Cars.comparison: Modern Wagons

While some see station wagons as the family haulers of yore, the future looks bright with new models like the Honda Accord Crosstour and Toyota Venza entering the fray. They square off against the venerable Subaru Outback.

 = Category winner
The Contenders
2010 Honda Accord Crosstour EX-L AWD2010 Subaru Outback 3.6R Limited AWD2010 Toyota Venza V6 AWD
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Price as tested
Style points (with 10 being best)
6: Honda took a chance with this design. For the effort, and because some are enthused by it, we give it a 6. The much-maligned grille doesn't look that bad in person, but it shows too much radiator, and the rear end is … unusual. 5: With its redesign, the Outback has lost the sporty sleekness of its predecessor and now just looks like a blocky crossover — and not a particularly memorable one at that. 7: More distinctive than the Outback but not as polarizing as the Crosstour, the Venza seems the best-dressed. The standard 20-inch alloy wheels don't hurt. The rear, in particular, belies the car's practicality.
Drivetrain performance
The Crosstour moves out smartly from a stop, but it doesn't feel as strong across the rpm range as the Outback's, and it sounds a bit gravelly. Subaru's six-cylinder is a delightful engine, and it makes the Outback the most responsive. Capping it off is a five-speed automatic transmission that responds quickly to provide passing power.The Venza goes toe-to-toe with the Outback performance-wise, but it's dragged down by an automatic transmission that's too hesitant when more power is needed.
Gas mileage (city/highway, mpg)
Our Crosstour's mileage ratings trail the others' by 1 mpg city. Front-drive models improve matters to 18/27 mpg, but Honda doesn't offer a four-cylinder option.
The Outback is offered only with all-wheel drive, so if you're looking for better mileage you'd need to choose the less powerful four-cylinder model, which gets a frugal 22/29 mpg with an automatic transmission.
Like the Outback, the Venza also offers a four-cylinder engine, but if you prefer V-6 power and want slightly better mileage, a front-drive version gets 19/26 mpg. The front-drive four-cylinder model gets 21/29 mpg.
The Crosstour has little steering slop, and its body roll is controlled. On the highway, the steering feels the most settled of the three, and the brake pedal inspires confidence. But the car doesn't match the Outback's engagement, and its 40.2-foot turning circle makes a U-turn a game of chance. Subaru may have softened the Outback in its redesign, but it's still the most dynamic and balanced of these three. The well-weighted steering is more precise than Honda's. The softest suspension creates floatiness over big bumps, but overall this is the one you'd want for a road trip, as it's the best at masking road imperfections. The Venza handles like a base Camry — lazy steering, plenty of body roll and a brake pedal squishier than a Bundt cake. Not every car needs to be a driver's car, but even self-professed Point-A-to-Point-B drivers will find the Venza unengaging.
Ride quality
In Honda tradition, the Crosstour's suspension tuning is firm, so more bumps and cracks work their way into the cabin. It's not quite as firm as the Accord sedan. The softest suspension creates floatiness over big bumps, but overall this is the one you'd want for a road trip, as it's the best at masking road imperfections. The Venza's ride comfort was livable despite our test car's massive 20-inch wheels, but there's no excuse for this much body roll when there's not a cushier ride to justify it.
Driver and passenger comfort
The Crosstour's front seats have lengthy adjustment range and good thigh support, and our test car's leather felt the highest-rent of the three. The backseat is voluminous, but unlike the Outback and Venza, this one doesn't recline. The cabin feels snug overall.
Our Outback's leather bucket seats delivered great long-haul comfort. The backseat offers better thigh support for adult passengers than the Venza. Legroom is good, but the seat could be a little higher. The reclining rear backrest has a wide range.
The front seats had durable, well-cushioned fabric, but some may find the driver seat's rearward range limited, and the steering wheel's adjustability isn't great. In back, there's good headroom and legroom, but the seat cushions could be longer.
Storage space
The Crosstour has a modest glove compartment and center console storage. The front cupholders are deep, but the Crosstour leans more toward personal sedan than family-friendly crossover. The Outback's glove box and multilevel center console bin aren't huge, and shorter drivers might not be able to use the fixed center armrest. Our travel mug would have flopped this way and that on a twisty road. The Venza's deep console storage area, secret compartment under the front cupholders and large glove box offer lots of room for traveling families who like their stuff.
Cargo room and utility (backseat up/down, cu. ft.)
The Crosstour's low-slung looks sacrifice utility. The cargo area is narrower and less useful than in the Subaru or Toyota, despite helpful features like backseat release handles in the cargo area and underfloor storage.
The Outback's boxy styling pays off when you have things to carry. It has the biggest liftgate opening, the widest cargo floor and the most cargo space. The standard roof rack with stowable crossbars is very helpful.
The Venza's cargo room rivals that in the Outback. However, the suspension design makes the cargo area narrower than the Outback's where you load it, and a roof rack isn't offered.
Overall value
The lack of a base four-cylinder engine makes the Crosstour the priciest of these three wagons by more than $3,000; not helping matters is its higher five-year ownership costs. If you're looking for the most value, the Outback is the way to go. It's base price for the four-cylinder model is cheaper and it still comes with all-wheel drive. The Venza has the lowest projected five-year ownership costs, but it doesn't have features like leather seats or navigation that the other two have. It was the only one with a backseat entertainment system.
Editors' choice
The Crosstour is a curious beast, and one whose appeal seems limited. A lot of utility is sacrificed in the name of design. It's more "wagon lite" than fully functional hauler. By sticking to the basics — like a comfortable, roomy cabin, a forgiving ride and vast cargo room — the Outback gives shoppers plenty of reasons to check it out. The Venza's sculpted looks and spacious interior win points, but its suspension is too sporty for the shopper it's likely to attract.
© 3/1/10
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