You’d think that after reaping the harvest of cool new station wagons cultivated over the past few years, an auto writer could begin looking to the future instead of thinking about the past.

Not this one.

Every time I get a new wagon to evaluate, I can’t help but think back to when station wagons were a common sight on the nation’s roads.

Seeing Acura’s new-for-2011 TSX Sport Wagon for the first time launched me again on one of those metaphysical trips back in time. For some reason, my brain started digging through its collection of videotapes and began playing back one of a road trip from Pennsylvania to Florida.

We were traveling in separate vehicles with another family, mine in a minivan and the other family in an early-1980s Chevrolet Caprice Estate station wagon.

That thing was so big its rear bumper was still in Pennsylvania when the front end crossed the North Carolina border.

And it was as ugly as it was big, a bloated blob of sheet metal, glass and that self-stick vinyl stuff that actually looks a tiny bit like wood until the sun starts to fade it. (Which happened about six minutes after the vehicle left the dealer showroom.)

I have no clue how my brain works, but in this case I’m pretty sure the TSX Sport Wagon’s stunning styling triggered my memories. Cadillac CTS Sport Wagon fans might disagree, but I think the TSX is the first vehicle that looks better as a wagon than a sedan.

If I were Ralph Lauren or Frank Lloyd Wright, I might be able to explain why the TSX Sport Wagon’s lines and curves and creases work so well together. But I’m just a schlub who looks at the TSX Sport Wagon and sees cool … elegant … sporty.

I see that inside the TSX as well as out. At the risk of getting all Frank O. Gehry-ish on you, I love the way metallic accents swoop up from the console and center stack to a sensuously curved dashboard, creating the imagery of a seagull effortlessly gliding through the air.

Acura doesn’t allow form to trump function. The TSX’s instruments are legible at a glance, its switches and controls easy to reach and operate. Even its multifunction dial — one of those features nobody needed that nevertheless became nearly ubiquitous in luxury vehicles — is in a great spot and works intuitively.

So does the rest of the TSX Sport Wagon. Honda has always been known for building well-mannered and smartly engineered and equipped vehicles, and it created the Acura brand to push handling and luxury a bit further. Those qualities are all reflected in the TSX Sport Wagon.

For example, the Sport Wagon is available in only two configurations: Well-equipped and really well-equipped. For its $31,000 base price, the Sport Wagon delivers a slew of goodies. These include leather upholstery, satellite radio with USB audio input, heated power front seats, hands-free cell phone link, heated door mirrors, auto-dimming rearview mirror, fog lights, xenon headlights and a power moonroof.

The only upgrade available is a $3,650 Technology Package. The package consists of a power tailgate, rearview camera, navigation system with 8-inch display and real-time traffic and weather, and an audiophile-caliber surround-sound system. The 10-speaker system includes a DVD-Audio player and a 15-Gb hard drive capable of storing more than 3,500 songs, according to Acura.

A different type of storage is likely to be of more interest to Sport Wagon buyers: The TSX has 25.8 cubic feet of cargo space behind its rear seat and 60.5 cubic feet of cargo capacity with its 60/40 split rear seatbacks folded.

There’s also an additional 2.5 cubic feet of under-floor storage space and three smaller covered cubbies in the rear of the TSX.

You won’t find that much space in the Audi A4 or BMW 3-Series wagons, which figure to be the TSX’s main competitors. Perhaps more importantly given America’s love affair with SUVs and crossovers, the Acura’s cargo capacity compares very favorably with most small versions of those vehicles.

Since it is shorter, sleeker and lower than most SUVs and crossovers, the TSX Sport Wagon outdoes them in driving dynamics and fuel economy.

The TSX lives up to the “Sport” in its name by delivering terrific handling characterized by a beautifully weighted, responsive and linear steering system. The steering is communicative and accurate, enabling a driver to take advantage of a suspension system that keeps the Sport Wagon planted on the choppiest and curviest roads.

That kind of handling prowess can often take a toll on ride comfort, but that’s not the case with the Sport Wagon. And the TSX absorbs outside noise about as well as it soaks up bumps. The acoustic damping techniques Acura applied to the windshield and bodywork appears to have paid dividends.

So did the work Acura did to tweak a bit more mileage from the 2.4-liter, in-line, four-cylinder engine found in the Sport Wagon. The EPA rating of 22 city/30 highway mpg is pretty good, but I was more impressed with averaging around 28 mpg after a week behind the wheel (especially considering my heavy right foot).

I was a little less impressed with the engine’s thrust. It responds instantly and generally feels pretty peppy, but like many Honda power plants it prefers high revs. It’s not unfair to expect at least a little more low-end thrust in an upscale vehicle.

The 280-horsepower V6 available in the TSX Sedan delivers that, but Acura doesn’t offer that engine or the sedan’s available six-speed manual gearbox in the Sport Wagon.

To its credit, the wagon’s smooth and fluid five-speed automatic won’t shift until the driver tells it to when its in manual override mode. But I have to believe the six-speed manual could wring even more performance and better mileage out of the engine.

In addition to a bit more low-end power, I wish the TSX were available with all-wheel drive. But there’s little else I’d ask for from Acura’s TSX Sport Wagon. It’s the type of vehicle that could help bring America’s past of utilitarian station wagons back to the future.

 

Scott Wasser is executive editor of MaineToday Media. He writes a weekly auto column for the Sunday Telegram and other newspapers. He can be reached at

swasser@pressherald.com.