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When Acura introduced the TL name back in 1996, most of the cars in the mid-size “near luxury” segment were front wheel-drive vehicles. But now the Cadillac CTS, Lincoln LS, Lexus IS, and the Infiniti G35 among others feature rear-drive in their chase to catch the ultimate bogie in the class, the always-has-been-rear-drive BMW 3-Series. There are still plenty of front-drivers in this class, but they’re under attack and their numbers are declining.
Acura, though, is back with another front-drive TL sedan.
More American, not more TL
The car we’ve known here as the 3.2 TL was sold as the Honda Inspire in Japan. There’s both a new TL here and a new Inspire there, but now they share a whole lot less. This TL (the “3.2” part of the name is now ominously gone) was designed in the United States, optimized for the American market, it is built here, and there are no plans to sell it outside North America. In fact the weirdest thing about the press introduction for this vehicle was the almost complete lack of Japanese faces among the Honda engineers on hand to explain the new car’s intricacies.
As before, the TL is built on the same assembly line in Marysville, Ohio that screws, welds and snap-fits together Accords. So, as before, a lot of the TL’s substance is shared with, or derived from, that astoundingly popular car. Just as in the Accord the front suspension is a double wishbone setup, the rear suspension is a multi-link independent system and the basic structure is a unibody. The Accord and new TL share a 107.9-inch wheelbase though the TL is actually 3.3 inches shorter overall than its brother Honda. The TL’s track is just under an inch wider front and rear than the Accord and its 72.2-inch overall width is 0.7 inches wider than the Accord.
Of course the TL is no longer the only Accord-derived sedan in Acura’s lineup, as they added the TSX earlier this year. The four-cylinder TSX however, while it shares much basic engineering and suspension design with the V-6-powered TL, is based on the European-market Accord and is smaller than the TL — but not by much. With its 183.3 inches of overall length, the TSX is in fact just 2.9 inches shorter than the 186.2-inch long TL and at 57.3 inches high, it’s actually 0.6 inches taller than the TL. The TSX, though is a significant 2.8 inches narrower than the new TL and, depending on options, about 200 pounds lighter. To finish up the shadow-casting comparisons, last year’s 3.2 TL rode on a 108.1-inch wheelbase and at 192.5 inches long, was a full 6.2 inches longer than the car that replaces it.
But the new TL looks bigger than the car it replaces. This is big-shouldered, blocky design with a pronounced wedge that’s highlighted by deep character lines down its flanks and fenders that bulge out to cover the larger tires. The nose is chiseled with small bi-xenon headlamps that almost disappear into the mass. The word “Acura” appears low on the front bumper cover between two large vents and is covered when a front license plate is fitted. Just add the new TL to the list of vehicles that will look worse when a front plate is bolted on.
More Power, Not More Displacement
Most of what’s in the engine bay is familiar stuff. But while the SOHC, 24-valve V-6 engine displaces the same 3.2 liters as last year’s car, its output has grown to 270 horsepower in all versions as opposed to 225 horsepower in last year’s regular 3.2 TL and 260 horsepower in the 3.2 TL Type-S. Acura says the aluminum block and heads are new and that they, along with a new higher 11.0:1 compression ratio and concomitant changes to the VTEC variable valve-timing system are responsible for the boost in output. Acura further claims that there’s more torque on hand than in last year’s Type-S across the engine’s operating range with the maximum 238 lb-ft of twist coming at a reasonable 5000 rpm.
Even though the engine is more powerful, the best news is that the 3.2 CL Type-S’ brilliant shifting six-speed manual transmission and its companion limited slip differential are now offered in the TL. Hey, it’s not like the CL is around to use them! Naturally a five-speed automatic is also available with a Sequential SportShift system for manual operation.
The six-speed and automatic-transmission TLs are in many ways different cars. Both ride on 17-inch wheels, but the automatic comes wearing P235/45R-17 Bridgestone Turanza all-season touring tires while most six-speeds will get Bridgestone Potenza RE 030 performance tires (a $200 option only on the six-speed) in the same size. Beyond that, while both cars use four-wheel disc brakes with ABS and electronic brake force distribution, the manual-transmission car uses massive 12.2-inch diameter front discs clamped by gorgeous (and effective) four-piston Brembo calipers. The manual transmission car also uses slightly thicker anti-sway bars both front and rear than its automatically shifted brother.
Of course the two TL models drive similarly, but not identically.
Power of sound
Decorated with real leather, real aluminum and either fake wood or fake carbon fiber, the new TL’s cockpit is among the very best in its class. The instrumentation sits in three pods in front of the driver and glows LED blue with the pointers in vivid red. The dash design itself mimics other Acura/Honda designs with the center stack dominated by either the sound system or a completely effective (and wholly unnecessary for most buyers) navigation system screen. The seats are broad, but well shaped and have loads of power adjustments and every switch, control or surface feels precise, well considered, and elegant. This is easily the best, most sophisticated interior ever installed in a Honda product. They even moved the sunroof controls from their traditional Honda location on the dash to a more conventional position at the leading edge of the sunroof itself.
As sweet as the interior is in appearance and comfort, what Acura is most proud of, and anyone who gets in the car who isn’t deaf must be impressed with, is the sound system. Pounding through eight perfectly placed speakers with tuning by legendary record producer Elliot Scheiner, and grabbing its signals from super-duper, sky-high, mega-fidelity DVD-Audio discs, this result is an aural orgy. There are people with $100,000 worth of audio systems in their homes who don’t get sound this good; where you can almost hear Eric Clapton’s fingers brush against the guitar strings and feel the breath leaving a singer’s throat. The sound is specific (horns over there, strings over here, voices up, timpani down), exciting, and unmatched.
It’s an open question whether DVD-Audio will take hold as a recording medium, but the system also plays regular CDs (there’s a six-disc changer in the dash) or cassettes (should you be holding on to your collection from the Seventies?) and XM satellite radio is on board if the owner subscribes. But the “ELS” sound system is missing any way to accommodate other types of sound files such as those residing in an MP3 player like an Apple iPod or a laptop computer. That’s doubly frustrating because the sound system is also rigged to work with Bluetooth-enabled cell phones and Bluetooth technology could just as easily be used to play music through other devices. And there’s no reason why sound files with the quality of those on a DVD-Audio disc couldn’t also reside on other sorts of digital devices.
Still, if you want the very best sounding automotive audio system around, you have no choice but to buy a 2004 TL to get it.
The TL’s engine is one of the very sweetest V-6s ever conceived. It pushes out power in unbroken ribbons without a jarring engagement of the VTEC system, the electronic throttle feels more responsive than others of the type, it runs squeaky clean emissions-wise, and gets excellent fuel economy considering the car’s heft. When matched with the five-speed automatic, the engine is unobtrusive. When it’s hooked to the six-speed it feels athletic, eager and forgiving.
With the Vehicle Stability Assist (VSA) system doing its best to moderate any sort of goofiness, the TL drives with absolute confidence into even the dumbest of situations. Turn the VSA off, however, and it’s apparent that the front wheels are doing just too much of the work. With the braking, steering, and power all concentrated up there the TL simply can’t match its rear-drive competitors for chassis precision or subtlety. Dive into a corner a little too hot with the VSA off in a TL, and the car will plow straight ahead with little hope of recovery. Of course in daily driving keeping the VSA on will keep the car from ever approaching that condition, but as effective as the VSA is it mutes communication between car and driver.
Honda has had a fantastic run with front-wheel drive and the TL is their best front-drive sedan yet, but there’s no escaping the conclusion that they’ve reached the end of this layout’s development potential. Sublime handling rear-drive sedans like the Infiniti G35 are out there at prices similar to the TL, and even in every day driving situations they’re often more satisfying driving machines than this new Acura — even though the Acura’s engine is better and its two transmissions are more responsive.
As good as this new TL is, it’s what they do next that will be the real challenge for Acura and Honda.
2004 Acura TL
Base Price: $32,650
Engine: 3.2-liter V-6, 270 hp
Transmission: Six-speed manual, front-wheel drive
Length x width x height: 186.2 x 72.2 x 56.7 in
Wheelbase: 107.9 in
Curb weight: 3482 lb
Fuel economy (EPA city/hwy): 20/30 mpg
Safety equipment: Dual-stage front airbags, front and rear side curtain airbags, anti-lock four-wheel disc brakes
Major standard equipment: Cruise control, power windows and door locks, remote keyless entry, leather upholstery, DVD-Audio sound system, dual-zone air conditioning, Bluetooth wireless cellphone connectivity, HomeLink remote control system
Warranty: Four years/50,000 miles basic with roadside assistance and drivetrain, five years/unlimited mileage rust