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Honda crossovers are half duckling, half swan

By Warren Brown
Sunday, January 17, 2010; F01

DETROIT

They are strange conveyances -- part beasts, part beauties, vehicles that in the process of becoming, from one perspective, became the wrong thing.

From another view, they are works of genius, blending function and design into a rendering of the modern American psyche -- a mind-set that says you can become one in marriage and parenthood without losing your individual identity . . . and that you can age without growing old.

In short, the 2010 Honda Accord Crosstour and its upscale kin, the 2010 Acura ZDX, are motorized contradictions. They are sedans designed to do some of the work of wagons or sport-utility vehicles with the appearance and attitude of sports coupes.

As such, the Honda Crosstour and Acura ZDX are among the latest crossover vehicles, a highly lucrative model segment created for adults trapped in the river of denial and the messiness of redefinition.

Honda's genius is that it has discovered how to exploit the many layers of the cross-purpose, crossover phenomenon, by slicing it into gender, income, age and life stage (young parents in need of a family hauler and golden-parachute empty nesters desirous of hauling, for instance).

Thus, we have the Honda Crosstour for the middle class, a purchase mostly expected to be influenced by women in those households. And we have the Acura ZDX, expected to be favored by well-employed single men, well-employed young couples without children, or those golden-parachute empty nesters.

I, my wife, Mary Anne, and Ria Manglapus, my Washington Post assistant for vehicle evaluations, developed these ideas on test drives in Northern Virginia. Additional research here at the North American International Auto Show, where I interviewed Honda executives and show spectators about the Crosstour and ZDX, backed our theories.

In unscientific polling, we interviewed eight men and 10 women, ages 30 to 62, all employed, all with some college or professional training, all parents and half (nine) divorced. Two of the women and two of the men drove both the Crosstour and ZDX.

Here are some snippets:

-- All eight men interviewed, including Brian Armstead, a fellow automotive journalist who joined me in driving both vehicles, ridiculed the Crosstour's excessively long nose and wide, fat rear end. "Confused," I said. Brian said . . . well, what Brian said can't be printed in a family newspaper.

-- With the exception of two complaints (Mary Anne and Ria's hatred for that Honda Prelude-like split-rear window extending to the trunk), the women praised the Crosstour. They called it "beautiful" and "really pretty." A medical tech friend, a hardworking mom in her late 40s, called it "hot" and "sexy."

Here's an interesting note: The men hated the Crosstour because it has four full side doors, giving it the appearance of a sedan that someone tried, unsuccessfully, to turn into a coupe before giving up and settling on something that, at best, resembles a hatchback wagon masquerading as a sports car.

But the women loved the Crosstour's four side doors. (Ever tried putting a child's safety seat into a coupe?) They also liked the Crosstour's split folding rear seats that collapse into a flat load floor, as well as a rear hatch opening capable of accepting bikes, carriages, or whatever is on sale at Tuesday Morning.

Here's a puzzler:

The Acura ZDX has a starting price nearly $9,000 higher than that of the Honda Crosstour. Both bodies have Honda Accord breeding. Both look remarkably similar, although the ZDX looks more like a coupe. But it's not really a coupe.

Through clever design, the ZDX's rear side doors appear to be part of unbroken, coupe-like side panels -- a subterfuge enhanced by the design of rear access handles that appear to be air vents.

Both men and women raved about the Acura ZDX -- men much more so than women.

Middle-income men who pilloried the Crosstour joined their richer brethren in praising the ZDX -- two vehicles separated not by much.

The Honda Crosstour comes with a standard 3.5-liter, 271-horsepower V-6 engine. The Acura ZDX comes with a 3.7-liter V-6 that delivers a maximum 300 horsepower. Crosstour specifications say it has a maximum 51.3 cubic feet of cargo space. The specifications for the ZDX claim 56.

But therein is a ruse, provable by transporting five bottoms 500 miles in both vehicles. The backs and butts in the Crosstour will be much more relaxed at the end of the trip, because the Crosstour affords more comfortable space for rear-seat occupants than what is available in the ZDX, which appears to be a chariot more designed for two, despite its claims of being able to seat five.

In the end, clearly, it doesn't matter. Kurt Antonius, public relations chief of American Honda, has long held that cars are so much more than the sum of their parts.

"In many ways, they are what people think of themselves," he said in an interview at the auto show. "We aren't saying the Crosstour and the ZDX will be mass-market sellers. But they will find their niche. There are people out there who think of themselves the way these two were designed."

-- Special to The Washington Post

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