The third time may not always be the charm, but the old line does seem to apply to the new Acura 3.2 TL. This all-new car represents Honda's third attempt to field an Acura model capable of competing in the entry luxury class, and this time it looks as if the product planners finally punched all the right keys on the computer. That wasn't true of the Vigor, the first Acura offering in this class, which was too small and too slow. And it wasn't true of the Vigor's replacement, the previous TL, which also suffered from a paucity of rear-seat space and, in certain models, performance anemia. While it's a little surprising that it took the design team so long to get it right, the 1999 version addresses the weaknesses of the previous models, and then some. It's a simple formula really: more power, more room, more luxury features, less noise, less money -- all wrapped in a smooth new exterior. OK, it's a pretty conservative look, but that's true of just about everything in this class, and at least the front-end treatment is unmistakably Honda/Acura family. Like everyone else hustling cars in this size/price class, Acura's marketing mavens want the new 3.2TL to be perceived as a rival for BMW's 3-Series and the Lexus ES 300. I don't see the BMW comparison. The new Acura is closer in size to the BMW 5-Series, a much more expensive car. In any case, it's hard to turn the head of someone who's already focused on a Beemer. But compared to the ES 300, which just happens to be one of the best sellers in this class, the 3.2TL is a bull's-eye. In fact, it looks as if Acura's new entry could edge the entry Lexus as best of breed -- with one cautionary note: The manufacturers competing in this arena are all inclined to identify their offerings as sport sedans. Obviously, the elements of sportiness vary from customer to customer, but it seems to me the new Acura's strongest suits lie in comfort and coddling, rather than the ability to generate adrenaline. True, there's plenty of power. At 225 horsepower, the new 3.2-liter engine, derived from the Accord's new 3.0-liter V6, offers more punch than just about anything in this class. Although the 3.2TL is also among the heavier members of this tribe, second only to the unforgivably portly Cadillac Catera, its power-to-weight ratio is one of the best of the bunch, capable of hauling itself to 60 m.p.h. in less than eight seconds. It's also capable of topping 140 m.p.h., which certainly will get you to the Somerset Collection in a hurry. The SportShift transmission, a four-speed automatic that also allows manual shifting, a la Chrysler's AutoStick, does lend an element of sportiness to exercising the powertrain hardware. However, there's still no substitute for a manual transmission if you're after real driver involvement, and Honda continues to resist creating a manual gearbox to go with its V6 engines. The previous generation TL did offer a five-speed manual, but only with the 2.5-liter, five-cylinder engine, which has since been discontinued. For some reason this was supposed to be perceived as the sporty setup -- Honda does the same tapdance with the Accord -- and I'm sure there were at least a few marketing types left scratching their heads when the combination bombed. I wish they had asked me. But they didn't. In any case, the new 3.2TL eliminates any uncertainty regarding powertrain, because the car comes just one way: the V6, smooth, potent, and quiet, mated to the SportShift automatic. Thoroughly competent The other element of sportiness that's minimized here is suspension tuning. You don't have to travel more than a mile or two to realize that the priority this time is on ride quality rather than athletic responses. Please don't read that as flabby or reluctant. This is a thoroughly competent car, and like all Hondas, it's devoid nasty surprises. But it's not a sports car, either. Body roll becomes pronounced in quick maneuvers and tight corners as the speedometer needle climbs, and there's a fair amount of front-end dive when the driver stands on the brake pedal to simulate a high-speed emergency stop. I should add that this trait doesn't seem to affect overall braking performance. Even though brake dive is accompanied by forward weight transfer -- which means the front brakes are doing most of the stopping -- the Acura's system is powerful and the operation of the standard antilock hardware is pretty much transparent. So. The emphasis is on comfort -- TL stands for Touring Luxury in the Acura book of acronyms -- rather than sport. And guess what? That's the same basic thinking behind the Lexus ES 300. In fact, the hardware formula is the same, too. Besides its new engine, the 3.2TL employs the same basic chassis as the current Accord, just as the ES 300 uses the Toyota Camry platform and essentially the same engine. In the Acura's case, this means a 3.7-inch reduction in wheelbase, though at 108.1 inches it's still among the longest in the class. The new car is also a half-inch narrower, but overall length has grown by 1.2 inches, a portion of which is devoted to more rear seat legroom, a needed improvement. A wider-than-most stance and twin tailpipes lend a moderately aggressive look to the whole package, but the real character of the car is reflected in its rather posh interior treatment. The nicely contoured bucket front seats, for example, are covered with leather attached with a relaxed gather pattern, like an expensive office chair, rather than stretched taut over the various surfaces. Same goes for the leather inserts in the door panels -- a relaxed, loose fit. Inside story Like almost all Hondas, the 3.2 TL's cabin features lots of glass and a dahsboard design that falls away from the front seat occupants, particularly the passenger, providing excellent sightlines for the driver and creating a generally open feel to the passenger space. No claustrophobia here, folks. Just as important as the elegant materials and clean design, though, is how much luxo stuff you get for your money here -- some $2,700 less than the previous TL's base price. Power moonroof. High-quality sound system. Automatic climate control. Traction control. Plus the usual array of power accessories. In fact, the only significant option you can add is a new satellite navigation system, with touch-screen programming. My test car was equipped with the system, of course. Acura is eager to sell 'em. The system combines a CD database with satellite locating, so it knows where you are and what's available in route options. Program in your route info, and pretty soon a delicate female voice that would sound right at home in a "Teahouse of the August Moon" production starts tel ling you when and where to turn. After I'd satisfied myself that the system worked, I simply allowed the 6-inch video-display terminal to scroll along as it tracked my whereabouts. I admit that I'm not a big fan of navigation systems, something to factor into your assessment of these remarks. Bottom line Nevertheless, $2,000 -- the price of this system -- is a pretty heavy chunk of dough. And combining the nav system and climate controls with touch-screen spots on the display terminal means leaving lots of smudges on the screen. On the other hand, with or without the nav system -- Acura regards a 3.2TL with the navigation goodies as a separate model -- this new car stacks up as an outstanding buy. It's fast, reasonably stylish, Lexus quiet, thoroughly comfortable, and it's absolutely loaded with comfort and convenience goodies that frequently cost extra. While the assembly quality of my test car seemed to be consistent with Acur' high standards, it was a pre-production version, which means we can't award a rating. However, it looks as though Acura is poised to reclaim some lost ground versus Lexus. The third time was not only the charm, it's charming, too. SPECS Rating: None given for preproduction vehicles Vehicle Type: Front-engine, front-drive midsize luxury sedan Key Competitors: Audi A6, Cadillac Catera, Infiniti I30, Lexus ES 300, Mazda Millenia, Volvo S70, Saab 95 Base Price: $28,405 Price as tested: $30,514 Standard Equipment: ABS, traction control, dual air bags, power moonroof, automatic climate control, AM/FM/CD/cassette audio, power leather seats, heated power mirrors, power windows, tilt steering, cruise control, keyless remote entry, aluminum alloy wheels Specifications:
(manufacturer's data) Engine: 225 horsepower, 3.2-liter V6 EPA fuel econ.: 19 m.p.g. city, 27 m.p.g. hwy. Curb weight: 3,447 pounds Wheelbase: 108.1 inches Length: 192.9 inches Width: 70.3 inches Height: 55.7 inches Where assembled: Marysville, Ohio
|Larry Printz||The Morning Call and Mcall.com||March 28, 1999|
|Anita And Paul Lienert||The Detroit News||February 3, 1999|
|Bob Golfen||AZCentral.com||December 19, 1998|
|Richard Truett||Orlando Sentinel||December 3, 1998|
|Warren Brown||washingtonpost.com||November 13, 1998|
|Terry Jackson||The Miami Herald||October 29, 1998|
|Paul Dean||Los Angeles Times||October 15, 1998|
|Tony Swan||Detroit Newspapers||September 17, 1998|
|Tom Strongman||KansasCity.com||July 11, 1997|
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