Small station wagons have some a long way since the first gas crisis

by: ACURA MOTOR CO. - 2012 Acura TSX Sport Wagon shown with optional Special Edition Package.Once upon a time, in world not nearly as sophisticated as today, small station wagons were a practical but unpleasant option for familes on a budget.

Although large – sometimes very large – wagons had been available for years, the first small ones emerged in the wake of the first gas crisis in the early-1970s. They were based on the first small cars that were beginning to sell well in those days and had their inherent weaknesses. Among other things, most were very small and uncomfortable, underpowered, and not very well made. Some, like the wagon versions of the Chevy Vega and Ford Pinto, had only two passenger doors, making access to the cramped back seat very awkward for adults.

The early Honda Civics were perhaps the best of the early small cars. They were relatively roomy, almost fun to drive and loaded with standard features that were only available as options on many bigger cars. Because of that, the early Honda Civic station wagons were quite possibly the best of the first small wagons – they and the early Datsun 510 wagons that are sought after by high performance small car enthusiasts nowadays.

Small wagons fell out of favor some years ago, first losing ground to sportier but still practical hatchbacks and then made obsolete by more practical minvans. But they are suddenly back in production again, with manufactuers from BMW to Volvo now offering station wagon versions of their compact and midsize cars. Unlike the earlier small wagons, they are all well made, fun to drive and loaded with high tech features these days, making them a reasonable alternative to their sedan versions, even for buyers without families.

A good example is the 2012 Acura TSX Sport Wagon. As the name says, it is the station wagon version of the Acura's well-reviewed TSX entry-level premium sport sedan. As such, it is essentially an entry-level premium sport wagon. But there is nothing entry level about the way it feels or drives.

That's true, even though the wagon is only available with a single engine, a 2.4-liter inline four that produces 201 horsepower. The TL sedan can also be ordered with a 3.5-liter V6 that cranks out 280 horsepower. In a week of driving that included a round trip from Portland to Southern Oregon, we found the smaller engine more than adequate, however, even though it was mated to an automatic with five gears instead of the six and even eight that are available from other manufacturers.

The Acura engine revs so freely and high that accelerating was never a problem, even in the mountain we had to cross. It only felt a little winded when passing at speeds over 70 miles per hour. Around town, both the Sport mode and paddle shifters noticeably increased performance.

The interior also had plenty of room, blurring the distinction between a compact and a midsize car. Both head and leg room were good in the front seats, and although rear seat leg room was a little cramped in the back, it was fine for children. The cargo space behind the rear seat was good, as you'd expect from a wagon.

On the road, our test car was quiet and stable, riding like a larger luxury car, even over rough pavement. The heated front leather sport seats were supportive and comfortable. Although the seat bottoms seemed a little hard at first, they actually never felt too stiff during the long hours on the road. The high end stereo system was a good companion, too. Some reviewers have complained the center console has too many button, a common swipe at all Acuras. In fact, the designers have improved the layout and designations over the years, making them much easier to use than before.

The exterior styling is simple – clean and crisp, with flowing fender lines terminating in an angular hatch. Acura shrunk the front grill that had been ridiculed as too large this year, helping a TSX models blend into the pack. A Special Edition Package with a larger air dam, side mouldings and unique cabin upgrades is available for enthusiasts.

Anyone who stepped from an early small station wagon into a 2012 TSX Sport Wagon would be astonished by the differences. The same changes have occurred in all automobiles, of course, but because small wagons are just now making a comeback, they seem more apparent. The new Acura is a good place to start for anyone that appreciates practicality without sacrifice.

Facts and figures

• Model: 2012 TSX Sport Wagon.

• Manufacturer: Acura.

• Class: Luxury compact.

• Layout: Front-motor, front-wheel-drive

• Styles: Five-door wagon.

• Engine: 2.4-liter inline 4 cylinder (201 hp, 170 ft-lbs).

• Transmission: Five-speed automatic with Sport mode and steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters.

• EPA estimated city/highway mileage: 22/30.

• Prices: Starting around $31,000 ($35,695 as tested).

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