The Morning Call and's view

Imagine you were the first Japanese automaker to field a luxury car in the United States. Now imagine your name gets buried as Japanese rivals Lexus and Infiniti grab more luxo-cachet than you do.

For Honda, the solution was to rework its entries so they’re less sport and more luxury. And therein lies the problem for some Honda loyalists.

Hondas always were more of an enthusiast’s choice in an Asian automobile. That held true with the Integra and Legend. But now, as Acura sheds the names that made it Legend-ary, the cars that are coming out are softer and more cautious, much more in the vain of Lexus, albeit at a lower price.

Whether this is good or bad depends on your perspective. If you love Lexus, the 1997 Acura 3.5RL will be a notable competitor with a much lower price tag. If you like the old Legend, you find the RL’s newfound comfort levels a little too comforting. But either way, Acura has done an admirable job of fielding a sophisticated luxury car.

The single-overhead-cam 24-valve V6 offers up 210 horses — sufficient (as Rolls-Royce would say) but hardly overwhelming. Standing-start acceleration is good, but true to most overhead-cam engines, the real power comes on when the revs build. The engine is quiet, as is the whole interior.

The ride is softer than before. Suspension is four-wheel double wishbone, with stabilizer bars front and back. There’s still plenty of grip, but there’s enough body lean, too. The only real intrusion is tire noise. The four-speed electronic automatic features grade logic to prevent too much shifting when climbing hills. Unlike most Honda automatics, this one shifted unobtrusively.

Front-seat passengers are treated to generous amounts of space. The dash is higher than normal for a Honda product, but features its easy-to-use, ergonomically correct design. The driver faces three large round gauges that are complete except for oil and volts.

The simple yet elegant interior screams luxury. It also screams LS400. The leather-covered heated seats were wide and flat, yet proved very supportive. There’s good leg room. Head room was typical for an Asian car.

Of course, almost any Honda can give you good handling and leather-trimmed interior. How well does this big boy pamper? Very well.

The automatic climate control was very effective and contains a micron air filtration system. The steering wheel tilts and telescopes electronically. Driver’s seat, steering wheel and mirror settings have a memory feature for multiple drivers. The Acura-Bose AM/FM cassette/CD player has a trunk-mounted six-CD changer, eight speakers and steering wheel controls. The headlights have an automatic on/off feature, and keyless entry is standard.

So all the gadgets are here.

On a more practical note, trunk space is OK, although on the small side at a mere 14 cubic feet. But it’s well shaped and has a low liftover.

Safety is covered, too. The four -wheel disc brakes feature an anti-lock braking system. Traction control is standard, as, of course, are dual airbags.

Everything is right with this car, but there’s something wrong with that. Unlike its Legend-ary ancestors, this car seems characterless. Its bland luxo-car me-too looks hide a sophisticated yet uninvolving driving experience. Honda drivers like their cars to have a bit of passion. This one’s passion seems to be comfort. Its sophistication, while satisfying, seems to make it seem like one of the crowd, rather than being apart from it.

But this is increasingly what luxury car buyers crave. Comfort and cachet over driving passion. If that sounds like you, try on the 3.5RL.

Acura 3.5RL Standard: 3.5-liter single overhead cam V6, four-speed electronic automatic transmission, four-wheel power-assisted anti-lock disc brakes, power assisted steering, dual airbags, traction control, keyless entry, theft deterrent system, automatic headlamp , leather trim, burled walnut trim, power moonroof, automatic climate control with micron air filtration system, driver’s eight-way power seat with lumbar and memory, passenger’s for-way power seat, front heated seats, cruise control, electronic tilt and telescopic steering wheel, Acura-Bose eight-speaker AM/FM cassette/CD with six-CD changer and anti-theft system, memory system, rear-seat pass-through, ski boot, sunglasses holder, tinted windows, Michelin MXV4 215/60R16 V-rated all season tires with alloy wheels Options: Floor mats Base price: $44,000 As tested: $44,549 EPA rating: 19 mpg city, 25 mpg highway Test mileage: 24 mpg Warranty: Four-year/50,000 miles, 24-hour roadside assistance

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