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New Car Review:2004 Acura 3.2 TL

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Technology, performance, and refinement are Acura hallmarks, and are all finely exemplified by the third-generation 3.2TL, all-new for 2004. It builds on the strengths of the previous TL, introduced in 1999, to give it a higher standard of luxury appointment and even better performance.

The 2004 3.2 TL has been almost completely redesigned. It's shorter and wider, yet has more interior space. The engine, although of the same displacement as that found in last year's model, is nearly all new, and boasts significantly more power with reduced emissions levels. Equivalent to last year's ``Type S'' trim level, the new TL is both sportier and more luxuriously-equipped than any previous version, and is meant to compete in a very tough market - the midsized sport-luxury sedan class, home of some of the best cars from Europe, Japan, and the United States.

As is typical for Acuras, the new 3.2 TL comes fully-equipped. A DVD-based navigation system is the only major option. Two slightly-different versions are offered, one with a five-speed automatic transmission with Acura's ``Sequential SportShift'' manual shift mode and the other with a six-speed manual transmission. As befits its specification, the six-speed model is a touch sportier, with Brembo(tm) brakes standard equipment. Both versions have plenty of state-of-the-art technology, including a CD system that can play DVD audio discs and available Bluetooth-enabled connectivity and XM satellite radio.

I've just finished a week with a six-speed TL. It's an impressive car with an amazing amount of efficient power. It fits perfectly in the lineup between the smaller, more sport-oriented TSX and larger, softer RL. The TL has been the most popular Acura for a while now, and with the new version, Acura has made a good car even better.

APPEARANCE: The TL's looks say ``muscular, yet refined,'' just as Acura intended. Much sleeker and more coupe-like than its predecessor, the 2004 TL was designed from the wheels up, and that shows. It's slightly shorter and wider. The 17-inch wheels, shod with ultra-low profile tires, are placed near the corners of the car and fill the wheel arches. The fender flares are just bold enough to get the performance message across without being overbearing. The TL's slightly greater width and more aggressive front styling featuring a satin-chrome version of the five-point Acura grille and wide, low high-intensity discharge headlights give it more presence than the `99 to `03 version. And, despite the relatively short hood and long passenger cabin, a pronounced wedge shape in side view and very sloped windshield and rear window give it a coupe-like appearance. An interesting large concave character line gives interest to the sides. The high, short rear deck adds to both a sporty look and luggage space.

COMFORT: A contemporary sport-luxury design motif with curved lines and a two-tone color scheme separated by metallic trim makes the 2004 TL's interior look spacious. This is no optical illusion, as it is a touch larger in almost all dimensions, with over two inches greater shoulder room. The power-adjustable front seats have the comfort expected in a luxury car, with the support required in a sports sedan. Good placement of the short-throw gearshift lever and a tilt and telescope-adjustable steering wheel allow drivers of all sizes to find the perfect driving position. LED-backlit instruments are easy to read in all lighting conditions. The navigation system is accessed through a liquid crystal screen in the center stack, and can be trained to respond to voice commands. Audio and dual-zone climate controls are thankfully separate from the nav system. Details make the difference, and good attention to detail is found in the TL. The front door pockets are hinged for improved access and capacity, and a power point is found in the two-layer console box. Rear passengers have plenty of space, and while the trunk is slightly smaller than that of the older TL, it's still large. A pass-through in the rear seat allows carrying of long packages like skis. The TL's audio system is the first available in North America to play six-channel DVD-Audio as well as regular CDs. XM satellite radio is also available.

SAFETY: Designed to achieve the highest ratings in government and industry tests, the 2004 Acura 3.2 TL surrounds occupants with a strong safety cage and further protects them with front and rear crumple zones, front, side, and side curtain airbags, and powerful antilock disc brakes with brake assist and a standard stability assistance system.

ROADABILITY: The recipe for success in contemporary chassis design? Take a rigid unibody structure, add correctly-calibrated fully-independent suspension, wide low-profile tires, and powerful disc brakes. Acura has followed this in building the 2004 TL. It emphasizes luxury more than the smaller TSX, and so its suspension is calibrated more softly. With the automatic, it should be near-perfect as a luxury sport-tourer. Manual gearbox-equipped TLs are a bit more aggressively-equipped, with a standard limited-slip differential for improved traction and larger front brake discs with four-piston Brembo(tm) calipers replacing the stock single-piston calipers. When driven assertively, a firmer suspension tuning would be preferable to tame the engine's copious power. For the rabidly rapid, performance-minded TL driver, Acura has just announced the ``A-SPEC'' performance package, which includes track-tuned shocks and springs, 18-inch alloy wheels and 235/40 VR18 tires, and a variety of exterior and interior cosmetic enhancements. That on a manual TL ought to be way too much fun.

PERFORMANCE: Acura is determined to win any horsepower race in the luxury sports sedan class. The old TL was competitive, with 225 horsepower, and the Type S even more so with 260. A redesigned engine, based on that of the previous Type S, improves that with 270 horsepower at 6200 rpm, and 238 lb-ft of torque at 5000 rpm. It beats almost any possible competitor in output while producing even lower levels of exhaust emissions. VTEC variable valve timing and lift, a higher compression ratio, and redesigned high-flow intake and exhaust systems get the credit, and an electronic drive-by-wire throttle control system allows smooth power delivery and better integration with the antilock braking and stability control systems. Power is very good right off the line, and there is a healthy amount of mid-range torque. Then, thanks to VTEC, an afterburner-like top-end rush kicks in. There is plenty of smooth power at any engine speed above idle, but shifting is fun with the six-speed manual, thanks to excellent linkage and well-chosen ratios. Because of the abundant torque, the five-speed automatic with ``Sequential SportShift'' manual mode shouldn't decrease performance significantly, and, with the standard suspension, may be a better choice because of its more relaxed nature.

CONCLUSIONS: With many changes for both luxury and performance, Acura's best-selling sedan should become even more popular.

2004 Acura 3.2 TL

Base Price $ 34,650 with nav system
Price As Tested $ 35,395
Engine Type 24 valve aluminum alloy dual overhead cam V6 with VTEC variable valve timing
Engine Size 3.2 liters / 196 cu. in.
Horsepower 270 @ 6,200 rpm
Torque (lb-ft) 238 @ 5,000 rpm
Transmission 6-speed manual
Wheelbase / Length 107.9 in. / 186.2 in.
Curb Weight 3482 lbs.
Pounds Per Horsepower 12.9
Fuel Capacity 17 gal.
Fuel Requirement 91 octane premium unleaded gasoline
Tires 235/45 WR17 Bridgestone Potenza RE030
Brakes, front/rear vented disc / solid disc, antilock standard
Suspension, front/rear independent double wishbone with coil springs / independent multilink double wishbone with coil springs

Drivetrain front engine, front-wheel drive

EPA Fuel Economy - miles per gallon city / highway / observed 19 / 28 /23
0 to 60 mph 5.8 sec

High-performance tires $ 200
Destination charge $ 545