Driven: 2011 Acura TSX Sport Wagon

By Seyth Miersma

January 06, 2011

—San Francisco, California

Is there a 2011 model vehicle that geeky car enthusiasts will instinctively want to love more than the Acura TSX Sport Wagon (obvious sports cars being excluded from the equation)? With a combination of Honda engineering, the sport wagon form factor, and the fact that this was a heretofore European-only model, the TSX would seem to be a poster child for being car-geek cool. Acura rightly understands that, strange as it may sound, a small wagon can work as a kind of a halo car for the brand as far as enthusiasts are concerned—if that wagon is done well, that is.

And doing “sport wagon” well is no mean feat, we’d postulate. That two-word descriptor, especially when added onto a brand name that plays in the premium segment, evokes a rather tall list of expectations. The premium small wagon has got to be reasonably quick, handle well on both back roads and the freeway, be attractive (albeit in an admittedly idiosyncratic way), and offer a 50/50 blend of luxurious appointments and space for a lot of stuff. The enthusiast shopper of this segment will be looking for a vehicle that can realistically brag to have the utility of an SUV (at least a small one), with the chops of a sports sedan.

We’re so used to reading and discussing the sad dearth of wagons for sale in the US today, we were actually a little surprised when we took a close look at the TSX’s competitive set, too. A couple of very good German wagons are right in the heart of the mix for this small segment, though both the BMW 328i Sports Wagon ($36,200) and the Audi A4 Avant ($35,940) are a bit dearer than the TSX’s $30,960 MSRP. Saab’s 9-3 SportCombi is a few hundred dollars cheaper than the Acura, but it’s also old enough to remember the younger Bush’s first term in office (we’ll get the new 9-3 in 2012). Two Volkswagen wagons, Jetta and Passat, each sort of compete with the TSX—the Jetta is more sporting, but a lot lower down the food chain, and the Passat is priced in the zone, but doesn’t handle quite so well.

So, while the competition for small, sporty wagons may not be quite as ferocious as it is for mid-size sedans, the TSX won’t be able to just show up for the game and win, either. It’s a good thing then, that Acura has gotten a lot right, right off the bat.

The TSX wagon shares a wheelbase (106.4 inches) with the TSX sedan, which, for reference, is actually considerably shorter than that of the Accord Sedan (110.2 inches). With the wheelbase constant, and a bit of extra weight hung out over the rear axle, the Sport Wagon actually tends to feel a bit better balanced overall, while still displaying a better than average willingness to rotate. With some fantastic roads at our disposal, we were able to pitch the Acura hard into hundreds of corners over the course of our drive, and were generally surprised at the front end’s willingness to bite on turn-in at speed. Pushing/understeering behavior was far more evident upon corner exit, but really only became obtrusive at speeds that were more track-appropriate than road-appropriate.

There’s probably a handful of wagon buyers across the country that will end up tracking their cars, and we applaud them heartily, but the “Sport” part of this Sport Wagon will almost exclusively be experienced on public roadways. With that fact in mind, the experience of the TSX steering is probably far more important to those looking for a bit of enthusiastic driving than are the outright handling limits. We found the steering to deliver rather mixed results. As mentioned earlier, turn-in is really pretty good here, with more than a little grip from the front tires. That’s all helped by the steering rack being fast to turn, easy to hold in an accurate arc, and generally low-effort to set up correctly. Acura’s default steering setup, across the board, tends to be of the “point-and-shoot” variety, and the TSX wagon in no exception.

The downside of that equation is that there isn’t a terribly high level of feedback through the wheel at any time—though feel does increase a bit when the wheels are under a cornering load. The steering isn’t isolating to the point of making the driver feel completely detached, but it certainly didn’t invite us to push to the outer limits of grip, either. Perhaps the bigger problem for Acura is that the lightweight steering effort doesn’t tend to read as “luxurious” for drivers or buyers. The reality is that BMW and Audi only offer a little bit more road feel through the helms of their 3-Series wagon and A4 Avant, but the higher-effort (lower power steering boost) experience tends to make a driver feel that the vehicle is “solid” or “substantial” in the way it goes about its business.

Acura’s 2.4-liter inline-four is the only engine to choose from for the wagon variant of the TSX, and the five-speed automatic is the only transmission on offer. Naturally the assemblage of car writers at the launch event was collectively incensed about the lack of V-6 and manual transmission options for the car, but Acura stubbornly insisted that it was only interested in building cars that it can sell. The four-cylinder’s power fits nicely within the output ratings of the competitive set, and creating a manual option for a vehicle that is likely to sell in the thousands (rather than tens of thousands), with a take rate in the single-digit percentage points, was a non-starter for the automaker.

A good thing, then, that the 201-horsepower four feels appropriate to the sporting-but-laidback character of the car as a whole. Like most Honda motors, this one sounds pretty wonderful when it is allowed to rev to (or close to) its 7100-rpm redline, and it spins to that line with wonderful speed. The result is a very responsive throttle at low speeds and in the middle part of the rev range (over 3500 rpm) in each of the five gears. There aren’t deep reserves of power and torque here, and the car never surprised us by feeling overly “fast” at any point, but the engine is, nevertheless, very well suited to the task of combining some motoring pleasure with reasonably good fuel economy (22 mpg in the city, 30 on the highway).

When shifted via the steering-wheel-mounted paddles, we found the automatic transmission to be about average in terms of speed and directness—certainly a degree less involving than our favorite DCTs, let alone manuals. Shifting on your own via this system is a decent option to have (it’s clearly a must-have feature in the entry-level luxury segment), but it didn’t do much to pull us into the driving experience.

Explaining the powertrain goes a long way toward our overall feeling that the TSX is neither fish nor fowl where the Sport Wagon genre is concerned. Rear-drivers like the BMW 3-Series, and all-wheel guys like the A4 and the 9-3, are able to make more hay with their higher-output engines because the power delivery is smoother and more refined. Any of the wagons offering a manual transmission are going to soak up the small part of the market that values a more traditional, mechanical experience. So the TSX wagon fan will need to not be biased against front-drive dynamics, care about fuel economy, and understand and appreciate Acura’s particular style of luxury.

That style, by the way, is no bad thing as far as we’re concerned. Certainly not as baroque as some of the more hide-bound European offerings, the TSX offers a pretty fresh dose of interior design to compliment what feels to be rock-solid build quality. Dark materials, both natural and petroleum-based, feel and look very much as though they were intended to mirror the sharp-edged, technical styling of the exterior metal. In other words, if you like the looks of the TSX wagon from the curb, we’d guess that you’d be a fan of the cabin, too.

Functionally, the TSX buyer won’t be gaining or giving up much compared to those that opt for any other small wagon. Overall space for people and things is equal or better than that of the competition, with shoppers needing to move to something a size up (Passat, Volvo V50) before finding more room. Acura has surgically applied standard features to the Sport Wagon, too, offering items like HID headlamps, power moonroof, and heated leather seats where the Germans have options. Of course, anyone that considers all-wheel drive to be a necessary part of the “functional” equation for their wagon will need to shop off of the Acura lot.

The total TSX wagon package is, after all, about as car-geek good as we had guessed, but it’s also attractive to a narrower slice of than already small niche than we might have hoped. Honda-heads and wagon junkies (those on the WR staff included) will no doubt have enough love for the TSX to overlook some of its sadder shortcomings, even while the wider world of car shoppers prefer the anonymity of the now ubiquitous small crossover. Give us geek-chic, any day.

2011 Acura TSX Sport Wagon
Engine: Inline-4, 2.4 liters, 16v
Output: 201 hp/170 lb-ft
Weight: 3599 lb
Fuel Economy, City/Hwy: 22/30 mpg
Base Price: $30,960
On Sale: Now