November came with the usual ornaments — falling leaves, morning frost, and odd assortments of decorative pumpkins, turkeys and Christmas wreaths. It was the beginning of the season of expectations, when dreams compete with reality for our dollars and sense.
It was appropriate, under the circumstances, to take out the 1999 Acura 3.2TL sedan, a car that seeks to redefine “luxury” by broadening the meaning of “standard equipment” and “value.”
Simply put, the 3.2TL is loaded, possessed of almost every conceivable item that can be put on or into a car, including bits of techno-gimcrackery such as Acura’s SportShift transmission, which allows for semi-manual shifting. In this way, Acura has extended the concept of standard equipment.
And it has thrown in all of this stuff for a base price under $28,000, thereby enhancing the notion of value while gaining a significant competitive advantage over its rivals. No other automaker offers as much car for this amount of money. Anyone doubting that should test-drive the 3.2TL against the BMW 323i or 328i, or against the Mercedes-Benz C-Class or Lexus ES300.
Acura has something here, which is no small thing for me to say inasmuch as I’ve never been an Acura fan. The marque has always disturbed me. There was something wanna-be about it, something overpromised and fake, as if maybe it was trying to run away from its Honda Motor Co. parentage in a desperate bid to move upscale. It was fancy Christmas wrapping covering the same old package.
So I approached the new 3.2TL with a mixture of cynicism and trepidation — the latter because cars with deficient personalities are the most difficult to write about, and such difficulty can lead to paralysis at deadline.
But in an instant, I knew that the 1999 3.2TL was different. It was tighter and more rigid than its predecessor, thanks to Honda’s use of a stronger, all-new mid-size car platform. Improved tightness means overall better handling, which also is aided by the 3.2TL’s sophisticated, double-wishbone, four-wheel-independent suspension system. I could feel the difference.
And there was something else: This Acura had dropped all pretense of having nothing to do with Honda, a car company that rose to prominence in the United States in the first place because it offered so much simple, reliable quality at a reasonable manufacturer’s suggested retail price. The qualifier is needed because, in the bad old days, many Honda dealers often charged premiums that made the manufacturer shudder.
But there is lots of Honda packed into the Acura 3.2TL — a simple, ergonomically well-designed instrument panel; a comfortable, snug, quiet interior; precise fit and finish everywhere. That Hondaness also extends to the engine — a 3.2-liter, 24-valve V-6.
The new engine is designed to produce 225 horsepower at 5,500 rpm and 216 pound-feet of torque at 5,000 rpm. That is 25 more horsepower than the predecessor engine, and seven pound-feet more torque. Yet , the new engine, aided by variable valve timing and lift controls, is more fuel efficient — three miles more per gallon on the highway — than the previous model.
The week-long test drive thus was a pleasant surprise, a dream come true in the season of make-believe. The car is a keeper.
1999 Acura 3.2TL Sedan
Complaints: SportShift and similar manual/automatic transmissions are a waste of time and money. They’re silly. The manual mode is not truly manual, and the automatic mode is, at best, redundant. If you want a manual transmission, buy a manual transmission. If you want an automatic transmission, get that. But, not this. Unfortunately, Acura doesn’t offer you that option.
Praise: An overall superior, value-packed five-passenger sedan.
Head-turning quotient: Attractive. Not a knockout by any means, but the exterior styling is more muscular than anything Honda has done before. The interior is simple, tasteful, pleasant.
Ride, acceleration and hand ling: Tripleaces. Moves from zero to 60 mph in 7.65 seconds without any tire-screeching. A joy to drive in curves. Excellent braking. Power four-wheel disc brakes with three-channel anti-lock backup. Traction control, designed to limit wheel spin on slippery surfaces, is standard.
Capacities: Five passengers, 14.3 cubic feet of cargo space, 17.2-gallon fuel tank (premium unleaded fuel required).
Layout: Front-engine, front-wheel-drive.
Mileage: About 27 miles per gallon. Estimated 452-mile range on usable volume of fuel in mostly highway driving.
Factory option: The Acura Navigation System is the only available factory option on the 1999 3.2TL. This is a turn-to-turn electronic map system that uses geo-positioning satellites to display detailed directions to destinations via a six-inch color LCD screen.
Sound system: AM-FM stereo radio and cassette with in-dash CD player; five speakers with sub-woofer. Acura/Bose system. Excellent.
Price: Base price is $27,950. Estimated dealer invoice price on base model is $25,500. Estimated price as tested is $30,385, including $2,000 for the navigation system and a $435 destination charge.
Purse-strings note: Acura is selling the fully equipped 1999 3.2TL for less than it sold the 1998 model, which had a base sticker of $33,150.