Expert Review:New Car Test Drive
New Car Test Drive
An affordable luxury sedan with spirit.
This car has spirit. Perhaps it's the spirit of Soichiro Honda in this all-new Acura 3.2 TL. Mr. Honda died in 1992, but officials from American Honda's Acura Division say the TL embodies his philosophies of performance, styling, luxury and value. He strived for perfection in all his cars and many of them were significant mileposts in the history of the automobile.
We found some of this spirit in British Columbia's Cascade Mountains high above Chateau Whistler. Extremely stable at high speeds, the Acura 3.2 TL encourages its driver to bend it around fast sweeping turns with confidence.
Completely redesigned and re-engineered for 1999, Acura's 3.2 TL comes with a powerful new 3.2-liter V6 engine, a nicely balanced new suspension, a rigid new chassis and fresh styling.
Though the new styling is conservative, the TL is no longer the wallflower it was previously. Its lines are more modern and more refined and its stance is more athletic. Acura's TL fits in the so-called near luxury segment of cars in the $30,000 range and it has an upscale look in keeping with this. There's a rear spoiler available that the dealers sell as an accessory, but it doesn't improve the clean lines. The new TL was designed, engineered and manufactured in the U.S.
Acura's TL is available as one fully loaded model with a powerful new 3.2-liter V6. Called the 3.2 TL, it is priced at just $28,385; that's considerably less than the '98 TL and less than many of the TL's current competitors. (Retail prices include $435 destination charge.) The only option available is Acura's competent navigation system, which brings the price to $30,385. (The previous-generation TL came as two models with a choice of engines.)
At the core of the new TL is a compact, newly designed 3.2-liter 225-horsepower VTEC V6 with more power than the other cars in its class.
The 1999 3.2 TL is roomier than its predecessor and it's roomier than the Lexus ES 300 and BMW 3 Series. Part of that roominess came from mounting the V6 engine sideways -- or transversely. The interior is attractive, though all come in an austere gray; some lighter tones would be nice. Also, we've seen better wood trim. The shifter is trimmed in brushed aluminum that lends a sporty appearance.
The back seats are roomy. The center position features a three-point shoulder belt, instead of just a lap belt. The rear seats don't fold down, but a small center section opens to allow skis, fly rods and other long objects in the trunk to pass through the seats.
The TL comes with a high level of standard equipment, much more so than the BMW 323i: leather seating, heated front seats, power driver's and passenger's seats, wood-grained trim, automatic climate control, tilt steering column, cruise control, Bose AM/FM/CD/cassette with steering wheel-mounted audio controls, power moonroof, power heated door mirrors, keyless entry, theft-deterrent system, auto-off headlights, and the Homelink Universal Transceiver System. Active safety features include ABS, traction control, and high-intensity discharge headlights. Passive safety features include dual front airbags and side-impact door beams.
At $2,000, the navigation system is an expensive option. It uses Global Positioning Satellites to plot your course and provide instructions. A brightly lit touch-screen monitor displays a map or alpine-type route instructions. It works well and can provide a lot of help in unfamiliar territory. The verbal instructions can help you avoid missing an exit and the map can help you figure out your location. It's always fun when you spontaneously decide to go to a hot restaurant while you're on the far side of town and it quickly finds it for you. Like all these systems, however, it's about 95 percent there in terms of development. It will occasionally send you the wrong way and operating the controls can, at times, be confusing and frustrating. Try the system out before deciding whether to order it.
Acura's TL strikes an excellent balance on many levels. It's very quiet underway -- even the mirror control is whisper quiet -- yet it doesn't make the driver feel totally isolated from what's going on outside. It dampens bumps and vibration, yet the handling is taut and it doesn't make the driver feel disconnected from the pavement.
One of the best features of the TL is that it is very stable at high speeds. This is an easy car to drive fast. Driving around a sweeping turn at high speeds won't cause that uncomfortable tightening in your stomach. Like most front-drive cars, it understeers -- the front tires slide before the rear tires -- when driven past its cornering limits. This makes for easy, predictable handling.
The TL doesn't have the hard, precise edge of a BMW. The steering is very light at low speeds, which makes it easy to handle in the crowded parking lots where many of us spend far too much of our time. Yet on the open road, the steering offers enough feedback that you don't feel like your sitting at the controls of a video game.
Acura designed a new five-link double-wishbone rear suspension and a revised double-wishbone front suspension for the TL with the aim of enhancing its sporting performance while preserving its luxury feel. The chassis roll center was lowered to reduce body lean in corners. High performance V-rated Michelin MXV4 tires that provide good grip are mounted on 16-inch wheels.
Equipped with four-wheel disc brakes, the TL provides smooth, sure braking performance. Anti-lock brakes are standard.
Then there's that engine. The 3.2-liter V6 comes with four cams, 24 valves and Honda's now famous VTEC (Variable Valve Timing and Lift Electronic Control) valvetrain. The VTEC system provides a remarkable combination of performance and fuel economy. It delivers strong acceleration at highway speeds and sharp throttle response at lower speeds. Acura claims the TL is quicker than a Mercedes-Benz C280 or BMW 528i. The company says the TL can accelerate from 0 to 60 mph in less than 7.7 seconds. At the same time, the TL's engine is supremely smooth and quiet.
The TL comes standard with a sequential SportShift 4-speed automatic. Normally, it works like any other automatic. Shifting is smooth and refined. It downshifts into the appropriate gear when quick acceleration is needed, though not always as quickly as we'd like. And it doesn't hunt unnecessarily between gears. The staggered design of the PRND side of the shifter gate is bit balky, however, which makes it difficult to shift between reverse and drive when you're trying to get out of tight quarters in a hurry.
The semi-automatic SportShift feature allows the driver to change gears manually. Slide the shifter into a two-way gate on the left; downshift by pulling the lever back, upshift by pushing it forward. I had fun with it in the mountains of British Columbia. You can use it for slowing the car slightly on a grade, so you don't have to brake for a slower car. But it's best use is for holding the transmission in third gear when you're in the mountains; you don't want it to upshift on short straight stretches because it will just have to downshift again after you brake and accelerate out of the next corner. The SportShift can also add a little entertainment when slogging along in stop-and-go traffic. From an engineering standpoint, the TL's transmission -- like its engine -- is extremely light weight, which contributes to the car's overall agility.
When the price is a factor -- and it always is -- the Acura 3.2 TL compares very well to the Lexus ES 300, Infiniti I30, BMW 3 Series, Mercedes-Benz C-Class and Audi A4.
With its 225-horsepower V6, the Acura 3.2 TL is a solid luxury sports sedan. Its suspension strikes a good balance between handling and a luxurious, well-controlled ride.
We think Mr. Honda would have approved.
Options As Tested
Navigation system ($2,000).
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