The cars we loved.
Few realize that the trend of Japanese luxury brands started with Acura. Unfortunately for Honda’s product planners, the first batch of Acura cars were uninspired looking although they were well-engineered. After watching Toyota’s Lexus brand steal away sales and later Infiniti capture the publics imagination, Acura decided to turn things around. It started with names. Cars like the Vigor would be replaced by two letter names that sounded technical and mysterious. The first of these cars would be the TL series of front wheel drive mid-sized sedans. The American TL was similar to some version of the JDM Honda Accord and Inspire.
The TL (Touring Coupe) came in two varieties: sport (2.5TL )and luxury(3.2TL). Oddly the sport version had the smaller less powerful engine. A 2.5L 5 cylinder SOHC engine with 176 hp propelled the sport model while the luxury model had a fancy transversely mounted 3.2 L V6 with significantly more power. The engine configuration of the 3.2 dictated that all TL would have a long hood, potentially suggesting a powerful performance car. Hotrod hopes faded quickly thanks to the Civic LX like 9 second dash to 60 in the 2.5TL. The 2.5TL was third in a comparison of 4 Japanese near luxury sedans. The 1995 Car and Driver comparison included the Infiniti I30, Lexus ES300 and Mazda Millenia (which the 2.5 finished ahead of). The 2.5TL was neither at the top of its class in luxury or performance and placed near the bottom of the group in sales. Despite the 3.2TL luxury specs, Acura continued to market the 2.5 as a performance car which was double ironic because the front of the 3.2TL looked sportier with its slat running along the lower air intake vs. the plain front bumper of the 2.5TL.
Acura must have hoped that the new TL would make a splash as a sporty car, then later as a luxury one. Around the time of the 2.5 TL’s launch the US was engaged in a bitter trade dispute with Japan. Cars like the TL with their high build quality and reasonably priced luxury were beginning to turn the tables on domestic American manufacturers and the Europeans. The tensions delayed the launch of the more expensive 3.2, effectively making the “sporty” model the only TL available for a few months. The head start did not help sales for much of the reason Acura’s were slow to catch on in the first place: they were boring to look at. Only slightly bigger than the Accord, the 2.5 TL offered only a marginally improved ride and not much more power. It certainly did not look better, taking the safest road to near luxury as possible. The outgoing Vigor was no design vanguard, but it was at least more interesting to look at.
TL’s are essentially Hondas, so they have nicely done interiors that represent the best thinking in ergonomics at the time. The attention to detail extends to the car’s build quality. Too bad the outside remained as generic as a Japanese car could be. Not a plus when up against the Lexus ES300 or BMW 3 Series. The bland factor combined with the fact that very few changes occurred to a car that needed them did not help matters. There were more standard features and a moon roof added for 97 models, but it may have been too little too late. So in the end it may have been difficult for many potential buyers to justify the 30k+ price tag against a tarted up Accord (not to mention a BMW or Audi). Spending a bit more in the TL line got you better performance, but the same looks. That would change with the second generation TL, as Acura finally got its groove on with a more inspired design and performance.