Acura's Entry-Level Sedan Learns New Tricks
Home Depot is all about DIY. That's "do-it-yourself" for those of you not in the know. I despise what the DIY brainwash does to me. How it works: I enter my local Home Depot looking for a screw to fix a drawer knob. Something strange happens while inside. The desire of a simple wood screw is sneakily replaced with the desire to remodel...something. Anything. When I'm inside Home Depot, I am the invincible DIYer. So I walk out with a two-handed manly man's drill, sheets of drywall, premium wood deck sealer and 14 tubes of caulk (on sale). For reference, I live in an apartment and have the mechanical inclination of a fern.
There's a new DIY thrill for 2000 -- the five-speed sequential automatic transmission found in the 2000 Acura 3.2TL Sedan. You too get to shift all five gears yourself, rather than having the car do it. To see which one is easier on the soul, we put together a comparison test. The results follow.
Home Depot vs. Acura 3.2TL SportShift Transmission
The Battle of the DIYers
|Home Depot: Requires support of surly orange-vested teenager. Score: 0 ||TL SportShift: Stick goes forward. Stick goes back. Score: 1 |
|Home Depot: Suburban blight. Score: 0 ||TL SportShift: Nice polished-metal shift gate and ergonomic shift knob. Score: 1 |
|Purchase price: |
|Home Depot: Credit card needed. Estimated average of $100 per use. Score: 1 ||TL SportShift: Standard equipment, but requires $30,000 deposit. Score: 0 |
|Travel distance required to use: |
|Home Depot: At least a couple miles. Score: 0 ||TL SportShift: About 1 foot. Score: 1 |
|Bonus vehicle: |
|Home Depot: Shopping cart with wobbly wheel. Score: 0 ||TL SportShift: A solid and attractive sedan. Score: 1 |
|It's a landslide. The Acura 3.2TL's SportShift transmission beats up on Home Depot by a total score of 4 to 1. It looks like Acura's DIY transmission might have hope after all! |
When we last drove an Acura 3.2TL, it was during our comparison of 1999 entry-level luxury sedans. In that test, the TL placed third out of eight cars. It was beaten out by an Audi A4 2.8 (second place) and a BMW 328i (the winner). Ultimately, we picked the BMW due to its "...world-class driving pleasure, top-notch build quality, functional ergonomics and state-of-the-art safety." However, all three of these cars were closely matched. The TL excelled in value. It was the least expensive car in our test, yet it offered a high level of standard equipment. In the rest of our categories, the TL did well, but it never managed to take first place in any of them.
It would seem that consumers agree with our findings. The current 3.2TL (introduced in Sept. 1998) has sold considerably better than the previous-generation TL it replaced. According to Automotive News Data Center, year-to-date 3.2TL sales (as of Sept. 1999) are 40,736. Compare this to the meager 13,862 sales Acura pulled in for the previous TL during the same period in 1998.
But wait, there's more! For 2000, just one year after its introduction, Acura has given the 3.2TL additional content. This includes the aforementioned five-speed SportShift transmission, improved engine power and emission characteristics, a new navigation system, and new airbag safety systems. As the rest of the car is basically the same, we will reserve most of our commentary for the new 2000 changes. As such, we recommend you also read our full '99 3.2TL Road Test, as well as our Comparison Test: Near Entry-Level Luxury Sedans.
We were perfectly happy with the '99 3.2TL's four-speed transmission. It offered clean shifts and the SportShift option was easy to use. So things only get better in 2000 with the five-speed transmission. It doesn't look much different from the cabin. The shift pattern is still arranged in the standard fore-aft line, except for now there's a detour to the back-left for first gear.
The main advantages of the new transmission are quicker acceleration and better fuel mileage. Effectively, the five-speed transmission offers a shorter first gear (for better acceleration) and a taller final gear (for better fuel mileage). Acura says that in the EPA highway driving cycle, preliminary figures show a 2 mpg increase to 29 mpg. The closer ratios also help the transmission better match driving conditions, meaning that the engine won't be caught flat-footed as often.
To activate the SportShift, the driver pulls the shift lever to the left from "drive" and into the extra shift gate pattern. Once done, the driver can manually control which gear the TL uses by pushing forward or pulling backward on the lever. As before, an LED display on the dash indicates which gear the transmission is in. A level of safety is built into the system, as the transmission's shift logic will not allow a downshift that would cause the engine to over-rev. It will not automatically shift up at redline, however, which means you can bounce off the rev limiter as much as your heart desires. We don't recommend this, of course.
Compared to leaving the transmission in "drive," we found that the SportShift makes slightly quicker gear changes. Curiously, the SportShift downshifts took less time to execute than upshifts. As a whole, we were impressed with the new transmission. It seemed to be as responsive as the old transmission, but now with an extra gear. The SportShift feature works well, but like most automanual transmissions, its value is limited mostly to enthusiasts or people driving over hills or mountains.
With the new transmission and engine improvements, Acura says the 2000 should accelerate from zero to 60 about half a second less than a '99 model. If that proves to be true, than a 2000 TL would have placed second in our '99 entry-luxury sedan shootout behind the BMW with a time around 7.1 seconds. The half-second gain is impressive, seeing as how the official maximum horsepower and torque ratings (225 horsepower and 215 foot-pounds of torque) haven't changed. Rather, Acura says the engine improvements give the 3.2TL 5.5 percent better low-end torque. The extra torque comes from a new intake manifold, revised intake ports, and larger intake and exhaust valves. These changes also allow the 3.2TL to meet low-emission vehicle (LEV) standards and ultra-low-emission vehicle (ULEV) standards for California.
The other big change for 2000 is the navigation system. The previous hard-disk based system has been scrapped for a single DVD disc that covers the entire United States. Acura says the DVD database has been programmed to include nearly eight times as many points of interest when compared to the previous system. Acura also changed the console-mounted LCD screen to make it less susceptible to glare and fingerprints. As before, the navigation system is the only option available on the car. The DVD can be updated annually for a small fee by taking the car to an Acura dealership.
We were able to confirm that the 3.2TL's navigation system is still easy to use, highlighted by clear voice prompts and maps. We also found that entering destinations now takes fewer keystrokes. As for the bigger database and improved route calculating, we'll withhold judgement until we get more substantial time with the car.
The final major change to the 2000 Acura 3.2TL is the addition of seat-mounted side airbags for front occupants. The front passenger seat is equipped with a detection system designed to determine when a small child is sitting in the seat. It does this with seven sensors mounted in the seatback. When a child's head is determined to be in the path of the airbag, the airbag is disabled in the event of a side impact.
The added content found in the 2000 Acura 3.2TL should only add to the car's popularity. However, we can't help but notice that Acura has improved the car in areas in which we never felt were problems to begin with. The side airbags are certainly welcome, but there's still a lack of rear seat room for large passengers and a lack of quality in the leather seat upholstery. And for pure driving pleasure, the TL still falls short of the BMW 328i or Audi A4. But these problems are minor. The 2000 3.2TL is a very competent sedan. Acura should give itself a pat on the back for offering even more content for a still low MSRP of $28,400.