Aural Exam The brainy new Acura TL can hold a conversation, play secretary, and serenade you with a virtual symphony. All of which makes it a very smart buy.
By John Tayman

(Business 2.0) – Not to get Michael Crichtonish on you, but I've come to the conclusion that cars are getting too damn smart. A few weeks ago, I cracked the door on one test vehicle (the Audi A8 L, if you must know) that hummed and burped with the activity of 36 different central processing units, together throwing off more raw cranial juice than your basic entry-level laptop. The trend has accelerated, and deepened, proving that you don't have to be rich to be smart. While the Audi was a luxury yacht, what is now being touted as the world's smartest car is a blithely affordable $35,000 sprite.

Stroll within 30 feet of the 2004 Acura TL and it arcs out Bluetooth frequencies and begins to suck data from your cell phone, hoovering info like some pod thing in a bad, um, Crichton novel. Such brain-melding occurs whether the phone is in your pocket, in your briefcase, or glommed to the side of your head. As you chat away, the TL unlocks itself, adjusts the seat and the mirrors and the steering column, and alters the angle of the front and side airbags to fit your profile exactly. The TL knows if you are 6 feet tall, whether you have a passenger along for the ride, if you like the interior toasty, whether you've made any new friends today. (If so, and you've logged their digits in your cell phone, the TL automatically syncs the numbers with its communication system--a nifty bit of secretarial work it can perform for as many as six different phones.) Meanwhile, you just keep chatting. The TL transfers the call, in progress, piping it through audio speakers and hidden microphones. Afterward, you place calls through voice command, no matter the location of your phone--it can be wrapped in underwear in your luggage stashed in the TL's trunk, for all the car cares. And lest a conversation blink out midsentence, your phone's battery life and signal strength are displayed on the Acura's Multi-Info Display.

There's more. Ease out of the driveway and onto the open road, and the car's 3D Solar Sensing system determines your direction, the time of day, your latitude, and thus whether you are sitting in full sun (headed west in midafternoon on an Arizona highway, for instance) or deep shade (east, late afternoon, New Hampshire). Crunching this data, the TL adjusts the car's climate accordingly. If the car senses that shade has fallen over one passenger, it will tweak the temperature on that person's side of the car.

Other navigational geegaws are handled through an 8-inch flat screen in the center stack, and with the only car voice-recognition system that actually recognizes voices. (Most speak Esperanto.) Acura finessed the technology to allow the TL to puzzle out about 300 different commands, pull up 7 million destinations, manage your contact list and calendar, and handle mindless busywork like changing the radio station. It cannot yet bark obscenities at the person who just cut you off, but give it time.

As for that audio system, it might be worth the price of the car itself. Acura tricked out the TL with the first true 5.1 surround-sound setup available in a production vehicle, and married it to a booming 225-watt-amp, eight-speaker outfit that, when playing DVD audio discs, washes you with six channels of sound at more than 500 times the audio resolution of an everyday CD. (For those scoring at home, the system claims sample rates of 192 kilohertz, as compared to 44.1 KHz, which, translated, is the difference between a transistor radio and a live symphony.) Every detail of the TL's comfy interior has been tuned to the system's benefit: Thinsulate dampens noise behind the door liners and center console, the trunk is configured to act as a perfectly pitched sound chamber, even the rake and thickness of the windshield and cabin glass were acoustically determined. Acura calls all this the ELS Premium Sound System, after Elliot Scheiner, a Grammy-winning engineer who helped develop it and who--according to promotional literature--has produced artists such as Beck and Sting. Acura fails to mention that he's also the guy responsible for Ashford & Simpson's "Solid." But hey.

All these diversions make for an entertaining car. It's possible to lounge in the TL for the better part of a morning, fielding calls, following the ball game on ESPN (the TL comes standard with 100 channels of XM digital radio), plotting road trips from Palo Alto to Peoria, lidding your eyes and settling into deep cozy recline while Stravinsky's "The Firebird" whirls around your ears, all without traveling an inch.

But when you do get down to your commute, the TL's 3.2-liter V-6 adds a nice contrapuntal melody. Meanwhile, the car's brain whirs silently, managing the electronic throttle and stability control systems and a dozen others, adjusting every aspect of the car's response to the specific situation and the idiosyncrasies of the driver. Wrench the wheel in one direction, and the TL hunkers down and grips its way through; bang the brakes or pound the gas, and it stops or leaps with a satisfying speed. The TL is front-wheel drive, a rarity in a car with this much juice (270 horsepower), but it's attuned in such a way that you never notice that the car is dragging you along rather than pushing. In fact, pushiness seems to have been designed completely out of the TL, from its clean, chiseled lines to the polite, pleasant ding that announces when you have reached your destination. In short, the TL is a very smart buy. But then, it probably already knew that.

John Tayman is a contributing writer for Business 2.0.