We hadn't been parked but a minute or two when it happened. After about a half an hour wringing out our test subject on what few curvy stretches of road suburban Detroit had to offer, we opportunistically pulled into a roadside fruit stand to snap a few photos before our ride got any dirtier. It was at exactly this point that a Lincoln MKZ rolled up, a window whirred down, and two gray-tufted heads popped out. "What is it?" inquired the couple in boisterous unison. Silence. "It's the 2010 Honda Accord Crosstour," we eventually blurt out, my co-driver sounding suspiciously apologetic. "It's... it's gorgeous!" The late-sixty-something man isn't being facetious – in fact, he's gushing – taking his hands off the Lincoln's wheel and gesturing as if to reinforce his sincerity.
If we're lyin,' we're dyin.'
"It's absolutely beautiful."
"Really? Would you like to take a closer look?" No sooner had we extended the offer than said window was rolled up and the MKZ hurriedly shepherded into a parking spot. Moments later, our curious seniors were all over Honda's latest like first-in-liners at an early bird all-you-can-eat buffet. They took in its daring fastback profile, sized up its cargo hold, fiddled with its power seat controllers and gooshed its soft-touch plastics. Not only were they clearly impressed, they loved the way it looked.
Photos copyright ©2009 Chris Paukert / Weblogs, Inc.
Having established that Ashton Kutcher wasn't about to spring forth from behind the stand's display of pumpkins, we stood back and watched, surveying the scene while chatting with the stand's owner. Even though the proprietor would later confess to not liking Hondas (her husband being a retired General Motors lifer and all, that kinda thing just wouldn't be right), she had been kind enough to oblige our photography and she seemed to be as curious as we were. We admit it: we did not expect things to go down this way. And in our defense, neither did Honda.
You are the Target Market
You see, earlier that same morning, we attended a press conference and walkaround with company officials, and as it turns out, our elderly snoopers aren't who the Crosstour's blunt prow is aimed at. According to Lee DaSilva, senior product planner, the model is targeted at both fifty-something Baby Boomers that find themselves with newly empty nests and Gen Y types who are just starting their own families. Our admirers were clearly neither.
However, given their newish MKZ, they probably had the educational and financial credentials that Honda has bogeyed, and besides, it's often true of niche cars that they end up selling to vastly different audiences than the one that was originally intended. Just ask Scion. Or Honda's own Element buyers.
Beauty is in the Eye of (Other) Beholders
Regardless of The Lincolns' ardor, it's clear that Honda is facing considerable early pushback with its newest nichemobile. Advanced marketing efforts through social media sites like Facebook haven't exactly gone according to plan, sparking widespread derision studded with the occasional kudos emanating from the Commentariat. The only problem is, the overwhelming majority of these detractors have never seen the Crosstour in person.
It is at this point that you might reasonably expect us to fence-straddle a bit and tell you why the Crosstour is better looking in person. Thing is, we're not sure it is. Perhaps you expect us to note how what few photos Honda has released to this point fail to tell the whole story. Fair enough – they don't. And we needn't remind you that auto journalists (us included) are regularly accused of using mealy-mouthed words like 'unique,' 'distinctive,' 'polarizing' and 'intriguing' when what they're trying to say is that a design team has shat the bed. In that spirit and from our vantage point, we'll say this polarizing Honda is uniquely distinctive in an intriguing way.
First Impression: Like the Accord sedan upon which it's based, the Crosstour is larger than you might expect. At 196.8-inches long, 74.7-inches wide, 65.7-inches tall and 3,887 pounds, our EX-L tester was a big boy. As our new friends illustrate, the Crosstour's design clearly has its adherents, but we can't help but think that its self-described "thick face," oddly dimpled rocker panels and high-waisted Kammback tail tries too hard to be different.
In particular, the dead-on front and rear views are tough to make sense of. The nose is definitely aggressive, and for better or worse, it does have a certain "T-Rex head" quality about it. We suspect some will appreciate its in-your-face quality, while others will just be turned off. When viewed from directly behind, we couldn't find much love for the Crosstour's split-glass arrangement and collagen-injected Porsche Panamera aesthetic. The visual weight of its high rump has been exacerbated by tires that appear too narrow, to say nothing of the odd covering of the undermounted spare that's clearly visible to trailing cars.
To be clear, we think that a 225/60 18-inch radial is normally more than enough footprint for a family car (EXs make do with 225/65 17s), but even if these Michelins are dynamically up to snuff – and they are – they don't help visually. This is particularly apparent when compared with the wider and larger radials of the competition (there's a reason most Toyota Venzas wears dubs). Given the Crosstour's elevated ride height, its upward sweeping rear overhang, and its unconventional hatchback rear graphic, the resulting look strikes us as disharmonious and tippy. We suspect Honda's engineers may have had trouble stuffing a wider tire underneath the Accord-based platform, especially while leaving space for the underslung spare.
Do Not Attempt to Define the Undefinable
Thankfully, during our day with the car, Honda's team largely avoided the shopworn auto marketer's tendency to invent white space. You know, blustery talk of how a model is a new type of vehicle the likes of which buyers have never seen, and therefore it has no real competitors. Oh, program chief engineer Osamu Takezawa did suggest that Crosstour is an "Active Grand Tourer" (fair enough), but the rest of Honda's marketing team refreshingly didn't even attempt to coin a new market segment like "Extreme Lifestage Softroader" for it to occupy.
Admittedly, a bit of confusion would be understandable – even our own government doesn't can't seem to comprehend what this East Liberty, Ohioan is: The EPA classifies the Crosstour as a passenger car, but down the hall, NHTSA maintains it is a light truck. As if to add some context and clarity to this conundrum, Honda thoughtfully provided a pair of likely cross-shops for us to sample, the Nissan Murano and Toyota Venza. Honda says this is a CUV, folks.
All of which brings us to the drive. We've spent entirely too much time dwelling on the sort of superficial stuff that our moms have always told us doesn't matter. It's what's inside that counts, right? So, in that spirit... how's she go? Rather well, as it turns out.
Quick studies among you might reasonably surmise that the Crosstour probably drives like a slightly taller and more portly Accord. And you're right – in much the same way that Toyota's Venza behaves essentially like a taller and more portly Camry. As it is with the family sedan archrivals, Honda once again provides the more entertaining drive, with quicker, more direct steering; firmer brake pedal feel; reduced body roll and front-end plow – in general, a more dynamically 'connected' feel. All good stuff.
As is the case with every Crosstour, our front-drive EX-L tester was powered by Honda's well-mannered 24-valve, 3.5-liter V6. In this case, the i-VTEC motor gives 271 horsepower (at 6,200 RPM) and 254 pound-feet of torque (at 5,000 RPM) – both figures comparing favorably to the Venza (268 hp/246 lb-ft.) and Murano (265 hp/248 lb-ft). However, the Toyota has an extra cog and the Nissan's CVT has a wider ratio spread as compensation.
Despite only having five speeds, the Crosstour's transmission proved to be a sophisticated and able partner, with a new g-force algorithm that prevents the gearbox from engaging in any ill-timed mid-corner shifts, and there's even an unexpected rev-matching downshift feature. Oddly, Honda has elected to not include a manual +/- gate on the gearshift and there are no paddles, either.
While we were initially a bit surprised to learn that no four-cylinder model would be offered, the six has variable-cylinder management technology to help on the economy front. Paired with Honda's keen-shifting five-speed automatic and other fuel-saving measures (example: a humidity control feature on the HVAC system that results in a three percent fuel savings), the Crosstour chips in with some respectable mileage figures: 17 mpg city/27 mpg highway for front-drivers like ours, and 17/25 for the all-wheel drive model. Officials claim they would've only saved about one mpg by going with an inline-four, so they passed. For comparison's sake, a Murano returns 18/23 and a V6 Venza scores 19/26.
Drama on the Outside, Not on the Inside
If nothing else, the Honda's polarizing bodyform helps pay dynamic dividends. With just 6.0-inches of ground clearance (only 0.3 inches more than the sedan – significantly less than its adversaries) and a narrow overall body height from rocker-to-roofline, the Crosstour enjoys a lower center-of-gravity than competitors, an attribute that's noticeable from the moment you take a corner with conviction. Credit also goes to an exceptionally stiff body structure that allows the front double-wishbone and rear multi-link suspension to keep ride motions in check. It's also this rigid chassis that helps keep the interior free from any squeaks and rattles.
In fact, it's very quiet inside – even when the standard sunroof is open. Honda has fitted dynamic engine mounts that help cancel out unpleasant engine vibrations when the V6 is operating in cylinder deactivation mode, and the Crosstour is the first Honda-branded car to employ active sound cancellation through the audio system. We even reckon the CUV's narrower sail area will result in better resistance to crosswinds than its contemporaries.
Realizing that it's toting around an extra 300 pounds or so, engineers upgraded the Crosstour's standard Accord brakes from single- to double-piston up front, with 11.7-inch discs fore and 12.0-inchers aft. Further alterations include model-specific shocks, springs and anti-roll bars. The changes work, and the ride and handling strikes an agreeable balance. In short, the Crosstour may offer a more sporting drive, but it's plenty composed, too.
The Whole Enchilada?
Let's face it, though, this class of crossover is rarely purchased based on dynamic abilities. Buyers want a comfortable ride, commanding visibility, flexible utility and plenty of creature comforts. By this yardstick, the Crosstour has some substantial holes in its repertoire. The interior is nicely done, and despite the rakish roofline, rear headroom isn't far off of its competitors, plus there's legroom aplenty. If anything, the case can certainly be made that the interior looks too similar to the Accord sedan. With the exception of a unique fabric or leather color option, ice blue gauge needles and a different shade of faux woodgrain, the cabin is all but identical to its less adventuresome sibling. At least all Crosstours come with supportive seats, excellent fit-and-finish and generous equipment levels: standard kit includes dual-zone HVAC controls, a sunroof and a 360-watt CD-stacker stereo. Lest we forget, Honda's wonderfully capable but fiddly sat-nav is also available.
On the visibility front, the Crosstour's two-piece rear glass allows one to see objects up close more easily than some of its competitors (think: parking lot poles), but the rear aspect is otherwise compromised with a narrow main window, thick D-pillars and bulky headrests. It isn't just the view out the back that's likely to prove divisive – because the Crosstour sits so low, it fails to deliver the elevated SUV-like seating position and sweeping greenhouse that many crossover buyers crave. Get the backup camera.
Things are somewhat better beneath the rear hatch. If the Crosstour has any surprise-and-delight features, it's back here. The 25.7 cubic feet of cargo space (expandable to 51.3 cubes with seatbacks down) trails its rivals by a good bit – particularly when comparing seats-folded numbers. But the 60/40 split chairs fold completely flat with a tug on the well-placed handles and there's a novel three-piece double-sided floor panel that has carpet on one side and ribbed plastic on the other. If you don't want to soil the carpet with your active lifestyle accessories, the plastic side is the way to go, but we wish it were rubberized to hold items in place. As it is, unless you secure the item using the supplied tie-downs, your belongings are probably going to end up on the carpeted area anyway.
Saving the best for last, the Crosstour's chief party trick is its "Hidden Removable Utility Box," a 1.9 cubic foot sub-floor... well, box that has handles and movable dividers. It's a great place to store valuables out of sight and keep dirty boots away from the week's groceries. It's also the reason why Honda opted to have the spare tire ride underneath the chassis like a pickup, as doing so freed up room for the storage bin.
A Surprisingly Short List and a Question of Price
Unfortunately, for a premium-minded offering, the Crosstour's options list appears to be missing more than a few key attractions. In most new CUVs of this class, you can get a panoramic moonroof, but with the Honda, you'll have to settle for the standard-sized unit. Power liftgate? Rear-seat entertainment system? High-intensity discharge headlamps? Bluetooth streaming audio? Pushbutton start? No, no, no, no... and...umm... no. It's therefore unsurprising that you won't find any advanced safety options like a lane-departure warning system, a blind-spot monitor or intelligent cruise control. We generally don't care for those gewgaws, and to be fair, many competitors do without them, but Honda has made it clear that it's seeking more affluent buyers, and with less-than-stellar outward visibility, it wouldn't be a bad idea to make at least blind-spot technology available.
Then there's the not inconsiderable matter of pricing. Honda has taken a real risk here by deciding to offer high-content V6-only models, and we're not sure it's the right strategy. As it is, the front-drive EX starts at $29,670 and all-wheel drive models start at $34,020, but at least leather comes standard on those models. Add navigation to an all-wheel-drive EX-L, and you're talking $36,220, at which point the barn door is wide open for premium-badged offerings.
We hate to belabor the point, but since Honda themselves brought specific challengers into the equation, it bears noting: Apples-to-apples, the competition is cheaper. A front-drive, six-cylinder Venza starts at $27,800 and a similar Murano (which only comes with V6 power) retails from $28,050. And if you care about such things, at 3,500 pounds, they both offer more than double the highest rated towing capacity of the Crosstour.
As we Autobloggers are good momma's boys and gals, we'll agree to say that beauty is in the eye of the beholder and leave discussions of this Honda's design at that. We'll even happily agree that it's nominally the better driver's car. But rivals offer more utility, more capability, more choices and more luxuries – and they do it at lower price points. That's going to be one hard Crosstour-shaped lozenge for consumers to swallow – no matter what age or tax bracket they operate in.
Who Might Really Cross Over
As it turns out, our fruit-stand stopping, MKZ-driving admirers would later tell us that they have another car at home in their driveway – an Accord – and they are contemplating replacing it soon. All of which makes a lot more sense. Honda has some of the best customer satisfaction and brand retention ratings of any automaker, and we can see loyalists looking for something a bit different and a bit more capacious finding their way into a Crosstour. We're just not sure about 40,000 of them – the yearly volume company officials are seeking.
Us? We'll wait for the just-announced Acura TSX Sport Wagon, a model that is widely expected to be a ported-over version of the company's tasty JDM Accord Tourer. In the meantime, Honda, might we suggest introducing an all-wheel drive Accord sedan? We suspect you'll have the necessary parts lying around...
Photos copyright ©2009 Chris Paukert / Weblogs, Inc.