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Week Peek: Acura TL

The Background
I was asked to house sit this past week, and part of the deal was that I would get to drive my friends' 2004 Honda Pilot and their brand new 2004 Acura TL with the navigation system and an automatic with Acura's SportShift (model 4DR). I loved this car before I was handed the keys, and nothing has changed. Great looks, excellent dynamics, stellar build quality, gobs of power and clear refinement. Plus, it's one helluva deal. Perfect? No, no car is, but it's damn near close, and certainly closer than anything I can think of at this price point.

The 2004 Acura TL was to replace a great car that was, well, completely forgettable, even in the Type-S trim. That's a bad position to be in when you're going up against performers like the BMW 3 series, Infiniti G35, Mercedes C class and others. Of course, if you haven't noticed, the previous TL seemed to hold its own as it can be seen everywhere in droves. Still, Honda engineers are not known for resting on their laurels, and, in my opinion, have truly outdone themselves here.

After a week, I noticed a few things that truly shone, a few that could be better, though that might be subjective, and a couple that I think are true short comings regardless of personal taste. I'll review these issues.

The Good
Talk of the '04 TL barely ever starts without mentioning how damn powerful this thing is. A 3.2L engine that makes more power than several V8s on the market (at least as far as horsepower is concerned). In my week of city, country, backwoods and highway driving over about 300 miles, power was never an issue. Interestingly, most reviews focus on the torque steer. Perhaps it's because I'm used to driving a modified turbo front-wheel-drive car, but I really didn't have trouble with it. There is certainly more power than a front-wheel-driver should have on paper, but the car is so well balanced, I wonder if this would really end up being an issue for those of us who do not work for car magazines for a living. If torque steer was scaring you off of this car, let me put your fears at ease. Manageable does not begin to describe it. You could go years without noticing it.

Acura TLMost reviews also talk about the amazing ELS audio system, the first of its kind in a car. It can play audio DVDs, and has great sound. Also, the radio and XM reception was amazing. I've only experienced XM in aftermarket set ups, and have seen it drop the signal from time to time. The TL held the signal consistently (though I did not go through any big tunnels). FM reception was very impressive as it was able to get and hold the signal for a small station in the Boston-area that most cars cannot receive. The CD changer, a 6 disc in dash unit, can play DVD-A discs, and is easy to use, but I noticed two things about it, as discussed below.

The handling is very nice. I personally would like a slightly tighter or sportier suspension, but do not take that to mean that there's slop or roll in the suspension. I drive a car with a stiff suspension right now, so it's a question of to what one is accustomed. My brother, who is waiting for his TL to come in at the dealer, thought it was harsh. He said he can feel all of the bumps. I would disagree as to the 'all' part, but you do feel many bumps. The thing is how you feel them. They are felt smoothly as the car simply blows over them, and the car hits them uniformly and solidly, with no reverberations in the car. Thinking back to my mother's first generation Dodge Intrepid, or the 2003 Mustang I drove for a week, those cars rolled and rumbled over every crack in the road in a cacaphone of shimmies, shakes and skips through their entire structures. There was nothing solid or refined about how they handled the terrible New England roads. The TL is clearly a well engineered touring sedan, and this, to me, is especially clear when I hit a rough spot in the road. To me, a firmer suspension, such as that offered in the A-Spec package, would make the steering a bit crisper and the cornering a bit more aggressive. Again, personal taste in how a car drives. I don't think most people would notice anything lacking in the stock set up.

What you do notice is an interior that is perfect, literally, in location of controls, lighting (with cool blue spotlights overhead), and rich textured materials. The leather is great, the plastics feel good, and there is not a single rattle or creaking to be heard, as is often the case with cars these days as plastic rubs on plastic. Acura was wise enough to use a perforated plastic on the top of the dash, which completely cuts out glare or reflection of the dash into the windshield. I have a little reflection of my center air vents on my Passat, and, while not a serious issue, it gets annoying, so I was very glad to see this attention to detail on the Acura.

The steering wheel feels perfect in terms of overall size and thickness. Having driven with a racing wheel for the past year, I did feel that the rim was too thin at first, but I'm used to it now, and it's certainly not too thin when compared to other wheels out there. The controls on it are very well laid out, and intuitive. I used the phone controls to set up the HandsFreeLink to connect to my SonyEricsson phone via BlueTooth. The system walked me through it step by step, and connected automatically when I got a call, and turned off the stereo. My one complaint in this area is that there seems to be no way to turn up the audio on the phone. I tried the stereo volume knob and the steering wheel control for volume, both to no avail. If there really is no way to adjust this, that would be a flaw, but I cannot verify this to be the case.

A word on the nav. That word is amazing. I've used the nav in the Honda Pilot, which seems to be the same as in the TL, but perhaps a generation older, and the navs in the Lexus RX330 and Mercedes ML500. The TL's is easier to use, faster, and far more accurate. Coming home in the Pilot one day, it failed to tell me to make a turn either vocally or on the screen. It failed to tell me to make a turn once before, also, both times adding at least 5 minutes to my commute. The TL was flawless. Sometimes, I know better than it does, but it was still sending me on a very sound route, and never missed a beat. The screen is large, easily readable (even in most sunlight situations), and the voice is clearly audible and gives directions in plain English. If you are looking at this car and can afford it, the nav is worth it. It's a great system.

The (Not Terribly) Bad
There isn't much on the line here. Things are great, or, as you'll see below, issues (notice I don't say bad). I did find something that seemed odd. I had engaged the nav map while on the highway after the screen had been dark since I never accepted the legal disclaimer after starting up. The interior was so bright from the nav, and I didn't really need the map, but there seemed to be no way to turn this off. You can turn down the brightness in the setup menu, but there's no way to turn the display off once you accept the legal disclaimer. That, to me, is something that you should be allowed to do.

The other minor issue, as I alluded to above, was with the DVD/CD player. First, the tuning dial should allow you to scroll through tracks, either in a FF/RW fashion or by skipping to the next track. My Passat features this functionality in its Monsoon stereo, and it makes it great for advancing to that song you have had on your mind all day. the FF/RW feature is not one I've seen in any car, but it is something my iPod has, and is really a great feature. If you've never had this functionality, you probably won't miss it. What I did find to be an issue was the speed, or lack thereof, of the changer. Changing discs is very slow, as is loading and ejecting. This is often the case with elevator/single feed changers such as this, but it would perhaps drive you crazy if you were someone who changes discs regularly or need to eject a disc in a hurry (as I had to). Several of today's imported hard-top convertibles will go topless or shield you from the rain in less time than it takes the TL to eject CD...literally.

The (Slightly) Ugly
So, while I do still love this car, and, if I was to buy a car right now, this is definitely what I'd get, I do have three issues with it. If anything, this week has made me want a TL more, but I do have concern with visibility on two counts. First, if you live in a rural area, or often drive on winding, unlit roads, the headlights will be an issue to you. I think their light pattern is far too low. By far, I mean way too short. I felt very unsafe driving on a winding, unlit road at night as I could barely see 20-30 feet in front of me. Hitting a downward slope made this far worse. This is incredibly unsafe. The high beams quickly made this a non-issue, but when a car came along in the other direction, I had to kill the high beams, and was back in the same situation. I had the driving lights on, but this didn't help at all, of course, since the issue was the top of the low beam, not under the low beam, where the driving lights fill in. This was not a real issue on the highway or around town where there are street lights. Also, it is possible that this particular TL's lights are aimed too low, but I doubt it. The car is a week old, and has been inspected already. A work around is to aim the lights higher, but you could end up blinding people who you are driving toward rather than illuminating the road properly and sufficiently.

The second issue is visibility at the corners of the car. The A-pillar is a bit thicker than that of most cars. It's not terrible, as I have definitely seen worse, but it was an issue on my first day in the car. I adjusted fairly quickly, though. What I still have not adjusted to is the C-pillar. It's massive. You can see in the pictures in this review how big the metal area of the C-pillar is. It makes for a very nice looking shape, but, unfortunately, does limit visibility. That said, these types of things are usually only issues for the first few weeks or months one owns a car for. I went through the same thing with my Passat (though to a lesser extent), and I adjusted completely. I worry that this C-pillar is so thick that it will always be an issue to some degree, it's just a question of to what degree.

Lastly, the rearview mirror isn't wide enough to cover the entire backlight. This isn't the end of the world, and I can think of several other cars in the same boat. However, given the limited visibility out of the rear corner afforded by the thick C-pillar, this issue is of more importance than in most cars. Again, it's something you can adjust to, but it would seem logical for Acura to make the mirror perhaps a half-inch to full inch wider on either end.

The Final Review
Overall, I still love the car as I did before driving it for a week, if not more. Great inside and out, this is the car to get in the mid-30k range, at least as far as I'm concerned. Be sure to read Tim Ryan's review of the TL from July 27, 2004.

Highly recommended for the $30-40k range.

Engine, transmission, interior, overall engineering quality

Night visibility, vision out of corners

Other Words:
2004 Acura TL—Benchmark of Value, Performance and Craftsmanship


Engine:3.2L V6
Transmission:5 Spd Auto
0-60:6.9 Seconds
Horsepower:270 hp
Torque:238 lb-ft
EPA Rating:20 City
28 Highway
Price:$32,650 Base
$35,195 Test