Road Test: 2009 Acura TL SH-AWD
By Patrick Bedard of Car and Driver
"Drat!" we imagine them saying around the Cadillac water cooler. "Acura beat us to the 2012 CTS!"
Where did this come from? Since the pert little RSX of 2002, Honda's Acura division has been shoveling ever deeper into the styling mush of confused grilles and flabby flanks (doubters, please see the RDX, MDX, and TSX). Just when we stopped caring where this sequence would lead, we get this fascinating TL, decisively carved to appeal to your inner Batman.
Bruce Wayne, your car is ready.
Finally, an Acura sculpted front to back with a single theme in mind, rakish, ominous, one step short of menacing. If ever there was a car meant to look sinister in the images transmitted from a Predator drone circling overhead, it's the 2009 Acura TL. This is brave, and the more we look, the more we see a breakthrough design.
Judging from his off-duty ride, Mr. Wayne's taste runs more toward all-weather sure-footedness than pure performance. And he has high expectations for quality and comfort.
We're focused on the top-dog TL packing Super Handling All-Wheel Drive, abbreviated "SH-AWD" in chrome letters on the decklid. The optional Technology package includes nav with an eight-inch screen, a reverse camera, voice recognition, hard-drive media storage, and perforated leather seats. Our test car had the maximum-performance tire option — summer-rated 245/40ZR-19 Michelin Pilot Sport PS2s — available only with SH-AWD. Cha-ching, that'll be $43,995.
You could spend much less. The good-dog TL, the base front-driver, starts at $35,715. Wisely, we think, it's available with only the 3.5-liter V-6 of 280 horsepower, thereby limiting the TL's well-known torque-steer recidivism. The top-dog SH-AWD version comes amped up with a 3.7-liter variant of the same all-aluminum powerplant, whirring out 305 horsepower at 6200 rpm. Either way, a five-speed automatic is the only choice, and both dogs get sequential-shift paddles behind the fat-rimmed wheel. A manual will be available in SH-AWD models for 2010.
There's a helicopter mood about the TL's cockpit: a mosaic of black buttons — dozens of them — marked precisely in white and grouped around two central knobs, a big one below for twisting, turning, and toggling around the screen, a small one above it for entertainment on/off/volume. You'll need training before lifting off, preferably a few hours of familiarization when you needn't keep your eyes on the road. Time in other Acura or Honda models helps, but each one has its peculiarities. The good news is the system avoids detouring you through the menu hell of BMWs and Jaguars.
This top dog's personality is athletic, but it's never a jock. Call it quick and mannerly. Speed in the quarter-mile is an excellent indicator of a car's actual power to weight. By today's standards, anything sub-100 mph doesn't make the fast-car cut. This TL checks in at 97 mph — decent, no better. Elapsed time is testimony to traction as much as to engine vigor. The TL grips like Krylon, as you would expect of all-wheel drive. So the time slip shows an ET of 14.8 seconds, with a 0-to-60 along the way of six seconds flat.
Ride and Interior
Braking is impressive, too, with the TL stopping from 70 mph in 161 feet. The pedal feel is reassuringly firm.
On the road, the steering is quick without being quirky. The electric rack homes in on straight ahead well enough to let an off-duty Batman hold a relaxed course. The ride is harsh-free as performance cars go, but the TL is no cream puff on Michigan's ill-maintained blacktops. Many prospects will walk away from a test drive muttering "too hard." Fortunately, the body structure can take the impacts without protesting groans and rattles.
Beyond question, the TL exudes quality. The noises of cruising, even the impact sounds of the high-grip Michelins, are muted.
As in other Acura models, the interior is busy. Sculpting is overlaid with even more sculpting, and as noted, there's a bountiful crop of buttons. Coloring, on the other hand, is cautious, with dark charcoal above dove-gray seats and door inserts. No wood; the dash, the console, and the doors are accented with a fine-dot-patterned faux metal. There's a feeling of undeniable richness here, the result of relatively plush leather on the seats combined with soft elbow rests on both the door and the center console. You feel sport in the outrageously fat wheel rim, made of leather, of course, and the temptation to drive is just a finger reach away in the form of shifter paddles. Sport, too, is apparent in the contour of the seatback as it curves around your torso, as well as the broad rest for your left foot, treaded like a Desert Dueler to prevent slippage. In the tradition of sporting cars, the e-brake lever rises from the console top within easy reach.
Beneath all of the busyness, conveniences are limited: There are just two cup holders, both on the tunnel — none in the door pockets where map capacity amounts to, well, a few maps, though the nav system surely obviates that need. There's not much space in the console compartment, either, and apart from a modest glove box, you're left to grope in the pockets on the backs of the front seats. For an Accord-size — and Accord-based — sedan, which is to say knocking on large, the accommodations don't fit Honda expectations.
Evolution and Appeal
In 2007 (the last full year the third-generation TL was on sale), Acura sold four TLs for every three Audi A4s and 10 BMW 3s. While that wedgy third-gen TL overshadowed the Germans in size, this fourth-generation model simply dwarfs them. It's upsized six inches in overall length, to 195.3, and nearly two inches in width, making it a foot and a half longer than a 3-series BMW.
The TL's rear seat provides generous space for two, with excellent footroom. The bench is perfectly contoured and appropriately stuffed for all-day travel. Still, a center passenger may choose to send his (or her) head as checked baggage, because the ceiling is too low for the usual on-shoulder transport.
The EPA docks the SH-AWD version 1 mpg in both city and highway fuel economy compared with the base TL, to 17 and 25, respectively. On one highway jaunt of 211 miles, the trip computer recorded 24.5 mpg, but our day-to-day driving dropped mileage to 19. Remember, too, that Acura cars require premium fuel, part of the upscale image.
Acura's image remains a work in progress. The previous TL had an appealing perkiness about its looks, and it rose to become Acura's top seller by a wide margin over the TSX. Now this new version reaches in an altogether different direction. In profile, the greenhouse arches elegantly over the wedge-shaped lower body, the contrasting shape enhanced by bright metal accents running along both sides of the arch. Below the rear bumpers, deliberately sculpted diffuser channels frame the twin exhaust outlets on each side. Overall, we see grace deftly balanced against aggression.
Watch it, Bruce, this may blow your cover.