Not your grandfather's station wagon
by: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT Acura's first small wagon looks sharp, drives well and can easily carry enough gear for weekend getaways or long trips.

Station wagons exist in an automotive no-man's land. Reviewers tend to like them because they handle like cars but carry a lot more cargo. Many consumers apparently consider them even more boring than minivans, however.

Several manufacturers are trying to change that perception, including Audi with its compact A3 and Cadillac with the station wagon version of its CTS sedan. Now Acura is entering the fray with the 2011 TSX Sport Wagon, a fun-to-drive wagon version of its popular compact sedan. From the driver's seat, the new wagon does not feel much different than the sedan version, which has been considered among the best in its class. But the boxy rear end and large hatch gives it much more carrying capacity.

The TSX Sport Wagon also looks great. Unlike some earlier sedan-based wagons, the larger rear end does not look slapped on. A body crease flows gracefully up from the front grill to the tail lights, narrowing the side windows just enough to impart a sporty look without creating blind spots. The rear hatch slopes enough to prevent it from looking totally utilitarian. And the bulging fenders signal this is first and foremost a driver's car, even though it can handle a little extra duty.

Some reviewers have criticized the angular styling that characterizes Acura's current line. We like the looks, but also think the Sport Wagon tones it down a bit without compromising the fundamentals, especially the front end and its fully integrated air dam.

Only one engine and transmission is currently available in the TSX Sport Wagon, a 201-horsepower 2.4-liter inline four mated to a five-speed automatic with steering-wheel mounted paddle shifters for the manual mode. This combination produces decent acceleration and good fuel economy - an EPA estimated 22 miles per gallon in the city and 30 on the highway. The engine and transmission are responsive enough that freeway passing comes easily, even without shifting into the manual mode. Of course, doing that makes the TSX Sport Wagon even more responsive, especially on winding roads where full advantage can be taken of the well-spaced gear changes.

The engine is one of the new breed of small power plants with higher compression ratios - in this case, 11:1 compression. Up until recently, just about anything over 9:1 required expensive premium gasoline to prevent knocking and potential damage. But new variable valve timing technology allows lesser grades to be used. As a result, relatively small engines are able to produce more horsepower and still get better mileage than before, even on regular. Acura's 201 horsepower is more than some lower compression V6 and even V8 engines got not all that long ago.

On the road, the TSX Sport Wagon is a pleasure to drive, in large part because of Acura's legendary quality. The fit and finish of the interior in our test car was excellent. The materials were top-notch, from the leather on the heated front seats to the soft plastic on the dash. The controls were well designed and easy to use for the most part, although some of the push buttons were a little hard to tell apart at first.

Like the TSX sedan, the Sport Wagon is very quiet and stable on the road. The steering is precise and the suspension is very supple for a car with a relatively short wheelbase. Rough and broken pavement did not cause any undue bucking.

Standard features include leather seats, a premium stereo, a power moonroof, dual-zone automatic climate control, and Bluetooth connectivity. Our test car included the only available option - a Technology package that adds a hard-drive-based navigation system with a full VGA color screen, an upgraded ELS stereo with 15 GB music-storage capacity, and a power tailgate. They combined to give the TSX Sport Wagon a luxury feel, despite the practicality of the additional cargo space.

We hope the TSX Sport Wagon sells well enough to encourage more automakers to take the plunge and offer wagon versions their cars. Acura might also want to consider upping the ante by offering the other engine and transmission choices from the TSX sedan in the Sport Wagon, the 280-horsepower 3.5-liter V6 and six-speed manual gear box. That combination would be even more fun.

• Model: 2011 TSX Sport Wagon.

• Manufacturer: Acura.

• Class: Compact.

• Layout: Front engine, front-wheel-drive.

• Style: Five door, five-passenger car.

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

• Transmissions: 5-speed automatic transmission with Sequential SportShift paddle shifters.

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

• Price: Beginning at approximately $31,000.

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