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.
A note about our “practical” buying guides. These are not collector car guides. (There are already plenty of other excellent sources for that.) Rather, our guides recommend cars that we think make for entertaining, interesting, reliable and value-oriented buys — cars meant to be driven and enjoyed (not stashed away for investment purposes) and that don’t cost a fortune to acquire or maintain.
The third-gen TL was developed largely in the United States in the early 2000s under the leadership of Erik Berkman, with exterior design led by American Honda designer Jon Ikeda. Based upon the 7th generation Honda Accord, it’s a mid-size, front-wheel drive platform that weighs in at about 3500 pounds, with 60% of those pressing on the front tires.
Given the setup, dynamically it cannot keep up with rear-drive contemporaries like the E46 3 Series BMW or the Infiniti G35, so you may want to cross the TL off your list if your primary desire is to carve up the twisties. On the other hand, if you’re looking for something that can deliver endless commuting miles with comfort, style, and character, the TL may very well be the ideal tool for the job.
With just a single camshaft per cylinder bank, the TL’s 270 hp Accord-based V6 may appear somewhat unremarkable on paper. But this 3.2 liter must be heard and felt to be believed. It not only powers the TL faster to 60 mph than period rivals like the BMW 330i, it also sounds glorious doing so. As the revs climb, the induction roar and accompanying choir of finely-machined parts is precision engineering at its best – a strong contrast to the dour, workmanlike quality of more contemporary turbo fours.
The engine features Honda’s legendary two-mode VTEC valvetrain, which switches the valves to higher lift and duration above 4700 rpm. The Jekyll and Hyde character of this two-mode system is arguably more fun and engaging than the continuously variable valve timing systems of today. Though the latter can provide more torque lower in the rev range, they do not have the distinctive VTEC cutover point that announces FULL POWER MODE through an assertive intake snarl that you can enjoy all the way up to the 6800 rpm redline.
If you’re shopping for a TL, we would nudge you towards the manual gearbox, a six-speed unit that fully delivers on Honda’s reputation for great manual shifters, such those found in the NSX and the S2000, with lovely, positive engagement and delightfully short throws. The TL’s shift knob is a beautiful machined globe of steel with a perforated leather grip around its equator. Just running it through the gates is a great way to grasp the depth of quality and passion that is engineered into the car. Manual-equipped examples also enjoy the benefits of a mechanical limited-slip differential (LSD) and ACURA-embossed four-piston Brembo brake calipers.
Unfortunately for shift-it-yourselfers, the torque steer that mars an otherwise enjoyable drive seems exacerbated on manual transmission cars: the solid coupling of the fully-engaged clutch and the LSD conspire to increase the seesawing of the steering wheel under full power. However, tire technology has progressed quite a bit in the last decade, so equipping a TL with a new set of high-quality rubber (such as Michelins or Continentals) should offset some of the effects.
If you prefer an automatic, you’ll find Honda’s 5-speed a generally good performer for the era. Also, its viscous couplings and lack of LSD help to reduce torque steer substantially. And having outsold the manual by at least 40 to 1, an automatic-equipped example is far easier to find.
That said, we should note that the automatic’s reliability reputation is surprisingly poor (for a Honda). Evidently, the third clutch pack tends to lunch itself, blocking oil flow and eventually leading to complete failure. Owners suggest this can be held off by replacing the 3rd and 4th gear pressure switches and replacing the fluid with Redline Racing ATF. A well-regarded independent mechanic can perform either of these enhancements at reasonable cost.
Ride and Handling
In the chassis department, third-gen TLs feature control arms up front and a multilink setup at the rear, and with reasonably-sized 17-inch wheels on 45-series tires all the way around, the ride is sporty yet compliant. Once again, the TL is not engineered for maximum attack mode but tuned in such as a way that driving anywhere from 4/10ths to 8/10ths can be enjoyed fully by both the casual commuter and the self-styled enthusiast.
If you lean more towards the enthusiast side, look for an example with the A-Spec performance package, which offers revised suspension tuning as well as cosmetic upgrades including a body kit, sport steering wheel, and larger 18-inch wheels.
Inside, the TL features a beautiful one-piece, seamless dash, handsome, simple, and easy-to-read white and blue gauges, and a center console framed by two long sweeps of aluminum diving between the seats. The design compares favorably to a vintage high-end Marantz receiver.
Perhaps not coincidentally, the TL also features arguably the best stereo ever offered to date on a sub-$50,000 car. Developed by Panasonic and Eliot Scheiner, it delivers 225 watts through eight speakers and – if you can find them – plays surround-sound DVD-Audio music CDs. Bluetooth call integration is also standard, but take note that an AUX port was not provided until the mid-cycle refreshed 2007 and 2008 model years.
For the 2007 model year, the third-gen TL received some subtle styling changes that, to our eyes, slightly compromise the coherence and boldness of the original design. This includes a chrome bar and fog lights in the lower front fascia as well as unfortunate “Altezza” style clear taillights in back. Other ways to spot a 2007+ include turn signal repeaters on the rear-view mirrors.
Sadly, the manual transmission option was eliminated from standard TLs for 2007, so if you want both the AUX port (new in 2007) and a row-your-own gearbox, you’ll have to pony up for the Type-S variant which debuted that year.
In case 270 hp driving the front wheels is insufficient for you, Acura engineers in 2007 shoehorned the flagship RL’s 285 hp 3.5 V6 into the engine bay to create the Type-S. It was backed by the same five-cog “SportShift” transmission from the standard TL but enhanced with shift paddles behind the wheel. And, as previously noted, from 2007 on, it was the only way to get a TL with a manual gearbox.
Type S’s are instantly recognizable from the rear by their giant quad exhaust tips (which could have been pilfered from an AMG Mercedes) and from the sides by their lower body kit and unique split-spoke gunmetal 18-inch wheels, which are highly desirable among the JDM crowd.
On the inside, the variant gets more deeply bolstered seats, carbon fiber trim, as well as various “Type-S” badges to remind passengers that you got the fast one. They were also available in an exclusive color, a fabulously rich blue called Kona Blue Pearl.
All of these goodies plus the extra 16 ponies mean of course that nice Type-S examples command a premium price, especially those with a 6-speed manual. Whether it’s worth it, we’ll leave up to you.
Like most Honda/Acura products, TLs are reputed to be largely bulletproof, and many happy owners are exploring the far side of 100,000 miles in theirs. As with any used car purchase, though, it’s critical to pick up an example that has enjoyed regular oil changes and other scheduled maintenance.
In the case of the TL, this includes replacement of the timing belt. The 3.2 and 3.5L V6s use a rubber belt that must be swapped out at 8 years or 105,000 miles, meaning that by now all in-service third-gen models should have had at least one completed replacement. Do not even consider a car that cannot produce documentation of this maintenance.
As noted earlier, automatic gearboxes for these cars are surprisingly failure-prone. However, Honda effected a change to the transmission housing in 2006 that improves fluid circulation and cooling. If you are shopping for two-pedal car, it is advised to limit your searches to 2006-2008 examples only, as they seem to suffer far fewer problems.
Manual owners are not entirely out of the woods either. Some manual cars reportedly exhibit third-gear synchromesh issues that can cause the shifter to pop out of gear spontaneously or to be difficult to engage. However, many owners claim these symptoms are entirely eliminated with a relatively easy solve: replacing the transmission oil with GM synchromesh.
Regardless of the configuration you pursue, we always recommend having any example you’re seriously considering checked out by a local specialist. It’ll set you back about $150, but it’s essential to ensure you don’t get stuck with a dud.
Estimated Market Values
$15-20,000 is the top of the market for a third-gen TL. This buys you one of the very best examples out there, such as a 2007-2008 Type-S variant with around 50k miles, or a museum-quality standard TL with super-low miles (under 30k). The latter is quite unusual to find since these cars are commuting workhorses, not garage queens. Note that anything with the 6-speed manual tends to command a $1500 premium due to its rarity and enthusiast following.
$10-15,000 will net a post-refresh 2007 or 2008 TL with between 40k and 80k miles or a Type-S with somewhat higher mileage. Interestingly, and perhaps reflective of their durability, substantial additional miles do not seem to lower TL asking prices very much, so it behooves the informed shopper in this range to hold out for a lower-mileage example — ideally one with a single prior owner, all service records, and no accident history.
Below $10,000 affords you 2007-2008 examples with around 100,000 miles or slightly more, and yet even at this mileage you can find one-owner cars, which speaks volumes to the TL’s long-term appeal. For the same money, you can also get a 2004-2006 model (pre-refresh) with substantially lower miles. Given the known problems with automatic gearboxes from these years — 2004 and 2005 especially — we advise limiting your searches here to three-pedal examples. They’re harder to find but arguably the best enthusiast bang for the buck in the entire TL run.
The Bottom Line
Acura TLs aren’t about impressing the neighbors. They aren’t about doing double the speed limit in decreasing radius turns. But if you want a handsome and well-built car that can go the distance, that puts a smile on your face each time you hammer into VTEC territory on a freeway on-ramp, that makes you want to sing at the top of your lungs when you crank that old Dave Matthews CD, there’s nothing else equal at this price point.
As always, if you are on the hunt, post your craigslist finds and your buying questions to Klipnik’s community pages so that our members can make sure you nab the best one out there.
Photos courtesy of Honda.
About Gabe Chapman
Gabe works in marketing on the East Coast and has been a car guy since his parents bought him his first Car and Driver subscription at age 10. He currently drives a 2009 BMW 328i.