We thought the 1995 Acura TL 2.5 was a great near-luxury sedan when we drove it last year. The big question this year is whether it's worth it to invest in the new - and pricier - top-of-the-line 1996 3.2 TL with the bigger engine and softer suspension.

So we sat down with a cup of tea and wondered aloud, "What would the Beardstown Ladies recommend?"

He: I thought the Beardstown Ladies were known for their stock and investment picks. I don't think they've ever been known to test-drive a car.

She: I brought them up because I think they'd be excellent test drivers - full of homespun wisdom and common sense. After all, one of them is a hog farmer in Illinois. And they've got a new book out on how to put together a nice little nest egg. They sure are investing and saving enough money to afford a car like the 3.2 TL. The premium version we drove has a base price of $35,500 as opposed to the premium 2.5 TL, which costs $29,950. When it comes to picking between the two packages - 3.2 vs. 2.5 - I bet I know exactly which one they'd pick.

He: It's a no-brainer, right? The 3.2 with that lovely 200-horsepower V-6 and all the bells and whistles that come with the premium package. Didn't you tell me that all the guys in the automotive press say that's the best choice?

She: That's because they're guys and they have to appear macho. In truth, I doubt if most people would be able to tell the difference between the two if they drove them around the block. And if you want to play the horsepower numbers game, the power gap between the 3.2 and 2.5 is only 24 horsepower! You get 176 horsepower with the in-line five-cylinder engine on the 2.5.

He: Forget horsepower. The V-6 just feels smoother and more, well, potent than the five-cylinder. And there's lots of room inside, even with the power moonroof. Compared to competition like the Lexus ES300 and the Infiniti I30, the 3.2 TL wins hands down. It's longer and wider. In fact, I don't think there's a single car in this category that is bigger.

She: The Beardstown Ladies - and I - would say wrong again, dear. The 3.2 does feel roomy, but it's only two-tenths of an inch longer than the 2.5. And as far as the ride goes, it's a personal choice. I like the cheaper version better because it has a "sporty" suspension, which translates to a firmer, more lively ride. The 3.2 will give you more of a softer, Cadillac-style feel. And for the record, the 2.5 gets slightly better gas mileage, too.

He: Now wait a minute. You're always preaching value for your money. What about the fact that the premium package we drove features standard heated front seats - with controls for each person - and heated door mirrors? What about the fact that both 3.2 TL models feature a remote keyless entry system that's available only as an option on the 2.5 ?

She: You're thinking now, but remember that we did have some trouble with that feature. We had to press the button on the keypad a bunch of times before it would work - and even then, I often gave up and just opened it the regular way. I kind of feel the same way about electric vs. manual can openers. Go with the simple stuff. Don't get me wrong, I like both cars, but I think the 2.5 TL has the most persuasive price tag. One of the few things I don't like about the car is its name - personality-less. The car is so classically styled that a guy at the gas station asked me if it was a Mercedes. So why don't they pick a name with a little more class? TL is supposed to mean Touring Luxury. Maybe something like the Acura Chanel or Acura Givenchy would be better.

He: Barf. I'm sure the Beardstown Ladies would turn up their blue-collar noses at that kind of frivolity. But they'd probably like all the nonmechanical features that come with the Acura, like the Total Luxury Care program that includes travel-interruption benefits and 24-hour roadside service. And girl stuff like the velvet-lined insert that fits int he ashtray to convert it to a coin holder for nonsmokers probably turns them on, too.

She: Right. And that's a good place to stick your earrings after work when they start to feel too heavy.

He: I prefer small, but tasteful diamond studs myself.

She: Both the 3.2 TL and the 2.5 TL are jammed with lots of indoor creature comforts. Both premium packages have a standard, leather-trimmed interior. Both have a standard leather-wrapped steering wheel. OK - you do get a leather-wrapped shift knob on the 3.2, but I'm sure lots of buyers can live without that.

He: Maybe not the guys, but I'm sure that would be no problem for you and the Beardstown Ladies.

Anita's rating: average

Paul's rating: world class

What we liked: Great safety features like standard antilock brakes and traction control; roominess; classic styling; super service amenities like free loaner cars and travel-interruption benefits.

What we didn't like: The 3.2 TL's higher price doesn't translate to better value against 2.5 TL; keyless remote that didn't always work; name lacks personality.

1996 Acura 3.2 TL

Type: Front-engine, front-wheel drive, four-passenger sport sedan.

Price: Base, $35,500; as tested, $35,920, incl. $420 destination charge.

What's new for '96: All-new for '96.

Standard equipment: Power steering, power four-wheel disc brakes, leather upholstery, power windows, power door locks, power moonroof, power driver and passenger seats, automatic climate control system, cruise control, AM-FM stereo cassette with CD player, tilt steering column, leather-wrapped steering wheel, lighted visor vanity mirrors, keyless entry system, power heated mirrors, alloy wheels, all-season radial tires.

Safety features: Dual air bags, antilock brakes, traction control, side impact door beams, child-proof rear door locks, theft-deterrent system.

Options on test vehicle: None.

EPA fuel economy: 19 mpg city/24 mpg highway.

Engine: 3.2-liter V-6; 200-hp at 5300 rpm; 210 lb-ft torque at 4500 rpm.

Transmission: Four-speed automatic.

Competitors: Lexus ES300, Mazda Millenia, Infiniti I30, Mercedes-Benz C280, BMW 328i, Volvo 960, Saab 9000.

Specifications: Wheelbase, 111.8 inches; overall length, 191.7 inches; curb weight, 3,461 pounds; legroom, 43.7 inches front/35.2 inches rear; headroom, 39.1 inches front/36.9 inches rear; shoulder room, 54.6 inches front/54.1 inches rear.

Where built: Sayama, Japan.

12-month insurance cost, according to AAA Michigan*: $1,376

*Rates based on an average family of four from the Livonia area whose primary driver is aged 40 with no tickets who drives 3-10 miles each way to work. Rates reflect multicar discount and, where appropriate, discounts for air bags and seat belts.