Acura scores another one in the "much-improved" category with its refurbished flagship, the 3.5RL.

Not that last year's version was bad, but the RL for '99 has more of the performance and handling edge that once brightened Acura's whole range of cars.

Acura softened up its offerings in recent years, making them more comfy and unobtrusive while losing its cadre of well-to-do driving enthusiasts. Those drivers had foreseen Acura becoming the Japanese performance equivalent of BMW. Which didn't happen.

Now, the upscale branch of Honda is making cars that to some degree manage to recapture the flair and flavor of those early Acuras that drew so much acclaim. With the new CL compacts and the sporting, enjoyable 3.2TL already onboard, Acura brings forth a tighter, brighter flagship.

The RL is sleek and slick, with a high-end feel and good performance from the smooth V-6, focused steering and excellent brakes. The suspension is a bit soft for my taste, dulling the handling with too much wallow and body sway. But most luxury-car buyers will appreciate the cushy ride.

Still, road feel is much improved. Rather than having all the sensations of driving smoothed out to non-existence, the RL imparts good feedback through the steering wheel and driver's seat.

Of course, the RL is not meant to be a sports car but a luxury transport that is also enjoyable to drive. As such, it's a very comfortable long-distance cruiser that feels competent and composed, if not sparkling.

The RL, formerly known by the much-more-memorable name of Legend, moves up a notch stylistically with a bolder, shinier grille, more prominent rear lights and a sharpening of the body contours. But I think it bears too much of a resemblance to the highly successful Lexus ES300, a direct competitor. Really, when they go by in traffic, it's hard to tell them apart.

Though the look is attractive, with excellent fit and finish, RL fades into the crowd, bringing nothing to set it off visually. Acura stylists really need to break out of their rut. They're way too conservative for what should be a happening car company.

The smaller TL was a departure from this trend, with a stronger identity and performance capabilities. The styling of the Legend has been made bolder but less distinctive, going with the same big chrome grille treatment and larger taillights as everybody else.

The refined interior is marred by plastic-wood inserts, but seats are exceptionally supportive. The cabin is roomy, with a Honda product's typical low cowl line, good back-seat space and large trunk. Naturally, it's loaded with comfort and convenience features, and a super stereo system.

Though pricey, the RL offers a lot for the money. It's an excellent family car and, like all Acuras, commands an enviable reputation for reliability and resale value.

Our test car was equipped with Acura's Global Positioning System, which provides a screen in the dashboard with a moving map tha t shows where you are and tells you how to get where you're going. The $2,000 option uses the military's 27 GPS satellites to locate each car.

The RL is an understated luxury car that's loaded with value, comparing well with its many competitors. Although it seems like a lesser luxury car than top-drawer sedans such as the Lexus LS400 or Cadillac DeVille, both substantial cars powered by V-8s, the Acura offers high quality and a fine record for reliability.

These are things of substantial value.

1999 Acura 3.5 RL

Vehicle type: Five-passenger, four-door sedan, front-wheel drive. Base price: $41,900. Price as tested: $44,500. Engine: 3.5-liter V-6, 210 horsepower at 5,100 rpm, 224 pound-feet of torque at 2,800 rpm. Transmission: Four-speed automatic. Curb weight: 3,840 pounds. Wheelbase: 114.6 inches. EPA fuel economy: 18 city, 25 highway. Highs: Sporting flair. Quality feel. Roomy interior.

Lows: Generic styling. Fake wood bits. Suspension still too soft.