First Drive Review: 2010 Acura TL SH-AWD Manual
This 2010 review is representative of model years 2009 to 2014.
When designing the manual transmission for the 2010 Acura TL SH-AWD, engineers actually measured the shift stroke of its competitive cars. Obviously — why else would Acura tell us this? — the TL has the shortest throw in its class at 3.5 inches. Engineers also measured clutch pedal engagement and disengagement effort. We're fans of short-throw shifters and smooth clutch pedals, but going so far as to quantify those normally subjective qualities is something we don't see very often. We're not about to complain, though, given Honda/Acura's reputation for slick-shifting manuals. Take a test drive of an Acura TSX or a Honda Civic Si or S2000 if you doubt us.
In case you're not familiar with the new TL, we'll bring you up to speed. For 2009, the TL is all-new, and it looks like the giant shovel that hit the front end was left where the grille should be. If that sounds harsh, we'll apologize by saying that at least the newest Acura face looks better on the TL than the TSX or RL. The TL now comes in front- and all-wheel-drive versions, the latter known as SH-AWD. The standard TL gets a 280-hp, 3.5-liter V-6, similar to the previous TL Type-S. SH-AWD versions get a power and displacement bump to 305 horsepower and 3.7 liters, and have the added availability of 19-inch wheels shod with Michelin Pilot Sport PS2 tires. Both 2009 versions come standard with a five-speed automatic transmission.
And Then Acura Created Manual
Still, the goals of the six-speed TL are modest. Of the projected annual TL volume of 70,000 units, Acura only predicts five percent — or 3500 — will be the TL SH-AWD with the manual transmission. Weight in the manual car is reduced by 88 pounds, so the front springs, shocks, and power steering have been retuned for the weight reduction. In addition, the front driveshafts and engine and transmission mounts have been beefed up. The basic gearbox is the same as the six-speed from the old TL Type-S, but almost every component is improved for a higher torque capacity. Thanks to the reduced weight and the ability to do clutch-abusing high-rpm launches, Acura says the 0-to-60-mph time should improve by 0.7 second over the auto-equipped cars, which would put the manual in the mid- to high-five-second range..
We got a sneak peek of the six-speed TL at the Transportation Research Center in central Ohio, Acura/Honda's de facto North American proving grounds. Eager to prove that the TL is all that and a bag of chips, they brought out a BMW 335i and 335xi, Infiniti G35, and Audi S4 to compare as we lapped around the Dynamic Handling Course, a twisting track circuit penned by Allen Wilson, designer of Miller Motorsports Park and Barber Motorsports Park. All five cars, including the TL, were fitted with sport packages and the most aggressive summer tires available from the factory.
Row, Row, Row Your TL, Gently 'Round the Track
Compared to the TL, the BMW is still the benchmark for balanced handling. At almost every point on the track, either 3-series is perfectly neutral and very responsive to driver inputs. But — surprise, surprise — the TL is quicker around the track than any of the other cars. That's by Acura's timing of both its own test driver and of every journalist present at this press event. Given the unfamiliarity with the track and our aversion to crashing, we weren't driving as hard as Acura's hot shoe, but the results back up our impression.
So how does the Acura beat the more balanced BMWs, the more powerful S4, and the better power-to-weight ratio of the G35? For starters, this is honestly a good chassis, and the Michelin tires lend plenty of grip. Also the rear-wheel torque vectoring of the SH-AWD system does an excellent job of mitigating the TL's inherent understeer, so you can enter a corner faster without worrying about pushing wide, and you can hit the gas sooner on exit. It doesn't feel as natural as the balance of the BMW, but there's a lot of thrill in knowing you're going faster.
So is the TL SH-AWD six-speed going to win over any BMW loyalists? We doubt it, but it won't take many to fill up Acura's order quota. Anyone looking at a G37x should take a look at this TL as well. Even Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution and Subaru Impreza WRX STI shoppers willing to give up some speed for extra (read: any) luxury might be interested. The standard attributes and deficiencies of the TL are still here — plenty of technology and a good interior, but questionable styling, numb steering, and button overload — but those willing to give the six-speed a test drive next year should be impressed, if not completely swayed.