2003 Acura TL
MSRP
$31,330
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2003 Acura TL Expert Review:New Car Test Drive

Performance and luxury.

Introduction

Acura's TL strikes an excellent balance on many levels. It delivers quick acceleration performance, style, and comfort. The base TL comes with a powerful 3.2-liter V6 engine, a nicely balanced suspension, a rigid chassis, and classy good looks. 

The Type-S model boasts a more powerful V6, a sport-tuned suspension, 17-inch V-rated tires, and an electronic stability program. It's quick and fun to drive, with a level of rawness that gives it character. 

For 2003, the OnStar communications system has been added to the list of features for models with the optional navigation system. 

Lineup

Acura TL is available as two models: TL and TL Type-S. 

TL ($28,980) comes fully loaded, and retails for less than many of the other cars in its class. TL offers a strong value. It's powered by a 3.2-liter single overhead-cam V6 rated at 225 horsepower and mated to a five-speed automatic transmission with Sportshift, a semi-manual mode that lets the driver manually select gears. 

TL Type-S ($31,330) boasts a 260-horsepower version of the same engine. Type-S comes with an increased steering ratio and a firmer suspension. It also comes with Acura's Vehicle Stability Assist, an electronic stability program that uses anti-lock braking and traction control to keep the car from sliding. 

Acura's DVD navigation system, or NAVI, is optional ($2150) and includes OnStar. 

Walkaround

TL maintains a conservative profile. Its lines are modern and refined, and its stance is athletic. As Acura's mid-level luxury sedan, the TL fits in the so-called near-luxury segment of cars in the $30,000 range, and its upscale looks are in keeping with this role. A rear spoiler is available, but we don't think it improves the TL's clean lines. 

The last complete redesign of the TL was for the 1999 model year, but Acura revised the TL's styling for 2002 with bold new headlights and a new grille to give it a more aggressive look. The taillights were redesigned to enhance the TL's graceful lines and Acura has revised the badging. Fog lights are standard. 

Interior

Acura TL is roomier than the BMW 3 Series and Mercedes-Benz C-Class, and offers more interior space than the Lexus ES 300. The TL interior is quite attractive, particularly in light tan. Switchgear is nicely designed. The mirror control is whisper quiet and the stereo features big, handsome buttons that are easy to operate. 

The front seats, though cushy and attractive, did not meet our expectations for an upscale Acura sedan. They lack support and the adjustable lumbar bulge is of marginal help. The leather seats in the S-Type don't provide enough lateral support when you start throwing the car around. There's a dead pedal to brace your left leg, however. 

The back seats are roomy, roomier than those in the BMW 3 Series sedans. The center position features a three-point shoulder belt, instead of just a lap belt. The rear seat doesn't fold down, but a small center section opens to allow skis and other long objects in the trunk to pass through the seats. Acura thoughtfully provided a little flip-down coat hook in back so your nice coat doesn't end up on the floor. 

The TL comes with a high level of standard equipment. Leather upholstery, heated and powered front seats, wood-grain 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 are all standard. Active safety features include ABS, traction control, and high-intensity discharge headlights. Passive safety features include dual front airbags and side-impact door beams. 

The Type-S interior is racy and handsome, with firm leather seats and a great leather sport steering wheel, cool shift knob, and instrument panel touches including metallic faces and ebony wood-patterned plastic trim. 

The navigation system uses Global Positioning Satellites and DVD to plot course and provide instructions. A brightly lit touch-screen monitor displays a map or an alpine-type route instruction. The navigation system 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 great 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. Our 2003 NAVI system was slow recalculating routes in downtown Washington. Also, there's no obvious way to quickly shut the thing off, like when you're trying to talk on your cell phone and it keeps telling you to turn around. If possible, spend some time trying the system out before deciding whether to order it. 

Driving Impression

The Acura TL cruises quietly, but doesn't make the driver feel isolated from the driving experience. 

It's very stable at high speeds and feels solid in fast, sweeping turns. The TL inspires confidence with predictable handling. Like most front-wheel-drive sedans, the TL understeers when pushed to the limit of the tires. It doesn't have the hard, precise edge of the rear-wheel-drive BMW 3 Series cars. The steering is very light at low speed, which makes it easy to handle in crowded parking lots, yet it offers good feedback. 

The suspension dampens bumps and vibration, yet the handling is taut. Acura designed the TL's multi-link rear suspension and double-wishbone-style front suspension to enhance its sporting performance while preserving its luxury feel. The chassis roll center of the current-generation car was lowered to reduce body lean in corners. 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. 

The standard TL model offers plenty of power from its 225-horsepower V6. It delivers strong acceleration at highway speeds and sharp throttle response at lower speeds. The TL can accelerate from 0 to 60 mph in less than 7.5 seconds. At the same time, the engine is supremely smooth and quiet, and it gets an EPA-rated 29 mpg on the highway. The 3.2-liter V6 comes with four cams, 24 valves and Honda's famous VTEC (Variable Valve Timing and Lift Electronic Control) valvetrain. 

Acura's five-speed automatic transmission is much more refined than most. Shifting is silky smooth. It downshifts into the appropriate gear when quick acceleration is needed and doesn't hunt unnecessarily between gears. The staggered design of the PRND side of the shifter gate seems a bit clumsy, however. We found it cumbersome to shift from drive to reverse when trying to get out of tight quarters in a hurry. The shifter in the TL-S model that we tested felt too stiff, even when just notching side-to-side in the SportShift mode. 

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. It's fun to use and, if used correctly, can improve performance and efficiency in many situations. Mostly it gives you a heightened sense of control. You can use it for slowing the car slightly on a downhill grade so you don't have to brake for a slower car. Or you can use it to maintain third or fourth gear when you're in the mountains or on a winding road. You don't always want the automatic 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 solves this. The SportShift can add entertainment when slogging along in stop-and-go traffic. 

The Type-S has an aggressive wild streak. For every satisfying driving quality the Type-S has, there's an untamed one. It's a visceral, exciting, imperfect car. No one can say this is one of those Japanese cars that's engineered so tightly it lacks character. 

The Type-S suspension is noticeably firm, thanks to stiffer shocks, a slightly larger rear stabilizer bar, and 17-inch alloy wheels with Michelin P215/50R17 high-performance tires. It twitches over bumps in medium- and high-speed curves and does a poor job of absorbing shallow potholes and other big bumps. The increased steering ratio allows the Type-S to turn into corners very crisply, which is exciting. It feels pointy, like an arrow, and it wants to slash and dart, with confidence. It's a point and shoot kind of car. It feels light under the driver's hands, sometimes too light. 

When driven very hard, like on a race track, the front-wheel-drive TL Type-S does not offer the level of handling found in rear-wheel-drive sports sedans, such as the BMW 3 Series and the Infiniti G3. 

Summary

Acura TL is a sporty mid-size luxury sedan. The standard TL offers a good value in this class. Its suspension strikes a good balance between handling and a luxurious, well-controlled ride. The standard VTEC V6 provides a remarkable combination of performance and fuel economy. 

The Type-S model adds a raw, untamed edge with its 260-horsepower engine, but does not offer the chassis sophistication of some of the competition. 

Model Lineup

TL ($28,980); TL Type-S ($31,330). 

Assembled In

Marysville, Ohio. 

Options As Tested

none. 

Model Tested

Acura TL Type-S NAVI ($33,480). 

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