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BEHIND THE WHEEL

Acura Rolls Into the Breach Yet Again

August 04, 1995|PAUL DEAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Acura's frowns are dark and deepening as the company continues to grope for something powerful and elegant to fit between the successes and pricing of Legend and Integra.

Remember, this is the company that 10 years ago became the pioneer for Japanese luxury cars. Its parent builds the Honda Accord, a perpetual motion machine with total sales in the millions. Each year, Acura outsells Lexus and Infiniti by several hundred boatloads.

But while the competition enjoys a balanced and happy mix of models, the middle ground separating Acura's $39,000 Legend from its $19,000 Integra seems to be a sinkhole.

Three years ago, Acura tried plugging the gap with a leather-lined, nicely lacquered, $25,000 luxury sedan with a horrible name: Vigor.

Solid engine. Fully appointed. Sensibly priced.

There was no tangible, foreseeable, fathomable reason why Vigor should not have fought Mazda's Millenia and Infiniti's J30 at least to a draw.

Instead, the car was on the critical list from birth. In a good month Vigor couldn't outsell Kia. It recently was taken off life support when monthly sales dwindled to low triple digits and annual sales to a piddling 9% of Acura's total.

Unbowed, Acura is back into the breach.

Its great, bright hopes are the new TL (for Touring Luxury) twins, a pair of very pleasant, beautifully assembled four-doors equal in breeding and smoothness to anything in their class.

Having once said that about Vigor, we accept the possibility of praise again blowing Acura a kiss of death. Especially as the infant of the new series, the $27,900 Acura 2.5TL, comes dangerously close to the Vigor in looks, purpose and vital dimensions, and even uses the same all-aluminum, five-cylinder, 176-horsepower engine.

Fortunately, there is more.

And that's the $32,950 3.2TL with a V-6 engine developing 200 horsepower and the potential for going nose-to-nose with the Mercedes C280, BMW 325i and Infiniti J30.

Debuting in U.S. showrooms this month, the 3.2TL certainly is a mid-size car with all the implications of minor confines. Yet by canny juggling of length and track, Acura has reshaped and configured its contender into some surprising comparisons with full-size cars.

The 3.2TL--with Acura following the industry trend to alphanumerics and away from product-descriptive names--is longer and wider than anything in its class. There's more head and legroom in the front than in a Lincoln Mark VIII. Wheelbase stretches farther than a Cadillac Eldorado, and the trunk holds the same amount of scuba gear and one-suiters as a full-size Mercedes S-Class.

Yet it doesn't handle with the clumsiness of something overgrown. Nor does it look like a Farmer John ribbon winner.

*

There has been early criticism of the car--or rather of the 2.5TL, identical but for trim and equipment variations--for styling best described as Nipponese pasta.

Can't agree. Owing to the bloodline, there are obvious similarities to Accord and Vigor. Acura and Honda have never been known for artsy flamboyance. And no lines of the 3.2TL will be enshrined in the Raymond Loewy Hall of Fame.

But to startle a majority is to stall sales. So Acura's subtle distinctions for the TL series are a back end that is a little blockier, more Wall Street, and the expensive touch of chromium trim around windshield and windows.

Headlights are a combination of amber bull's-eyes and reflector spots that are large, wraparound and quite regal.

Overall, it's an exercise in subdued good taste that transfers easily to a cabin that, again, does nothing noisily.

Although biased to the generic, the five-person interior is almost flawless. The wood trim, although faux, is rich and the leather soft but substantial enough for high wear. A split-level console cubby--actually a sunglasses tray above a CD container--is a nice touch. As is a holder above the rearview mirror for toll vouchers, card keys and jaywalking tickets.

As proof of the power of the American Lung Assn., TL sedans are genuine nonsmoking cars and the first to be sold without ashtrays. In their place is a fuzzy change box with a lid to shut in its dreadful shade of Bourbon Street pink.

If you insist on a butt bucket, one will be supplied.

Or you can buy a beanbag ashtray next time you're in Tijuana.

As a matter of fact, the 3.2TL is a bazaar of nifty touches. An eight-speaker, Hollywood Bowl system wraps travelers in sound thanks to precious little speakers mounted in the roof between the sun visors. There's a storage pocket in the trunk so that small items don't ricochet around the inside during spirited motoring.

Acura is proud of what it calls the "high feature content" of its TL cars. That's jargon for stuffing them with every known major option and convenience short of curb feelers and a NordicTrack.

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