VANCOUVER, British Columbia — Midsize near-luxury market — prior to a dozen years ago, this category did not really exist. With the exception of a few European models, all luxury sedans were big old land barges. Then, in 1986, Honda launched its Acura luxury division, along with its new flagship model, the Legend. In the decade since, almost every upscale manufacturer has seen the need for an entry-level midsize luxury model as the demand for upscale products continues to expand.
Aided by the solid stock market and inexpensive leases, Americans are looking for greater variety and want midsize models with more power, more comfort, more accessories, and more frills. Completely forgotten are the lean and thrifty compacts and bare-bones midsize models that prevailed after the gas shortages of the 1970s.
The key outgrowth of concerns over better fuel economy is the excellent crop of thrifty six-cylinder engines that power all the vehicles in this category; two decades ago, buyers would have demanded V-8s. At the same time, manual transmissions have almost disappeared. Automatics have become smoother, with extra gears to ease the shift points and keep the engines economical yet powerful.
Made in America
Designed in Honda R&D studios in Torrance, Calif., and manufactured at the Marysville Auto Plant in Ohio, the 1999 TL debuts as the second Acura model (after the CL) to be completely designed, engineered and manufactured in the United States. The only people that are likely to be dissatisfied with the ’99 TL are those who paid full price for the ’98 version, since Acura has adjusted the price downward by almost $3,000.
"The TL has undergone such a significant transformation, it completely redefines the near-luxury category," said Rich Thomas, Acura's executive vice president and general manager. By incorporating some of the excellent Accord components into the TL, Acura gets the benefit of all the ride and interior comfort features of Honda’s best-selling car. Longer overall, with a wider track and more interior room, the TL’s front-drive platform features significant advances in torsional and bending rigidity.
The new TL includes isolated front and rear subframes, and carries its engine on vacuum-controlled front and rear hydraulic mounts, which reduces NVH (noise, vibration and harshness). The double-wishbone front and rear suspensions are combined with larger front and rear disc brakes.
Happily, we had plenty of opportunity to test the handling on mountain switchbacks in the Northern Cascades. On top of that, a bear prowling near the highway gave us an excellent chance to test the effectiveness of the car’s brakes.
At the core of the new TL is a newly designed 3.2-liter 225-horsepower VTEC V-6. More compact and more vibrant, the new 60-degree 24-valve V-6 engine is substantially lighter than the previous TL powerplant and is mounted transversely in the chassis, allowing more usable interior volume. The TL’s 3.2-liter engine is manufactured in Anna, Ohio, contributing to the car's high U.S. content. Like other Acura models, the 1999 TL features a 100,000-mile tuneup interval.
The TL also features an electronically controlled four-speed automatic transmission with a Sequential SportShift system for semimanual mode or fully automatic operation. The TL has state-of-the-art Grade Logic Control shift programming and the security of a standard traction-control system. The Sequential SportShift system complements the sporty nature of this performance luxury sedan, putting gear selection in the hands of the driver. By moving the transmission selector handle into a special SportShift gate, shifts can be executed with a fore or aft motion, just like in the more expensive Porsche models.
Buyers of luxury cars are now being spoiled by self-modulating climate-control systems, and the Acura TL pampers owners, too. Designers are paying special attention to the interior, giving extra care with the placement and operation of components and controls to enhance comfort and safety. The TL offers leather seating, heated front seats, power front seats, wood-grained trim, automatic climate control, tilt steering column, and cruise control.
TL's standard equipment list includes a power moonroof, power/heated door mirrors, steering wheel-mounted remote audio controls, keyless entry, the HomeLink™ Universal Transceiver System, auto-off headlights, and a theft-deterrent system. Most of these are options on other cars.
The only factory option on our well-equipped TL was a state-of-the-art navigation system. This latest evolution of the Acura navigation system offers a larger six-inch color LCD display that now has a picture-in-picture capability, so drivers can see the "big picture" map displayed simultaneously with detailed turning instructions.
Complex audio systems are getting more powerful today, and it is rare to find one without either tape or CD capability, if not both. An Acura/Bose™ AM/FM cassette in-dash CD player with five-speaker system gives concert-hall capability to TL buyers.
Airbags highlighted the safety consciousness of the '90s, and belt and bag systems are constantly being improved to conform to the latest standard in comfort and security. This has grown into extra attention to personal safety. The new TL includes active safety features that assist in accident avoidance, including standard ABS brakes, a new traction-control system and high-intensity-discharge headlights for improved visibility. The TL's key crash protection technologies include side-impact door beams, dual airbags, door panel structure, side-impact absorption pads, and 5-mph bumpers.
The new TL features a much more aggressive front and rear styling and sweeping, open cockpit-type interior style. "With the wealth of standard features, luxury appointments and a sporty performance, the only thing 'near' luxury about the TL is the price," Thomas said.
The TL is covered by a comprehensive four-year/50,000-mile bumper-to-bumper limited warranty. Additional ownership benefits include Acura Total Luxury Care (TLC) — which provides free 24-hour roadside assistance, concierge service, and trip routing.
In the past, major American manufacturers have tried move-up models that provided the transition between entry-level value-contented cars and their mainstream luxury models and brands. For those who may have forgotten, there were cars like the ill-fated Cadillac Cimmaron and Mercury's Merkur Scorpio.
Following a Legend
While such models did not