Numbers may not tell an entire story, but they do help build a business case. When it comes to looking at the figures associated with the fourth-generation Acura TL, which launched in 2009, the luxury sports sedan was a success. The model remains Acura's second best-selling model (eclipsed only by the MDX crossover), and remains the brand's best-selling passenger car. Almost three years after its launch -- and even in the shadow of a global economic shakeup -- nearly 34,000 customers ponied up to bring a TL home in 2010.
That doesn't mean there isn't room for improvement. Contrary to popular belief, product planners do listen, and Acura has heard both customers and critics grumble over matters ranging from fuel economy to frumpy exterior styling. Fortunately, the refreshed 2012 TL, which debuted earlier this year at the Chicago auto show, promises to address several of those issues without usurping the TL's successful formula.
Nip The Nose, Tuck the Tail
Perhaps the most controversial aspect of the previous TL was its exterior design. Not only was the car considerably larger than its successor, but its angular form -- billed as Emotion Advanced by marketing folks -- was perhaps a little too advanced for buyers. The chunky front and rear fascias, along with an ungainly grille aperture, puzzled pundits and, according to Acura marketing vice president Steve Center, may have been "too bold" in a conservative luxury market.
Consider the matter resolved for 2012. Designers made no changes to the car's profile nor revised a single pane of sheet metal. They did, however, bless the TL with revised front and rear fascias, both of which help the car look wider and lower than before. Up front, the beak-like grille is replaced with a slender, more conservative aperture, which sports a body-colored surround and no longer stretches to the hood's edge. New horizontal edges placed halfway down the bumper break up vertical surfaces, avoiding the shovel-nosed look that plagued the previous TL.
Similar measures were applied to the TL's rear bumper. The car's rear fenders are still quite tall, but by adding horizontal character lines, repositioning the license plate mount, and reshaping both the trunk garnish and reflectors, Acura has managed to craft a tail that is surprisingly proportionate and attractive.
Other exterior revisions include body-colored door handles, darker surrounds for both head- and tail lamp assemblies, and new 17- and 18-inch wheels. The optional 19-inch wheel design is unchanged, although it is now paired with a Goodyear Eagle RS-A all-season tire instead of high-performance summer rubber.
New Trim and Tech Inside
Fewer visual tweaks were performed inside the cabin. 2012 TL models continue to use the same waterfall dashboard as before, but select accents, including door handles, volume and menu control knobs, speaker surrounds, and shift knob trim, are plated with a platinum finish. Buyers will continue to have their choice of ebony, taupe, and umber interior schemes, although the latter two options are now paired with black carpeting and floor mats.
In typical Acura fashion, the 2012 TL isn't lacking when it comes to gizmos and gadgets. Base models receive dual-zone climate controls, a power moonroof, two-stage heated front seats, a 276-watt audio system, a USB audio input, and Bluetooth phone connectivity as standard equipment. The optional Technology Package not only throws in Acura's navigation system, but improved voice activated controls for both the navi and audio systems, a 440-watt ELS surround-sound system, and an enhanced Bluetooth system, capable of downloading call logs and phonebooks and streaming audio. New for 2012 is the Advance Package, which includes everything found in the Technology Package, but adds both ventilated front seats and blind spot detection.
The new features are welcome, but drivers are still presented with a maze of buttons on the center stack, particularly on cars equipped with navigation. Although we wish for an arrangement as elegant as that used in the larger RL, the TL's interface becomes intuitive over time, and a new stand-alone button on cars built with the Technology Package does allow quick access to phone menus and controls.
Same Engines, But Six Speeds All Around
Beneath the skin, the 2012 TL largely mirrors its forebears. Base front-wheel-drive models use a 280-horsepower, 3.5-liter SOHC V-6. All-wheel-drive models are fitted with a larger 305-horsepower, 3.7-liter V-6 and Acura's slick SH-AWD system. Not only is the system capable of shifting 70 percent of the engine's torque to the rear axle, but it can also shift that power to the outside wheel during cornering, both improving turn-in and increasing cornering speeds.
Regardless of the driveline, 2012 TLs receive a new six-speed automatic transmission in lieu of the aging five-speed unit. Although similar to the six-speed transmission used in both the MDX and ZDX crossovers, the TL uses a lower 3.722:1 final drive ratio. This, coupled with some minor exterior aerodynamic tweaks and some internal engine improvements, helps boost fuel economy. Front-wheel-drive TLs are rated at 20/29 mpg (city/highway), an increase of 2 and 3 mpg, respectively. SH-AWD models are now rated at 18/26 mpg, representing a mild 1-mpg improvement over last year's model.
Enthusiasts looking to row their own gears will likely be excited to learn that a six-speed manual is still available on SH-AWD models, although it is relegated models fitted with the Technology Package. Fuel economy for TLs so equipped remains unchanged at 17/25 mpg.
As much as we'd love to see Acura roll out a performance-tuned TL variant to counter Infiniti's new IPL line or BMW's established M offerings, officials tell us a Honda Performance Division-tuned variant isn't likely to join the fold anytime soon.
A Familiar Drive
We recently had a chance to sample the entire 2012 TL line over the back roads of Austin, Texas -- and although the revised car drives much its predecessor, there are still some improvements.
Despite the fact that the entry-level TL sedans are sending almost 300 horsepower through their front wheels, handling remains remarkably balanced. Torque steer is surprisingly restrained, and mild understeer is only exhibited when the car is hustled into a corner -- and hard. Even then, the electronic safety nannies, including ABS, traction control, and stability control -- never reared their heads during our spirited driving session.
Quick jaunts through curvaceous country roads, however, are best sampled behind the wheel of the TL SH-AWD. Acura's torque-vectoring all-wheel-drive system continues to work wonders on the front-wheel-drive platform. In lieu of push, the car happily rotates into the sharpest of corners, all the while remaining planted. The 19-inch wheels incorporated into the Advance Package do provide extra grip, but slightly compromise ride quality over broken surfaces. The larger wheels also add some road noise, but thanks to extra insulation and improved body seals, the 2012 TL is notably quieter than the outgoing model.
Regardless of the driveline, we found Acura's new six-speed automatic a smooth, quick-shifting gearbox, which quickly responded to throttle inputs with an appropriate downshift without hunting for the proper gear. Over the extremely hilly terrain we sampled, we frequently opted for the automatic's sport-shift mode (which holds gears longer) or controlled shifts ourselves via the wheel-mounted paddles.
Response time when using the latter is decent, but for those looking for the ultimate in transmission control, there's no beating the slick shifting six-speed manual available on the SH-AWD. In true Honda fashion, its shift travel is smooth and short, although the clutch take-up remains somewhat numb.
The Price Just May Be Right
Will this spruced-up TL resonate with buyers? Acura's volume player might lack the sporting touch exhibited by some competitors -- namely the BMW 3-Series -- but considering the 2012 TL is still fun to drive, and is more refined and only $300 more expensive than the outgoing model, we expect it to be even more endearing to those seeking a luxurious sports sedan than ever before.
2012 Acura TL
Base Price: $35,605 (including $860 in destination)
Engine: 3.5-liter SOHC 24-valve V-6
Horsepower: 280 hp @ 6200 rpm
Torque: 254 lb-ft @ 5000 rpm
Transmission: 6-speed automatic
Engine: 3.7-liter SOHC 24-valve V-6
Horsepower: 305 hp @ 6200 rpm
Torque: 273 lb-ft @ 5000 rpm
Transmission: 6-speed automatic, 6-speed manual
L x W x H: 194.0 x 74.0 x 57.2 in
Legroom F/R: 42.5/ 36.2 in
Headroom F/R: 38.4/36.7 in
Cargo capacity: 12.5-13.1 cu ft
Curb weight: 3726-4001 lb
EPA rating (city/highway): 20/29 (base), 18/26 (SH-AWD), 17/25 (SH-AWD manual)