There was a time when every major automaker had not one, but many wagons in their model lineups. It was the essential car for the family, offering the big bench seats of a sedan along with voluminous space at the rear for picnic food, camping equipment, beach toys, or even a few more passengers in jump seats.
Now, wagons are as rare as drive-in theaters, the task of family hauler taken over by minivans the size of cargo containers. Has the obesity problem gotten that bad?
Acura does not seem to think so, as the company has one of the few wagons on the market, in the form of the 2012 Acura TSX Sport Wagon. Similar to those wagons of old, the Sport Wagon is based on an existing sedan model, the four-cylinder TSX. As such, there are few mechanical differences between the two, and few in the electronics, as well.
Simply calling a car a wagon seems to be anathema for marketers today, so this Acura model is named Sport Wagon, similar to the only other car left in the class, the VW SportWagen. But the only way this Acura can lay claim to being sporty is by comparing it to a. Although the TSX Sport Wagon boasts paddle shifters, Acura's V-6 and Super Handling All-Wheel-Drive system would have given it greater claim to a performance label.
As it is, Acura manages to get 201 horsepower and 170 pound-feet of torque from the 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine, partly because of the magic of VTEC, Honda's variable valve technology. The TSX Sport Wagon, even carrying 129 pounds over its sedan sibling, does not feel slow, making good use of that 201 horsepower.
Beating the EPA estimate
Over a 600-mile road trip, I found the TSX Sport Wagon eminently practical, very simple to drive to the point of boring, and filled with good, but not cutting-edge, technologies. One area where the TSX Sport Wagon excelled was in fuel economy. Acura's EPA tests rate it at 22 mpg city and 30 mpg highway, but after miles and miles of freeway driving, at speeds around 70 mph, the car came through with 31.2 mpg, well over the highway estimate.
The good amount of space in the car helped make the trip enjoyable, the rear wagon space accessible through the wide rear hatch ready to be filled up with any number of suitcases and other luggage. Of course the rear seats fold down to increase the cargo area, but, sadly, we are past the era of rear jump seats in wagons. Being an Acura, leather covered the seats, and the front row was power adjustable. The cabin materials feel good, exhibiting quality, but nothing in the TSX Sport Wagon screams luxury. It feels more like a high-trim Honda.
Still, one thing in particular sets this car apart from its nonpremium co-brand, the ELS audio system, of which I made good use during the long hours pounding down the freeway. Eight speakers and a 360-watt amp do not sound like the ingredients for a top-end automotive sound system, but a lot comes down to the quality of the tuning. This system delivered clear, distinct sound no matter what kind of music I fed it. The ELS tuning favors lighter, acoustic music, but adjusting the bass and subwoofer levels gave it enough thump for my purposes.
I also had a lot of options for music in the car, from the onboard hard drive to which I had ripped a few CDs, to streaming music from my iPhone via Bluetooth. Although for the most part I relied on the USB port, using that to plug in and play music from the iPhone and a USB drive. Using the iPhone was excellent, as I could use the car's interface to browse music by album, artist, genre, and track, or just hit the voice command button and ask for music by album or artist. This system is more primitive with the USB drive, not including a voice command interface over it, and only showing the music library in the folder and file structure of the drive.
All-inclusive Tech package
That ELS audio system can only be had as part of the Tech package, which includes a navigation system with live traffic, Zagat listings in the points of interest database, and weather reports. The external data comes in courtesy of satellite radio. Honda is in the process of updating its cars with the new HondaLink app integration service, and I would expect Acura to get something similar, but nothing yet has been announced.
The Tech package adds an LCD at the top of the center stack, along with a dial and many, many buttons to control all the electronics. This interface in the car is not well integrated, and mostly feels like an addition to the dashboard of a non-navigation-equipped TSX. Where this clumsy interface really shows through is with the voice command buttons, stacked on the lower-left area of the steering wheel. The top set activates voice command for the Bluetooth phone system, and the bottom set let me access navigation and stereo voice commands.
Acura's navigation system uses bright and colorful maps, but they only show in a 2D format, either in the direction of the car or North up. The route guidance graphics were useful, showing lane guidance for freeway junctions. I also found it easy to enter destinations, either searching the points of interest database or using voice command to input an address. One thing I particularly like about Acura's voice command system is that all the available commands are shown on the car's LCD at each step.
The most surprising miss by Acura in the cabin tech is that I could not use voice command to place calls to people from my phone's contact list. The car showed the contact list from my paired phone on its LCD, but I would have had to manually voice tag numbers to get voice command for any contacts at all. This Bluetooth phone system is actually a legacy from the non-navigation-equipped model, which Acura does not bother to upgrade with the Tech package.
Ready to drive
As I mentioned above, the TSX Sport Wagon drives easy. I merely put it in drive for city and freeway driving, and away we went. The car uses electrically boosted power steering, which lets the wheel turn easily but lessens the power boost for higher speeds, resulting in more-stable freeway driving. The suspension also proved very comfortable for long hours on the freeway, and handled sections of pavement ripped up by big trucks well. I could certainly feel the suspension reacting to pits and potholes, but the body of the car was hardly affected.
That suspension also let me throw the car around a little, taking the occasional hard corner without showing undue body roll. But the TSX Sport Wagon's limits were also obvious, with understeer taking over at moderate cornering speeds. Not surprisingly, the five-speed automatic did not respond overly quickly to my manual gear shifts with the paddles. However, it was not as slow to shift as some torque converter automatics. Acura uses a lock-up system in this transmission to make the gear changes more efficient, more similar to a manual transmission.
Given the excellent freeway fuel economy I found with the TSX Sport Wagon, this car would not seem to need anymore than its five gears. The 201 horsepower helps in giving each gear a decently wide power band, but the automatic shifts were occasionally more abrupt than they would be in a car with a six-speed. Going up a hill, the car would often have to shift down to third, which would cause a large rpm change. And heading onto a freeway onramp at one point, the transmission was caught short by sudden punch to the gas, shifting with an unpleasant clunk.
Although I would like to see improvements, such as a six-speed automatic in the TSX, this generation may be the last of the line. Acura has only committed to selling the car through 2013, and will likely revamp its lineup. And as goes the TSX sedan, so goes the Sport Wagon. Those who appreciate wagons can only hope that Acura introduces one next to a new sedan model with different letters than TSX.
|Model||2012 Acura TSX|
|Power train||2.4-liter four-cylinder engine, five-speed automatic transmission|
|EPA fuel economy||22 mpg city/30 mpg highway|
|Observed fuel economy||31.2 mpg (freeway-biased driving)|
|Navigation||Optional hard-drive-based with traffic|
|Bluetooth phone support||Standard|
|Digital audio sources||Onboard hard drive, Bluetooth audio streaming, iPod integration, USB drive, satellite radio|
|Audio system||ELS 360-watt eight-speaker audio system|
|Driver aids||Rearview camera|
|Price as tested||$35,905|