The term Q-Ship originally referred to a Royal Navy war ship in merchant-vessel disguise. When a U-Boat would approach and open fire, the Q-Ship would drop its screens and return its own blaze of fire. As an anonymous sedan packing a surprising wallop, the Acura TL of this generation was very much a Q-Ship–and proof that the ability to attract zero attention can sometimes be a good thing.
As some of you know, my family was involved for many years in the car (and taxi) repair business. It was good money, but eventually a series of external factors, mainly economic, resulted in several major business and lifestyle changes. In a nutshell, the consequences of years of borrowing and spending by the Canadian government had come home to roost in 1993. Canadian T-Bills had no takers, and the government’s massive spending cuts took a deep and direct toll on my family’s livelihood.
Long story short, I was ready to do something completely different. When a major Japanese tech company offered me a job translating their Japanglish manuals into English, I jumped at the opportunity. I sold all my stuff and went off to Asia. My travels took me to virtually every Asian nation, and included extended stays in Korea, China and the Philippines. I barely drove in the entire 11 years I spent abroad.
Returning to Canada presented me with a series of difficulties, including having no job with which to support my new family. It took quite a while for me to settle in after such a long absence. Along the way, I owned a couple of beaters (which I’ll cover in an upcoming COAL odds-and-ends post), as well as a brand-new Chevrolet Aveo and Honda Fit–but it wasn’t until March 2011 that I bought my first really nice ride, a used 2000 Acura TL with all of 66,000 km (41,000 miles) on the odometer.
The story of how I got my Acura starts with my business partner in Saskatoon, who doesn’t like to spend much when it comes to depreciating assets like cars. He did want something nice for his wife to drive, and since Vancouver roads get very little snow (and thus not much road salt), I did some looking for him around here. After a few days, I found a 2001 Acura TL with 90,000 km (56,000 miles) on the clock. I bought it for $11,000, fitted it with a new set of Nokian WR-G2 tires, and drove to Saskatoon to make the delivery. I made that trip alone and it was one of my most enjoyable drives ever–so much so that when I got back I started looking for a TL for myself. After five months, I found a one-owner, 2000 TL with no accidents or hits, complete records and low mileage. The owner’s ha-ha price was $12,500. Fortunately for me, 11-year-old cars in BMW City (aka Vancouver) aren’t terribly easy to sell, and three weeks later the car was mine for $9,000–top dollar, yes, but I thought the car was worth the money.
Like all Acuras, my TL clearly reflects Japanese thinking, which I understand quite well after having lived and worked there. Its entire presentation whispers understatement; it contains nothing beyond the appropriate, and what it does provide is exquisite. This generation TL features fit and finish beyond reproach, and materials of unsurpassed quality. Even the substantial doors close with a pinky-pull. These cars also boast exceptional reliability; nothing has broken or stopped working on mine since I’ve owned it. Despite their overall excellence, Acuras of this era just couldn’t seem to get any respect. The contemporary buff mags consistently panned the TL for lacking rear-wheel-drive and/or eight cylinders (so far, I’ve driven mine 25,000 km (15,500 mi.) and, in my opinion, it needs neither). The irony is that these were the largest-selling near-luxury cars of their era–and by a healthy margin.
The engine is a 3.2 liter, 24-valve VTEC, with a variable intake plenum. It makes good torque right off the line, and at 4,000 rpm the fun really begins. At that point the second-cam profile kicks in, and the engine screams to redline with a great V-6 rasp as the automatic transmission bangs off impressive shifts. These truly great engines are smooth, quiet, powerful and reliable–and live on today as Honda outboard motors. This iteration is rated at 225 hp, and never have I felt the car lacked power, not even at the highest mountain elevations. It will do 0-100 km/h (0-62 mph) in under 7.5 seconds, and has more power than I’d ever need on a public road. At 1540 kg (3,400 lbs.), it is not like the portly “sport sedans” of today, and actually feels very light on its feet. It also returns decent fuel economy of 12L/100 km (19.5 mpg) in the city and up to 7.2 (31 mpg) on the highway on premium fuel.
The multi-link front and rear suspensions give a firm ride and terrific handling. That shock tower brace seen in the picture above is one of reasons the car’s body as stiff as a corpse, with zero rattles and squeaks. Steering is scalpel-precise and brakes are equally impressive. In short, this is an exceptionally good driver and a really good car for someone who, like me, puts in a lot of wheel time. Its speed is limited to an indicated 230 km/h (143 mph) which, of course, I didn’t test on the 200-km straight stretch of Alberta Highway 9, just outside of Drumheller. That would be illegal, you know.
The interior is a very nice place to spend a few hours, which I do almost every day. The supremely comfortable seats are covered in leather of very high quality. All the dash materials are first-rate, as are the general layout and feel of the controls (save for heater controls that are a bit of a reach). The huge sunroof is nice on sunny days, and the stereo sounds good for its age. All in all, I can’t think of a better car for the money I paid. So what if it drinks high-test gas? After all, I bought the car for cash and it’s so old, I don’t even bother with collision insurance. Obviously, the transmission has been repaired (keep reading) but to the best of my knowledge nothing else has ever broken, cracked or malfunctioned since the car was new.
Exactly what’s so great about this Acura? In a word, handling. The car is exceptionally well mannered and responsive. The turn-in is simply amazing, and there’s practically no body roll–in a very fast bend, literally all you do you is crank the wheel, hang on and gun it at the apex. There is zero understeer, and the car simply rockets out of tight bends without drama, squealing, squeaks or rattles. The steering is so good, you need only look at where you’re going to get there, and that is an amazing feeling. On the highway, you’d never know this is a front-wheel drive sedan; in fact, about the only time you’re made aware of it is when using a heavy foot while driving on a wet road. On the road from Kelowna to Sicamous, it snakes along Okanagan Lake brilliantly as it shifts between second and third. The car is simply sweet to drive, and the harder I flog it, the better it gets. Seriously, everyone should have mountain ranges in their back yards–it’s so much more fun that way!
No car is without its problems, and these are notorious for their bad transmissions. The one in my car was replaced, under warranty by an Acura dealer, just before I bought it. It is not an especially smooth unit, and it frequently hesitates on downshifts while trying to hold the higher gear for fuel economy. It has grade logic, so more aggressive driving will cause it to hold gears longer and lock up less often. Really whaling on it produces great redline shifts, and its manual mode works well when you want to stay above the magic 4,000 rpm VTEC line. The car does have a few more drawbacks, such as too-firm ride quality that becomes almost unacceptable on some of the rougher roads around here. There’s not much trunk space, and (for the sake of structural stiffness) the rear seat does not fold down. If trips to IKEA are your thing, this isn’t the car for you….but if blasting down the highway cloaked in invisibility is your thing, then the Acura is great!
When driven around town, the Acura feels like a big cat straining to get free, rarely exceeding 2,000 rpm. This is a car that lives for the open highway and fortunately, we have some of North America’s most spectacular drives right here in British Columbia. Last summer we went to Saskatoon, via Kelowna, Radium and Banff.
The drive through Roger’s Pass was the most fun I’ve ever had while clothed. The truly great thing about the TL (especially a grey TL) is its complete Q-Shipness. You can blow by anything, including cops, and go unnoticed; it might as well be invisible. The new bridge at Kicking Horse Canyon, a stunning piece of engineering, provided a real thrill when a kid in a clapped out Mazda 323 tried to race me up the hill. Climbing it at 140 km/h (87 mph) was child’s play for the Acura, which remains utterly composed at every speed of which it is capable. The summit is 1627 m (5,300 ft.), and the scenery is great. By the way, the old road was a death trap, and kudos to the BC government for building a new one that’s a real improvement.
Next stop was Radium Hot Spring, where there’s something in the water that just leaves me happy and feeling good. From there, the drive up Sinclair Canyon though Kootenay Park is something that every car guy should experience. You climb up the canyon to a high alpine valley that appears untouched by human activity. There are no shops, stores or anything else, only spectacular vistas and a wide, smooth road. Barrelling though there at 160 km/h (100 mph) with the sunroof open, loud music (of many genres!) and a beautiful woman next to you is something that really cannot be described here.
The trip from Banff to Saskatoon is eight hours of nothing, but the Acura sails along nicely on cruise control. My buddy had warned me about deer on the Oyen, Alberta stretch; sure enough, just outside Oyen I crested a hill at high speed and saw a deer in the far distance (thanks to LASIK surgery). I immediately stood on the brakes, and the ABS hauled us down just in time for the deer to jump in front of the car. The brakes really impressed me; they didn’t shudder, fade or yaw, they just stopped the car with no drama whatsoever. Although the rest of the trip to Saskatoon involved typical, monotonous prairie, it was made in total comfort thanks to ice-cold A/C.
Because of ever-rising fuel prices, this Acura probably is my last hurrah in terms of a sport sedan. From such a perspective, owning it really doesn’t make much sense, but I feel justified given the purchase price. Its classic, ageless styling still looks so good that it impresses clients whenever I pull up in it. Inevitably there will come the day when it makes more sense to get a fuel-efficient vehicle for the city. The long-term plan is to keep the Acura, dispose of my wife’s POS Taurus and get a hybrid for town duty, but all that is several years away. The Acura is paid for and is really cheap to run. Depreciation is minimal, perhaps $1,000 a year tops. In fact, since I got the car driving it has cost me a mere $0.26/km (about 16 cents per mile), and that’s economy-car territory. Considering that I’d have to pay so much in repairs to even approach the cost of a new car, I’ll just continue to enjoy my big, powerful and surprisingly cheap-to-run luxury sedan.
This year’s road trip is along BC Highway 3, to Osoyoos, then on to Nelson, White Swan Hot Spring, Fairmont Hot Spring, Radium Hot Spring and back to Vancouver. If you get a chance, visit Google maps and check out this fantastic drive,which promises to be yet another highly entertaining romp in my Acura.
There are sure to be plenty of people wanting to pan my Acura and tell me how unreliable it is. To me, all that matters is that this car suits my needs. It’s well built, comfortable and highly capable. I can get a little bored driving it in the city, but on an open road with some nice twisty curves–like the one I took home this evening–I fall in love all over again. For me, taking this car to romp in the Rockies is what driving is all about.