Mar 052012
 

Note: This review was originally published on August 14, 2010.

I’ve always been a bit of a sucker for a sporty wagon. A lot of people turn their noses up at the stodgy reputation of the family station wagon, and there are certainly plenty of cars deserving of that rebuke. But I love a car that can haul a lot of stuff just as well as it hauls ass. Volvo’s 850 Turbo Sportswagon and the BMW 5-series wagon were, to my mind anyway, the pinnacle of the genre, which, sadly, peaked in the ‘90s. They were fast, handled exceptionally, and could take your Siberian husky to the vet without a second thought.

The rise in popularity of the SUV, though, signaled a death knell for the family station wagon. Sure, some examples persisted (Volvo and BMW both continued to offer exceptional wagons), but popularity waned considerably and most of the major manufacturers scratched them from their lineups in favor of the lumbering, fuel-sucking four-wheel drive behemoths the American public had become obsessed with.

Fast forward the better part of a decade, however, and we find that most Americans have realized that bingeing on SUVs wasn’t really such a good idea. The reasons for this (running through several prehistoric era’s-worth of fossilized remains in less than ten years, for instance) have been aired ad nauseum in the automotive press, so there’s no need to rehash them here. The result, though, has been a surprising renaissance for the station wagon. Albeit one with a twist.

What manufacturers learned from the deservedly short SUV era was that Americans have convinced ourselves that we all live in dangerously unpredictable climes and therefore must have all-wheel drive on our family cars. They also learned that, somewhere along the line, “station wagon” became a four-letter word, deservedly or not. The American market was yearning, then, for an all wheel drive station wagon—but one that was called something else.

And thus the “crossover” was born.

Most manufacturers approached the concept with some hesitation, preferring to see how the other, bolder carmakers fared with theirs. Once it became clear that the concept had legs, though, everyone joined in. Each has tried to do something different, to set theirs apart, with varying degrees of success.

It was Honda’s most recent go at the crossover, the Accord Crosstour, that I found myself driving one sunny Saturday afternoon.

The Crosstour, as the Accord label implies, is based on Honda’s very popular family sedan. On the outside, though, it looks substantially more muscular and bulky. The weight numbers back this image up. Although the two-wheel drive EX version only adds about 200 pounds to curb weight of the heaviest Accord (no lightweight itself anymore), the addition of all-wheel drive and options push the EX-L package a hair over the two-ton mark. That is a pretty substantial amount of heft for a trumped up family sedan.

The EX-L AWD example I tested doesn’t feel heavy to drive, though. It’s no sports car, for sure, but it holds the road with surprising command for its weight and high driving position. The 271-horse V6, though it loses some of its oomph to the added weight and additional drivetrain components, is more than capable of providing propulsion, turning in zero to sixty times in the low 7-second range in recent Car & Driver tests. The seat of my pants says that feels about right.

I was especially impressed with the feel of the suspension. Most larger Hondas have a very front-heavy feel and understeer noticeably when asked to enter a corner while carrying any substantial speed. This one, though, was surprisingly balanced and exhibited very little tendency to push in any normal driving situation I could throw at it. The added traction of the Realtime AWD system gave it a feeling of being urged confidently through the turn.

The double-wishbone front suspension, multilink rear and 18-inch Michelin rubber seem to be working exceptionally well together, then. The tires will undoubtedly be expensive to replace, however, and I suspect they are hiding some of the Crosstour’s true capabilities. Given my past experience with similar Michelins, I would be very curious to see what this car could do with a more performance-oriented tire.

The interior, as well, is pretty standard Honda fare. It is well thought-out and impeccably assembled, if not terribly exciting. What the car gains from all that extra weight, though, is space—and lots of it. Although the passenger compartment is nearly identical, the cargo volume increases from 14 cubic feet in the sedan to 25.7 cubic feet in the Crosstour. Fold down the seats and that number virtually doubles, jumping to a whopping 51.3 cubic feet.

And speaking of folding down the seats, that process is pleasingly simple. If you’re standing at the back with the hatch open and want to fold down the right side rear seat, you simply pull the handle just to your right and down it goes. That’s it. Want to fold the left side down as well? Pull the corresponding handle on the left and it goes down with equal ease. No walking around, opening every door in the car and pushing each seat down, then walking back to load your cargo. One simple pull of the handle takes the seat from up to down flat. It’s a deceptively simple idea, on to which very few other manufacturers (if any) seem to have caught.

The cargo compartment has a nifty little storage tray below the floor as well. It is a concept that Honda has used to some success in a number of recent cars, including the CR-V and the Ridgeline. Unfortunately, it also means that space is no longer available for the spare tire, which has been located up under the rear of the car, much like the Ridgeline and Pilot models. Ninety-nine percent of the time you’ll never notice this little nuisance and you’ll love the added storage space. The other one percent of the time, however—the time you are stuck at the side of the road with a flat, trying to crank that spare out from under the car—will make you curse the day man invented the wheel. I’m not sure it’s a trade-off I’d be willing to make, if given the choice.

So the Crosstour drives well, is as comfortable as any similarly equipped Accord, has loads of cargo space, and doesn’t exhibit many obvious flaws. The question, then, is what impression does it give over all?

Well, to be honest, when the above pieces of the puzzle are put together, it’s all a bit… boring. When you settle in to the driver’s seat you immediately find everything exactly where you feel that it should be. All the controls are intuitive and everything works seamlessly. As desirable as all that is, it just comes across as so expected.

Likewise, the car drives well, but it doesn’t drive with passion. It lacks that joi de vivre of those previous sports wagons, that essence of what made them fun to drive, despite the fact that they were grocery-getters.

I guess this comes of trying to be a little bit of something to everybody. You come away with a feeling of utility, but no feeling of connection.

All of which makes it very difficult to justify the price.

The MSRP of the base model Crosstour starts at over $500 more than the most expensive Accord sedan, at $29,670 (according to Honda’s web site). The EX-L AWD that I drove, however, sports a base price of just over $34,000, about $5,000 more than a loaded sedan. Start adding options and the price can come startlingly close to the $40,000 mark. For an Accord.

The verdict on this car, then, is two-fold. It is surprising and useful in many ways, but disappointing in some very key areas. Those who seek utility above all else, and don’t mind paying a little extra, will find that the Crosstour offers it in gobs. And they will get what they pay for, too, as the car will doubtless prove to be as reliable as any other Accord.

But those who seek a deeper relationship with the car, those who get more out of driving than sheer utility, will want to keep looking.

I, for one, will be keeping my eyes peeled for the next hot wagon. Come to think of it, I’ve been hearing rumors of an Acura TSX Sportswagon…

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