KIRKLAND, WA — American Honda Motor Co. Inc. may be pacing for a record year, but its Acura luxury division thus far has been its weakest link.

Acura has seen sales dip slightly from 2002 levels, despite a favorable luxury-car sales climate that has allowed Lexus, Infiniti, BMW and Mercedes-Benz terrific years. One plausible explanation: Perennially underachieving Acura plugs away with front-wheel-drive cars, while most competitors promote rear-drive layouts presumed at once to be more sporty and luxurious in driving feel.

Acura nonetheless now is placing bets on its new TL midsize, near-luxury sedan. On sale now as an '04 model, initial annual volumes in the 65,000 to 70,000 range are expected to kick-start sales to record levels by year-end.

TL is Acura's most important product, comprising some 40% of total sales, and positioned at the heart of a segment expected to grow 15% by 2006. With help from the new model, the auto maker is looking to finish 2003 with all-time high sales of about 175,000 to 180,000 units. The brand sold 165,552 vehicles last year.

Its near-lux competitor, the Lexus ES 300 (front-drive, incidentally) beat the TL soundly last year. But TL bested the more-expensive BMW 5-Series, which sold 40,842 units, and low-volume competition from Audi AG. Acura sees TL competing more in the sporty, German segment than against the more comfort-oriented Lexuses.

Acura set out to rethink nearly everything about the TL. It started with styling, which with the outgoing car was the No.1 “rejecter reason,” why consumers who shopped the TL went on to buy something else.

Styling aims for an understated/performance look, with strong fender blisters and front fascia and a high rear deck. The interior also emphasizes performance, incorporating aluminum accents. The new styling still isn't striking, but its bland, BMW-influenced cues at least do not offend.

Styling only hints at what's under the hood: Honda's 3.2L SOHC VTEC V-6. It makes a walloping 270 hp at 6,200 rpm, 10 hp more than the last-generation TL Type S. Torque is class-leading, Acura claims, rated at 238 lb.-ft. (323 Nm) at 5,000 rpm.

Automatic-transmission TLs are rated at 20/28 mpg (11.7L-8.4L/100 km) city/highway and slightly better on the highway with the manual, a new 6-speed unit coupled with a limited-slip differential. Honda expects 15% of buyers to choose the 6-speed.

TL's body incorporates 48% high-strength steel, which makes the car lighter and increases body rigidity 24% over the last model. Acura says every single suspension component has been redesigned. The result: a stick-to-the-road platform — in spite of its front-drive orientation — that increases comfort and equals performance of the last-generation TL Type S, which leaves the lineup.

Acura also aimed for Lexus-like NVH levels. Heavy use of Thinsulate sound-damping material throughout soaks up engine and road noise, while an acoustic front windshield, new side mirrors and thicker door glass reduce wind noise.

The second “rejecter reason” for the previous TL was the absence of gee-whiz features, which Acura has tackled with gusto — and scads of new content. The TL boasts the first use of ELS Surround sound, a system that plays DVD-Audio formatted music for purer sound (see story, p.19). Also standard is Bluetooth hands-free wireless technology.

The vehicle is packaged with few options that might sacrifice the competitive $33,000-$34,000 base price. The navigation system, at $2,000 with an expected 25% take rate, is the most significant.

2004 Acura TL

Vehicle type: Front-engine, front-wheel drive, 5-passenger 4-door sedan

Engine: 3.2L (3,210 cc) SOHC V-6 aluminum block/aluminum heads

Power (SAE net): 270 hp @ 6,200 rpm

Torque: 238 lb.-ft. (323 Nm) @ 5,000 rpm

Compression ratio: 11:1

Bore × Stroke (mm): 89 × 86

Transmission: 6-speed manual/5-speed automatic

Wheelbase: 107.9 ins. (274 cm)

Overall length: 186.2 ins. (473 cm)

Overall width: 72.2 ins. (184 cm)

Overall height: 56.7 ins. (144 cm)

Curb weight: 3,498 lbs. (1,587 kg)

Market competition: BMW 3-Series; Cadillac CTS; Infiniti G35; Lexus ES300; Mercedes C-Class