The TL is at the heart of Acura‘s sedan lineup, sitting above the entry-level TSX and below the range-topping RL. The outgoing TL has enjoyed a lot of success, despite what some would see as the handicap of a front-wheel-drive layout in a field that is increasingly moving to rear-wheel drive. Honda is trying to increase the prestige of the Acura name and is moving both the entry-level TSX and the TL up in size to better match them up against standard-bearers like the Mercedes-Benz C-class and E-class.
Design: Does more equal better?
A recognizable face, which usually means a distinctive grille, is something every luxury carmaker wants, including Acura. How else to explain the multi-faceted, modified-V-shaped gray plastic affair that now adorns the front end of the , the RL, the new TSX, and this new TL? When you see early concept sketches of the TL, the grill actually fits in with the sculpted hood and the overall look of the car. But on the production car it strikes us as an oddly shaped appendage that looks out of place. The rear styling is more successful, distinctive but not strange. In profile, the TL seems familiar, as it repeats the prominent front wheel arch seen on the TSX (and some Infinitis) and its greenhouse and roofline hew to current luxury-sedan norms. If the TL looks bigger, that’s because it is. Just like its little brother, the TSX, the TL with this redesign has grown quite a bit, in keeping with its upmarket ambitions. The car is more than half a foot longer and nearly two inches wider. The larger size yields a bit more trunk space and rear-seat room.
Inside: a big hug
The TL’s interior has been redesigned in a twin-cockpit style for the front seat occupants, with metal trim that twists and curves as it wraps around from door to dash to console. The effect might be confining, if the cabin had not grown wider. The comfortable seats embrace you with deep side bolsters, enhancing the wraparound feeling. Both front seats are power, with memory for the driver’s side, and seat heaters are included. Leather is standard, but more-supple, fragrant “Milano” leather is part of the technology package option. The dash is more stylized than before, but still readable. The quality of interior materials is very good.
First traffic, now weather
The previous TL was an early adopter of real-time traffic information, incorporated into the navigation system. The new TL goes a step further by adding weather info-including radar weather maps, forecasts, and alerts-supplied by XM satellite radio. The navigation system, which also includes an eight-inch screen, voice recognition, and a rear-view camera, is part of the aforementioned technology package. Two other elements to this geek’s dream are keyless ignition and Acura‘s ELS audio system, a 440-watt, 10-speaker powerhouse with DVD audio and a 12.7-gig hard drive. Like the standard TL stereo, the ELS unit can also has USB and aux inputs (with seamless iPod integration), Bluetooth connectivity, and standard XM satellite radio (the latter includes a note function, which can remember the title and artist and a sample snippet of up to 30 different songs).
Bigger car, bigger engines
Like the previous TL, the new car comes in two versions, with two different V-6 engines. The base car’s V-6 has grown from 3.2 to 3.5 liters. Output is up from 258 hp to 280, with an additional 21 lb-ft of torque for a total of 254 lb-ft. Fuel economy, however, remains 18/26 mpg. Replacing the old Type-S as the top model is the new SH-AWD. Its V-6 displaces 3.7 liters, and makes 305 hp and 275 lb-ft of torque. As its name implies, the SH-AWD also comes standard with all-wheel drive, a first for the TL. Fuel economy for TL SH-AWD drops by 2 mpg (highway) compare to the old Type-S, for an estimated 17 city/24 highway. We were sad to see a manual transmission disappear from the TL options list. It will return for 2010, but for now a five-speed, paddle-shift automatic is the only available gearbox.
We started our drive in the base TL, where we were concerned about 280 hp and 254 lb-ft of torque flowing to the front wheels. But cranking the wheel and stomping on the gas elicited only minor tugging at the wheel. Honda engineers reduced the front-end lift under acceleration, which creates less change in driveshaft angle and helps mellow torque steer. Of course, torque steer is not a factor for the SH-AWD, which can send up to 70 percent of its power to the rear wheels. The all-wheel-drive system also features Honda’s torque-vectoring capability, with clutch packs on either side of the rear differential that can open and close to transfer torque across the rear axle. The 305-hp car has a sporty exhaust note, and its shorter final drive ratio helps it sprint from 0 to 60 mph about one-half-second quicker than the base car, according to Honda.
Chassis tuners win some, lose some
Once again, Honda uses a control arm (or double wishbone) design for the TL‘s front suspension, and a new multilink setup at the rear. Both versions of the car have been engineered to better resist body roll, brake dive, and squat under acceleration. The SH-AWD has further stiffened springs, dampers, and anti-roll bars. The overall effect is that the new TL is remarkably tied down over busy, bumpy roads, shrugging off dips, heaves, and bumps in the manner of the best European cars. The new TL remains poised and planted charging down back roads in a way that its predecessor never did. We’d say the new car inspires more confidence as well, but the switch to electric-assist power steering, which is too light and too quick on-center, unfortunately has sabotaged some of that confidence. Despite the firmer suspension, the TL still rides agreeably, but buyers who prize bump isolation should pass up the optional nineteen-inch wheels, which telegraph impacts more faithfully than the standard seventeens.
Still one for the head more than the heart
Once again the TL is a very good choice among luxury, or near-luxury, sedans. The exterior styling is a matter of personal taste, of course, but we find ourselves preferring the appearance of the old car; the new interior, however, is indeed seductive. The addition of all-wheel-drive is a bonus not just for bad weather but for drivability as well; too bad it extracts a fuel economy penalty in highway driving. If you’re fine with front-wheel drive, the base car is roomier and more powerful than before, yet it’s just as economical. We’re impressed with the new chassis tuning, but would like to see Acura work harder to regain the natural steering feel of the old hydraulic system. We’re also sad to lose the manual transmission option, even just for a year. The TL is certainly a techno-geek’s delight, with its all-singing, all-dancing stereo and up-to-the-minute navigation system. Aside from the items covered here, the TL has also earned a reputation for solid reliability and good resale value, two items which we expect will continue with this new model.
Base Price: $34,000 (est)
Engine: 3.5-liter SOHC 24-valve V-6
Horsepower: 280 hp @ 6200 rpm
Torque: 254 lb-ft @ 5000 rpm
Engine: 3.7-liter SOHC 24-valve V-6
Horsepower: 305 hp @ 6200 rpm
Torque: 273 lb-ft @ 5000 rpm
Transmission: 5-speed automatic
Drive: Front-wheel, all-wheel
L x W x H: 195.3 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: 13.1 cu ft
Curb Weight: 3708-3989 lb
EPA Rating (city/highway): 18/26 mpg (base), 17/25 (SH-AWD)