Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Test Drive: 2014 Acura TSX Sport Wagon Tech

Update: See how the TSX did against its competitors in our Bike Month Wagon Comparison Test.

The first wagon I ever experienced was a massive mid-80's Chevy Caprice Classic. During the brief period when we lived in New York, my father drove this absolutely absurd land yacht, complete with faux wood paneling along the sides. I have vague recollections of playing around in the spacious cargo space and taking many trips to the local grocery store with my parents. Sadly, it was stolen from us at one point. Yet, those experiences have had an influence on my taste in cars, even after all these years, because I still have a real affinity for wagons. They are versatile in their utility without all of the sacrifices in driving dynamics and fuel economy that come with even the best CUVs.

In recent years, as I got more and more into cycling, I have come to the realization that I really want a vehicle that allows me the flexibility to throw a couple of bikes in the back and drive out to some great cycling locations for a full day of riding. Plus, with the possibility of adding a pet to our family in the not too distant future, a wagon seems like the perfect match for my changing lifestyle. As a result, I have started my hunt for the perfect wagon that offers the cargo versatility I am looking for without sacrificing too much driving enjoyment. Most importantly of all, I should be able to toss my K2 road bike in the back without it being an impediment to my visibility.

So, the search began with the TSX Sport Wagon, the one that is closest to the car that I currently own.

Based on the exact same chassis as my TSX sedan, everything about the TSX Sport Wagon felt unsurprisingly familiar. In fact, everything up to and including the rear passenger doors looks pretty much exactly like my TSX. The only difference is that instead of tapering down into the short deck of the sedan, the roof continues for what feels like miles. The slightly less swoopy rear hatch results in an absolutely cavernous cargo area that fees like it could swallow an endless amount of stuff. In profile, the wagon actually looks quite attractive and the occasionally awkward looking wheel arches somehow seem to work better with the wagon's long-roof. Of course, the looks is much more utilitarian than the sporty appearance of some of the competition.

Stepping inside, the familiarity continues, with the same gauge cluster that the TSX has been using for the entire duration of this generation. Since I opted for the manual transmission in my own TSX, I could not get the tech package, but our tester was fitted with the bright color screen, which certainly helps improve the technology quotient of the car. However, on whole, the entire interior feels extremely dated. The lack of push-button start and smart entry, both features that seem to be coming standard on other cars in the class, as well as the rather dated graphics of the navigation screen, just feels like the car is from an earlier era. Don't get me wrong, it is a very comfortable interior, and the seats are both sporty and supportive at the same time, but it simply has fallen behind the times. Already, this was one strike against this car.

In back, the TSX has good rear seat room that is comfortable enough for two adults to hang out for a half-day road trip. It may not be quite spacious, but exhibits decent leg room and plenty of head and shoulder room, although three across is still a bit of a squeeze. The cargo space is genuinely enormous, but has one major caveat: the rear shock towers. At 74-inches deep with the seats down, there is plenty of depth for those extra long pieces of furniture or those joists for your home renovation project, but the shock towers pinch the space in two and results in a width of just 35-inches wide at its narrowest point. The end result is a somewhat awkward space that is somewhat compromised in its carrying capacity for large objects, especially if we are talking about something like a bike. The whole point is to avoid having to wrestle the bike in and out and the placement of the shock towers pretty much guarantees that to be the case. Seats up, the intrusion is much less obvious, but is still noticeable. There is some extra storage space under the load floor, but that hardly makes up for the placement of the shock towers. Strike two!

Despite the compromised cargo space and dated interior, the TSX still delivers a smile to my face from behind the wheel. The steering is well weighted and quite communicative for a an electronic power steering system. That extra sheet metal sitting behind the rear wheels actually helps shift the weight distribution off the front wheels, resulting in handling that is actually quite confidence inspiring, even despite the same terrible tires that are used on the sedan. There is still understeer, but you really have to be pushing will beyond what is safe on public streets for it to have any real impact on handling. If anything, the added weight actually settles the ride a bit and may just make the wagon smoother than the sedan by the tiniest of margins.

Twist the key and the familiar 2.4L inline-4 cylinder motor purrs to life. As the only engine option, this 201-hp motor is mated to one of the most dated automatic transmissions on the market. The five-speed automatic, with its tightly clustered gear ratios and paddle shifters, is combined with very aggressive throttle calibration to offer rather spritely performance when taking off from a stand still. However, drive like this and the fuel economy takes a serious hit as there are simply not enough ratios to both keep the engine spinning in its optimum range for power and be tall enough to return good fuel efficiency, although the 30mpg highway that this wagon returns is admirable if not exactly class competitive. At least the paddle shifters are there to give you some level of control and they respond fairly promptly, albeit not quite to dual clutch levels of quickness. It is a glaring oversight on Acura's part for not updating this car to use a more current transmission and more power from the motor is always welcome. Strike three!

At the end of the day, the TSX wagon is a rather mixed bag. I love how it feels on the road, with its well-balanced ride, agile handling, good steering feel, and peppy motor, but am disappointed by how dated the entire car feels. It's cavernous cargo area is sizable enough to swallow a ton of cargo, but is seriously compromised by the intrusion of the rear shock towers into the space and the added road noise to a car that is already on the noisy side. Plus, to cap it all off, it is not available with the fantastic manual transmission that makes my 2012 TSX a joy to drive and allows me to overlook its many shortcomings. Unfortunately, the tenure of the TSX Sport Wagon is to be short-lived as the upcoming TLX, which replaces both the TSX and TL, is likely not to receive the wagon treatment. As a result, we will never get to see just how good this wagon could have been with the right updates to the interior and drivetrain.

But to end on a brighter note, for families who are looking for a seriously fun and simple wagon and can overlook its foibles, the TSX Sport Wagon is a genuinely great choice and at right around $36k MSRP, is one of the most affordable options in this segment.

Sadly, it just is not the wagon for me.

Special thanks to the team at Bernardi Acura of Boston for providing the vehicle for this review. 

Tags: Acura, automotive, review, test drive, wagon