After a few years of high-profile military engagements abroad and a stagnating economy and rising unemployment back home, one thing is clear: There's no stopping the sales of entry-level luxury sedans. In fact, business has picked up for companies like Audi, BMW, Lexus and Mercedes during this period. Meanwhile, a steady procession of new arrivals like the Cadillac CTS, Infiniti G35 and Volkswagen Passat W8 has made this one of the most competitive vehicle segments, as manufacturers scramble to keep up with each other in terms of features, driving dynamics and upscale cabin furnishings.
Acura's TL has never been the car to own in the entry-level luxury sedan segment, but we've always counted it among our favorites. Particularly in Type-S form, it offered consumers an appealing blend of performance, luxury content and value. Sure, it wasn't as fun to drive as a BMW or Audi, or as opulently outfitted as either one, but with a fully loaded price under $30,000 for the regular TL and right around $34K for the Type-S, it didn't need to be. Acura had no difficulty selling upwards of 60,000 TLs each year second only to the 3 Series in this price range until the Lexus ES 300 slipped past it last year. Still, the company knew that it was missing out on customers who really did want a bona fide sport sedan and/or a true luxury experience replete with top-grade materials and all the latest convenience and safety features.
With the introduction of the 2004 TL, Acura will make a serious bid for these customers. Value is still in the picture, as the company will stick to its practice of offering fully equipped vehicles at competitive prices with short options lists. But with the very desirable TSX now available for buyers who want something (relatively) affordable and compact, this TL doesn't have to cover as much ground. Gone are base and Type-S distinctions in favor of one 270-horsepower TL available with a choice of a manual or automatic transmission and priced around $34,000. Inside, just about every feature anyone would want in an entry-luxury sedan comes standard, while the overall design and the materials used give up nothing to the Europeans. Apart from feeling like the smart financial choice in the over-$30K bracket, this TL could bring out emotions you never thought you'd have for an Acura.
Let's start with the sheet metal. Certainly, there's a strong family resemblance to the TSX, but the TL has a wider, more muscular stance and softer body lines. Bi-xenon headlights are standard. A prominent character line is etched into each side of the car, running underneath the stylish pull handles on the doors it's an unmistakable theft from the 3 Series, and we were smitten with the TL's profile. If you're going to steal, steal from the best, right? The rear of the car isn't quite as exciting, but the deck lid has a bit of lip to it that creates an attractive mini-spoiler effect.
Moving to the cockpit, we find a shapely dash with a two-tone color scheme (as in most German sedans) bisected by bright aluminum trim. The trim feels cool to the touch because it's real aluminum, and generous strips of it run down either side of the center console as well. The ensemble is quite stunning, and particularly in cars with dark interiors, the aluminum gives the TL a definite sporting ambience. There's also a sparing application of either faux carbon fiber or faux wood (sort of a maple tone) on the console, depending on which of the four interior colors you select. It's pretty convincing for the fake stuff, and no one who rides in your TL will be the wiser.
Bright blue electroluminescent gauges (recessed in three pods) and blue backlighting throughout the cabin heighten the cool metal motif. It's a different shade of blue than what you'll find in any VW (or the 2004 Mitsubishi Galant), and Acura designers have further distinguished their instrumentation with a soft fade of color between the hash marks of the gauges. The pointer needles are bright red.
As we probed the various surfaces of early preproduction TL cabins, we found the quality of the interior materials downright impressive. Most surfaces were soft to the touch and finished with upscale grain patterns that would be just as acceptable in an Audi or BMW. The standard leather upholstery offers a combination of smooth and perforated hides, both of which felt supple to our fingertips.
After spending the better part of a day in the driver and front-passenger seats, we can tell you that they offer a pleasant blend of firm support and soft cushioning. The driver seat is the more comfortable of the two, as it has 10-way power adjustment versus the basic four-way setup for the passenger seat. Power lumbar adjustment, a telescoping steering wheel and driver-seat memory are all part of the deal for the driver, and both chairs have articulating headrests. The back cushions have plenty of lateral bolstering, which helped hold us in place around twists and turns. The seat bottoms are comparatively flat, but we didn't find the lack of bolstering here to be a problem, and as it is, the seats can accommodate a wider range of body types.
Once we were seated comfortably behind the wheel, the two-lane highways of coastal Washington unfolded before us and we could think of few better driving companions than the '04 TL. The 3.2-liter V6 engine with VTEC (variable valve timing and lift electronic control) is essentially a carryover from last year's Type-S model, but engineers were able to get a little more power out of it, thanks to a higher compression ratio (from 10.5 to 1 to 11.0 to 1), lower-restriction induction and exhaust systems, new cylinder heads and adjustments to the valve timing. Horsepower is up to 270 (versus 260 in the Type-S), while torque edges up to 238 (from 232). Meanwhile, emissions are lower than on any previous TL; the '04 model meets the LEV-2/ULEV standard. Carbon monoxide emissions are down by 50 percent compared to the Type-S, while nitrogen oxide emissions are 75 percent lower than those of all '03 TLs. Acura estimates that fuel economy ratings will be 19 mpg in the city and 28 to 29 on the highway.
Out on the road, this V6 is very refined, and there's plenty of power at any speed. Electronic throttle control is new this year, and besides providing more precise response to pedal input, it allows closer integration of the five-speed automatic and stability control system (VSA) with engine functions. We, however, had the privilege of spending all of our time with a manual-shift TL. As in the TSX and CL Type-S, the gearbox is a six-speed unit, and the ratios are nearly identical to those of the CL.
And as in the other Acuras, shifting in the TL is a heavenly experience, one that you'd be hard-pressed to duplicate in any other luxury sedan. The shifter slots perfectly into each gate, and the spacing of the pedals is just about ideal such that our editor was soon heel-toeing with a level of confidence rarely experienced. Our sole complaint is also one that we had about the CL Type-S: the clutch has an early engagement point that makes it difficult to execute smooth 1-2 upshifts. Although we adjusted pretty quickly, our skillful co-driver had the annoyance of stalling the car on several occasions. Note that stability control is also standard on manual-shift TLs (not a combination buyers have been able to get on the CL), as is a limited-slip differential. Acura expects that 85 percent of TLs will be sold with the automatic transmission, but if you enjoy driving a manual, we'd strongly encourage you to try the six-speed before you commit.
The company is very up-front about the fact that BMW, specifically the '03 530i Sport, was the benchmark for the '04 TL's ride and handling characteristics. As is typically the case with successors, body rigidity is up (something engineers achieved without a significant weight gain) and the wheels are pushed farther apart. Additionally, the front subframe that carries the engine, transmission and front suspension components is now a hydroformed aluminum design lighter and stronger than the previous steel architecture.
As before, the suspension is a front/rear double wishbone design, but Acura wanted the TL to have sportier handling without losing its smooth, refined ride quality. Suspension travel has been reduced 20mm, and the car has been fitted with stiffer springs and sport-tuned shock absorbers. Six-speed-equipped TLs have larger-diameter front and rear stabilizer bars. Seventeen-inch wheels and 235/45R17 all-season Bridgestone Turanza tires are standard on all TLs; manual-shift models are eligible for optional high-performance Bridgestone Potenzas of the same size. The steering rack is similar to the one used in the TL Type-S, in that it varies the amount of power assist according to engine speed and the amount of resistance actually generated by the tires when the driver turns the wheel.
Automatic-equipped TLs wear the same size four-wheel disc brakes as the '03 model, which we find a little odd given that the old TL was never at the top of the class in braking. But at least now Electronic Brakeforce Distribution and BrakeAssist are part of the deal. Additionally, the front fender ducts help direct cooling air to the brakes to reduce fade under hard use. In keeping with their emphasis on performance, six-speed models get a larger set of Brembo rotors in front with four-piston calipers.
As we drove our TL prototype on various back roads, it did indeed feel tight around the turns with plenty of road information transferred to the driver seat. Although we found it to be an easy car to drive aggressively, we're not ready to call it an equal of the 3 or 5 Series, A4 or G35 in terms of handling. The Acura's front-drive layout is limiting from an enthusiast's point of view, but even less serious drivers are apt to notice that the TL floats and bobs over the occasional bump. This won't be a disadvantage for most people, and the payoff is excellent ride comfort when cruising on the highway.
The weighting of the steering seemed just about right to us, but when pushing the car around turns, the rack seemed neither as quick nor as communicative as those of top-handling competitors. The brakes and tires inspired no such equivocating brake feel is spot-on and the tires offer lots of grip while making little noise.
If you like what you hear so far but feel you're going to need more in the way of performance, you should know that Acura will offer an "A-SPEC" kit shortly after the TL goes on sale in October 2003. Cars that get the A-SPEC treatment will be fitted with high-performance springs and shocks that lower the car about an inch, 18-inch wheels with 235/40ZR18 Yokohama tires, an aero body kit, a rear spoiler, a sport steering wheel and special exterior badging. Automatic-equipped TLs also pick up the front Brembo brakes.
Performance isn't a big deal for everyone, but practicality can go a long way toward justifying an entry-luxury sedan purchase. Carrying full-size rear passengers, for example, is all in a day's work for the midsize TL. Assuming the front occupants aren't too tall, adults will have plenty of legroom back here. The bench itself is a little low, but thicker cushioning toward the front edge of the seat bottom provides ample thigh support. There is also extra cushioning where your lower back hits, which should help with passenger morale on long trips. For peace of mind, every TL comes equipped with seat-mounted side airbags for front occupants (with occupant position sensors) and side curtain airbags to protect those in the front and rear. Acura is predicting a five-star sweep in government crash testing and a "Good" rating in IIHS frontal offset testing.
Top-grade amenities can be persuasive as well and none more so than the standard audio system in the '04 TL. The first true 5.1 surround sound system to be offered as factory equipment in a production vehicle, this one was developed with the help of Panasonic and music industry producer Elliot Scheiner. Though its 225 watts and eight speakers (including a subwoofer and a pair of tweeters) might sound ordinary by today's standards, the fact that it can play sound through six separate channels is not. Of course, in order to take advantage of all six channels, you need to feed DVD-Audio discs into the in-dash changer.
Identical in size to regular CDs, DVD-A discs can hold more, allowing them to house six-channel recordings. When played in surround sound, DVD-A discs offer up to 500 times the resolution of a normal CD. DVD-A discs are becoming more widely available in music stores, but if your taste isn't mainstream, you'll probably have to wait awhile to take advantage of this new format. Fortunately, regular CDs also sound great in the TL. The stereo does not accommodate MP3s, because, according to the company PR staff, in keeping with the car's sophisticated image there had to be a cut-off point for sound quality.
Although the TL's audio and climate controls are generally easy to use with or without the DVD-based navigation system, the new 8-inch display screen (as in the TSX) has a strong presence and gives the center stack a more cohesive look. From a function standpoint, the nav system is easy to use and thusly equipped TLs include voice recognition technology with a total of 293 commands. This is helpful when using the hands-free phone system, which is compatible with any Bluetooth-enabled cell phone, and when channel surfing on XM Satellite Radio (also standard). Another feature of the nav system is 3-D solar-sensing technology. This enhances the operation of the TL's standard dual-zone automatic climate control system by locating the position of the sun relative to the car's occupants, thereby allowing the climate control system to compensate for asymmetrical heating.
Lest you think Acura has gone overboard with all the electronics, let us assure you that the basics are covered as well. The cabin offers lots of storage space and large, deep cupholders for front occupants. At 12.5 cubic feet of capacity, the trunk isn't large, but the company tells us that stowing four golf bags is no problem.
Although press introductions never allow us to spend as much time with a car as we'd like, Acura's new TL made quite an impression upon us. It's as luxurious on the inside as any German car in its price range, not to mention extremely well equipped for the approximately $34,000 to $35,000 the company plans to sell it for. Besides that, the TL rides comfortably and is fun to drive, particularly with the new manual transmission. If you plan to spend over $30,000 on your next sedan, we'd suggest a visit to your local Acura dealership.