Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene Sticker Shock

Acura 3.2Tl hits the streets

By Marc Stengel

DECEMBER 21, 1998:  It's not a pretty picture. In fact, it's just a darn price list. But, oh, what a story this window-sticker tells about a brand-new car with an uninspiring penchant for alpha-numeric nomenclature--namely, the Acura 3.2TL.

Let's commence with the dry and dusty details The motor displaces 3.2 liters, delivers class-leading 225 horsepower, and quaffs 19 miles per gallon in town, 27 on the highway. The new V6 sports one more cylinder than last year's sleepy inline-five, makes more power, yet weighs markedly less. The car's wheelbase and width are shorter and narrower than last year's model, although passenger room is wider at hip and shoulder and taller overhead. The car defies tradition by declining to offer any factory options whatsoever, save one a $2,000 whiz-bang satellite navigation system. A dramatic $3,000 price cut from '98 to '99 nevertheless includes over 100 option-like amenities for a $27,950 base price.

To anyone with even a passing interest in the annual automotive regeneration ritual, Acura's new-model makeover of its formerly forgettable TL sedan is nothing short of shocking. Paradoxically, it comes as no surprise that sales of the car for its debut month of September tallied a record 129-percent increase over September '98, spurring October and November to their own frenzied increases of 331 and 306 percent, respectively. Let there be no doubt that the new 3.2TL is nothing short of a bean-counter's bonanza, with its come-hither pricing, pregnant stats, and swelling sales. Poring over ledgers, however, hardly compares with slipping behind the wheel. For all of the empirical accomplishments that appeal to left-brain sensibilities, I propose that the 3.2TL deserves even greater respect for the way it massages our right brains into soothing meditations of delight.

Even with eyes closed, you can sense that this new Acura is substantial, sensual, and sensible transportation. The swaddling leather seats (standard, remember) are electronically adjustable (eight-way for driver, four-way for front passenger) and heater-equipped. Only the motor's instant and unflinching acceleration prevents a driver from drifting off into a dreamy drowse. Quite the contrary, in fact, because the TL's combination of instant throttle-response, positive gear shifts, light but informative steering, and nimble handling extol this car's genuine sporting pedigree.

This is no mere sales pitch: The engine borrows its remarkable VTEC variable-valve timing system from Honda's once-and-future forays into international Grand Prix racing. Likewise with the Formula One-derived SportShift transmission, which ranks as my unqualified favorite feature of this car. Yes, it resembles the vaunted TipTronic Teutonic trannies in select Porsches, Audis, and VWs. And like Chrysler's pale imitation AutoStick, it does indeed allow clutch-less manual gear shifts according to one's sport-driving needs and whims.

But there's a noticeable difference. Acura's employment of computerized "direct control" and "grade logic" circuitry creates the first and, so far, only auto-shifter that precisely mimics the clutch-work of an experienced manual transmission aficionado. In other words, downshifts are as smooth and lurch-free as any heel-and-toe double-clutch. You can barnstorm deep into a corner, brake hard with those stout four-wheel disks, and snick down two gears in rapid sequence without the least fear that a clumsy thunk into second gear will disturb your precise cornering line. As for up-shifts, Acura's SportShift snaps into gear just over 0.7 seconds after the driver's lever movement, which is 10 percent quicker than the car's normal auto mode. With no hint of the neck-snapping RPM drop that spoils other pseudo-shifter systems, the TL slides into its new powerband as if Alex Zanardi or Sterling Moss had executed a perfectly feathered clutch maneuver into the next higher gear.

Oddly enough, my chief complaint with the TL is the gear lever's tortuous "shifter gate," which defies every attempt to select Reverse. All the more reason, perhaps, to move forward, as Acura itself has done with its new model, heralding a new age of confidence and success for this mid-level Touring Luxury sedan. Indeed, the new TL's many obvious charms arrive none too soon, given a market category crowded with the likes of Audi's A4, BMW's 3-Series, Mercedes' C-Class, the Lexus ES300, and Infiniti I30t.

Against such competition, Acura's 3.2TL will undoubtedly seduce with price before actually consummating with performance. But once this car makes its impression, even traditional Japano-phobes will remark how stately the American-made TL rises above its humble Honda Accord origins. The sedan employs sophisticated, racer-style double-wishbone suspensions fore and aft to deliver a compliant ride that is at once solid without being heavy. The hush of the interior seems to have been borrowed from a much bigger, more expensive car, as do the integrated Bose CD/cassette/radio system, full-auto climate control, and that fascinating GPS SatNav system. Yes, the voice-prompted directions and new "picture-in-picture" map graphics continue to merit the acclaim I first lavished on Acura's navigator at the beginning of the year. No, the Middle Tennessee-area maps still haven't progressed much beyond interstates and state highways--or "built-in" restaurant listings for O'Charley's and Luby's.

For all its charm, however, there remain two attributes likely to hinder the TL's recruiting efforts: its front-drive layout and its Honda-esque silhouette. On the latter score, Acura has certainly perked and freshened the styling until traces of Honda's Accord are mere echoes of whispers. In the former case, however, there will always be sport-purists and Euro-snobs who won't condescend to front-wheel-drive no matter how well and how transparently Acura's Traction Control System does its job. If you know some of these auto-buff types, here's a solid tip for preserving your friendships after you've acquired an Acura 3.2TL: Keep 'em away from your new purchase lest the shock of this much car for this little money stagger them into auto-cognitive dissonance.

Price warrior '99 Acura 3.2TL sport sedan; 5-pass., 4-door; FWD, 3.2-liter SOHC V6 w/ VTEC valve train; 4-speed auto w/SportShift; 225 HP/216 ft.-lbs.; mileage 19/27, city/hwy; base $27,950; as tested $30,514.

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