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1997 Acura 3.2TL

The Acura Vigor was for many observers the first indication

that Honda didn't always get it right. An Accord clone with a

five cylinder engine, cramped interior and clumsy handling, it

was also a strong contender for the title of least appropriately

named car.

It may just be coincidence that Acura's new strategy of

dumping names in favor of alpha-numeric codes started, in 1995,

with the Vigor's replacement. The TL series — for Touring Luxury

– consists of two models, the TL 2.5, retaining the Vigor's

five-cylinder engine, and the TL 3.2, with a V6 borrowed from

the old Legend.

Today's subject is the 2.5.

Stylewise, the TL is definitely a Honda. There's a fine line

between family resemblance (desirable) and

they-all-look-the-same (not). Honda doesn't always tread on the correct side of this line.

The TL is pleasant to look at, with a strength, a muscularity,

to its lines, and a decent stance on the road. But it's not

particularly exciting, or as eye-catching as you might hope from

a car being proffered as a sporting sedan.

The engine is mounted longitudinally, a relatively rare

configuration in this transverse-engined front-wheel drive

world. Acura claims benefits in body rigidity, weight

distribution and impact protection, but it also reduces interior

room, since the drivetrain extends further into the cabin.

A longer wheelbase than Vigor's claws some of this room back.

I had to jiggle the seat and wheel adjustments to find an

acceptable driving position, and still my right knee rested

against the centre console. It is well-shaped, however (the

console, not my knee) so it wasn't too uncomfortable.

The rear-seat cushion is low and short. Some of the passenger

capacity back there is visual rather than genuine. Thin roof

pillars and deep window glass provide excellent visibility all

around, which also contributes to a sense of spaciousness.

The interior decor is typically Honda subdued colors,

traditional shapes, same slick hardware you'll find on other

products with the H-Mark (for Honda) or the A-Mark (Acura).

The front-seat cushions are short, but lateral support from

the seatback is good. Too bad the leather upholstery (new for

1997; cloth was used previously) is so slippery.

DIMLY-LIT CONTROLS

The digital readouts for radio and climate controls

automatically dim when the headlights are on, as they do on most

cars.

The theory is that the headlights will be on only at night,

when driver's perfer less interior illumination. But all

right-thinking drivers switch their headlights on all the time, since

daytime running lights usually don't include the taillights.

With lights on in the daytime, the read-outs pale into

invisibility. Wearing polarized sunglasses makes the readouts

even harder to see.

If memoery serves, the Vigor was the first car to sport a

digital signal processing radio, a high-tech feature which could

make your big-buck radio sound like a $29.95 Radio Shack

special. This has been dropped from the TL, and it's not missed.

A red velvet-lined coin box labelled "No Smoking" replaces the

ash tray in the centre console. Yet right beside it sits a

lighter, complete with a lit cigarette logo!

Switches for fog lights and cruise control are hidden by the

turn signal lever, but the two buttons are shaped differently so

you can tell them apart.

FIVE-CYLINDER ENGINE

Now that Audi has abandoned the idea, the TL's engine is one

of the few fives left in the business.

The single overhead-camshaft four-valve-per-cylinder aluminum

mill makes 176 horsepower at 6,300 r.p.m. and 170 footpounds of

torque at a respectable 3,900 r.p.m.

It's a nice engine, eager and responsive.

An odd number of cylinders typically generates a unique and,

to me, not unpleasant exhaust note, which morphs into a muted

growl on hard acceleration. Entirely appropriate that a sporty

sedan should sound sporty, don't you think? At cruising speeds,

the noise fades to silence.

The musical exhaust is enhanced with a unique dual-passage

muffler. At higher speeds, a spring-loaded valve opens,

diverting the gasses to a less restrictive path and increasing

sonic volume. Wanna bet Midas will have one of these in stock?

A nicely-shaped shift knob on a thin chromed stalk, working in

a Mercedes-Benz-style shift gate, makes manual control of the

four-speed automatic transaxle easier than most. Good job, as

the tranny's electronic brain didn't always seem to be perking

at maximum synaptic rate, occasionally diving into a downshift

when I didn't expect one or think one was necessary. Most

upshifts, especially on full throttle, were accompanied by a

minor thump.

If a car is to make it as a sports sedan, it's got to shine in

handling and, most of all, steering. This is the TL's major

failing.

The TL will likely be as reliable as a brick through a plate glass window.

Honda has offered variable-assist power steering for years,

and you'd think they'd have it sussed by now. This latest

version varies assist level not just with road speed, but also

with engine speed and the amount of torque generated between

pavement and tire.

But unless you're the sort of person for whom "handling" means

the ability to hook your thumb on a steering wheel spoke and

spin the wheel from lock to lock, the TL's steering is always

far, far too light.

It doesn't give the driver any sense of what's happening down

at what we professional auto writers (do not attempt at home)

pretentiously like to call the "tire-road interface." To borrow

a line from former AutoWeek columnist Satch Carlson, the TL

feels like the wheel is connected to the steering gear by a

length of surgical tubing.

There's also a bit of torque steer when accelerating hard on

lessthan perfect pavement, as the wheels patter, searching for

grip. This is unusual with a longitudinally mounted engine,

since the driveshafts are nearly equal in length (unequal

drive-shaft length is a common cause of torque steer).

A FIRM RIDE

The ride is on the firm side, tending to harsh on certain

types of pavement. Honda has poured all the hightech stuff into

the suspension — multilink independent front and rear. I'm not

convinced the fine tuning is fully sorted yet.

The ride quality may, oddly enough, be affected by the

frameless side windows. No carmaker has been able to make this

design completely squeak or rustle-proof on rough roads — making

the ride seem worse than perhaps it really is.

Unique among carmakers, Honda designs and builds its own ABS

systems, rather than buying from a brake manufacturer. The

binders on the TL worked all right, but the pedal was distinctly

soft. At rest, you could, with constant pressure, shove it

nearly to the floor, which didn't inspire a great deal of

confidence.

WORTH CONSIDERING?

The Acura TL 2.5 is a difficult car to evaluate. It is better

than the Vigor, not that this is, in itself, much of an

accomplishment.

It is positioned as a sports sedan, against the likes of the

BMW 3-Series, but doesn't have the handling to carry that off.

Is it then the world's best-built Buick? Even Buicks have

better steering than this these days.

A $36,600 price tag makes the TL considerably more affordable

than Lexus's ES300, Infiniti's I30 or Mazda's Millenia. It's

technically more interesting too, even if it gives away a

half-litre of engine displacement to each of those cars.

Because it's a Honda, the TL will likely be as reliable as a

brick through a plate glass window. Perhaps its main role in

life is to give happy Accord owners a car to move up to within

the Honda family.

Freelance journalist Jim Kenzie prepared this report based on

driving a vehicle provided by the automaker. You can catch

Kenzie each Saturday on Talk 640 Radio at 4 p.m.

1997 Acura 2.5 TL

Body style: 4-door sedan

Drivetrain: Rong-Wheel drive

Engine: 176hp 2.5L SOHC 2OV I5

Transaxle: 4-Speed automatic

Exterior mm (in.)

Length: 4865(191.5)

Wheelbase: 2840 (111.8)

Width: 1785 (70.3)

Trackfront: 1520(59.8)

Trackrear: 1510 (59.5)

Front seat mm (in.)

Legroom: 1110 (43.7)

Headroom: 987 (38.9)

Curb weight: 1480 kg (3263 lb.)

These specifications are supplied by the manufacturer and can

change at any time

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