They’re some of the safest vehicles on the road.  They haul a lot of kids.  The seating and cargo space is uber flexible.  They generally get better mileage than sport utes.  Some of them even get going pretty quick from a stop sign.  But, let’s face it, they still don’t handle like a car and even the coolest vans have a soccer mom stigma they can’t escape.  So, what about the trendy mom or dad that wants something sporty enough to be the envy of all the minivan drivers in the school pickup line?  Something a little smaller to get into that parking space and gets better fuel economy than a typical midsize SUV?

Look no further than the Acura TSX Sport Wagon.  It seats five in a perfect combination of performance and refinement.  At an estimated 22mpg city and 30mpg highway (25mpg overall), it even gets better fuel economy than compact SUVs like Honda’s CRV.  That’s even a hair higher than that ubiquitous all-wheel drive wagon that I see everywhere around Chicago (we used to own one of those ourselves).  The 2.4 liter four-cylinder engine has a very nicely tuned growl during acceleration.  With 201 horses, the TSX wagon gets moving quick enough if you floor it, and more importantly, it also stops quick and handles those corners far better than your average minivan or SUV.  After all, crash avoidance is a key to overall safety, something that will be the emphasis of this review!

Now for crash testing.  Unfortunately, neither the TSX nor the TSX Sport wagon is yet tested by the NHTSA in their new system for 2011.  In the previous testing for 2010, the TSX sedan received 5-stars across the board for the four crash tests (front driver/passenger and side driver/passenger) as well as the rollover rating.  The 2009-2011 TSX sedan received top “Good” ratings for both IIHS crash tests, the frontal offset and side impact tests.  It has not yet been evaluated for the roof crush rating, but did get “Good” marks for the rear protection rating (an evaluation of the head restraints and vehicles seats that is not an actual crash test).  So, while it’s hard to give an overall evaluation to the TSX Sport Wagon, the results available for the TSX sedan are all excellent so far.

As for safety features, most everything you’d want is standard.  Multistage front airbags that can deploy appropriately for large or small passengers.  Sensors to disable the passenger airbag, if necessary.  Side torso airbags up front, side curtain airbags in both rows.  Dynamic head restraints for the front seats.  3-point seatbelts all around.  Stability control.  I was slightly disappointed to see the lack of an emergency notification system and no options for collision, lane departure or blind spot warning systems on an upscale model that has families in mind.  

Objects In Mirror May Be Closer Than They Appear

Fortunately, visibility was decent.  Not the best I’ve encountered, but better than the average van or SUV for sure.  I didn’t notice any unusual blind spots or issues with mirrors.  The only real issue is that you sit quite low, something that takes a little adjustment if you’ve been riding high up in a van or truck for a long time.  It also makes it just a little harder getting in and out compared to a minivan!

Yes, this is a child passenger safety blog, but enough of the boring stuff.  How’s it drive?  Shweeet!  Granted, that’s from a soccer dad who’s been plodding along with a safe-but-tame minivan for a decade.  Sometimes, I even get to borrow my wife’s hybrid sedan to see if I can max out the fuel economy!  So, you might imagine that almost anything would seem sporty to me, and you’d be right: the TSX wagon was very nice, indeed.  I admit that suburban driving isn’t putting any vehicle to its limits, but there is no question that it was a lot of fun to drive.  Though you can only get an automatic transmission, Acura does include manual override shifting paddles on the steering wheel for drivers like me that like to feel they are doing something useful.

The perforated, heated leather seats are quite supportive and comfortable.  The instrument panel is similarly well designed, with everything right where it should be, at least for someone used to driving a Honda vehicle.  As I said, the performance was amazing compared to my minivan.  The steering and suspension are solid, a trademark for many Honda models and something that will appeal to those who like to drive, rather than those who have to drive.  The tradeoff of the tight handling and firm steering is that there is some pronounced road noise at highway speeds and you really feel the bumps at higher speeds on older pavement.  Around town, though, it’s like a dream!

More importantly, you may ask, do the kids like it?  A video is worth 1000 words:

The older kids liked it, too.  Well, they liked the kick-@$$ ELS stereo system in the technology package.  460-watts, 10 speakers with a subwoofer for pure sonic goodness.  I used to be a big home and car stereo nut, so I have to say it’s one of the better factory systems I’ve heard.  It’s not going to shake the car next to you in thumping bass, but it doesn’t fatigue your ears if you crank it up enough to rock.  Combined with the XM Sirius satellite radio blaring “20 on 20″ for a week and my kids didn’t find much time for their usual in-car fighting.  In fact, given the lack of physical and verbal conflicts in the back seat for the week, I found myself enjoying “their” music!  Of course, when they weren’t in the car, I paired up my bluetooth phone and streamed my own tunes.  There’s a storage area a little lower down on each side of the center console that holds a larger cellphone (photo, above left).  Smaller cellphones may fit well in the “Not An Ashtray” compartment above the shifter.  My only wish is that I could see both the navigation map and some music information at the same time.  The tech package also includes a great nav system with voice control, weather and traffic.  Plus, there is a remote power tailgate and full iPod integration.  Unfortunately, there is no video system for the back seat crew, but there is an air conditioned storage area between the seats with a 12V power supply and USB/Aux ports for your portable devices (right).

Cool For Kids

The tech package is really the only major option.  You can get the TSX Sport Wagon for $30,960 MSRP or with the technology package for $34,610.  Yeah, it’s a wagon, but it really looks like a sports car.  Even better than the TSX sedan, in my opinion, and probably the sportiest wagon I’ve seen on the road.

Okay, okay, mom and dad will love it.  But can you get a few kids with carseats back there?  Yes!  Keep in mind that this is barely a midsize car, so it doesn’t have a full size rear seat.  That means that three carseats across will fit only if you select them carefully (photo, right, Britax Frontier 85, Sunshine Kids Radian XTSL, Graco Snugride 30).  Because the seatbelt anchors are spaced wider than the LATCH anchors, it can help to install with the seatbelts in a three-across setup.  That allows you to get an acceptable installation a little closer to the door, freeing up an inch or two of space in the middle.

There are two sets of lower anchors.  The middle seat is wide enough for many child seats, but the ceiling mounted shoulder belt and medium-length buckle stalks could be a problem with some.  The top tether anchor for the middle is also ceiling mounted, though the ones for the outboard seats are on the seat backs so they won’t interfere with cargo or visibility.  The head restraints all remove easily, which is great for taller boosters and forward-facing child seats.

   

Legroom is at a premium.  Average drivers should have enough legroom, even with a typical infant seat behind them (as you can see in the video below).  On the other hand, if you are over 6 feet tall and need to install a taller rear-facing seat behind you, then you will probably have to give up some legroom.  Plus, with taller adults in front, back seat legroom may be minimal for adults or older kids in back.  Also, legroom for a passenger in the rear middle seat is short regardless, due to the center console in the front (photo, right).

Overall, I didn’t have any major difficulties with the seats I tried, including a Sunshine Kids Radian XTSL, Graco Snugride 30, Britax Frontier 85, Britax Marathon 70, a Clek Oobr and a SafeGuard Go Hybrid.  The Sunshine Kids Radian XTSL in the middle seat was the most problematic.  I managed to get a barely acceptable fit there, but it took some time to get it to that point, both front and rear facing using the lap/shoulder belt.  It did install slightly better in the outboard seats in both directions, with seatbelt or LATCH.  The downside there is that it eats a lot of front seat legroom when rear facing.  The other seats all installed essentially rock solid with minimal difficulty.  Below, you can see a few setups that I tried.

   

Don’t forget about cargo!  The rear cargo area is reasonably large, bigger than it looks from outside.  There’s a small storage area between the cargo floor and the spare tire, too.  Plus, both sections of the rear seat fold flat, giving you an even bigger area for cargo when the kids aren’t aboard.

 

If you can’t tell, I really like the Acura TSX Sport Wagon.  I’d swap my minivan for one in an instant, if only my kids could sit next to one another for even 15 minutes without a distracting fight of some sort!  For families with three kids who are better behaved than ours, it’s a good alternative to an SUV or van.  It’s a great choice for families with one or two kids and also for those looking for a sporty vehicle with a little extra cargo space.

Thank you to American Honda Motor Corporation for supplying the Acura TSX Wagon for this review!  If you’re shopping for a car, please check out Edmunds.com, Carwoo! and Carsdirect.com.