Produced for 20 years over four distinct generations, the midsize Acura TL luxury sedan is usually remembered for either its all-around appealing second generation, its timelessly good-looking and high-performing third generation, or its brazenly-styled and ultra-high tech fourth generation. The original TL, however, fails to rank high in the memory of most; not helped by the fact that finding one in good condition, like this Cayman White Pearl 3.2 TL I recently saw in California, is an anomaly.
Most first generation TLs these days tend to look like this, used and abused, with few examples in general, due to its relatively short lifespan. Produced from 1995-1998 and sold only for the 1996-1998 model years in North America, the first generation TL did prove more popular than its Vigor predecessor, though sales wouldn’t really amount to anything spectacular until the more conventional second generation in 1999.
The original TLs were in many ways an evolution of the Vigor, offering similar long, low, and athletic proportions, longitudinal-mounted engines, and pillared hardtop styling. Styling itself was nothing revolutionary, but nonetheless an attractive update of the angular “origami” motif. Incorporating softer corners and more flowing lines, the TL bucked the mid-1990s trend of “jellybean” styling, giving it a more aggressive appearance than many competitors.
While less graceful in execution, the 1996 3.5 RL (a.k.a. gen 3 Legend) echoed much of the TL’s design cues, and due to a lengthier production span, tends to overshadow the similarly-styled 1996-1998 TL.
Like its predecessor, the 2.5 TL’s standard engine was the same 2.5-liter inline-5, producing an identical 176 horsepower and 170 lb-ft torque. Ride, handling, and acceleration was deemed good by most with this engine, but the big news was the welcomed addition of a V6, found in the pricier 3.2 TL.
Producing 200 horsepower and 210 lb-ft torque, the 3.2-liter V6 not only provided the expected quicker acceleration, but smoother idling, with less vibration than 5-cylinder. The 3.2L TL’s suspension was also tuned to be slightly softer than the 2.5 TL, as Acura positioned the 2.5 as the sportier of the two (despite less power, narrower tires, and lack of its predecessor’s manual transmission).
Keeping with the Acura tradition, in either trim, the TL came generously equipped, leaving little to be desired or charged extra for. All TLs came with items such as 6-way power driver’s seat with manual lumbar support, automatic climate control, leather-wrapped steering wheel and shifter, in-dash CD/cassette, 8-speaker sound system, one-touch down power windows, dual front airbags, anti-lock brakes, double-wishbone front and rear suspension, and front and rear anti-roll bars.
In addition to its V6, the 3.2 TL added features such as standard leather upholstery, 4-way power passenger’s seat, power moonroof, remote keyless entry. Both trims offered an available Premium Package, which comprised of leather upholstery, leather door panels, and power moonroof in the 2.5, and of heated front seats, heated exterior mirrors, and traction control system in the 3.2.
Fit-and-finish were expectedly good, with pleasant looking and fitting plastics, lots of padded surfaces, quality leathers and cloths, chrome accents, and attractive looking faux woodgrain. The hardtop bodystyle and low beltlines contributed to an airy cabin, and foam-injected pillars and resin honeycomb between the steel sheets of the floorpan contributed to vault-like quietness.
On a personal note, one thing that’s always bothered me is how the center console and center stack did not meet. This design choice could’ve been influenced by the TL’s large forward hump due to its drivetrain layout, but regardless, it just looks unfinished.
Looking back through many contemporary reviews, it’s refreshing to see a near universal opinion on all fronts when evaluating the TL. In summation, among the 1996-1998 TL’s many strengths were its superb handling characteristics, smooth acceleration, impeccable fit-and-finish, comfortable and quiet interior, spaciousness, ride quality, and numerous standard features. Its primary weaknesses lay in its conservative styling, light steering feel, and unmemorable alpha-numeric name — all owing to a general anonymity.
Although an appealing offering, the first generation TL simply failed to stand out in a crowded segment by offering any unique qualities that buyers would get excited about. Despite arguably better performance and styling than cars like the Infiniti I30 and Lexus ES 300, the TL was merely another Japanese midsize luxury car to most.
Cayman White Pearl 3.2 TL photographed: February 2017 – Yucaipa, California
Pacific Blue Pearl 2.5 TL photographed: July 2015 – Braintree, Massachusetts