BEWARE OF politicians who've never had to make payroll or come up with a marketable product. They usually come up with dumb ideas, such as sticking a 100 percent tariff on Japanese luxury cars.The pin-striped geniuses promoting that punitive levy say their aim is to force Japan to open its markets to American automobiles and parts. If you believe that, I've got a tax-relief plan I'd like to sell you. Truth is, the proposed tariff, which would take effect June 28, has nothing to do with opening Japanese markets. Any doubt of that can be resolved by taking a tour of U.S. auto plants. Only a precious few of them -- and those include U.S. factories operated by Honda and Mazda -- are turning out vehicles that would be acceptable in Japan, where the streets are narrow and the steering wheels are on the right-hand side. So what, then, is the real aim of the 100-Percenters? Simple, it's to knock off the likes of the new Acura TL sedans, cars that would help Japan hold onto its estimated 24 percent share of the U.S. auto market. Placing a 100 percent tariff on those cars would kill 'em before American consumers have had a chance to judge 'em on their merits. Ah, and what about Japan's share of the U.S. auto market? Did Japan steal it? Did Japan force Americans to buy its cars and trucks? Or did Japan do what U.S. automakers ought to do -- design and build vehicles that are especially attractive to a target market? The tested Acura 2.5TL provides the answer: It's an exceptionally competitive product. It's a heck of a fine, likable automobile. Priced properly, it will sell in the United States or anywhere else. Even a politician can understand that. Background: The TL series is meant to replace the Acura Vigor, a mid-luxmobile vetoed by American consumers. (See what happens when you let the market speak for itself?) The Vigor, placed between the Acura Integra and flagship Acura Legend, just didn't have stayingpower. It made a good first impression, but then fell down in consumer affections -- not enough interior space, balky manual transmission, not enough vigor. The TL (Touring Luxury) series attempts to correct those shortcomings -- generous interior space for five passengers; a standard four-speed automatic transmission that's almost smooth; and a 200-horsepower, single overhead-cam, 24-valve, V-6 engine, which is scheduled to appear in the upscale 3.2TL in July. The tested 2.5TL comes with a single overhead-cam, 20-valve, inline five-cylinder engine rated 176 horsepower at 6,300 rpm. Torque is set at 170 pound-feet at 3,900 rpm. Both the 2.5TL and 3.2TL have a lot of safety stuff -- dual front air bags; dual-diagonal, power four-wheel disc brakes with anti-lock backup; beam-reinforced side panels; front/rear impact absorption zones. Both have a raft of luxury appointments, such as leather-trimmed seats and door panels (standard in the Premium version of the 2.5TL). The TL series is front-wheel-drive. Complaints: Some ergonomic goofs in the tested 2.5TL, such as the awkward location of the power-mirror and fog light buttons. Also, that split-level center console is a bit tacky. And I could do with a bit less downshifting during highway acceleration. Praise: Excellent craftsmanship. A very comfortable, enjoyable car on the open road. A good long-distance runner. Ride, acceleration and handling: In the 2.5TL, superior ride and handling. Acceptable acceleration, to 60 mph in about nine seconds. Truly superior braking, as evidenced by the 2.5TL's performance in avoiding an almost certain crash when the driver of a green Ford Explorer with Virginia tags veered recklessly into my lane. Mileage: About 22 per gallon (17.2-gallon tank, estimated 360-mile range on usable volume of required premium unleaded), running mostly highway with three occupants. Sound system: Eight-speaker AM/FM stereo radio and assette with dash-mounted, single-disc CD player. Installed by Acura. Excellent sound reproduction, but a single-disc player in a car of this caliber is disappointing. Price: For the tested 2.5TL, base price is $27,900. Dealer's invoice is $24,228. Price as tested for the premium 2.5TL is $29,950, including leather seats. Destination charge is $420. Purse-strings note: "Competitive," in this case, means surrounded by competition, including the Mazda Millenia, Lexus ES300, Oldsmobile Aurora (Olds understands marketing!), BMW 325i and Infiniti I30.
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