SAUSALITO, California - Wagons just aren't what they used to be. Older motorists, who recall - whether fondly or contemptuously - the land-barge station wagons (often with rear facing third-row seats) of early American suburbia, might be surprised to see how much they've changed. No less surprising is how few are left, at least in the traditional mode.
For one thing, those popular crossover SUV models have taken over most of what used to be the wagon market. At the lower end of the vehicle-size scale, so have small hatchbacks. Huge wagons are history, and most of the middle-size models these days are sport wagons, typically issued by European manufacturers.
Some American attempts at recapturing the wagon theme faded away, barely noticed by most car-shoppers, like the Dodge Magnum that saw unimpressive sales a few years back. Cadillac, on the other hand, recently chose to introduce a wagon version of its CTS model, joining the sedan.
Acura, Honda's luxury division, is the latest to launch an all-new wagon. Like Cadillac's CTS, it's a wagon body style based upon an existing sedan: in the case, the relatively compact TSX, which slots into the entry-premium segment. Except for some new sheetmetal at the rear, the TSX wagon is largely identical to the sedan, with a couple of notable exceptions. Instead of offering a V-6 option, which the sedan has, Acura elected to make the wagon only with a four-cyinder engine. While the sedan can be fitted with a manual gearbox, the wagon comes only with automatic.
When unveiled as a 2009 Concept, the TSX sedan exhibited "more emotional styling," said Vicki Poponi, assistant vice-president of product planning. The prior TSX, offereed in 2004-08, "was a bit bland." This time, Acura "sort of right-sized it for the customer."
Wagons are a "relatively small segment," Poponi admits. Still, more than one-third of Generation Y Americans - many of them typical buyers at the TSX level - are parents. "They love an active lifestyle and sports [and] pride themselves on their cultural awareness." Therefore, perhaps a fun-to-drive crossover alternative could help bring those young couples into the Acura fold. Acura is keeping its sales expectations modest, content with capturing just 4,000 customers each year for the wagon (about one-tenth of total TSX sales).
Assistant large project leader Kozaburo Nakai describes the TSX as "a new style for new lifestyles," adding that it's "as if a twisted surface has been cut out of a block of metal." Up front, the sport wagon looks the same as the sedan. At the rear is a wide luggage space with a flat floor, a hidden box, and tie-down and utility hooks.
Under the hood, the 2.4-liter i-VTEC four-cylinder engine develops 201 horsepower at a rather swift 7000 rpm, and 170 pound-feet of torque at 4300-4500 rpm. The five-speed automatic transmission incorporates paddle shifters for manually-selected gear changes. Aluminum 17-inch wheels are the same size as those on the sedan, but suspension settings are unique to the wagon. Six airbags are standard, along with active head restraints and Vehicle Stability Assist.
Fuel economy is estimated at 22 mpg in city driving and 30 mpg on the highway. Acura marketers assume that likely buyers are seeking higher gas mileage; hence, the lack of a V-6 option. The wagon weighs 130 pounds more than the TSX sedan.
Acura claims correctly that the TSX wagon "inherits the feeling of lightness of the current model." That's a bonus, giving the wagon an appealing feel, with handling on the light side. Cabable control and responses through curves inspire confidence, and also make the wagon more enjoyable to drive than some may expect.
Some engine snarl turns up when pushing hard, and acceleration falls well short of intense. The wagon's excess weight seems to make it hold back somewhat, particularly when the automatic transmission hesitates to downshift as needed for passing or merging. As a result, some planning ahead is required on the highway, though acceleration from a standstill - where it's less needed - is fairly spirited.> Ride quality excels. Though short of gentle going through rougher pavement, the TSX suspension reacts quickly to trouble spots.
Rather serious seats with fine support suggest a sporty experience with reasonable comfort. Front-seat headroom is adequate, and legroom abundant. Snug is the word for the back seat. Rear headroom is marginal and leg space scant, unless front seats are pushed well forward.
Prices begin at $30,960 (plus $860 destination). With a Technology Package, the price rises to $34,610. The TSX sedan starts at $29,610. Competitive wagons include the Audi A4 Avant, BMW 328i, Volvo V50, Volkswagen Passat, and Subaru Outback.
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