EXPERT REVIEW

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The Acura luxury-car division of Japan’s Honda Motor Co. is redefining its offerings.

Leading the charge is the 1996 Acura TL Series sedan, which technically replaces the Vigor model. Acura, however, regards the car as a new addition to the line.

The TL (Touring Luxury) four-door plays an evolutionary role in Acura’s goal of creating a more commanding presence in the upscale market. It’s bigger and more elegantly appointed than the relatively unheralded Vigor. And it will come in two flavors, a sportier 2.5-liter model and a more luxury-oriented 3.2-liter.

“The 2.5 is here now,” said Bruce Jones, business manager for Dave Mason Acura. “We have six of them in inventory. We expect the 3.2 to arrive in July.”

Acura appears to be playing it safe with the TL. Its aerodynamically influenced styling follows fairly conventional sedan lines, with the primary luxury emphasis reserved for the interior.

Outside, the TL is a nice-looking sedan, but it doesn’t break any new ground. Its styling obviously was dictated by the wind tunnel, with rounded contours and flush glass.

The styling contributes to excellent fuel mileage for a midsized luxury automobile, and assures a level of quietness expected with better-class motor vehicles. Five people can be transported at speed in comfort and convenience.

The luxury theme of the 2.5 comes to the fore inside the passenger cabin. Leather, woods and support trim declare it a motor car above the ordinary.

Leather is standard on the 3.2 TL and standard on the 2.5 when ordered with Acura’s premium package. There’s not much that isn’t standard. The only options are a premium Dolby stereo system with a CD player, leather and a power sun roof.

Creature comforts were on the minds of the designers, who made the TL’s 111.8-inch wheelbase 1.5 inches longer than the Vigor. That translates into a lot more room.

The TL is longer, wider and taller than the Vigor, resulting in more knee and head room for back-seat passengers.

From the driver’s perspective, the instruments are pretty much state of the art. Two large analog gauges, the tachometer on the left and the speedometer on the right, are in front of the driver. Two other gauges, temperature and fuel, flank the center instrumentation.

Front bucket seats are divided by the conventionally located center console that holds the shift lever for the four-speed automatic transmission. The automatic is the only one offered. There’s no stick shift available, even with the sportier 2.5-liter engine.

The automatic, however, is an advanced piece of equipment, featuring Honda’s grade-logic control system. With grade logic, a computer analyzes input from throttle-opening sensors and vehicle speed to choose the appropriate gear. It results in smoother shifting and avoids gear hunting on steep hills.

Acura hasn’t spared the horses with either of its two TLs. The 2.5-liter probably is more intriguing from a technical standpoint, as a 20-valve in-line five-cylinder.

Am erican passenger-car manufacturers never have seemed to like a 5-cylinder, preferring to go to from four cylinders to six or eight. Acura’s 5 incorporates a single overhead cam to actuate four valves per cylinder in the best tradition of advanced engine design.

“You’d think it was a 6,” Jones said. “It’s smooth and has plenty of power. There’s no lagging on performance.”

The coming 3.2-liter V6 carries more power through increased engine size and 200 horsepower vs. the five-cylinder’s 176 horses. The V6 also has a single overhead cam that activates four valves per cylinder.

Acura says it adopted the five-cylinder to keep the car’s cost under $30,000. The base TL 2.5-liter is tagged at $27,900, and a guess is that the more upscale V6 will be between $32,000 to $36,000.

Both models feature four-wheel independent suspension, which enhances the ride. But the suspension on the 2.5-liter is tuned a bit differently than that of the 3.2-liter.

It’s a little more fi rm for sportier ha ndling in the turns. It also carries a slightly thicker antiroll bar to fight body roll should a driver haul the car into a tight corner under heavy throttle.

Acura figures an upscale buyer of the V6 is going to be more interested in ease of ride and acceleration than in road racing.

The two TLs thrust Acura into a luxury segment that has no dearth of competitors.

“We feel we’re going to be more than competitive against cars like the Lexus (ES), the Infiniti I, Toyota Camry and BMW’s 325,” Jones said.

“It’s going to appeal to people like middle management with maybe a couple a kids in college. It’s an affordable luxury car that rides and drives like a much more expensive automobile, and it’s going to be one of the best things we have in our line.”

1996 Acura TL Base price: $27,900Type: Front-engine, front-wheel-drive, five-passenger luxury sedanEngine: 2.5 liters, SOHC 5, 20 valves, fuel-injected, 176 horsepower, 170 foot-pounds of torqueTransmission: Four-speed automaticAcceleration: 0-60 mph in 9.0 secondsMileage: 20 mpg city/25 mpg highwayWheelbase: 1ll.8 inchesLength: 19l.5 inchesWidth: 70.3 inchesHeight: 55.3 inchesOptions: Premium Dolby stereo with CD player, leather, power sunroof

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