Apples to oranges: 2011 Nissan Murano SL AWD and the 2011 Acura TSX Sportwagon

March 18, 2011, 9:57 PM UTC

Crossovers are the hottest body styles to come along since pillarless hard-top convertibles. Station wagons, by contrast, are as dead as tailfins and wrap-around windshields. For more, see my epitath.

So what are they doing in the same review? Well, they are both utility vehicles of a sort, designed to haul more stuff than a conventional coupe or sedan; both are aimed at moderately affluent buyers; and both are made by Japanese manufacturers who could use a break after the triple threats of earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdown.

Equally important, both would be on my shopping list for coping with the semi-rural environs of the Litchfield Hills in northwest Connecticut.

Nissan’s Murano midsize crossover is the incumbent in this competition. On the market since 2002, it has adopted a more mature look for 2011 and has dropped its jack-o-lantern grille in favor of a slimmer, more sophisticated face.

The challenger is the TSX wagon, the first of its kind from Acura. Based on the European Accord wagon, it is a skosh longer and higher than the TSX sedan from which it is derived and exemplifies Honda’s philosophy of trying to do a lot with a little.

Acura is testing the wagon market with the TSX and plans to offer buyers just 4,000 wagons this year. The Murano, by contrast, has been around since 2002, and Nissan sold 52,546 last year.

Considering their different segments — crossover and wagon — the two cars are remarkably similar in length and width. The big difference is found in the height: The Murano has two inches more ground clearance and stands a full foot taller than the TSX.

Extra room up top pays off in greater cargo space for the Murano, but less than you’d expect: a total of 64.3 cu. ft. when the rear seat is folded down vs. 60.5 cu. ft. for the Acura.

Space means weight, and the Murano uses some 300 pounds more of the world’s limited resources than the Acura. It overcomes the inertia with a brawny engine: a 3.5 liter V-6 that puts out 260 horsepower and achieves a combined fuel economy rating of 20 mpg.

Lighter on its tires, the Acura feels as peppy as the Murano but makes do with a 201-horsepower 2.4 liter four-cylinder engine. Less weight and a smaller engine mean better fuel economy, and the Acura gets 25 mpg.

Both of my test cars performed flawlessly but nothing is cheap — especially cars built in Japan with the yen at record strength. The Graphite Blue Murano carried an MSRP of $37,050. All-wheel-drive, a welcome feature in the unrelenting snows of 2011, is standard. But throw in a $1,850 navigation package, $185 for mats, and $800 in destination charges, and you get an as-tested price of $39,885.

In keeping with Acura’s pricing policy, all the TSX’s options, including the navi system, were rolled into the MSRP of $34,610 for the Vortex Blue Pearl test car. The inevitable $800 destination charge boosted the as-tested price to $35,470. Honda saves its AWD drive systems for is own crossovers like the Acura MDX, and doesn’t make it available on the TSX.

Some of that price differential is likely to vanish on the showroom floor, where Nissan dealers are more likely to negotiate, but the TSX holds up better. figures the TSX will retain 46% in a private owner sale after five years versus 41% for the Murano.

So, which to choose? I like the command seating of the Murano, the AWD, and the high roof — just the ticket for hauling recylables to the transfer station. But the V-6 is more power than I need, and the Murano’s personality is more extroverted than I like.

On the other hand, I’m attracted by the Acura’s economical four-cylinder motor and the wagon’s tailored looks – more refined than other Acuras I’ve seen and appropriate for duty on Saturday nights. I’m also impressed by Honda’s consistent track record for reliability. The lack of AWD puts me off, though, and the low ground clearance would have kept the TSX in the garage on some wintery days where I live.

I realize it is an unsatisfying conclusion but I can’t choose between the crossover and the wagon. The strengths and the weaknesses of each balance out. Guess I’ll have to widen my search for a family car.