Acura, the first Japanese luxury brand, is reinventing itself.

Not the mild, here's-our-new-car, hope-you-like-the-grille reinvention companies talk about all the time. No, Honda's upscale brand is having a Buick/Lincoln/Titanic-level, what-went-wrong-and-how-do-I-fix-it moment.

For a brief time, Acura was arguably the most appealing Japanese brand. Early Acuras like the Legend, Integra and the first TL combined value, performance and panache in a manner other automakers feared and envied.

Then, like Buick and Lincoln, Acura lost its way. How it happened doesn't really matter, unless you're an MBA student looking to chronicle a corporate crash-and-burn. A string of bland, uncompetitive and unattractive vehicles left the brand with a vaguely premium image, but no hardware to justify it.

The 2012 TL sedan is a midway point between Acura's recent low point and the heights it aspires to.

It's a good start, not an all-new model, but a significantly improved version of an existing car.

A flood of new cars is about to hit Acura dealerships. The ILX compact sedan and RDX midsize crossover are to arrive this spring. The larger RLX sedan is to follow in the fall.

An all-new version of the legendary NSX, which was Japan's first exotic car, should hit the road in about three years.

Prices for the 2012 Acura TL start at $35,705 for a front-wheel drive model with a six-speed automatic transmission and 280-horsepower 3.5-liter V6. The TL SH-AWD features all-wheel drive for better handling, a 305-horsepower 3.7-liter V6 and the six-speed automatic. Prices start at $39,255. A six-speed manual is available on 3.7-liter AWD models starting at $42,985.

I tested a very well equipped TL SH-AWD Advance. It had a navigation system, blind-spot alert, heated and ventilated front seats and a very attractive interior. It stickered at $45,185. All prices exclude destination charges.

The Acura TL SH-AWD competes with AWD sport sedans like the Audi A6 3.0T Quattro, BMW 535i xDrive, Cadillac CTS4, Infiniti M37x, Lexus GS 350 AWD and Mercedes-Benz E350 4Matic.

The car I tested cost less than similarly equipped models of those cars. It also has slightly less power and higher fuel costs than most of them.

The 2012 TL SH-AWD has lots to recommend it, though. Its face-lifted exterior styling eliminates the beak-like grille that disfigured the previous TL and most recent Acuras. The headlights and taillights are new. The exterior is otherwise little changed.

The interior is outstanding. It features an attractive design and appealing materials, including lovely brown perforated leather upholstery in the car I tested.

The dash and door uppers were wrapped in soft black plastic, while a combination of mesh-pattern and brushed metal trim adorned the center console and many controls.

The controls themselves are rather cumbersome, however, particularly the multipurpose dial in the center stack. The car's voice-recognition is poor. It had trouble with commands. Maddeningly, it kept interrupting me with announcements during hands-free phone calls.

The interior offers good passenger room and comfortable seats. The 12.5-cubic-foot trunk is smaller than the competitors'. Its narrow opening will make it hard to load big objects.

The TL's handling is very good. The car cornered well, staying stable and flat in high-speed maneuvers. The steering was responsive.

The ride was harsh, bouncing noticeably over rough surfaces. The car's interior is much quieter at highway speeds than the previous TL.

The 3.7-liter V-6 in the car I tested has plenty of power for acceleration and high-speed cruising. The six-speed automatic is new for the 2012 model year.

Despite the new transmission, the 2012 TL's fuel economy is not impressive. Its EPA rating of 18 mpg in the city, 26 on the highway and 21 in combined driving is worse than comparable AWD models of the A6, 535i and E350.

The AWD Cadillac CTS4 Performance model has essentially the same fuel economy, but will cost less to run because it uses regular gasoline. The TL, and the other competitors I've named, use premium. The TL matches the fuel economy of the new GS 350 AWD and beats the M37x.

The 2012 Acura TL SH-AWD doesn't return Acura to the front rank of upscale brands, but its good value, terrific interior, updated styling and spirited performance are a major step in the right direction. For the first time in years, Acura has a midsize sport sedan that's worth a long look from shoppers.