by Byron Hurd. Photos courtesy of Honda.
It takes about six seconds to travel from the stop box to the “time writer” official at a NASA Mid-Atlantic autocross (or “NASA-X”). If you’re in it to win it, those six seconds are excruciating. What should really be a short time might as well be an hour-long debriefing. Six. What did I screw up that time? Five.Did that wobbler back at the offset box fall over? Four. Did I tap one in that second slalom? Three. Does Jon Felton hate Miatas? Two.
But this time, I don’t give a damn. I’m not playing for keeps. Brian, this heat’s time writer, is smiling and shaking his head as he leans in to his radio. He writes it on a post-it note and reaches out toward my driver-side window as I roll up. “You are consistent.” He tells me, laughing. I know what that means before I take the slip from him.
That’s a healthy six seconds off what would be my normal pace for a course this size. I normally peak mid-way through my session, and if I’ve settled to a 67.49 on run four, it’s pretty much a given that I’m not going to improve much from here. So why the lack of concern? Simple. Today, I’m not driving a Mazdaspeed3 or an RX-8 or a NA Miata. I’m not even driving our Focus.
I’m driving a 2010 Honda Accord Crosstour. And let me tell you, there’s nothing quite like hanging out the ass end of a 4100lb hatchback-on-stilts.
Our original plan for the Crosstour was a comparatively leisurely road trip to Ohio to pick up a parts car, but when the logistics fell through I approached NASA Mid-Atlantic Autocross Coordinator Jon Felton about the NASA-X event scheduled for the second-to-last weekend in January:
“Can I autocross a Honda Crosstour?”
“It’s basically just a V6 Accord, right?”
As it turns out, I didn’t need to force a straight face. Under the skin (more on that in a moment), the Crosstour is an Accord. From behind the wheel, you’d be hard-pressed to notice any significant differences. The Crosstour sits a bit higher and the front seating area has more of a command-view type feeling to it, but it never tries to push a truck agenda on you. That’s the Pilot’s job. Let me be clear: The Crosstour does almost nothing that a regular Accord won’t do. It’s an Accord hatchback. That’s it. It’s not a wagon, it’s not a full-on Crossover (Honda would be stepping on its own toes if it were), it’s not a jacked-up AWD sports “coupe” like the Acura ZDX. No. It’s just an Accord with a really, really big ass. If Leon Phelps worked in Honda’s product department, the Crosstour’s engineering project designation would have been “Delta Burke.”
The 271hp V6 is muffled and distinctly lacking in character in the low-end, but opens up into an undeniably Honda-built wail at high RPM. If you can get it close to its 6800RPM redline, it’s downright lively, yet despite pushing 254lb-ft of torque at 5000RPM, it never quite feels 271hp-fast, no matter how hard you romp on it. Further compounding the issue is Honda’s Variable Cylinder Management, or VCM. You may remember this from the short-lived Accord Hybrid. When little power is needed, the Crosstour’s V6 will shut down one bank of cylinders (effectively becoming an I3). At higher speeds, when a little more grunt is needed to maintain momentum, it will convert to a V4 configuration. When you give it some gas, it kicks back to full V6 operation. In economy mode, the audio system emits noise-canceling waves to prevent unpleasant engine noises from bothering the occupants, and active (yes, active!) engine mounts dampen vibrations from the 3- and 4-cylinder configurations. The entire operation is smooth and seamless, and if nobody bothered to tell you about it ahead of time, you’d have no idea what was going on in front of the firewall. It was good enough for a 26mpg average over two fill-ups. For an all-wheel-drive, V6-powered hulk like the Crosstour, that’s plenty good.
And speaking of that audio system, it’s actually quite nice. Good range, good volume control, decent controls, voice commands. I’d put it a notch or two above the sound quality of the system in the Infiniti FX35 we had recently, which is fairly inexcusable given the FX’s $20k premium over the Accord as-equipped. And the list goes on. The Bluetooth system is intuitive and quick to set up and the voice commands for the navigation system are easy to learn and intuitive even in eyes-forward operation. Most controls fall to hand, and those that don’t are redundant to either steering wheel controls or voice commands. There were no glaringly-absent features, though our example did come with just about everything Honda can sell you. My only complaint was with the GUI of the Nav, which seemed out of date given its feature set. Compared to a Ford or Nissan at a similar price point, the screen options and typeface look downright antiquated. Ultimately, though it works. I was able to confuse it only once. On our return trip, I remained in the I-395 HOV lane south of D.C. instead of pulling off onto the Beltway to head east toward home. The system freaked out and canceled our route, but it was easily re-entered from our pool of recent destinations. It was still an odd reaction, however, as even our hand-held Garmin unit can easily recalculate its way around such events. A minor annoyance, but nonetheless worth noting.
We were surprised by the quality of the leather in our EX-L tester, and the overall interior layout is both visually appealing and butt-soothingly comfortable. This is a very nice place to sit, and the conventional innards will lull you into forgetting about the exterior for a while. They even include a back-up camera so you won’t look around too much and start asking questions.
As the trip down to Virginia Motorsports Park progressed, the verdict looked promising. Peppy, comfortable, quiet and ergonomic. What’s not to like?
And when I arrived in the paddock and started prepping for tech, I was reminded of something I’d observed in passing from the moment I picked up the car: Everybody looks. For better or worse, the newest crossover in Honda’s stable is impossible to ignore. The styling is, shall we say, somewhat unconventional. The Accord’s nose and general front-end profile are clearly preserved, but the back is pulled taught into a hybrid-esque rump, when viewed directly from the rear, seems awkward at first. A spoiler running across the rear hatch window caps off the funkiness, but it only looks strange when you concentrate on it. If you just catch it in passing, it looks just like the little winglet on the back of the Prius, but on careful observation you’ll notice that it’s far more pronounced—dare I say interesting—than the normal Kammback affair.
So striking is the exterior that it prompted one gentleman in D.C. to stop dead in his tracks and peer into the windows. “Dayum,” he said, “that thing got a lotta room innit!” You either find it inoffensive and maybe slightly interesting, or you hate it outright. After a week, I found myself leaning toward the former.
Virginia Motorsports Park (VMP) is a drag strip outside Petersburg, VA (just southwest of Richmond on US-1). It’s an NHRA-sanctioned track and a high-profile venue for the central Virginia drag racing scene. This is essentially irrelevant for our purposes though. What really makes VMP great for autocross is its monstrous and well-maintained (all things considered) parking lot. It’s flat; it’s long; it’s fast. And it’s available.
I neglected to affix numbers to the car until after the driver’s meeting. This had the unintended (but satisfying) effect of luring my fellow participants into a contented state of self-assurance: No way is that crazy bastard going to run that thing. Obviously, I need to spend more time down there. A set of masking tape “34”s later and our Quarter Horse was ready for its first sprints.
Now it may come as a bit of a surprise, but the Crosstour wasn’t really intended for this kind of duty. In the helmeted position, forward visibility is such that you essentially have to guess where the car ends. It’s wide. It’s heavy. It rolls like the Titanic. If you accidentally leave the stability control systems in full NHTSA mode, the car will lurch around tight corners and kill the throttle when you’re trying to power out from the apex.
My first run clocks in at 72.30 seconds. In a word, it’s slow with a capital OW.
But I can feel the potential. The 18″ wheels return a little feedback to the Honda-tuned (read: number than a burn patient) steering, and despite the body roll, the car is actually very composed. You can feel the limits as they come on, and thanks to the OEM all-season tires, they aren’t long in coming. It’s a balancing act. I want to see what she’ll do, but I need to conserve the car—my first Honda loaner, and perhaps the last after they read this—and, as I mentioned before, I’m not here to be competitive. I just want to have some fun and avoid chunking the tread clean off the tires. The second run is quicker, but still awkward. I knock off a 68.19.
By the third run, it’s clicking. “The trick is to not use the brakes here,” I say out loud to nobody in particular as I heave the Crosstour into the left-hand portion of the s-curve at the end of the course. The car rolls predictably and the back end breaks away every so slightly. I breathe off the gas just enough to encourage the weight transfer, crank the wheel to the left just a hair more with the bite of the front tires, and then roll hard onto the throttle while I unwind and then countersteer to the right. “Drift, you *****!” And she does. In this environment, the Crosstour may not be graceful or athletic, but there’s deeply-rooted competence hiding under the controversial exterior and over-isolated road dynamics. Don’t get me wrong; this isn’t a wolf in sheep’s clothing. It’s at best an over-fed and under-exercised hound dog.
Credit part of that to the all-wheel-drive. Not only does it add even more weight to an already-porky package (you can get a FWD EX-L model that trims roughly 180lbs from the curb weight and an EX model sheds another 30 on top of that), but it’s also of the reactive variety, and while engagement/disengagement is impressively seamless, it’s still not particularly fun to use. Even after you disable all of the hoon-proofing nannies and drop the gear selector into first or second, you’ll still be hard-pressed to get feel much enthusiasm leaching into your fingertips. If you can get it to spin (and I mean spin, not some nearly-imperceptible shuffle-chirp) tires from a standstill without super-aggressive brake torquing (abuse like that is above my pay grade), then you’re a more accomplished man than I.
With run four down, I take that 67.49s slip from Brian and hand it to Nicole, who adds it to the sticky note collection adorning the dash. I’ve settled into the groove. Run five: 67.72. Run six: 67.68. Run seven: 66.13!
Plus one cone, for a 68.13. Damn.
And that’s one I wish I could have back, too. I just tapped the cone with the inside rear wheel going through the offset box (#5) on the back side of the course. It wasn’t even a cheater line; I was just a half an inch further to the right than I wanted to be. But oh well. The bar after the SCCA Nationals echoes with such stories, I’m certain. But then again, none of them entered a Crosstour.
On the final run, I aim for smooth and relaxed. It’s never my best run, so I never really feel the pressure. I loosen up and even turn the radio on. The flow is good, the pace is good, and the run feels slow. Naturally, it ends up being my fastest: A 67.15. And clean. But to put that in context, 67.15s around this particular course was good for 50th place.
Yes. Fifty. Out of fifty-eight. See for yourself:
Of the eight who finished with slower times, I have nothing constructive to say. Sorry, but you got beat by a big, fat, white, uh, thing.
This is where any other review would devolve into speculation as to the car’s ability to improve with a set of grippier tires and maybe a more aggressive alignment. Well, sure, any car can benefit from the above, but the Crosstour is never going to be a hero. It’ll be competent. The above modifications could make it more so (especially the tires), but it’s never even going to be a contender. I’m sorry. You did read the part where I said I finished 50th out of 58, right?
So what is it good at? Well, it’s good at being an Accord. In fact, not having driven them back-to-back, I’d wager it’s a bit better at being an Accord than a regular Accord (after all, it’s just an Accord hatchback). It doesn’t seem to be significantly less efficient than the V6 sedan, and said four-door has grown so large in its latest incarnation that the Crosstour’s size penalty would go pretty much unnoticed. You’re probably not going to struggle to fit its extra 2.5″ of overall length anywhere that the Accord was already a tight fit. It sports nearly double the cargo capacity and can fit some decent-size toys in the rear without sacrificing any passenger room. And hey, it’s even rated to tow 1500lbs and has 8.1″ of ground clearance, so you can tow your hypothetical ATV or jet-ski somewhere.
On the other hand, it’s not aggressively space-efficient, its styling and execution defy conventional classification, and its looks… well… they are what they are. Take them or leave them. And when you price out an equivalently-equipped sedan (minus all-wheel-drive), you’re looking at a $6,000 delta in the four-door’s favor. At $36k, you’re swimming with some pretty big fish in the mid-size CUV and SUV pond. That’ll get you into a base EcoBoost-equipped Flex or a rather well-appointed CX-7 or CX-9, not to mention a gaggle of cute ‘utes and even a few premium-level family sedans. Ford Taurus SEL AWD? Nissan Maxima? Maybe a Cadillac CTS or new Buick LaCrosse? The field is virtually wide-open in this price range.
Ultimately though, they’ll sell in droves. Of that I have no doubt. Toyota’s death pedal scare will drive Venza shoppers into Honda showrooms where salespeople will show them the Prius butt and the little “Eco” light that pops on whenever the engine goes into gimp mode on the highway, and they’ll eat it up. Prospects with older Accords and civics will buy them because they look less like a truck than the Pilot and they can fit their Golden Retriever and a couple of strollers in the back. Real estate agents will haul potential buyers around in them because they can hide all the clutter in the hatch and still get 25mpg. As they say, there’s an ass for every seat, and there are plenty of asses out there who aren’t terribly particular about what surrounds that seat as long as it fits a loose set of criteria and offends as few sensitive souls as possible.
Well sir, I have just the thing.