July 22, 2004 at 3:25 PM EST - Updated July 26 at 9:37 PM
2004 Acura TL By:Tom Lankard (c)New Car Test Drive, Inc.
Base Price:N/A As Tested :N/A
Acura raises the bar for mid-size luxury sedans.
Acura is reinventing itself. The originator of the Japanese-brand luxury car is no longer the leader in the market subsegment, and hasn't been for some time. Acura feels it's time to change this.
Enter the 2004 Acura TL, new in every possible way, save for moving five passengers around in a vehicle powered by a gasoline engine driving the front two of four wheels. It bristles with new safety and emissions technology and new features, a few of them nothing less than industry firsts.
The interior has been modernized. The exterior styling marks a fresh departure from the car maker's traditionally conservative design motifs. All but one of the options on last year's list have been moved to the standard column. Horsepower and torque are up, and markedly so. A new transmission is available. And there's only one version, instead of two.
Not much more could be different, or much better. It's pricey, yes, but in perspective, worth it.
Acura offers one model of the TL for 2004.
The performance-oriented Type-S has been dropped. Type-S intenders should not be dismayed, however, as Honda's luxury car division has endowed the new TL with the essential features and capabilities of the Type-S. And in the pipeline is an optional suspension setup intended to bring the TL's handling even closer to the company's admitted benchmark for the class, the BMW 5 Series sedans.
The 2004 Acura TL is outfitted with almost every luxury amenity buyers in the class seek or expect, plus one or two either not offered elsewhere or available for the first time in any class. Topping this list is a stereo system that redefines the overused term premium. Not content with a multi-speaker, externally power-amplified, DVD/CD/cassette/AM/FM/XM Satellite Radio system, Acura has added a technology known as DVD-Audio 5.1. DVDs recorded with this technology triple the channels in traditional stereo and virtual (electronically synthesized) surround sound systems, from two to six. The hope is to do for digital recordings what Dolby did for analog tapes. This more discrete surround sound is common in recording studio gear and has only recently begun appearing in home entertainment systems. Also standard, and another first, is a hands-free, wireless, cellular telephone capability (that is, the buyer provides the phone) employing Bluetooth technology.
Other standard features include power everything, from windows, to seats, to outside mirrors, etc. Leather is standard and not only trims the seats and door panels, but also wraps the shift knob and steering wheel. Even lowly carpeted floor mats are standard.
The latest generation of occupant safety developments, including seat-mounted, side-impact and full-cabin, side curtain airbags, are included at no extra cost. Frontal airbags are dual stage and dual threshold, meaning they deploy at different rates depending on the severity of the crash and whether the front seat occupants are belted in. The side-impact airbag sensors note the seat occupant's height and position to minimize potential injury to out-of-place and smaller-stature individuals. The only disappointment, especially from Honda, is the omission of a head restraint for the center rear passenger.
Xenon High Intensity Discharge headlights brighten the road ahead of every '04 TL. The greenhouse is that in more than stylist terminology, using green-tinted glass to block some of the sun's heat. A dual-zone, dual-mode, air conditioner automatically does the rest of the job, managing interior temperatures with air cleansed by a micron filter.
Acura's navigation system ($2000) is the only major option offered (at least initially) for the 2004 TL. The system features voice recognition of 293 verbal commands, including adjustments to the stereo and climate control system and selection of more than 7 million points of interest (restaurants, lodging, airports, shopping malls, etc.). All this information is also accessible through a dash-mounted touch screen and assorted knobs and switches. With the navigation system buyers get what Acura calls 3D Solar Sensing Climate Control. Using time of day and direction of travel, this calculates the sun's position relative to the car to adjust side-to-side interior temperatures to maintain desired settings.
High performance tires are optional ($200) with the 6-speed manual transmission.
Also available, though not initially, is a sport suspension package called A-SPEC. This includes firmer springs and shock absorbers, unique 18-inch wheels wearing Z-rated Yokohama tires, aero/ground effects body pieces, special steering wheel, upgraded brake pads for cars with the automatic transmission and bragging-rights body badges.
Acura's stylists kept the image of a soccer player in mind as they sketched the 2004 TL: a wide, solid stance; tall and lean, with muscular lines; and compact and coiled, tensed, ready to move in any direction with quickness, certainty and precision. This design philosophy may sound forced, or even melodramatic, but a close look at the car's proportions and styling cues gives it credence.
While maintaining approximately the same wheelbase as the '03 model (a mere 0.2 inches shorter), the '04 TL has shaved more than half a foot off its overall length. It's an inch and a half wider, riding on tires spread an inch farther apart in front and two inches farther apart in the rear. It's fully three inches taller. Despite all these added increments, it claims one of the lowest coefficients of drag (0.29 Cd) of any sedan of its class sold in the U.S.
The strong, chin-like front end is braced by two, low-mounted openings feeding cooling air to the engine, the minimalist grille serving primarily to frame the Acura badge and trademark polished horizontal bar. Squinting headlights wrap around the front fenders, drawing the eye to the character line that begins in the side light just forward of the front door, integrating the perfectly aligned door handles and running the length of the car to terminate in the rear side-marker lights. Molded rocker panels beneath the doors (with chip-resistant finish) visually widen the car's lower body. Fender flares stretch the body over and wrap snugly around the tires. The tallish greenhouse tapers gracefully inward rising from the beltline, giving geometric balance to the rake of the windshield and backlight. The C-pillar, or sail, flows smoothly down onto the trunk lid, adding substance and solidity to the rear quarters and embellishing the TL's mild, wedge-like profile.
What most other drivers will see of the TL, the back end, looks like, well, a Honda. This isn't necessarily bad, although it does come across as a bit conservative when considered along with the dramatic styling of the rest of the car. The trailing edge of the trunk lid is sharply crested, with a pleasing Kamm-like aero-overhang. Taillights are severely functional. The black surround setting off the rear license plate is a bit loud. But all the body sculpturing produces surface planes generating some exciting shadows, and dual exhausts with squarish tips in matching lower bumper cutouts boost the sporty image, as do tires pushed out to the car's edge.
The melding of function with form works extremely well in the Acura TL's comprehensively re-worked interior.
Easy-on-the-eyes, backlit, blue-around-white, LED gauges look out from inside three pods tucked under a hood shading them from noon-time sun. A large, round speedometer sits directly in front of the driver and is centered on the steering column, which is also properly centered on the driver's seat. To the left is a slightly smaller, but no less legible tachometer. The righthand pod contains the fuel and water temperature gauges.
Top most in the center stack is the LCD screen that displays the climate control and audio system settings and selections and, when so optioned, the navigation system's visual aids. With the optional navigation system comes a line of PDA-like buttons and cursor controller arrayed beneath the screen. Bracketing the screen are perpendicular rows of large, finger-friendly buttons for setting driver and front passenger climate control preferences; noteworthy is the presence of an Off switch for when the outside weather begs to be enjoyed. The moonroof switch is located on to the overhead control pod, more intuitive than having it on the dash.
Below is the control head for the sound system, containing the six-disc CD changer and cassette player, the latter useful for books on tape. Large, round knobs adjust volume and tuning/tone/fade/balance. Right-sized station preselect buttons easily pass the fingernail/winter glove test.
The much-touted DVD-Audio 5.1 surround sound system fell short of expectations. Through a couple Steely Dan and Fleetwood Mac selections provided by Acura and selected by the system's developer, Grammy Award-winning music producer/engineer Elliott Scheiner, the most discernible difference between the 2-channel CD/DVD system and the 6-channel DVD-A 5.1 system was just that, four more channels. Granted, the sound was physically more surrounding, but it was no fuller or richer. We're not audio experts, but we recall the dimensional depth Dolby added to analog recordings as being a bigger leap forward.
Comfortably bolstered seats brace thighs and shoulders against lateral forces during spirited cornering. Seat bottom cushions could extend a bit more beneath the thighs, but overall are quite supportive without being overly firm. The B-pillars are indented in their forward edges about mid-height to make a little more elbow room for front seat occupants. Oddly, in that the new TL is some three inches taller than the '03, front seat headroom is actually down by more than an inch, while rear seat passengers gain only half an inch. Front and rear legroom varies by less than a half inch.
The trunk space is reduced by almost two cubic feet, and the opening is somewhat smaller, further limiting the size of any individual parcel one might wish to transport. The trunk is fully finished, with an inside pull down, and the goose-neck hinges are encased to avoid threatening fragile contents of grocery bags. Save for the trunk, interior space and dimensions are close enough to those of the BMW 5 Series and the Volvo S60, the two cars Acura expects most buyers to cross-shop, that personal taste will likely influence decisions more.
Storage places abound but lack flexibility. Seatback-mounted magazine racks are solid, hinged affairs, for example, as are the front door-mounted map pockets, meaning they'll hold only magazines and maps and maybe a slim, self-guide tour book. The center console is a deep, bi-level affair, with a power point in the lower level and a notch in the upper tray to accommodate a cell phone cord. The armrest on the front center console adjusts fore and aft.
Interior quality is up to Acura standards. Fit and finish, even in early production cars, was above average. A nice touch is a grained, matte-finish section on the top of the dash over the instrument cluster that will reduce reflective glare off the inside of the windshield on bright, sunny days. A seamless dash masks the presence of the passenger-side front airbag, making for a more elegant and stylish look.
We've driven both renditions of the 2004 Acura TL: the one most buyers will choose with the SportShift automatic and all-season tires and the sporty iteration with the 6-speed manual and wider, stickier tires. The driving routes traversed suburban neighborhoods, two-lane backroads and multi-lane highways, and included a racetrack, where limits could be explored without interruption from flashing red lights and screaming sirens or the unexpected bus or motorhome. In all but two measures, the new TL easily met or exceeded expectations.
Driving position is exemplar, which is no surprise given Honda's near obsession with ergonomics. All necessary controls lie within sight and easy reach of the driver. Shift levers and patterns for both transmissions fall readily to hand. Clutch takeup on the manual requires a little getting used to, but the shift linkage is taut and precise. With the SportShift left in auto mode, gear changes are almost imperceptible, slicker and smoother than in some cars costing more than twice the TL's price of entry; in manual mode, only the upshift from first is automatic, occurring just south of 5000 rpm. Higher gears are held right up to the rev limiter, which steps in around 7000 rpm.
The variable assist steering reacts to road speed and driver input to make for effortless parking and sure tracking at speed. Hours spent in the wind tunnel reduced to a whisper the inevitable whistles around the outside mirrors. Barely noticeable hissing around the side windows' trailing edges could well have been more reflective of the test car's early production status than of any design shortcoming.
The V6 engine delivers its abundant power smoothly, pulling strongly all the way to its 6800-rpm redline to the accompaniment of a deliciously tuned exhaust note. Even with traction control active, the front tires can be made to chirp accelerating out of corners or when the gas pedal is mashed when starting from a full stop. In every-day driving, evidence of its front-wheel-drive layout is nicely suppressed.
Dimensionally and functionally, the engine remains the same as last year's: 3.2 liters, SOHC, 24 valves, 60-degree V6 with Honda's F1 racing-developed variable valve timing and lift system (VTEC). Horsepower, though, is now 270, up from the 2003 3.2 TL's 225 and even from the '03 Type-S model's 260; torque is also increased, to 238 pounds-feet, versus last year's 216 and 232. At the same time, the 2004 TL gets one more mile per gallon of gas than the 2003 in both city and highway when fitted with the new, 6-speed manual transmission; with the SportShift automatic, City is up one mpg while Highway loses one. The engine is cleaner, too, meeting California's LEV-2 ULEV standards, the second most-stringent in the nation for gasoline-fueled cars and exceeded only by limited production, small-engined subcompacts and hybrid-powered cars.
The TL felt comfortable and relaxed at speed on interstates, although there was more road noise with the fatter, stickier tires on the sportier model. On two-lanes, the standard setup was no slouch, feeling ill at ease only when taken where its drivers will never go, and by which time, all the assorted active safety technologies will have been alerted. At these extremes, the sportier version delighted, the Brembo brakes confidently hauling the car down from mildly irresponsible speeds before it tracked unerringly (as close to the ragged edge as is prudent on public roads) and with aplomb through tight corners over sometimes bumpy pavement. Perhaps, just maybe, Acura has unearthed the secret to BMW's vice-like grip on the top rung of the sports sedan ladder.
All 2004 TLs have ABS coupled with Electronic Brake-force Distribution (optimizing front-rear brake balance under varying load and dynamic circumstances), Brake Assist (improving response in emergencies) and Vehicle Stability Assist (incorporating traction control and reducing risk of loss of control in extreme situations). Brembo brakes are included with the 6-speed manual transmission.
On the track, the SportShift and the all-season tires proved to be a good match. Only carelessness or inattention could get somebody in trouble with this package. Here, though, the sporty setup fell short of its promise. The transmission wasn't the problem. Its six, close-ratio gears allowed the engine to work in its powerband's sweet spot and the limited slip differential properly to apportion the power between the front tires while negotiating fast, sweeping curves and tight, power-sapping, left-right-left esses. The brakes never evidenced the slightest fade, despite the ever-present bouquet from super-heated pads at the end of each on-track session. It was the suspension that disappointed in this closed-course, don't-try-this-at-home setting, waiting a bit too long before taking a set on entering a turn and then bobbing side to side an extra time or two when making quick, directional transitions in the midst of a compound turn. The experience was no where near egregious or over-the-top, just enough to invite a little earlier brake application and a gentle feathering of the throttle the next time around. In the race to catch BMW, it's nice, but no cigar, yet.
The 2004 Acura TL is, simply, the best, most complete and competent Acura built to date.
The SportShift automatic transmission can be left alone or played with to extract some of the joys embodied in the stiffer platform and better-integrated and more powerful drivetrain. Fitted with the 6-speed manual, Brembo brakes and the stickier tires, it's as sporty a sedan as is imaginable in a front wheel-drive configuration.
When (and if ever) the driving experience gets boring, settle back with some good tunes from the state-of-the-art stereo and book the evening's repast and lodging while following the mobile arrow pointing the way across the country.
As for cost, Acura points out that the once-optional but now-standard content and new features account for fully two-thirds of the price increase over the 2003 3.2 TL and for half of that of the 2003 3.2 Type-S. For what this buys, this is not a bad deal.