For the last few decades, Honda’s influence on the auto industry — and its corresponding sales volumes — has been nothing short of revolutionary. Consider that the latest Accord just made Car and Driver’s 10 Best list for a record 32nd time; meanwhile, the Civic recently became the top-selling car in America. This makes the underperformance of Acura, Honda’s luxury division, somewhat puzzling.

Acura was the first premium Japanese marque to launch in the US, with sixty dealerships by 1986, and its early years were heralded by world-class machines like the Legend and the NSX. But since then a mix of uneven investment, marketing, and styling choices has positioned Acura well behind its rival, Lexus, as a credible challenger to long-established luxury marques like Mercedes-Benz and BMW.

Though the Acura brand as a whole underwhelms, looking across its history one can find a handful of machines beyond just the original Legend and NSX that deserve respect and admiration. Judged on cost-to-quality ratio, perhaps none is more deserving than the third-generation Acura TL (UA6 / UA7 chassis), which debuted for the 2004 model year and ran through 2008.

The third-gen TL is thankfully devoid of the overly-complicated styling and engineering gimmicks – like crazy metallic beaks, Jewel Eye LED headlights, Precision All-Wheel Steer, 9-speed hybrid torque converter/clutched transmissions, and so on – that have afflicted the automaker’s more recent products.

Instead, it delivers on attributes that Acura, perhaps with better focus on its original slogan, “Precision Crafted Automobiles,” ought to have stood for through the years: a characterful, sonorous V6 that loves to rev and builds power beautifully, well-designed, durable, and high-quality interiors, remarkably tight styling that is distinct from the German brands and their imitators, and quality and reliability that regularly sees these cars exceed 200,000 happy miles.

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Many enthusiasts hold that the E46 3 Series is the pinnacle of the BMW formula: a marvelous combination of sporting character and everyday usability in a timeless design. In fact, we heartily sing its praises in our E46 buying guide, calling it “one of the most enjoyable drives available in an affordable used car.”

But there are downsides. For example, the E46 interior can age poorly. Rubberized plastics on the center console and the door cards tend to scratch and flake; headliners are prone to sagging. And there are a few dogs in the range with sub-200 hp ratings that can feel pretty anemic compared to more modern machines.

Fortunately, the next generation 3 Series, the E90, along with its shortened-wheelbase cousin, the E82 / E88 1 Series, largely rectified these problems. Both are terrific cars. And the latter, with its tidy, E30-sized footprint and significantly lower price point, is possibly the last, best way for a budget-minded enthusiast to experience the purity of BMW’s original engineering magic, which has sadly been diluted in most of the automakers’ more recent models.

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