EXPERT REVIEW

AZCentral.com's view

Welcome back, Acura. All is forgiven. Well, maybe not all. Some of the boneheaded mistakes that have blurred Acura’s image are still just a little hard to deal with.

For instance: taking the aggressive, sparkling Legend that first came out in the late ’80s and turning it into a dull-witted luxury barge. Or ditching great names like Legend and Vigor in favor of the nonsense letters RL and TL.

Or taking a midstream, outsourced sport-utility vehicle like the Isuzu Trooper and selling it as an upscale Acura SLX. Or letting the sharp little Integra languish like an unloved runt of the litter.

Fortunately, Acura still manages to build excellent cars, noted for comfort and reliability, just like its proletarian stablemate, Honda. That’s what keeps ’em coming to the showrooms and ensures Acura’s continued success.

And for ’99, there’s the TL 3.2. This completely new version of Acura’s middle-size sedan brings back much of Acura’s old spark, with the kind of engine performance and responsiveness that we should expect from an automaker that calls itself “a premier luxury/performance nameplate.”

The big news for TL is that along with added power, refinement and a new body and interior, there’s an even bigger plus: a price break. Not just a modest dip but a significant one.

Last year, a TL would set you back $30,700 in full luxury trim, and $33,000 for a TL with a video-enhanced Global Positioning System for navigation. For ’99, the decked-out TL costs $27,950 (not including dealer prep and other add-ons) and $2,000 more for the GPS, the only option.

That’s good value, considering the high level of features that come standard. And it undercuts the competition by a fair chunk.

Based on a shortened Honda Accord chassis, the TL’s body is somewhat generic, looking very Honda-like and barely distinguishable from the run of the mill.

The interior is very nice, trimmed in leather, loaded with power and comfort features and quite spacious, despite the compact exterior dimensions. A real clinker is the wood-grain plastic trim. C’mon, guys, this is the ’90s. Toss that junk.

The low dashboard is set far forward, in Honda’s typical style, adding to the feeling of roominess, while the back seats have decent headroom and legroom.

The TL is a bit soft sprung to be considered a sports sedan, but it is a finely executed car that benefits greatly from Honda’s wonderful VTEC V-6 engine. The VTEC engine, named for Honda’s innovative valve system that adjusts according to engine speed, is standard on all TLs.

Engine power is smooth and seamless, with a discreet little growl under acceleration that lets you know it’s serious. The V-6 takes the sedan from standstill to 60 mph in less than 8 seconds. It also turns in decent gas mileage.

Transmission is automatic, with the SportShift feature that allows drivers to shift for themselves, which is OK, but still a poor substitute for real stick shift. Honda and Acura continue to of fer manual transmissions only in their four-cylinder cars.

The GPS is the only option on the TL, which otherwise arrives slathered with a hedonistic array of power and convenience options, and a superfine stereo. The closest competitor is the Lexus ES300, with the TL well-priced in comparison.

The GPS, which uses a video screen on the dashboard to map your route and lets you watch yourself skitter across the map, works with compact discs assigned to specific areas of the country, and controlled by a satellite system. A pleasant female voice helps guide the way, sounding alarmed if you miss a turnoff.

It’s fun to use, though driving around familiar Phoenix terrain, I almost always could think of a better route than the one picked by the computer. We actually used it to find a place on the other side of the Valley that we otherwise might have struggled to locate. It worked great.

One problem, though. The video screen is fun to watch, and, therefore, ve ry distracting to t he driver. Ahem.

I also question the basic value of these things, especially when it boosts the price tag by two grand and requires a specific compact disc for each area of the country. Besides, I know how to refold a map.

With or without the navigation system, the TL has the style and driveability to become a pack leader in the midrange luxury cadre.

Well-designed, well-engineered and well-finished, the TL escapes one of the big raps against Honda and Acura, that their cars are good but generic. The redone sedan is enjoyable to drive and displays enough character to avoid being boring.

And it marks a welcomed return to interesting cars for Acura. OK, I didn’t mention the high-performance, high-priced NSX sports car, but that’s a whole different trip, and well beyond the reasonable expectations of most drivers.

Soon I’m expecting the arrival of a revamped RL, which has been given a personality implant, an Acura spokesman told me. Hopefully, it will be as well-realized as its smaller sibling, TL.

1999 Acura TL

Vehicle type: Five-passenger, four-door sedan, front-wheel drive. Base price: $27,950. Price as tested: $30,450. Engine: 3.2-liter V-6, 225 horsepower at 5,500 rpm, 216 pound-feet of torque at 5,000 rpm. Transmission: Four-speed automatic with SportShift. Curb weight: 3,447 pounds. Wheelbase: 108.1 inches. EPA fuel economy: 19 city, 27 highway. Highs: Price break. Engine power. New interior. Lows: Generic styling. Fake wood trim. Soft ride.

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