Comparison: 2011 Acura TSX Sport Wagon vs. 2011 BMW 328i Sports Wagon

Reviews I By John Beltz Snyder I February 03, 2011

Photos by Chris Amos

—Ann Arbor, Michigan

Two wagons—the 2011 Acura TSX Sport Wagon and the BMW 328i Sports Wagon—both are based on sedans. Both are luxury sport brands, one from Germany, and one from Japan. They are nearly identical in weight and cargo space, and, in this instance, they both are capable of shifting through the gears without any driver interference. They each have a lot of clout, whether dynamically or aesthetically, and they similar in price. In concept, despite their countries of origin, these two offer a lot in common to a buyer. But when we begin to take a closer look, the differences emerge.

The 328i’s 3.0-liter inline-six makes 230 horsepower and 200 pound-feet of torque, directed to the rear wheels. In our tester, gears were changed via a six-speed automatic transmission with steering-wheel-mounted paddle shifters. On paper, the TSX wagon is at an immediate disadvantage to the more powerful BMW. The Acura’s inline four-cylinder engine displaces 2.4 liters, and makes 201 horsepower and 170 pound-feet of torque. Its automatic transmission can also be controlled via paddles at the wheel, but the driver has one fewer cog with which to work. Furthermore, the power goes to the front wheels, something the more hardcore enthusiasts may (and do) gripe about.

The engines sounds are so different, it’s as though they’re speaking different languages. The Acura has a sinister, canine growl at idle. It sounds somewhat shrill as the revs climb, and opens up into a great howl when pushed past 3500 up to its 7100-rpm redline. It changes in tone as it comes to life, and sounds almost like it is consciously trying to communicate with you. How Acura’s parent company Honda manages consistently to extract these chilling screams from these pieces of metal using air, electricity, and petroleum is excellent, and we almost feel like Dr. Frankenstein animating Peter Boyle his terrible monster whenever we wring one of these motors out. And it never gets old.

BMW’s straight-six, however, is a different beast. If the TSX’s engine sounds like Kavik the wolf dog, the 328i’s powerplant sounds like ED209 from Robocop (you know, the intimidating, high-tech security robot). It sounds more robust and powerful down low, and higher up in the rev range, it gives off an eerie mechanical whine on top of the regular engine noise, almost as if it operated under some sort of forced induction. Think of a minigun spooling up before firing, and you’ve got the idea. This engine, as cleanly solid as it feels, has got a lot of character. Keeping this one on boil, too, never gets old.

The Steptronic six-speed transmission in the 3-Series conveys the power rearward quite nicely. Put into manual mode, shifting with the paddles elicits quick and clean gearshifts. The Acura’s five-speed box is just about as quick and smooth, but the paddles themselves don’t feel as solid. The big difference, though, is the difference in the number of gears. The BMW always feels like it can always find a sweet spot in the revs with just a click. A shift from the taller gears of the Acura might leave you just outside of the engine’s heartiest dose of power.

That difference in character when shifting isn’t totally on account of the transmissions, though. The simple fact of the matter is that the German six-cylinder has more power to offer, and it has a bigger range in revs in which that power flows freely from the engine. The BMW feels as though it breathes better, while the TSX’s engine doesn’t open up until about the middle, and tapers off at the very top.

That difference in power is inversely reflected to other factors that affect a buyer’s appeal of either vehicle. Firstly, the Acura returns better fuel mileage. Both cars drink premium gasoline, but the 3er gets 18 miles to the gallon in the city and 27 on the highway, compared to the TSX’s 22/30 mpg rating. Also, the extra two cylinders of the BMW will cost you; the difference in base price gives the Acura a $4740 advantage.

The biggest obvious difference between these two sporty wagons is which wheels get the power. The difference in normal driving, though, is very little. Yes, when pushed hard, the front-drive Acura does have a slight tendency to plow toward the outside of a curve. But in most instances, that understeer is minimal. Both wagons will trace a clean arc better than a grocery-getter should. It’s in imperfect conditions, though, where the dynamics change a lot, and if you live in a sunny and warm climate year-round, you can skip the next paragraph (or read on just to make yourself feel better).

We’re in the heart of winter here in snowy Michigan, and we had a fresh inch or two of the white stuff on the ground. The Acura handled about the same as one would expect losing grip here and there, but eventually able to overcome the lack of grip and get moving in a straight line. The rear-drive Bimmer (on all-season tires), however, fared not so well in the slick. In fact, it was horrible. In many instances, it wouldn’t even budge, but when we were lucky, it creeped skiddishly along, holding up traffic behind us. When stopped on a slight incline, releasing pressure from the brakes to inch forward would cause the rear end to move from side to side without even applying any throttle. It brought back memories of driving a previous winter, when we received a Nissan 370Z on summer tires a day or two before a snowfall. If you live somewhere that gets a real winter, and want to be able to use your wagon, the TSX wins here. If you must have the BMW, invest in all-wheel drive, or at least a really good set of snow tires.

But, like we said, on dry roads, both are a hoot. And if there’s a difference in how these cars feel when driven fast, a lot of that can be attributed to the feel of the suspension. The TSX feels taller, while the 328 feels as though it has a lower center of gravity. This makes a bit of a difference in corners, as the BMW feels slightly more planted. Over irregular surfaces, the Acura does a better job of swallowing up the bumps and ripples at speed, but the German offering tends to get more upset over things like railroad tracks, bouncing occupants fore and aft. Really, though, one doesn’t necessarily feel better than the other, and what feels right will likely come down to personal taste.

Qualifying steering feel, too, is pretty dependent on who is behind the wheel. The BMW offers its classic, heavy steering setup, which some drivers may find to feel artificial, while others may prefer it in enthusiastic driving. The Acura’s lighter tiller is a bit easier to toss around, and has a more relaxed attitude on center. The 3-Series may offer a bit more road feel at the wheel, but both wagons are pretty precise when it comes to hitting your mark and making quick directional changes.

And finally, the look and feel, both outside, and inside, are well done in each vehicle. The BMW offers a mature, classic look, and will feel pretty familiar to drivers of other luxury brands. Lots of long, slightly swooping lines and contours, with choices of earthtone leathers adorn the cabin. In the TSX, there’s a more edgy, brooding feeling, with more sharp angles. We like the seats, which make us feel like we felt behind the wheel of the likes of the RSX; it’s a little younger, a little meaner, but no less comfortable. The fact that the interior of our Acura tester was mostly black probably helped color the experience. One could make the argument that the BMW does feel slightly more premium, but the Acura fan might also call it less exciting.

Forced to choose (and not a dire situation that would be), our money would have to go to the German offering. There, we said it. It’d be a tough decision, and one we might very well regret come winter. The BMW, though, is just a bit more sporting, thanks in no small part to that wonderful straight-six mated to that slick six-speed, which makes the wagon feel as though it can summon of power aplenty with just a tap of the accelerator, where the Acura might find itself needing an extra heartbeat to build up the proper thrust. Were we more frugal minded on the day of our decision, it might have gone the other way, but our inner driver might shed one single tear.
Both the Acura TSX and BMW 328i wagons are great for someone who seeks luxury and sportiness, with the added utility and space. Whether you want something that is quick, soulful, fun, and at the same time totally comfortable being driven like a casual, law-abiding motorist, each has plenty to offer. The big question when choosing between these two vehicles is not so much, “Which is better?” The more appropriate question is, “What flavor?”

2011 Acura TSX Sport Wagon
Engine: Inline-4, 2.4 liters, 16v
Output: 201 hp/170 lb-ft
Fuel Economy, City/Hwy: 22/30 mpg
Base Price: $30,960
Price As Tested: $34,610 (est)
On Sale: Now

2011 BMW 328i Sports Wagon

Engine: Inline-6, 3.0 liters, 24v
Output: 230 hp/200 lb-ft
Fuel Economy, City/Hwy: 18/27 mpg
Base Price: $35,700
Price As Tested: $45,650
On Sale: Now

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