2012 Acura TSX Wagon Road Test

Does the 2012 Acura TSX Wagon mark the return of the sporty hauler?

What It Is/Who It's For
A gadget-laden alternative to the less roomy, less efficient "cute-ute"
Best Thing
Sleek styling that doesn't compromise on interior room.
Worst Thing
A suspension tweaked by engineers who believe "sport-tuned" merely means "stiff and jarring."
Snap Judgment
Unlike its name, it speaks "sport" and "luxury" merely in hushed tones -- but it's still practical.

Acura is a curious brand. Not quite Honda, but not quite its Japanese luxury-aiming peers like Lexus or Infiniti, it seems to exist in the happy realm between "premium" and full-on sybaritic coddling. What does "entry-level premium" mean these days, anyway? Ask Acura. It has the formula down: sporty, high-revving cars with more than the usual allotment of speakers and technological doohickeys. Cars that drive better than a Honda Accord, despite the fact that both now come with heated leather seats and chintzy wood trim. In a sense, Acura is akin to the Island of Misfit Hondas, cars that are a little too premium or exciting to badge alongside the Civic. Note the NSX, which was sold in America as an Acura to give the caliper-branded brand some purpose. Same with the Integra and its RSX successor; both were Hondas elsewhere in the world.

But the 2012 Acura TSX Wagon with Technology Package, essentially a European Honda Accord, blurs this relationship to a fault: is there anything special in this car that gives it credibility over a less prestigious Honda? Is it worth the lofty $35,000 price? Do we really need an automatic climate control system that's GPS-controlled? Should we stop asking so many questions and just drive the thing? For the answer, of course, you'll just have to read on.

A Few Photos of this Vehicle

Click thumbnails for detailed view

What We Drove

Our TSX Wagon came with the Technology package, which included Acura's voice-activated navigation system, a rearview camera, live traffic and weather updates, an excellent ELS 10-speaker surround-sound system with MP3, Bluetooth, and XM Satellite radio connectivity, and location-based dual-zone climate control. All together, it's a $3,650 package, and raised our model's price to $35,695 (after an $885 destination charge). And unlike the sedan, the wagon comes with just one powertrain: a 201-horsepower, four-cylinder and a five-speed automatic transmission with paddle shifting capabilities, in FWD-only guise. Sportier and more powerful drivetrains are available on the sedan, but Acura seems to know pretty well where wagon owners' priorities lie.

The 2012 Acura TSX Sport Wagon offers up the usual array of safety equipment we expect these days. There are six airbags -- front, front seat side bolsters, and curtain -- and anti-lock brakes, stability control, and a rigid structure that earned the car a Top Safety Pick from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. However, it doesn't offer more modern systems, such as active cruise control, blind spot detection, or other gee-whiz items that are becoming commonplace not just on luxury cars, but on more commonplace ones as well.

The Commute

The TSX Wagon is blessed with quick low-speed acceleration, and stoplights come at frightening force across the car's expansive windshield. Steering is quick with plenty of feel, and is consistently light enough for complex commuting maneuvers. The steering column tilts and telescopes; however, the lever to adjust it is nestled deep under the dash, and finding it is tricky.

Despite some hard materials scattered throughout, the TSX's interior was a pleasant place to be. The heated leather seats were fantastic: excellent support, and plenty of bolstering exactly where you needed it. The steering wheel was thick and perfectly shaped, but the placement of its controls -- namely ones for voice command -- meant that using them was cumbersome and confusing. The paddle shifters mounted to the wheel were made of solid metal, giving them some heft when changing gears. Unlike some other Acura models, the center console was laid out conventionally, and when lit up with blue accents at night, the button placement was easy to navigate for climate and audio controls.

There isn't much for storage space ahead of the shifter, but the center console lid slides forward for elbow support, and it's deep enough to swallow phones into its abyss. Two bizarrely-shaped bins lie where the knees go, seemingly designed to inhale 3-month-old receipts and disposable pen caps.

Speaking of audio, the $3,650 10-speaker ELS digital surround sound audio system does not disappoint, with the exception of the center screen, which became invisible in direct sunlight.

The TSX's suspension was designed for somebody's idea of "sportiness," but in reality translated into harsh and jerky stiffness. It was abnormally rough over highway surfaces, shaking the seats when running over lane reflectors, and seemed absolutely incongruous with the wagon's overall purpose. Acura, we know you feel the need to make a sporty wagon -- the TSX is even listed as a "Sport Wagon" on the website -- but a jarring suspension does not a "sporty" car make. Also, given that Acura positions itself as a technology leader, why is there no push-button start?

The Grocery Run

During our time with the TSX Wagon, associate editor Jacob Brown found himself relocating from South Central Los Angeles to greener pastures, by the beach -- so the wagon served double duty in hauling laundry hampers and overflowing boxes. At 60.5 cubic feet with the second row folded down, the TSX's cargo space is almost on par with the room inside the BMW 3-Series Wagon (at 60.9 cubic feet), despite its aggressively sloping roofline that gives it much of its palatable good looks.

The rear seats folded down easily with the flick of a plastic handle, and the garage-door sized rear hatch and low bumper height made it easy to swallow up bookcases and lamps. Here, the secret cargo bin became a godsend to carry the bric-a-brac normally left behind during complicated cross-town moves. We threw bottles of laundry detergent, kitchen utensils, boxes of EZ-Mac, and errant bottles of olive oil and wine in there, where they would be protected from the heavier stuff on top. For an emptier car, the hidden bin is perfect to prevent things from sliding around across the entire cargo hold, and a way to secure valuable things like laptop bags out of sight.

The TSX's large, square mirrors and optional backup camera made it easy to reverse and park without mishaps, even with a full complement of cargo, though the former would have made it easier to park even without the latter. The sloping roofline once again played tricks on us -- we expected little headroom in back, but even the 6-footers in the A.com office found just enough room to squeeze underneath the headliner. Getting in the TSX proved to be a different story. The rear doors are dismally small, making every climb in and out of the backseat the equivalent of gymnast training.

A Few Photos of this Vehicle

Click thumbnails for detailed view

The Weekend Fun

The TSX is supposed to be a sporty car, remember? And sport in this case -- in addition to the harsh suspension -- means plenty of noise. Too bad it doesn't come from the engine, which is almost silent until the point of hard acceleration. No, the noise here comes from the road and the wind, which intrude into the cabin at high speed like unwanted holiday guests.

Sportiness doesn't carry over to the five-speed automatic with Sportshift, the wagon model's only transmission, a unit that was reluctant to downshift under acceleration. Which is a shame, because the 201-horsepower engine simply loves to rev. It's easy to tell that the engine deserves a transmission with six gears, like the slick-shifting six-speed manual available only on the Special Edition sedan, as a hint of the company's high-revving past nestled somewhere within this practical family hauler and waiting to be found. Even if uptake for the manual is slim, the TSX Wagon deserves to catch up to its competitors with a six-speed transmission.

Shifting the transmission into Sport mode (there is no shift-yourself method from the shift lever) allows the transmission to change gears faster, improving its reaction times and holding onto the same gear all the way to the redline, until otherwise provoked. But with four fully-formed adults in the car, the engine still strained going uphill on the Grapevine; just like it did while moving Jacob's stuff, merging onto freeways sometimes became an exercise in patience -- or fear, depending on traffic conditions. At slower speeds, however, the TSX handled admirably: there was little body roll to speak of, and it was composed and quick during corners and sudden lane changes alike.

Lastly, the TSX has one strong point going for it: few other wagons on the market look as good as this. Note the beefy wheel arches, which ride the border between looking obnoxiously out of place and fitting in perfectly. The sloping roofline and angled rear hatch look sleek from any angle, period. Acura toned down the shiny chrome grille on the TSX range, and while the front can be mistaken for something generic, the wagon shape is far more purposeful than what legions of cute-utes can match.

Summary

We should commend Acura for sticking with the tried and true wagon format, even when its RDX competes internally with it for the trendy cargo-carrying set. Is it necessarily luxurious, or even sporty? Not quite -- associate editor Jacob Brown put it rather succinctly, if harshly: "if I'm paying for a luxury car, I want the sizzle with the steak. This is low-grade meat with some fancy spices being served at Morton's."

But the TSX Wagon does have two very large things going for it: its style, and its practicality. The fact that the two are usually at odds with each other -- but not here -- makes the 2012 Acura TSX Wagon an even more valuable proposition. Now that Honda doesn't offer a single wagon in its lineup, the Acura becomes a very nice version of its more mainstream nameplate.

Spec Box

Price as tested: $35,695
Fuel Economy
EPA City: 22 mpg
EPA Highway: 30 mpg
EPA Combined: 25 mpg
Estimated Combined Range: 463 miles
Observed mpg: 23.7 mpg
Intellichoice Cost of Ownership: Below Average

Notebook Quotes

"It's a great-looking car, possibly one of the best looking wagons on the market. The sloping roof may cut down on some practicality, but rear visibility is still excellent -- headrests are small and tucked far into the corners." -Blake Z. Rong, Associate Editor
"I hate the transmission. Kickdowns are slow, and it doesn't gear down enough. The engine just revs like a bat out of hell, which I love. This car was designed for a six-speed manual, not the five-speed auto that could pass for the rubbish tranny in my '93 Impreza first car." -Jacob Brown, Associate Editor
"Like the overall design. European sporty. Acura definitely toned down the 'face shield' so it's now just so-so instead of distinct." -Joel Arellano, Associate Editor
"I like the way the door closes, not a cheap clank. Build seems solid. But I don't care for the tacky brand logos -- 'Gracenote,' 'Dolby,' etc." -Matt Askari, Associate Editor

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