Does getting older blunt one’s tendency toward impulsivity? It might seem so, given the months-long process of research and endless test drives that finally resulted in the purchase of this new Acura TSX Sport Wagon. But when it came to getting this car home, which was bought from a dealer in Boise, Idaho, I pretty much topped myself in terms of making a spur of the moment decision. Coming from me, that’s saying something.
Those of you who have read about my previous new car purchases will know that every one was highly impulsive; one of them even happened on the way to work one morning, which made me only a little bit late (driving the new car). But I’m (definitely) older and (hopefully) wiser now, and as you’ve been reading here for way too long, we’ve been in the market to buy a new car to replace Stephanie’s 2000 Forester. That car was decided upon (without even a test drive), bought and driven home in a matter of about two or so hours. So why couldn’t we decide this time around, dragging the process out for months? Because nothing really excited us?
Part 1: The New Car Hunt
Is it because I’m a sexagenarian or is it the cars nowadays? In the past, I always had a mental list of the cars I was hot for, and when something triggered the decision to buy, I knew exactly what I wanted: 1983 Turbo Coupe; 1985 Jeep Cherokee; 1986 Mercedes 300E W124; 1992 Dodge Grand Caravan; 2000 Forester; 2005 xB (bought used in 2007). The pattern eventually fell into one every seven and a half years; one for each of us every 15 years. But this time? I was drawing a blank.
The obvious starting point was Subaru. Our Forester has treated us quite well; it’s only now developing a leaky (to the exterior) head gasket at 170k miles. Subaru says the piston slap it developed some eight years ago is “cosmetic”; well hearing it clatter like a on old VW diesel from the 70s every morning is like being confronted with a bad case of acne in the bathroom mirror each morning. It may be cosmetic, but it’s ugly and it gets old. Go away already!
The XV Crosstrek was a good place to start looking, and in many ways very compelling. There were two strikes against it: its luggage compartment is too small for the dog and other possible bigger loads. But the deal-breaker was this: this is the red-hot car in Eugene now, and they’re popping up in driveways this spring like weeds. After enduring almost 15 years of look-alike dark green Foresters (the hot car here back then), Stephanie just didn’t want to do that again.
The Forester would have solved the first problem, but not the second. I just can’t adequately explain how insanely popular Subarus are here. It’s been the case for a long time, but it’s becoming almost comical. Everyone who’s buying a new car either has one of these, the Outback, the Crosstrek, or maybe the occasional Prius. If Toyota made a jacked-up AWD Prius, they’d have a real winner here.
So the Forester was the logical default choice, and we came close a couple of times. But then I decided we really didn’t really need an AWD car. I’ve yet to find a back-country US Forest Road that has stumped my xBox, and a set of snow tires is just as good as AWD with M/S tires, I’m now convinced. What we really wanted was a car that would be nice for longer road trips, as the Xb is a noisy tin can. So that opened up another prospect: station wagons. Just one problem: there are hardly any to be had.
The Passat wagon would have been a logical choice, but it’s long gone, so we checked out the Jetta SportWagen. Nice car, but somehow it just didn’t ever stir us. Never mind that there wasn’t a gas engine version to drive; TDIs are very popular here, and that’s all the dealer stocks. A diesel just didn’t make sense for us, given the low annual mileage this car will get. Aside from the additional $2k or so upfront, and the 15-20% higher fuel costs, my concerns about whether all that expensive high-tech hardware will last 15 years without a major failure took the TDI out of the running. The gas version was still a contender, but it would have been nice to actually drive one. Still, it rose to the top of our list, by default.
But there were nagging questions, since we’re going to presumably keep this one a long time (15+ years). I wanted something that had decidedly better than average odds of avoiding expensive repairs. Which meant that our next test drive was a waste of time.
The Fiat 500L had some compelling aspects, including a roomy, tall package and styling that is not exactly cookie-cutter, except for the obvious tribute to the Countryman. Its interior, in the higher-trim version, is also rather appealing. We both love the little 500’s looks, and while the 500L is not as cute, it has some genuine flair, and certainly doesn’t look like another Forester.
But a test drive confirmed what I’d read: the drivetrain is a disaster. The little 1.4 L turbo four has lag like the bad old days, and the jerky twin-clutch auto-manual transmission does it no favors; it’s an unfortunate forced marriage bound to end badly. I’m sure it’s fun enough with the stick and heavy foot, but a manual is out of the equation: Stephanie no can do. Old-time Fiat prejudice aside, it’s hard to see this as a long-term keeper.
We drove the Prius V, which had some compelling qualities. It’s very roomy, especially in the back seat and cargo area, and of course gets excellent mileage. I have an intrinsic soft spot for Prii, as they speak to the geek-efficiency part of my brain. But the nicely equipped one we drove had a $33k sticker, and although it drives well enough, it certainly isn’t an engaging car. More like a non-autonomous pod. If our left brains were doing the deciding, this could well have been it.
I thought it would be a waste of time (and I was right), but Stephanie wanted to check out popular CUVs like the CRV and new RAV4. Don’t get me wrong; these are well done, for what they are. But there’s something boring about them. They’re certainly not engaging to drive, and the CRV reeks of…middle-aged woman. Which is of course what Stephanie is, but who wants to shout it?
Back to wagons, which meant an obligatory trip to the Volvo dealer. The brand new V60 we looked at had a very nice interior (heated leather seats were a must for Stephanie), but its high-trim sticker was pushing $50k. No thanks. And that automatically applied to the German premium brands.
I should point out that this whole process was going on for several months. About two months ago, we decided that nothing really turned us on, and the plan was to put some money into the Forester and keep driving it, since we liked its boxy, glassy body, and it’s a decent driver. My cheap side was talking, and I was looking into rebuilt and used Subaru engines, or just putting in new pistons and head gaskets. But that’s a project in its own right, and meanwhile, the Forester developed a nasty intermittent hesitation when taking off; scary in some circumstances. Thanks to some googling, it turned out to be a bad knock sensor, and I found one for $10 on Ebay, which did the trick.
But that episode had Stephanie rattled, and reading up again. One morning over breakfast, she entered “sport wagon” in a Google search intending to pursue the Jetta some more, and up came this. She said, “Paul, what’s this Acura TSX Sport Wagon?”and turned her laptop screen to me.
“Jeez; I totally forgot that car existed. Hmmmm….”
I certainly hadn’t forgotten the first version of the TSX (2004-2008). An Acura-badged version of the smaller Japan-Europe version of the Accord, it was highly praised for its delightful high-winding 203 hp 2.4 four and slick-shifting six-speed manual, as well as excellent handling. I’d rather lusted after one for quite a while, but as there never was a wagon version in the US, it had no relevance in our actual driveway.
The second generation TSX got a bit fatter in every dimension, which made it a bit less athletic and thus somewhat less desirable in my eyes. And although I undoubtedly “knew” that the wagon version (Accord Tourer in Europe) existed at some point, it had obviously never made a lasting impression, underscored by the fact that it’s an incredibly uncommon sight on the streets.
A Passat wagon competitor made by Honda in Japan…intriguing. Why hadn’t I thought of that? And just how much are they? My rather predominant cheap side just couldn’t quite see spending more than about $28-30k on a new car, which had eliminated the rather similar V60.
Undoubtedly a reflection of Acura’s low sales volume expectation, the TSX Sport Wagon only comes in one flavor: very well equipped ($32,880 MSRP w/shipping), with the 201 hp four and five-speed automatic (no V6 or manual available on the wagon), sports suspension, premium tires, full leather upholstery, power front seats with memory, premium sound, sunroof, blah, blah, etc. The only main option is the Technology Package, for a whopping $3,650, which in my opinion is essentially a grossly overpriced iPad in the dash, with a hard drive, no less. No thanks; I do the hard driving in my car.
Only one problem: as uncommon as these wagons are to start with (only a couple thousand sold per year), almost all of them come with the Technology package, for obvious profit-boosting reasons. A search found only three in the North West: a used one nearby, a 2014 in Portland, and a new 2013 in Boise, ID.
The first step was to drive one, a Tech-Package version at our local Acura dealer. Short test drives are pretty frustrating, but this one clearly whetted my appetite: the Sport Wagon’s sport suspension made it feel like a genuine Sportwagen. Firm, yet not harsh; very connected to the road. And the seats were eminently comfortable, a big plus as we both have pretty serious back issues. I’ll get more into the actual driving experience later, but from the moment we slipped inside the TSX, we knew this was a substantial step up from the Jetta, which of course it is. (Alex Dyke’s review at TTC here)
Part 2: The Negotiations
I hate buying (and selling) cars, which may explain why I do it so rarely. And I’ve never negotiated successfully, having just avoided it in the past. The Turbo Coupe was paid for by my employer at asking price. The Mercedes was a company lease. The Jeep Cherokee was red hot at the time and we just sucked it up. Same for the ’92 Grand Caravan…I even bought that through a broker (at full price) to avoid interacting with the dealer. The Forester was an advertised special, and we just wrote a check for that and drove off.
But this time I was determined to get aggressive, and decided I wanted a TSX wagon for less than $29k, 100% bottom-line out-the door price (no sales tax in Oregon). That meant shaving off some $4500 from MSRP (including the inevitable dealer add-on “NW Protection Package consisting of little wheel-opening “mud guards,” cargo mat, floor mats, etc… ).
Stephanie found a used 2012 nearby with 20k miles offered at some $27k. It had a little ding in the hood and a scratch on the side. The Chrysler-Jeep dealer didn’t want to budge. Good bye. I’ve quickly learned that late model used cars are more profitable than new cars for dealers, as the margins are greater, the pricing absurd, and they tend to be obnoxious about them (this was all confirmed to me by the VW Sales Manager during the Jetta test drive, who shared his experiences selling cars, along with the rest of his life story; “Shut up already, so I can listen to the car instead of your incessant prattling!”). Another excuse to scratch the Jetta off the list.
The Internet Sales Manager for the Portland Acura dealer told me she had the last non-Tech Package wagon in the NW, and no more were coming (the TSX is now history, having been replaced by the smaller Civic-based ILX, and the new, bigger 2015 TLX, which will also replace the TL. No more wagons, in either case). The one she had was charcoal gray (too dark for our long gray winters), but her best price was still north of the $30k barrier. She let it slip that there was a white one in Boise, but that they didn’t trade cars with that dealer. And Stephanie had already seen that one in Boise on the web too. It was calling us.
So I called up Lyle Pearson Acura and was connected to Michael Baird. We instantly hit it off, as he’s a genuine car guy (here’s what’s sitting in his driveway; the ’70 Charger was his first car), and he was always perfectly gracious about my determination to meet my price objective. He just kept going back to his Sales Manager, who eventually relented, including his last-ditch effort to throw in a $399 “Doc Fee.” “Oh no you don’t!”
I finally got what I wanted: $28,999 (including the NW Protection Package). With a $14 Title fee, the grand total was $29,013. Plus, we took up Acura’s incentive financing offer: 0.9% for 60 months, worth about another $1,000. Signed, sealed… but not delivered.
Part 3: Getting There
Boise is 450 miles due east of Eugene, across the Cascades and a long stretch of high desert, river canyons, and a few tiny towns. Hwy 20 is a straight shot between there and here, and a superb drive, not to mention lonely one. I can’t imagine another highway that bisects the middle of a state that is so desolate, except perhaps in Nevada. I really wanted to drive it home on it.
The problem was getting there. Flights are pricey, via Seattle with an absurdly long lay-over. So how about the bus? Sure enough, Greyhound has a pretty good schedule, but out of Portland: leaving at 12:45PM, arriving at 11:00PM, for $70. And there’s a $12 Bolt bus from Eugene to Portland, with just barely enough time to connect. I was set to go Thursday, and had my schedule arranged accordingly.
Then I got a message late on Wednesday from Michael that Acura Finance red-flagged our application. Turns out I had memorized (and given them) Stephanie’s SS number one digit off! Dang… It’s been a longer, colder and more difficult winter than average by a long shot, and I was desperate to get out of Dodge, now.
Thursday morning first thing, I left the corrected number with the Business Manager, and asked him to call me as soon as he knew. But he got tied up, and the time to catch the 10:00AM bus to Portland passed. I decided it had to be put off a day, and got busy. I was at a rental house fixing a smoke detector when I got the call at 10:15: “Your application is approved.” I made a quick mental calculation: I could still drive up to Portland, and son Ed could meet me at the bus station, and take my xB, which he rather needed just then anyway (long story). But it would be cutting it razor tight.
I dashed home, asked Stephanie to pack me a sandwich, nuts and dried fruit, and I stuffed some things into a backpack. I backed out of the driveway at exactly 10:37, under a steady rain, and headed for I-5, which can get backed up in such conditions. The Greyhound bus left downtown Portland, 114 miles away, at 12:45. Theoretically, it was doable, but it left absolutely zero margin at all, never mind parking, buying the ticket, etc.
About ten minutes into the trip, I realized how absurd this was, and told myself that I was an idiot, especially when I looked at my gas gauge and saw that I had barely a quarter tank; not enough. A raging mental fight erupted, one side screaming “Turn back,” the other, “Go for it!” Aren’t I a little old for this?
The adrenaline was too far kicked in, and the “Go for it” side won. But I decided that my usual tactic of setting the cruise control at 75 (ten over the limit) was too risky in terms of getting there in time, especially with a gas stop and the wet weather. So I threw caution to the rainy wind, put on my Bose noise-cancelling headphones, and gave the xBox the spurs. I pulled off at a quiet little country exit with a gas station right off the ramp, which worked out perfect: no other cars, and the attendant was right on it. It doesn’t take long to pump ten gallons.
I realized I had never been to the Portland Greyhound station, and knew it was near the train station, but I had no navigation or map. I’d been to the train station years before, so I picked what I thought was the best route, and almost nailed it, overshooting by just a few blocks, having to circle back around. There was an empty parking space right on the street a half block away as I approached it. I parked, and looked at the time: 12:05 PM. Much better than I could have hoped for; exactly 114 miles in 88 minutes, including getting out of Eugene and into Portland. Average speed: 77.19 mph.
Ted (as we know Ed) showed up just then, and I handed off the keys to him and headed back in to board the bus. Whew! And then the bus was delayed for a good twenty minutes. Hurry up and wait.
The ride up through the Columbia River Gorge is always a wonderful one, even on a Greyhound bus. Actually, the bus did little to diminish the experience, especially since I found a seat with a vast amount of legroom across the aisle from the handicapped door/lift. Yes, these latest buses have that, and it was even used on part of the trip.
The MCI D4505 45′ long coach was very quiet and rode along effortlessly, even up the grades, with its 425 hp Cummins diesel essentially inaudible. Quite the contrast from buses in the way-back days. I ate, napped, had an interesting conversation, and checked up on CC with the wi-fi. The only notable event occurred when someone obviously lit up some pot in the back of the bus. It took a while for the scent to reach the driver, who was not happy. He pulled over, made everyone get out for ten minutes, and really wanted the perp to confess and apologize. No response. He opened the two emergency escape hatches in the roof, and drove with them open for about twenty minutes, perhaps to air out the bus, but more likely to punish us all with the cold blast of air.
It felt good to escape the rain; the sun’s last rays lit up the golden grassy hills as we left the Columbia basin. I was glad to have brought my food along, as the fare on hand for the main supper stop was dismal, at best. Other than that, it was a pleasant enough ride, and we arrived in Boise right on time. I walked six blocks to the motel room I reserved while on the bus, and slipped into bed.
Part 4: Getting It Home, Quickly
At 7:30 AM I was awakened by a beeping text message: sales rep Michael wanted to pick me up, take me out to breakfast, and then send me off in my new car. He took me to Goldy’s Breakfast Bistro, the best place to start a bright sunny day in Boise, and hear about Michael’s two Mopar project cars.
There’s my new baby, still in the showroom, where it’s been for too long. Let’s face it, my “deal” was undoubtedly predicated on some desire to see the last of its big, round butt there. It even needed a hot-shot to get it started.
Michael let me skip the usual Owner’s Manual review, and I pulled out front for a farewell shot. Michael Baird is a car guy, a gentleman, highly knowledgeable, and a consummate professional in the very best way, and he deserves a plug here. Here’s his direct line: 208-703-7073 (Lyle Pearson Motors also sells Mercedes, Volvo, Jaguar, Porsche and Land Rover).
It was exactly 9:29 when I pulled out.
There are two ways to drive across Eastern Oregon on Hwy 20: set the cruise control for 65, thanks to the most absurd place in the world to have a 55 mph limit, and relax, big time. It’s what we do when we trundle across in our old motor home.
The other option is to throw caution to the high desert breezes, and take advantage of one of the best places in the US to drive fast. Was there really a choice?
Another car will come along the other way every once in a while, but otherwise the road might as well be your own private race track. Endless straights and long sweeping curves following the river bed. Painted hills. Clear blue rivers.
Occasional rises and ridges, with distant vistas. Sage brush and junipers. And the right car to savor it with.
Yes, ultimately, this is why I ended up with the TSX: a car to remind me of the joys of driving fast; I’ve always loved it, and I still do. And I’m glad to have a car again that is a very willing and able partner.
My main point of comparison is the white ’86 300E I drove relentlessly fast throughout California for seven years. I sold that car before moving to Oregon, as part of a major personal/familial “downsizing.” Not that I gave up driving fast, as just about any car is capable of that, even the Grand Caravan with the whole family aboard on this very same stretch of highway, on one memorable vacation trip. But it’s one thing to have a willing partner; another thing to have an enthusiastic and capable one.
And just how do the two compare as high-speed delivery systems? Well, the TSX is quite happy at speeds up to about 130, and 110 is a relaxed lope. But the 300E was an even more eager speeder, and the difference really comes down to gearing. The 300E had a four-speed automatic, with direct drive in top gear, and its final drive ratio was selected in the old classic German way to design such things, so that its top speed (140 mph) would perfectly correspond to just slightly above its power peak (177 hp @ 5700 rpm). That is of course necessary to wring out the maximum top speed of any car.
The Acura’s five speed automatic and gearing is such that it could likely never attain its theoretical maximum speed in its overdrive fifth. As it is, it’s electronically limited to 130 anyway. But its not quite as responsive and eager to get up there, as it’s well below its power peak at very high speed. Of course, I could have held it in fourth gear, which would have taken it up to its regulated 130mph at its 7000 rpm peak, but I just wasn’t wanting to flog my brand new car quite that hard. A gear in between would be theoretically ideal, but the very smooth and willing K24Z3 four was running right near its 4200 rpm torque peak (yes) at about 125 or so, which was plenty of beans to get it there and keep it going.
The Mercedes’ lack of an overdrive meant that its ultra-smooth inline six kept spinning pretty fast at freeway speeds (3750 rpm @ 75 mph). The Honda four is more relaxed, unless pushed fully. But on the other hand, the Acura’s suspension is overtly sportier than the W124’s, and exuded splendid confidence even in triple-digit bends in the canyons (no pics in the curves; sorry). The W124 was never out of its element either in these circumstances, but there was more body lean, and the smaller tires reached their limits faster.
In terms of straight line acceleration, the two cars are very closely matched, with a 0-60 time of some 7.5 seconds, depending on whose test results you go by. Not much progress for almost thirty years? Well, my ’85 300E stickered at $78k in 2014 dollars, almost triple the price of the TSX. And this essentially a Honda Accord; remember what they were like in 1985? The world has changed.
Not surprisingly, the TSX weighs some 200 lbs more than a 300E, despite the four cylinder engine. But its four makes a delightful sound as it climbs its long scales, and when it hits 7000 rpm on a full throttle upshift; well, a Honda four at 7000 rpm makes wonderful music, not totally unlike a muted Offy four at full chat. Muted, yes; but a big four at those speeds has a decided edge to it.
The engine is commendably smooth, as smooth as a four of this size can be. I wouldn’t have taken the V6 even if it was available, as 201 hp is plenty, since I’m not exactly planning on drag racing it and I prefer as little weight on the front of a FWD car as possible. It’s hard to even tell that its front wheels are driven; there’s just no torque steer, or any other tell-tales signs of “wrong wheel drive.” Time to put that worn-out expression out of its misery.
The five-speed automatic may be short a few gears compared to latest 23-speeders, but it works well enough. It’s easy enough to “shift with the throttle”; I never caught it once hunting for the wrong gear. There are paddle shifters too, and crossing the mountains I did use them, mainly for downshifting on the downhill sections.
Is it all hugs and kisses? In my one quick drive, the weakest dynamic aspect would have to be the electric steering. I’m a fan of old-school hydraulic power steering, and have not been enamored of the electric systems. I hear the latest generation of cars from the best makers is really getting there, but then this Acura isn’t exactly state of the art, given that it first appeared in 2008.
The steering is quick and accurate, and not too light, but there is the unmistakable awareness that an electric motor is playing along too. Slight movements of the wheel create a subtle artificial feedback; realistically, that was mostly provoked by deliberately looking for it, but it’s something that one just can’t find in the hydraulic steering of yore. My xBox’s steering is better in comparison; perfectly transparent, with genuine feedback.
The only town on this whole main stretch until Bend (other than a few dusty outposts) is Burns, and the Acura was ready for a fill-up, having left Boise with less than a full tank. I didn’t even bother to calculate or consider fuel economy, given the speeds I was driving. But I expect it will deliver about 25-27 mpg average, and around 30 in relaxed freeway driving. Much better than any of these big old Chryslers, in any case.
I also stopped to shoot this ’58 Continental Mark III, even though we just featured one here. It’s for sale, and I ended up having a lengthy chat with its owner about its colorful history. I’ll do a separate post on it, as this one is already way too long. My apologies… I don’t get a new car very often.
Both of us replenished, we hit the road for the second part of the wide-open stretch between Vale near the Idaho border and Bend, where civilization encroaches once again. It’s 244 miles between the two, and although I didn’t time it, it was undoubtedly the quickest 244 miles I ever put behind me while still on the ground. Soon enough, the white tops of the Cascades appeared in the distance; the Three Sisters dead ahead and shrouded in their own clouds, and Mt. Bachelor to the left.
A little further on, Mt. Jefferson appears to the north a bit, and even Mt. Hood was visible well over a hundred miles away. And another car sharing the road… Hi there!
Bend’s traffic on a Friday afternoon was a forced re-entry into reality, and the end of triple-digit cruising. Sixty suddenly felt like 25. The drive over McKenzie Pass was a bit busier than ideal, but the TSX took advantage of any opportunities to jump ahead of the queue.
At 3:30 PM we pulled in at home, 29 hours after taking off in the driving rain in the Xbox. We brought Idaho’s sunshine back with us, as well as deeply satisfied driving muscles and re-energized parts of my brain that had been dormant all winter, or even longer. I basked in the glow of a successful journey and the feeling of falling increasingly in love with this car after some initial doubts. It had been too long… and to think that Stephanie found it. And she’s glad she did, as she absolutely loves it. It’s never too late for a little role reversal in a long relationship; it keeps things interesting.
And Lil’ Man approves too. What’s not to like?