When you think Honda and you think sportiness, you think "tuned" Civics and Accords or the stock S2000. You do not think Acura, the upscale division of the Honda Motor Co., known for wonderfully reliable, if not boldly styled - or sporty - cars. Now, sensing a burgeoning market of young, affluent buyers, Acura is looking to tap into that youthful, sporty market. It's one reason they are replacing the Integra with the nifty new RSX. And it's also why they have given us this car, the 3.2 TL Type S. You'll see that snaky "S" on many badges in the months ahead as Acura is joined by other manufacturers looking to sell sedans and coupes possessing that subtle performance edge that many seek. This is an important move for Acura, an almost bold step forward from the 3.2 TL, which was redesigned for the 1999 model year and is now the best-selling mid-size, near-luxury car in America.

I say almost bold because, for all the mechanical tweaking Acura has done with the TL to make it an S Type, it could have been just a bit more cutting-edge on the exterior styling. Except for the S badge, there's nothing to set this sporty car apart. From its sleek nose to its stumpy, undistinguished tail, it's just another TL. Maybe a touch of insouciance at the rear would have helped.That said, inside and under the hood, this is a far sportier car (even as it doesn't go so far as to put off Acura buyers who want some sportiness, but not too much).

The interior, distinguished by perforated leather seats and steering wheel, an S tag on the shift lever, and metallic gauges, is a great departure from simple comfort. If I have one gripe here, it's the out-of-place wood trim on the dash. Better to have gone with a brushed metal look. But again, maybe the designers did not want to stray too far from classic elegance.

Considering that this is not a truly large car, the interior is wonderfully spacious. Great legroom front and rear; a rear seat that will really hold three adults; long and broad front bucket seats. The only criticism here is that those front buckets could use some side bolsters given that at least some buyers are going to buy this car so they can toss it into corners now and again. And tossing it should prove no problem in a car that, while it shows small hints of understeer, is virtually free of torque steer, a remarkable feat given 260 horsepower being fed to a front-wheel drivetrain. Those 260 horses come from a 3.2-liter V6, same as in the standard TL, but boosted for the S model with higher compression pistons, upgraded air intake, and a liberated exhaust flow. The torque band is a bit high, noticeably kicking in for the climb at about 3,700 RPMs and holding to just over 6,000 RPMs, and there seems a bit of a lag in early acceleration. But that's not atypical for a VTEC engine.

It's got a 5-speed automatic transmission that, thankfully, lets you linger in gear, not upshifting or downshifting prematurely, as is often the curse of automatics in sporty cars. Further, Acura has given the S Type a manual sequential shift option that lets you shift up or down by simply clicking the shift lever forward or back. Other than the Porsche Tiptronic, it's the best manual option on an automatic I've seen: seamless, quick, and responsive.

The suspension, as well, has been upgraded (basically stiffened) from the standard TL, with independent double wishbone, coil springs, gas shocks and antiroll bar up front, and independent, multilink double wishbone, coil springs, gas shocks, and antiroll bar in the rear.

The result is a ride that your standard Acura buyer might find a bit jarring on bumps, but which is wonderfully stiff when rocking into corners or jetting straight ahead. And it's got just enough softness that those who like a gentler ride could learn to live with the occasional jarring moment caused by the pothole or the frost heave.

The whisper-quiet ride is made safer by a standard (al t every bell and whistle on this rig is standard) Vehicle Stability Assist system, a side-skid control monitoring device that works in conjunction with ABS and traction control. The only fault I found in handling was a brake feel that was a bit softer than I'd expect in a sport-oriented car. I'd like a quicker, tighter grab.

Has Acura produced the ultimate sports sedan here? Of course not, but that's not what the engineers set out to do. Instead, they have produced a very fine near-luxury sedan that gives a good dose of sportiness to those who want it but maintains an understated design that doesn't take the brand too far astray. Nice touch: The freeing up of the exhaust flow has helped to produce a wonderful burble of an exhaust note - an unexpected touch from Acura, in whose domain only the NSX has burbled in the past. Annoyance: A 5-speed manual transmission ought to be an option any time a manufacturer travels into the world of sportiness and horsepower.