EXPERT REVIEW

The Detroit News's view

Acura gives TL a shot of pizzazz

Perhaps the most significant alteration to the TL is a boost in output from 225 horsepower to 270 from the single-overhead-cam 3.2-liter V-6 engine.

Honda Motor Co. was the first Japanese automaker audacious enough to introduce a premium brand product in North America.

The 1986 Acura Legend sedan was a sort of super-sized Accord with leather upholstery, a larger engine and lots of amenities previously seen only on pricier European models.

Acura’s lineup has since been expanded to include six nameplates, from the $21,000 entry-level RSX hatchback to the $90,000 limited-edition NSX sports car. The brand has settled into a comfortable, if somewhat undistinguished, niche between its two principal Japanese competitors, Toyota Motor Co.’s Lexus and Nissan Motor Co.’s Infiniti.

But one nagging criticism persists: Acura products aren’t quite as luxurious as those offered by Lexus, nor as sexy and powerful as those marketed by Infiniti.

With the redesigned 2004 TL, a mid-size sedan that is a premium counterpart of the Honda Accord, Acura hopes to begin changing people’s perceptions about the brand.

Previewed in April at the New York Auto Show, the new TL is entering an increasingly crowded segment of the near-luxury market populated by such stalwart competitors as the Infiniti G35 and Cadillac CTS.

Fortunately, Acura has girded its revamped contender with some impressive armor, fresh sheet metal, a more potent powerplant and a well-appointed cockpit that will remind enthusiasts of a fine European sport sedan.

While the TL is still no esthetic paragon, the latest iteration has a bit more pizzazz than its predecessor and is even more fun to drive.

And compared with similarly sized and equipped rivals from Japan, North America and Europe, the mid-size Acura sedan looks like a relative bargain, considering what’s included in the package.

With a base price of $33,195, including destination charges, the 2004 Acura TL is outfitted so comprehensively that the only major options are a $2,000 navigation system and $200 Bridgestone Potenza performance tires.

That compares with a base price of $30,395 for the G35 sedan with leather interior and six-speed manual transmission, and $31,185 for the CTS with five-speed transmission.

But don’t be misled by the price comparison. Acura includes loads of equipment as standard, a power moonroof, a six-disc CD changer, XM satellite radio, to name just a few items, that will add more than $1,000 to the cost of the Infiniti and the Cadillac.

A full complement of safety gear is also standard on the TL. The list includes front and side air bags, plus side-curtain bags for front and rear passengers; four-wheel antilock disc brakes, electronic brake-force distribution and brake assist, as well as stability and traction control.

A cura officials are touting the fact that the ’04 model has been kitted out with some fancy new electronics gear, including Bluetooth hands-free phone connectivity and something called DVD-Audio surround sound, which the company claims is “500 times greater than CD” in terms of audio fidelity.

I have to admit I was paying more attention to driving, for a change, than talking or listening. There’s a good reason.

Perhaps the most significant alteration to the TL from 2003 to 2004 is a boost in output from 225 horsepower to 270 from the single-overhead-cam 3.2-liter V-6 engine.

Although the G35 boasts a larger, twin-cam 3.5-liter unit, its output is only 260 horsepower. And the CTS, with a dual-overhead-cam 3.2-liter V-6, makes only 220 horsepower.

Transmission choices on the ’04 TL include a six-speed manual gearbox and a five-speed automatic with manual shift capability.

The revamped TL is quick, nimble and a pure delight to drive, ar more so than its predecessor.

On the ’03 edition, you had to order the Type S variant to get the go-fast hardware. The ’04 model, out of the box, is a step above last year’s Type S in that it combines all the right performance bits with a higher level of ride comfort.

The new TL employs double-wishbone suspension at all four corners, plus front and rear stabilizer bars, 17-inch wheels and tires and variable-rate power rack-and-pinion steering. 

Handling dynamics feel a bit different from those of the CTS and the G35, in large measure because those competitors are rear-wheel drive designs, while the TL is front-wheel drive.

Automotive purists will never be convinced that a front-drive car can be made to handle with the same precision and consistency as a rear-drive car, but the TL comes pretty close.

The steering is light and quick, the suspension firm yet supple enough to absorb medium-size Michigan potholes without too much fuss. The standard Bridgestone Turanzas grip agreeably, and the brakes display reassuring stopping prowess.

The TL is not for all tastes, however. Its cockpit looks much better put together than that of the G35, and the materials are much richer in texture and appearance than those used in the CTS.

But the TL still suffers a bit from the generic flavor that seems to imbue most Honda and Acura products, it’s as if the designers were reluctant to instill much individual personality in the vehicles.

If you.re looking for plush opulence in this price range, you’re better off shopping a product like the Lexus ES 330. And if pure performance is your principal yardstick, a BMW 330i is probably more your cup of Jagermeister.

While a little on the bland side, I always thought the previous Acura TL was a well-balanced and comfortable ride for the money, a vehicle I wouldn’t mind keeping in my driveway for six months or so.

The ’04 TL is even more desireable, better in nearly every respect than its forerunner and near the top of the near-luxury class.

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