If there's one quality of Honda automobiles that we value the most, it's their elegant simplicity. For a while, that engineering elegance translated well to the Acura brand. Products like the Legend and Integra gained substantial following from a widely varied group of people. From hard-core enthusiasts to near-luxury buyers, Acura represented a no-excess, no-baggage way to upgrade from mass-market products.
And then the brand faltered a little. First into the dumpster went the brand names that had so much equity. And next was the understated style that said "expensive" without saying "ostentatious." The results? Products like the current TL and RL-excellent cars ruined by buck-toothed grille, confusing market positioning, and names that no one can remember.
The Acura sedan that fared the best was the TSX. Staying mostly true to form, this mid-size sedan kept its four-cylinder engine -- at least initially. It got the chevron-grille, but in toned-down form. The six-speed manual stuck around, which pleased an ever-smaller, but always vocal group of enthusiasts. And then it got a V-6, which bumped its price up to within spitting distance of the (much) larger TL-and it started looking like even the TSX was losing its way.
And now, we have redemption. The TSX Sport Wagon marks a return to the cars that Acura should have been making all along. With front-wheel drive, a four-cylinder engine, and automatic-only transmission, it's not trying to compete with the BMW 3-series Touring. Or even the Audi A4 Avant. It is, simply, a well-built compact wagon.
Sadly, it still has the Butter Face front end, but it's better looking than the sedan. Like all wagons, it's far more useful, too, with airy back seats, a big rear cargo hold and an available power liftgate. Take everything you know and love about the TSX sedan, add a backpack, and you have the Sport Wagon.
The TSX is fantastic to drive, with a quick, perfectly weighted steering rack attached to a thick, leather-covered wheel. The transmission still has only five forward gears, but it makes good use of the ratios, happily revving the snot out of the engine when needed. At 2.4 liters, this is a big four, and it does get vocal at high revs, with a hollow, purposeful note that vibrates the floorboard-but it's more "sporty" than "thrashy." Of course, it can't compete with Audi's turbocharged four-cylinders, Volkswagen and Volvo's five-cylinders, or BMW's silken in-line sixes, but Hondas are at their best when they're not trying to emulate everyone else's high-torque, low-rev powertrains.
The only thing missing from the TSX? A stick shift. Oh, the product planners have promised us that TSX buyers don't want manuals. But it's been many years since Honda has offered a compact wagon-and we think they're mistaken. After all, almost one in four buyers of the Volkswagen Jetta wagon -- the car that we think buyers will cross-shop with this TSX-opt to shift for themselves.
Still, Acura hopes to sell only 4000 TSX wagons per year, or only about a fifth as many as Volkswagen Jetta SportWagens. We think that's a realistic goal -- but we're hoping to see a lot more TSX Sport Wagons than that. If only because wagons are such a smart, practical, and sexy alternative to compromised, dime-a-dozen small crossovers.