The worst thing you can do when test driving cars for a living is to anticipate the experience--that the sports car will scream, the economy car will whisper and the Acura 3.2TL sedan will put you to sleep within five minutes of slipping behind the wheel.

But it's hard to dispel preconceived notions because sports cars come with powerful engines, economy cars don't, and the Acura basically is a higher-priced clone of the Honda Accord sedan.

Honda builds the Accord, its Acura luxury division then dresses that Accord in fancier duds to justify a designer price tag.

Or so the thinking goes.

Honda says while the two cars share a platform, that platform was designed for the Acura first. And though separated by price, Honda takes pains to insist the two are even more different in terms of performance.

Have to agree. The first five minutes behind the wheel of the 2000 Acura 3.2TL was anything but boring. The TL was loaded with pleasant surprises. Thoughts of Accord are quickly forgotten.

Though it started life on the same platform as the Accord, the TL has a personality of its own.

For starters, the TL's steering and suspension systems are upgraded and are first rate with quick and smooth response to wheel and pedal input.

While testing the TL, we happened into a subdivision with a winding road with patches of snow and ice dotting the pavement.

The 3.2TL comes with traction control as standard in combination with the anti-lock brakes. Traction control performed beyond the call. Whether it was one radial or two making contact with the snow and ice, there was no slipping or sliding or hint of control in jeopardy. Regardless of the road covering, the TL remained stable. Very good Snow-Belt performer.

At Honda, only the Accord EX comes with ABS as standard and traction control isn't offered on any Accord. The only Honda offering that system is the Odyssey mini-van.

When roads were clear, the 3.2-liter, 225-horsepower, 24-valve V-6 with variable valve timing, a system introduced on Acura's NSX sports car, is a potent performer. The V-6 is teamed with a 5-speed automatic that's new for 2000. More than ample power delivered smoothly and quietly.

On dry roads, the suspension is tuned for above-average road grip in s traightaways, corners or turns without exaggerated up-and-down movement that might cause the treads to lose contact with the road.

About the only gripe is that the car sits rather low to the ground to minimize the amount of air traveling under the vehicle that can cause noise and hurt fuel economy. The low stance keeps the TL quiet, but when you look out the side window, you seem to sit at about bumper height with your fellow travelers. Rest next to a big sport-utility vehicle and you could reach out the window and touch the running board.

Maybe that's why Acura devoted extra thought to its air-bag system.

The TL comes with dual front occupant air bags. New for 2000, the front passenger bag is one of those dual-stage units with deployment speed based on speed of impact. The TL also comes with dual side-impact air bags that are new for 2000 and come with sensors that determine occupant size and position in the seat to prevent the bags from deploying if a c hild or small adult, for example, is leaning against the door sleeping.

The TL also has is a navigation system. In a world ruled by, we chose to leave the system off.

We typically find navigation systems toys to play with for a few seconds before they become a distraction. Why a navigation system when a wife and a Rand McNally will do just as well? Besides, eyes glued to the navigation screen are eyes not glued to the road ahead.

But we goofed in not at least turning on this system because it would have answered a gripe we had--no controls to direct warm/cool air to legs or face or both. The reason, we found after calling Honda to complain, was that those controls show up on the navigation screen.

One valid complaint, however, is with the seat bottom cushions. For a car with a roomy cabin upfront, you'd think the automaker would have focused more on comfort by installing a seat with a longer bottom cushion. The cushion stops too far up the thigh to keep the legs from getting weary on long trips.

A nice touch is the pull-down center armrest in the back seat that provides a couple of cupholders as well as a pass-through to the trunk to hold skis in the vehicle rather than on roof or decklid.

But rear-seat occupants could use a tad more head and knee room.

The 3.2TL starts at $30,400 with the navigation system (at $2,000 the only factory-installed option) and comes as a rather complete package.

Standard equipment includes power, heated, leather seats; automatic climate control; power moonroof; four-wheel disc brakes; all-season radial tires; power mirrors; heat-reflecting glass; rear-window defroster; tilt steering; a pair of power plugs; outside temperature gauge; remote keyless entry; and a Bose sound system with AM/FM stereo, cassette and CD player.

>> 2000 Acura 3.2TL Wheelbase: 108.1 inches Length: 192.9 inches Engine: 3.2-liter, 225-h.p. V-6 Transmission: 5-speed automatic Fuel economy:19 m.p.g. city/29 m.p.g. highway Price as tested: $30,519. Includes $119 for dealer-installed floor mats. Add $455 for freight. Pluses: A complete package. Smooth and quiet with impressive ride and handling and surprising power from the V-6. The standard ABS/traction control combo make for exceptional wet/snow/ice stability and control. Dual-stage passenger front air bag with deployment speed based on speed of impact. New side air bags in doors with detectors to prevent deployment if child or small adult is leaning on door. Navigation system. Minuses: Short front seat cushion bottoms. Rear-seat head and knee room. Navigation system.