A Daring Departure From Bland Japanese Designs
Sunday, December 14, 2008
I want design to move me, to play with my emotions in the manner of music, dance, sculpture or a painting. I want it to make me feel something -- love, lust, anger, joy or any combination thereof. I want it to become a part of my history, an evocative force, something that rekindles memories, be they good or bad.
American and European automotive design have long affected me in those ways. I become wistful at the thought of the 1957 Chevrolet BelAir, a beautifully tail-finned thing that was my first automotive love. I collapse in laughter if I think too long about the incredible ugliness of the 2001 Pontiac Aztek crossover utility vehicle. And I've yet to share company with a car from Mercedes-Benz, including the somewhat amorphous Mercedes-Benz 190 sedan, that didn't make me feel good.
Japanese automotive design, by comparison, has often left me numb. It is either slavishly imitative of something European or it is desperately neutral, trying neither to please nor to offend, skirting a boundary between boredom and anonymity. The 1990s versions of the Toyota Camry come to mind.
But I've just spent a week in a Japanese automobile that shatters that perception. It is the 2009 Acura TL SH-AWD (Super Handling-All-Wheel Drive) sedan. It is forceful, edgy, daring in its embrace of angularity front and rear. I'm sure that it will attract detractors. That's okay. It also will have its share of loyalists. It's that kind of car. It makes a statement, which is what a well-designed automobile should do.
There is a new book out, "Outliers," by former Washington Post colleague Malcolm Gladwell. Outlier is a scientific term used to describe phenomena existing outside normal, expected experience. Think of a cold Arizona day in August. Or, in the subject context of this column, think of an arresting Japanese automobile design, one that refuses to let go of your psyche.
The styling of the new Acura TL SH-AWD is like that -- a magnet for unsolicited insult and praise.
"What did they do to that car?" detractors asked.
"They," in this case, would be Honda, maker of all things Acura. And what "they" did this time around was give the TL a definitive, sporting personality -- a persona that is a distinct TL persona in the way that the BMW 3-Series identity fits the BMW 3-Series and nothing else.
For Acura, that is a design breakthrough. We no longer have a TL that is trying to figure out if it's little more than a Honda Accord with a slightly more sporting chassis or something less than a BMW-3 Series or Mercedes-Benz C-Class with Acura badges. In its current iteration -- the fourth generation of the car -- the Acura TL finally makes its own statement. And it does so consistently, with its exterior angularity reflected and picked up in interior design in the bend of aluminum inserts in the door and instrument panels.
It is what those of us who have been pushing for a bolder TL have wanted all along. And it helps, of course, that Honda did not stop at styling in the remake of this one. The new TL offers more room for legs and heads than its predecessor. It is discernibly more comfortable. And, certainly in the top-line SH-AWD version, it deserves a nod for offering a more powerful yet relatively economical V-6 engine.
The new car comes with a 305-horsepower V-6 vs. a 286-horsepower V-6 in the predecessor TL Type-S. But the new car still delivers 17 miles per gallon in the city and 25 miles per gallon on the highway -- not bad for an all-wheel-drive, high-performance sedan.
I like this one. It represents a welcome turn away from Japan's Vanilla School of Design. Here's hoping that it's the beginning of a trend.
ON WHEELS WITH WARREN BROWN Listen from noon to 1 p.m. Tuesdays on WMET World Radio (1160 AM) or http:/