Manufacturers spend a good deal of time and money trying to predict what the automotive market is going to do. They figure it's better to design and build a car before the market asks for it rather than wait until the market exists and then try to play "catch up," 'a la the Cadillac Escapade ... uh, I mean Escalade.
It's this forward thinking that has Acura spending considerable effort to redesign the TL. As Acura's torch bearer into the rapidly growing near-luxury market, the TL has to go up against some stiff competition in the form of the Audi A4, Infiniti I30, Lexus ES300 and Mercedes C-Class. Each of these models is already well established in the marketplace, which puts the pressure on Acura not only to meet but exceed what those cars have to offer. The new TL, with its combination of luxury, performance, and value, is prepared to meet the challenge.
Introduced in 1995, the TL replaced the Vigor as Acura's mid-level luxury sedan. The car remained largely unchanged from its introduction until this new 1999 model. Gone is the smaller 2.5-liter inline five that was standard in the first generation TLs. This year's only engine option is an all-new 3.2-liter V6 that utilizes VTEC technology to produce 225 horsepower and 216 foot-pounds of torque while still returning 19/27 mpg in city/highway driving. This puts the TL ahead of its competition in the horsepower race and after driving the car we can confirm that it definitely gets out of its own way. In addition, with a service interval of 100,000 miles you can rest easy knowing that this engine will run in typical Honda fashion--a long time with little or no problems.
As the second Acura model designed, engineered, and manufactured in the U.S. (the CL being first), Acura wanted the TL to feel like a big car for passengers but handle like a smaller sport sedan for drivers. As such, the overall length has gone up 30mm but interior space has grown to an impressive 110 cubic feet. This puts the TL into a midsize classification whereas most of its competition is still compact in size. Despite the larger size, the TL benefits from increased torsional and bending rigidity as part of its reoriented front drive powertrain. This is designed to create more usable interior room while maintaining optimum weight distribution.
The package definitely works from behind the wheel where everything from seating to armrest placement feels intuitive and well laid-out. Interior fit and finish is top-notch with a plush feel that should impress even the most demanding luxury fanatics. Seating and dash surfaces could be described by Ricardo Montalban as "rich leather" though I don't know if it was "Corinthian."
Once underway the TL works very much like a high-end European sedan at negotiating corners. Feedback is solid but steering will feel just a bit light for drivers comparing this to a BMW 3-series or Audi A4. The standard issue, 16-inch alloy wheels and Michelin tires seem well-mated to the car, offering a smooth and quiet ride during a trip through the mountains of British Columbia. It was climbing into these picturesque mountains that I noticed how effective the four-speed automatic was at figuring out which gear to be in. Shifting up and down to meet my power needs, this is one of the smoothest, yet most responsive, automatics I've driven. Bravo Acura! For those who want to take control of shifting duty (a true waste of energy with this tranny), a separate gate exists where the shift handle can be positioned for manual gear swapping.
As a near luxury vehicle, you would expect the TL to have more than just air conditioning and cruise control. What you may not expect is a list of over 100 features including heated outside mirrors, heated front seats, steering wheel audio controls, rear heat/air vents, micron air filtration system, two power outlets and an electronic immobilizer system. In fact, the only option available on the TL is a navigation system that uses a central monitor with touch screen controls. The overall design seemed effective and easy to use but, unfortunately, it wasn't programmed for Canada which meant I could only watch a demonstration of the system during a lunch stop. Acura assured me that America is covered by the system and Canada will be, too, in the near future.
So what, if any, complaints can be levied against Acura's new TL? Well, the sound system is an Acura/Bose unit with AM/FM cassette and an in-dash CD player. It also boasts a five-speaker system with the fifth speaker being a dedicated subwoofer. So how come I couldn't get as much bass response as the typical four-speaker system you'd find in any $20,000+ vehicle? Don't get me wrong, what little bass here was sounded extremely tight, but there should have been more from a system described as a "breakthrough design enabling deep, power bass..." Maybe, but the average youth of today would find it severely lacking.
In the final analysis, this is a car that offers class-leading performance, interior room, and luxury features for a price that is well below the class average. I don't want to sound unappreciative, but these days anything less from Acura would be a major disappointment. I've come to expect a lot of car for not a lot of money from Honda's upscale division. The TL delivers this in typical Acura fashion.