For 2004, the all-new Acura TL is boldly changed, if not exactly transformed. The flanks are square-cut; a conspicuous beltline streaks front to rear; side skirts sweep out from under the rocker panels like small winglets. The TL’s rakish pose brings to mind the appetite of a hunter, prowling for unsuspecting prey.
But Acura is skirting the issue with all its sculptural changes, structural refinements and powertrain improvements. The TL has become such a convincing market success primarily because its value is stupendous when you consider the standard features available at such a reasonable price.
For 2004, the new TL is meant to replace last year’s sport-oriented model, the TL Type-S. A less athletic base model is no longer available. Pricing is promised to remain in the $33,000 to $34,000 range. If so, this 270-horsepower sedanwhose only available options are a GPS navigation system, a manual transmission and performance tiresis likely to undercut its staunchest rivals by thousands of dollars.
A new single-overhead-cam V6 displaces 3.2 liters and uses variable valve timing to deliver 10 more hp than last year’s Type-S. Torque is up three percent to 238 ft.-lbs. An electronic throttle is crisply responsive and helps not only to produce zero-to-60 times under 7.5 seconds but also to preserve vaunted LEV II/ULEV clean-emissions status. Mileage is impressive at 20 mpg/city and 28 mpg/highway in the auto-tranny version, 20 mpg/city, 30 mpg/highway with the six-speed manual.
It is important to point out how distinctly different are the automatic and manual transmission versions of the new TL. Acura predicts a split between them of 85 percent and 15 percent, respectively. Here’s why: With its slick-shifting six speeds, tight suspension tuning and aggressive tires, the manual TL is brusque if not actually ferocious. It satisfies a sportster’s baser appetites for rude acceleration, edgy cornering and punishingly late braking. Sexy Brembo disc brakes up front can take a hammeringas they did at the serpentine Pacific Raceway east of Seattlewithout succumbing to any appreciable fade.
It was different with the looser suspension damping, all-season tires and self-shifting five-speed automatic version. At the raceway, this model didn’t so much corner as heave through the twistiesnot unpleasantly, but with distinctly more body roll. Shifts via Acura’s clutchless SportShift system were snappy, but often the engine’s 6,800-rpm redline sneaked up too fast for a driver to beat it; so the transmission fended for itself with its own impatient upshifts.
Far more appropriateand more representative of real-world drivingwas the auto-shifter’s finesse in threading back-country highways among the foothills of Mt. Ranier in the Snoqualmie National Forest. Here, ride quality and handling poise were superb. “Smart logic” circuitry in the transmission managed downhill gear changes admirably, and a new “shift hold” feature maintained lower gears for longer periods when tackling uphill grades.
There are front, front-side and front-to-rear head curtain airbags installed in every TL. The same goes for Acura’s Vehicle Stability Assist program, which monitors wheel slip electronically and applies selective braking to help maintain safe control. VSA is transparent but ever watchful. At the raceway, many relatively inexperienced drivers among the assembled auto journalists showed apparent cornering talents they didn’t know they had, whereas more veteran sportsters detected at least a partial compensation for the lack of genuinely racy rear wheel drive.
This latter distinction between front- and rear-drive sporting performance is, in fact, the issue Acura skirts so well with its new TL. And it does so principally by a fascinating, entertaining sleight of hand; for pervading the cockpit of the TL is a delightful telematics environment than can keep driver and occupants amused for hours.
By telematics is meant the integration of audio, navigation, telephone and vehicle information functions within a single system of shared controls. It’s the Holy Grail of 21st-century automakers, and their challenge is to render these controls intuitively understandable and minimally distracting. Acura has almost completely succeeded in doing so.
Two features dazzle in particular. The audio system includes both broadcast and XM Satellite radio, then combines a traditional in-dash six-CD deck with a 5.1 Surround Sound DVD-Audio system that is essentially indescribable. It’s the joint brainchild of Panasonic and five-time Grammy-winning producer Elliot Scheiner; and it’s worth a test-drive just to hear what this ELS Surround system accomplishes with a DVD version of Queen’s Night at the Opera or Grover Washington Jr.’s Winelight.
Bluetooth networking technology is the TL’s other telematics breakthrough. It’s a wireless system that interfaces with any cell phone and any provider. As long as your phone is in the TL and on, you have complete hand-free control over itover up to six different phones, in fact, should passengers have theirs along. Moreover the TL’s voice recognition system cross-communicates with both audio and climate functions using 293 voice commands. The system isn’t completely intuitiveit requires a bit of language study to master “TLese”but this is arguably the most multi-functional system presently available. The ELS Surround system positions it as the most awe-inspiring.
Acura’s latest TL stands credibly poised to defend its status as one of the most popular near-luxury sedans. If its aggressive looks distract somewhat from the more significant issue of superior value for the price, there is certainly no doubt about one thing at least: The 2004 TL absolutely rocks as it rolls.
In my exuberance last week over welcoming the 2004 Mercury Monterey into the world, I incorrectly identified its showroom debut as October 2004. The Monterey and its sibling, Ford Freestar, are appearing in their respective dealerships nowOctober 2003. Courteous salespeople are standing by.
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