to drive as its European competitors, the TSX nonetheless rewarded us with a pleasant and entirely livable demeanor when we pushed it hard. There's some easily controlled understeer the closer you get to the car's limit, but its 17-inch Michelin Pilot HX MX4M tires do their best to keep things in check.

Those Pilots also helped give the TSX a nicely damped, premium-feeling ride. Undisturbed over the roughest roads on our test circuit, the TSX's well controlled suspension belies its middle-of-the-road roots. And on the highway, wind and road noise was below average for the class.

Why you would buy it:
An accessible premium wagon has arrived, bringing with it plenty of practicality.

Why you wouldn't:
...but not much excitement.

Leftlane's bottom line
We applaud Acura's decision to test the wagon waters with its TSX lineup. This once-conservative brand appears to be emerging from its shell, at least in North America. Acura says it doesn't need to sell many TSX Sportwagons to break even, and with this relatively high value pricing structure, we don't think they'll struggle to meet their projections.

The TSX Sportwagon may not be the thrill machine M5 wagon enthusiasts want, but its everyday livability means that there is finally a low-compromise wagon that probably won't bust your budget.

2011 Acura TSX Sportwagon Technology Pacakge base price, $34,610. As tested, $35,470.
Destination, $860.

Words and photos by Andrew Ganz