Since its inception in 1995, the Acura TL has always been a stylish expression of attainable Japanese luxury, and when the second generation arrived in 1999, the car quickly rose to the top of the near-lux segment. Soon after, with the help of the sporty Type-S, the TL became Acura's top-selling vehicle. The problem was that even the Type-S wasn't the driver's car that other companies were offering. Enter the new-for-2004 Acura TL, with a smooth 270-horse V-6, much-improved dynamics, and interior and exterior styling befitting a car costing well more than the mid-$30K pricetag, giving it strong competitive footing. With the third-generation TL, Acura also set out to define itself as a leader in innovation, offering one of the industry's first Bluetooth hands-free phone interfaces and a standard DVD audio system.
Redesigned for 2004, the dramatic TL is muscular, edgy, and modern. Every crisp line exudes both performance and luxury, making the TL arguably more attractive than the much costlier RL sedan. It looks low and long, and indeed the TL is more than eight inches longer than a Mercedes-Benz C-class and nearly equal in length to an Infiniti G35. As with the rest of the Acura line, there are no trim levels, so every TL looks basically the same, with the exception of those equipped with optional wheels or the pricey A-Spec package. That option, installed at dealers, adds anthracite 18-inch wheels, a lowered suspension, a rear spoiler, and an aero kit.
The clean modernity of the exterior styling is carried gracefully into a well thought-out cabin. While wood-grain trims are available, the more contemporary black plastic and aluminum look that comes with darker interior colors works better with the blue and white gauges to create a cool and relaxed ambiance. Acura prides itself on making the buying experience as easy as possible, as reflected in the single-item (navigation) options list; everything else comes standard. Those standard amenities include XM satellite radio, the aforementioned Bluetooth connectivity, DVD surround sound audio, a 10-way adjustable driver's seat, and a favorite feature for cold winters, heated seats. Gauges are bright and easy to read, and steering-wheel-mounted controls allow you to keep your eyes on the road. The plush leather seats are comfortable and, amazingly, head- and legroom for all passengers are superior to those of the flagship RL.
Hiding under the body panels of the Acura TL are all the expected safety features in a luxury brand--systems for both traction and stability control, dual front, side, and head curtain airbags, ABS, and bi-Xenon headlights to better illuminate the road ahead. For those who opt to shift through the gears themselves, manual transmission cars come with a limited-slip differential to help prevent excessive wheel spin, as well as meaty four-piston Brembo brakes for increased stopping performance. Backing up all these features is the accolade of being named an Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) "Best Pick" in frontal-impact crash testing.
The sole TL engine offering is a smooth 3.2-liter/270-horse V-6 that provides rich, quick revving power. Equipped with VTEC variable valve timing, a Honda hallmark since its debut in the Acura NSX in the early '90s, the engine is smooth and offers a wide powerband. A drive-by-wire system evens out throttle regulation even more. Most TLs are sold with the effective and engaging five-speed Sequential SportShift automatic, which allows clutchless gear selection and full automatic functionality. The same-priced six-speed manual vehicles are a bit harder to find and don't sit on dealer lots very long because of their desirability among dedicated enthusiasts. Shifter feel is akin to that of the race-inspired Honda S2000, and the stubby but stylish shifter knob is even similar to the one found in that roadster. The addition of larger brakes and a limited-slip differential make manual cars even more lovable.
Where previous TLs were prone to a fair amount of body roll, the current model has been tightened down just enough. A comfortable ride is the TL's first priority, and it smoothes rough roads without becoming a wallowing boat (ahem, Lexus ES 330). The car's most prominent flaw lies in Acura's resistance to the increasingly popular rear-wheel-drive layout, as this front-driver cannot put 270 ponies to the pavement without noticeable torque steer and occasional embarrassing wheelspin. Get on the throttle to make a quick pass, and the steering wheel will give a mean jerk to the side if you're not ready to wrangle it back into place. While rear-drive is probably not in the Acura's near future, the sophisticated all-wheel-drive system in the new RL could find its way down the line to the TL in the next few years; it would add both safety and performance.
The TL's steering isn't as direct as some sportier competitors, but Acura makes no pretense that the TL is a BMW-beater. Rather, it's a pleasant car to drive that offers more than ample performance for most situations. Its sporty demeanor, combined with the very well appointed interior, makes for a rewarding driving experience that pampers driver and passengers, alike.
The Acura TL probably shouldn't be cross-shopped against BMW, Mercedes-Benz, or Audi. Those cars are bit smaller and sportier, and they're better for those who value chassis dynamics and pizzazz over value and reliability. TL shoppers will find more similarities in the Cadillac CTS or Infiniti G35, two slightly larger, more forgiving vehicles aimed at working more luxury into the sport-sedan recipe. Acura can be applauded for making everything but navigation standard equipment, as this gives shoppers the peace of mind that dealers won't push them into purchasing unnecessary factory options. On the other hand, this standardization of amenities puts the TL's base price thousands of dollars above many competitors', which could scare away some buyers. That's a shame because the luxuries offered in the Acura TL are similar to those found in $40,000-plus sedans, and the TL is more powerful than many of them. If only all that power weren't directed through the front wheels, Acura would have a world-beater on its hands. As it stands, the TL packages an impressive array of engineering and features into its asking price. And the long-term reward is not only reliability, but also an excellent cost of ownership for most configurations.
The TL is a $40,000 luxury sedan soul in a $33,000 sport sedan body.
Abundant luxury features Refined, eager performance Value today, and down the road
Isolated steering No true base model Front drive + 270 hp = torque steer
All new for 2004, the TL carries over without noteworthy changes.
A navigation system, a six-speed manual transmission, and 18-inch wheels are the only options.