The Acura TL is one of the more unusual cars in the mid-sized luxury-sport sedan segment.
Not just its unusual looks, either. Take a peek underneath:
On the one hand, it’s a FWD-based car in a segment that’s mostly RWD-based, with the handful of FWD cars (like the Audi A4 and Lexus ES350) being cruisers, not bruisers.
But on the other hand, Acura has spent a lot of time and brain-sweat getting this FWD-based car to handle (and feel) like a RWD-based performance car.
And, it does – especially when equipped with the optional SH-AWD (Super Handling All-Wheel-Drive) system, which was specifically designed to mimic the way a RWD car accelerates as well as corners.
The tough part – for Acura – is getting the type of buyer who wants the RWD-based driving experience to take a look at the TL instead of automatically heading for a BMW, Infiniti or Cadillac dealership. And also, to overlook the schnozz this poor car was saddled with at its introduction back in 2009 (but which has been fixed for 2012).
WHAT IT IS
The TL is a mid-sized luxury-sport sedan available in front wheel-drive or SH-AWD (all-wheel-drive) versions. Prices begin at $36,465 for the standard FWD model with 3.5 liter V-6 and run to $40,015 for a top-of-the-line model equipped with Acura’s SH-AWD system and a larger, more powerful 3.7 liter V-6.
Target competitors include the BMW 3 series, Cadillac CTS and Infiniti G sedan.
WHAT’S NEW FOR 2012
The ’12 TL receives a nose-job intended to tone down the controversial beak of the original TL – and also the latest-generation of Acura’s GPS navigation system, with a 60 GB hard drive.
A six-speed automatic transmission is now standard equipment, too – with a six-speed manual available optionally but only with SH-AWD versions.
Everyday advantages of FWD and (with SH-AWD) RWD-style handling/feel, too.
More powerful than several price-equivalent competitors.
Available six-speed manual in SH-AWD version.
WHAT’S NOT SO GOOD
Lower-cost FWD version is still automatic-only.
Sedan-only bodystyle (several competitors, including the BMW 3 and Cadillac CTS, are also available in wagon and coupe forms).
UNDER THE HOOD
The TL comes standard with a 3.5 liter, 280 hp V-6 and six-speed automatic driving the front wheels. This engine has more power than the price-equivalent BMW 3-Series, the $34,600 328i (3 liters, 230 hp) as well as the 270 hp 3 liter V-6 that’s standard in the also more expensive base model Cadillac CTS ($35,345). To get more power in either of those cars you have to spend a lot more money for the optional engines – over $42k in the case of the BMW 3 and $39k for the CTS.
The base model TL also easily outguns the 211 hp 2.0 liter Audi A4 and also the Infiniti G’s standard 2.5 liter, 218 hp V-6.
Zero to 60 takes about 6.5 seconds with the 280 hp engine – easily putting away the 2.5 liter G and A4 and matching or beating many of its higher-powered competition, including the BMW 3 and Cadillac CTS.
Gas mileage with this combo is 20 city, 29 highway – with premium fuel required.
The TL’s optional engine is a larger, more powerful 305 hp 3.7 liter V-6 working through Acura’s Super Handling All-Wheel-Drive (SH-AWD) and either the six-speed automatic or the optional six-speed manual – which includes a hill-holder clutch to keep the car from rolling backward and rev-matching downshifts.
So equipped, the car’s 0-60 time drops to 5.2-5.3 seconds, among the quickest you’ll find in this class. Even quicker, in fact, than the muscle car of the bunch, the Infiniti G armed with its optional 328 hp 3.7 liter V-6.
ON THE ROAD
One of the TL’s chief selling points is its available SH-AWD system – which differs from most of the AWD systems offered by competitors that normally send most of the engine’s power to either the front wheels (in FWD-based cars like the Audi A4) or the rear wheels (in RWD-based cars like the BMW 3 and Infiniti G) during normal driving – with increasing power routed to the other set of wheels under hard acceleration or when the system detects wheel slip.
The main objective here is traction. As in, not sliding around in the snow or wet.
Acura’s system, in contrast, is at least as focused on handling as it is on traction. Rather than just routing power to the front or rear wheels, the SH-AWD is capable of modulating power delivery to each individual wheel. During high-speed cornering, for example, it will kick power to each of the outside wheels, letting you push the car harder (and faster) without either the back end or the front end beginning to slide. SH-AWD makes the TL behave more like a RWD sport sedan when driven aggressively on dry, paved roads than other FWD-based models like the Audi A4 – while also providing superior inclement weather traction and safety compared with a RWD car.
It’s a complex system but it does work as advertised. In fact, the SH-AWD TL can be driven more aggressively with greater confidence than a similar RWD sport sedan. So, best of both worlds. You’ve got poor weather grip and dry pavement high-speed tenacity. The only thing you can’t do in the SH-AWD TL that you can do in a RWD sport sedan is a burnout.
The new six-speed automatic, meanwhile, addresses the main functional complaint many had with the previous, five-speed-equipped TL. The tighter spacing between gears gives the car better acceleration as well as slightly better fuel economy.
It’s just too bad that Acura doesn’t allow buyers of the base model TL to order the six-speed manual transmission – and charges buyers of the SH-AWD TL extra to get it.
AT THE CURB
Designers are far more constrained today than they were in the past by things like government-mandated bumper impact standards that effectively set down the basic shape template that they must follow. This is why – irrespective of make or model – modern cars seem to all share the same basic shape and look so much alike.
Which is why designers often reach for a wild-looking grille treatment to set their car apart from the herd.
Hence the original TL’s chunky-looking front end/grille – finished with a huge belt of of silvery metallic trim.
Acura took a gamble – just as BMW did a few years ago with its controversial “bustleback” 7-Series – that buyers would appreciate the look.
Apparently, not enough of them did.
Hence the subtle nose job for 2012. About an inch of front overhang has been discreetly shaved away, for openers. That alone tightens up the car’s overall proportions and makes it look more “right.” The big metallic bar is still there at the top of the grille opening but it’s not as Cyrano de Bergerac now because the surround has been scaled back to a much thinner chrome piece that has the effect of making the whole ensemble look less like the Future Car battering ram it did previously.
Inside, the TL is uber techno – with lots of metallic trim (instead of the wood inlays more typically found in this segment) and a sport bike-like hooded main gauge cluster and center console driver info center/GPS display. There’s a mouse-like input on the lower center stack for controlling the audio but the AC and heat have their own (and easier to operate) controls to the left and right of the mouse input. Three-stage bun warmers are standard (with coolers added, with the optional Advance package).
Inside the console is a second power point plus MP3/iPod USB port.
The trunk is smallish (13.1 cubic feet ) but this has become typical for the segment. The Infiniti G’s is only slightly larger (13.5 cubic feet) and the BMW 3’s and Audi A4’s are smaller (just 12 cubic feet each).
To get a decently large trunk, you pretty much have to buy a larger (and usually much more expensive) car. Part of the reason for the relatively small trunks in most current mid-sized luxury-sport sedans is that the front and rear overhangs are very short relative to the overall proportions of similar sized cars of the past. This is partly just the style of modern cars but its also due to the way designers have pushed the cabin as far forward and back as feasible to maximize interior space – especially backseat space – which almost necessarily eat into trunk space.
A TL strong point is the generous roster of standard equipment – including multi-zone climate control AC (with separate controls for the backseat occupants), a sunroof, Xenon HID headlights, leather seats (with three-stage heaters for the front seats) and an 8-speaker stereo with satellite radio and Bluetooth. A lot of this kind of stuff is extra-cost in competitor models.
SH-AWD versions get leather with contrast stitching and more supportive bucket seats, in addition to firmer suspension calibrations and larger, more aggressive 18 inch wheels – with 19s (and “summer” performance tires) available.
The big ticket option for both the base and SH-AWD versions is the Technology Package that bundles voice-activated GPS with AcuraLink real-time traffic and weather updates, automatic phone book and rearview back-up camera plus solar-sensing climate control and a super-premium 10 speaker ELS surround sound stereo with 60 gig music storage hard drive. An Advance Package can be ordered that bundles all of that and adds three-stage coolers for the front seats and a Blind Spot Warning System and the 19×8 wheel/tire package.
Acura backs the TL with a four-year, 50,000 mile comprehensive warranty and a better-than-average six year, 70,000 warranty on the powertrain.
Personal footnote: The TL has a decent (and easy to use) jack in the trunk. This is often not the case in modern cars. Especially modern luxury-sport cars, which have small trunks – and (usually) small – and barely adequate – jacking implements.
It’s a small thing – but an important thing.
THE BOTTOM LINE
If BMW can recover from its bangled-up bustleback bungle, so can Acura and the TL.
It was always a good car; now it’s also a good-looking car – or at least, not a weird-looking car.
And that may – and should – get things back on track.
Throw it in the Woods?
Hi Eric, Great review. After reading several of you posts on Lewrockwell.com, I have come to realize your reviews are spot-on and from the point of view of a driving enthusiast rather than just another bean counter. I am really interested in the Acura TSX, but I have going to have to insist on something with a manual transmission, which is pretty rare in this country in this day and age. It is disappointing that the manual transmission is only available in the 201hp 4 cylinder, which seems to me to be under powered for that size car. Until reading your review, I didn’t know that the TL come with a MT.
Thanks Randy – I’m trying!
You’re right that it’s hard to find manual transmissions in modern cars – even most trucks (I think all full-size trucks) are automatic-only. I understand why – most people prefer automatics and automatics are better (with computer controls) in term of fuel efficiency (which is why the car companies favor them). But even though an automated manual or DSG can shift more quickly or efficiently or consistently, it’s just not as much fun and takes away a lot of the driving aspect of being a driver. Both my trucks have manuals – and of course, so do all my bikes!
I do think the driving experience is lost with the MT. That is the one thing I hate about my Pontiac GP is it being an auto. Perhaps this is a good reflection of society; for the most part, we tend to settle for food that is tasteless so as long as we don’t have to put in any effort and it’s cheap.
I am with you!
Especially with modern cars, all of which (when equipped with manuals) have hydraulic clutches and are so easy to drive. I’ve owned muscle cars – real ones – with Muncie and Borg Warner 4-speeds and monster 11 and 12 inch clutches with leg-press pedal pressure. You had to be a man (or a woman with some beefy legs) to operate one of those things and they were beasts to deal with in stop and go traffic…