Review : 2003 Acura 3.2 TL Type S

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SEE ALSO: Acura Buyer's Guide

 ..."short on the hurt-me feel that makes the BMW an obvious choice for enthusiasts."
2003 Acura 3.2 TL Type S Base price: $33,480 Price as tested: $33,960 EPA mileage: 19 city/29 highway By Des Toups It would be easy to dismiss the Acura 3.2 TL as soulless, sprung from mundane family-sedan roots, labeled generically, darned near indistinguishable in a parking lot. Yet this Honda-derived sedan delivers the goods: enthusiastic acceleration, competent handling, the requisite luxuries, all at a price that undercuts its obvious rivals by thousands. If it's a little less distinctive, a little less athletic, a little less cushy, that's the preference of the buyers who've put the 3.2 TL in the top sales spot among entry-level luxury sedans.
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With the Type S, introduced last year, Acura abandons the spirit of compromise. Improved breathing and higher compression pull an extra 35 horses out of the 3.2-liter V-6, putting the TL at the head of the horsepower pack. A firmer suspension and stability control keep the power-mad under control. A sharper grille and eye-catching 17-inch wheels underline the new eagerness. It works, as long as you keep the price tag in mind. Underneath the Clark Kent sheet metal, the livelier engine pulls like a train right up to its 6,900-rpm redline. It's a model of deportment around town, silent and responsive, yet satisfyingly thrilling when you nail the gas pedal and hear 24 valves howl.
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The five-speed automatic bangs off crispshifts right at redline, and though there's a manual-shift feature, it's quicker and smoother when left alone. The TL is deceptively quick; it'll stay with the far more sporting BMW 330i and Audi A4 as long as the road is straight -- because its size and easygoing demeanor tend to mask your progress until you're well beyond the speed limit.
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Fatter tires and stouter sway bars put those ponies to the ground; a stability-assist system uses the electronics of the ABS to keep the car from veering off the driver's intended path. It all works unobtrusively and well, yet it's not enough to turn the TL from a sporty sedan into a sports sedan. Anybody enthralled by the BMW, for example, will find the nose-heavy Acura a touch too deliberate, its moves a half-step too slow. The payoff is a relatively serene ride, unruffled by road dots and mottled pavement, and steering that makes up for its lack of precision and road feel by tracking true without any nervousness or constant correction from the driver. This is an easy car to drive quickly without much effort, all the more so because of its grippy, well-bolstered seats. Despite perching on standard leather, the driver isn't tossed side-to-side, and none of the controls is a reach. Ergonomics are simple and hard to fault, though a steering wheel that telescopes as well as tilts would help.
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As navigation systems go, Acura's is among the simplest to use. One particularly handy feature is mapping by phone number simply punch in the digits and the computer does the rest. It's much easier than looking up, then laboriously entering, a street address. But Acura still allows the driver to muck with the system while the car is in motion. I think that's unsafe. At least there are front and side airbags if your attention lapses, and standard OnStar for 2003 to notify an ambulance. Our tester came with an "ebony" interior scheme that's decidedly less attractive than its lighter, less oppressive alternative, parchment. The plastic wood in the darker color scheme is particularly ugly, resembling a black-and-gray paisley.
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Perhaps the best part of the Type S is that the extra grunt comes largely without penalty. Mileage ratings are the same as the humbler base model a tidy 19 mpg in town, on premium and the Type S is still classified as a low-emissions vehicle. The ride is a trifle firmer, but well within the bounds of even fussy drivers.As a cruiser with an athletic bent, the Acura stands out. And it stands out even more when you look at the bottom line: $33,960 when equipped with the $2,150 navigation system, its only option. On every Type S and every TL, for that matter, right down to the $29,460 base sedan you'll find extras that BMW and Lexus cruelly extort thousands for: leather, heated seats, six-disc in-dash CD player, sunroof. A similarly equipped Lexus ES300 would top $37,000; the BMW would cross $41,000. The reality, of course, is that the Acura lacks the creamy, isolated feel and quality materials of the Lexus, and it's short on the hurt-me feel that makes the BMW an obvious choice for enthusiasts. Still, it's close enough to both for its remarkable value to tip the equation.


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