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An Acura that rolls but doesn't rock

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The 2004 Acura TL will raise no one's blood lust, nor will it send anyone into an eye-lolling frenzy.

The TL is Botox for the brain box.

You might think that the TL -- based on the current-generation Honda Accord and built in Maryville, Ohio -- would be cause for celebration, what with its just-about- perfect-in-every-way engineering, embarrassment of standard features, handsome exterior and starship interior.

And it is. A very quiet celebration, the kind of celebration that ensues shortly after the med cart goes by. Who -- besides the Pre-Raphaelites -- would have thought that perfection would be so uninspiring?

This $35,000 front-drive sedan -- pitted against entry-luxury choices like the Lexus ES 330, Audi A4 and Saab 9-3 -- is one lulu of an automobile, no doubt about it. The TL carries on Acura's tradition of engine-intensive performance, unimpeachable build quality and irresistible value. I drove the car to Tucson and back in 72 hours and would gladly have done another lap. Everything works, everything fits, everything goes like hell. What's not to like?

Then again, what's to love? The cars we love say something about us that we ourselves are desperate to say. I'm fun and unconventional ( BMW Mini). I'm a wheel in Hollywood ( Bentley Azure). Ask me about my grandkids ( Mercury Grand Marquis).

What does the TL say? I subscribe to Consumer Reports? I use a discount brokerage house?

Reflecting the dimensional changes in the current U.S.-spec Accord platform (the Accord sold in Europe is smaller), the TL is slightly shorter bumper to bumper, higher and wider than the previous model. It has a kind of close-coupled blockiness that at some angles looks athletic. The deeply scored lateral line that connects the marker lights and door handles plays up a forward-leaning profile, and the chevron shape that unites the grille and the headlights -- like the face of the smaller Acura TSX -- has a droid-like sexiness about it, if you are into that sort of thing.

But with its high shoulders surrounding a spacious cabin, its generous greenhouse and its conservative rake to windshield and rear glass, the TL design places practicality over pulchritude.

It shouldn't. Look at the competition -- BMW 3-Series, Saab 9-3, Cadillac CTS, Audi A4, Infiniti G35. Pound for pound, penny for penny, the Acura TL is as good a piece of engineering as any of these cars, sayeth I. But I would gladly trade away a degree of the Acura's high-minded excellence for a little of the wanton, knickers-in-the rubbish fun these rival cars radiate.

And, by the way, Honda knows it. The company's new president and chief executive, Takeo Fukui -- a man so serious he makes the Mt. Rushmore presidents look like they are huffing nitrous oxide -- has opened a new design studio amid the pleasure domes of Tokyo's Roppongi District to help the company inject some flair and fun into sheet metal.

But these qualities are more than skin deep. The TL is powered by a purling 3.2-liter dual-overhead-cam V-6 engine with electronic throttle control and variable-valve technology to orchestrate its 24 valves. Yet another example of Honda's quartz-movement precision, this all-alloy engine -- a higher-compression version of the mill of the previous 3.2 TL Type S -- produces 270 horsepower and 238 pound-feet of torque with excellent emissions values. The TL qualifies as an ultra-low-emission vehicle, as rated by the California Air Resources Board.

This is the sort of engine you imagine provocatively posed in the centerfold of the journal for the Society of Automotive Engineers: lightweight, compact, powerful throughout the rev range, efficient and turbine smooth. Generally speaking, it's under-stressed -- which is to say it has the potential for more output with slightly different computer programming (mapping) and higher redline.

So the six-banger never feels strained or fretted, always working well within itself. Indeed, it doesn't feel very much at all. Tramp the gas pedal, and the faint thrumming you feel in the seat and steering wheel is like the mellow purr of a Sharper Image nose hair trimmer. TL drivers will just have to live without the primitive, haptic pleasure of a high-output motor spilling its guts for their enjoyment.

The timbre of the car, whether sitting at idle or running wide open with the wipers on warp speed, is roundly mute. All the big, ugly noises -- wind, road hash, driveline warble -- have been gagged by the car's highly evolved design, including triple-sealed doors, high-tech engine mounts, rafts of sound-deadening material, isolated sub-frames and heavy suspension bushings.

The question is whether all this quiet is too shapeless, like an earmuff clamped to the head, damping out all sounds, even the interesting ones. Again, I'd trade away some of the barbiturate quiet of the TL for a few of the sonorous, slightly musical snarls coming from the likes of BMW or Saab.

Think of it as the foley track for the TL's visual effects.

The TL is seriously quick for what is, after all, an attitude- enhanced family car. With automatic transmission, the TL reaches the 60-mph mark in about six seconds. At interstate speeds, the nail-the-throttle boost bleeds off a little bit, but this is a car that can comfortably cruise at 90 mph without breathing hard. The only problem I could find in the entire drivetrain -- aside from its ice-princess mien -- is an abrupt tip-in, a kind of low-speed jumpiness, of the car's throttle.

For the time being, Acura has dispensed with the "Type S" performance variant of the TL (the new engine is 10 horsepower stronger than the version that powered last year's TL Type S, anyway). Gung-ho buyers can opt for a six-speed manual transmission, which comes bundled with a limited-slip differential, sportier tires and Brembo brakes, all at no extra cost.

Our test car, with a five-speed automatic and $2,000 optional navigation system with voice recognition, lists for $35,270, including the $590 destination charge.

How does the TL handle? Exactly as you would expect of a front-drive sedan with 270 horsepower on tap and 60% of its 3,575 pounds over the front wheels. The TL clears the blocks and accelerates hard in a straight line, and moderate torque steer -- the tendency to wander off course under hard acceleration -- shunts the car to and fro. I understand the TLs with six-speed manual are crazy with torque steer; I'm looking forward to it.

Thanks to the variable-valve timing, e-throttle and other measures, the power surges through the gears in long, even strokes, like the power of a sculling team.

The TL's suspension -- front double wishbones and rear multi-links complement anti-roll bars at both ends -- is taut, well controlled and cinched down. Considering the car's heavy front, the TL battles valiantly to maintain its balance in transient maneuvering. But in front-wheel-drive cars, I actually prefer a little limberness in the front suspension, which is to say, when I breathe off the throttle, I like the weight balance to sluice forward a little more readily to give the tires more turn-in bite. Alas, the TL already has too much weight on the front wheels, leaving little room for fun with weight transfer.

The standard-issue Bridgestone Turanza tires (235/45 R17) have excellent road manners, offering a smooth and quiet ride. But, obviously, these tires don't have the big claws it takes to hang on in rowdy curve-to-curve cavorts. I'm looking forward to driving the car with the Z-rated performance tires (a $200 option on fully equipped models). The torque-sensing power steering offers a nice weight in the wheel, and it's quite accurate. The brake pedal feel is progressive and easily modulated with either right or left foot, and the standard four-wheel disc brakes on the test car -- despite the lack of the Brembo pedigree -- were tight and muscular.

My sense is that all the personality of the TL resides in the optional six-speed stick shift, leaving the automatic-equipped cars feeling dosed with Prozac.

Like the RSX compact sport coupe and the smaller TSX sedan, the TL is positively silly with standard features, including an audiophile-quality sound system centered on a DVD-audio/CD/AM-FM/XM receiver driving eight surround-sound speakers with 225 watts. In case you didn't know -- and I didn't -- DVD-audio is a high-density recording format comparable to audio masters used in the recording business. Proof positive that the acoustic engineers carry a big stick at Honda R&D.

The TL's list of standard features looks likely to be continued on the next year's sticker. Included are a full leather interior; heated power front seats with 10-way adjustment and two-position memory on the driver's seat; a locking trunk pass-through; a power glass moon roof with remote operation; speed-sensing wipers; xenon high-intensity headlights; a Bluetooth-enabled hands-free phone system; and heated, power-operated, body-colored outside mirrors with two- position memory and a driver's- and passenger-side reverse-gear tilt-down feature. And more interior lighting, mirrors, cup holders, storage bins and power outlets than you can shake a conductor's baton at.

Anti-lock brakes, traction and stability control and a full suite of air bags are, of course, standard.

The big option is the $2,000 navigation system, a big, bright, easy-to-use unit with an 8-inch display and DVD-based moving maps. It's just about the best system out there.

The Acura TL's focused precision and exceptional value could make complaints about its over-refinement seem like shadow boxing. Maybe so. But for Honda, the hardest engineering job of all is left yet to do. How do you build an emotion?

*

Times automotive critic Dan Neil can be reached at dan.neil@latimes.com.

*

2004 Acura TL

Wheelbase: 107.9 inches

Length: 186.2 inches

Curb weight: 3,575 pounds, with automatic transmission, without navigation system

Powertrain: 3.2-liter double-overhead-cam V-6 engine with variable-valve timing, five-speed automatic, front-wheel drive

Horsepower: 270 at 6,200 rpm

Torque: 238 pound-feet at 5,000 rpm

Acceleration: zero to 60 mph, about six seconds

EPA rating: 19 miles per gallon city, 29 mpg highway

Price, base: $32,650

Price, as tested: $35,270 ($590 delivery included)

Competitors: Saab 9-3, BMW 330i

Final thoughts: Oy Robot!

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