The first thing i noticed about the 2004 Acura TL is how good-looking it is. Pretty much gone is the exasperatingly dull styling that has long been the hallmark of Honda's (HMC) luxury line. The new TL looks best in profile, which shows off its sporty wedge shape, muscular bulges around the wheels, and a crease along the side that deftly incorporates the door handles and side lights. O.K., from the rear there's no mistaking the conservative Honda look -- but check out those nifty, square dual exhausts.
What I didn't notice until I got a look at the sticker was how well Acura has equipped the TL at its $33,195 base price. The only factory option? A $2,000 navigation system. Otherwise, every convenience, safety, and luxury amenity you can think of (except, inexplicably, automatic headlights) comes as standard equipment. There are even a couple you haven't thought of, such as the industry's first six-channel DVD-audio surround-sound system and a radio link that lets you pair your Bluetooth cell phone with the car audio for hands-free phone calls.
Acura moved both luxury and sportiness up a notch with this car. You can see it in the cabin: The leather is soft and supple, yet the firm, well-bolstered seats keep you in place during turns. Gauges light up day and night -- white on black with soft blue edges and bright red pointers. Aluminum trim on the console adds to the sporty feel, and safety gear includes front and side airbags, plus curtain bags to guard your head.
The TL's no slouch on the road, either. It has 270 horsepower, the most in its class and way above the 225 hp on last year's base model. That means you get power to spare in any gear -- the TL comes with either a five-speed automatic or six-speed manual transmission -- and enough to propel the car from 0 to 60 miles per hour in less than six seconds. Yet it gets a commendable 19 miles per gallon in the city and 29 mpg on highways.
While common wisdom holds that a true sports sedan needs rear-wheel drive for better handling -- witness BMW'S 3-series, the Cadillac CTS, Infiniti's G35 -- the TL's front-wheel-drive configuration stands up respectably. Steering is predictable and quick, and I could accelerate fast around corners without the front wheels losing their direction or grip. But the real fun is on the straightaways, where the new TL leaves the competition in the dust. By Larry Armstrong