Growing up doesn’t have to suck the fun out of driving. You don’t have to sell your soul — and your Mitsubishi Lancer Evo — and buy a life-sucking, automatic-transmission, front-wheel-drive sled just because you landed a real job and produced offspring. These two luxury sedans appear grown up to the outside world, but when no one is looking, the cars can bring out your inner juvenile delinquent. You probably never thought of the Acura TL SH-AWD and the Audi S4 on the same day, much less in the same sentence. But this duo is remarkably similar in base price, power, and weight. And significantly, they both use torque-vectoring all-wheel-drive systems to ensure that they don’t sacrifice one iota of the corner-carving thrills you’ve grown to love. Ladies and gentlemen, put your hands together for the two cars that will change your perception of all-wheel-drive luxury sedans.
In a tit-for-tat comparison between two cars that share the same driveline philosophy, it quickly becomes obvious that the Acura and the Audi are significantly different only in the details. Despite riding on a wheelbase within an inch and a half of the Audi S4‘s, the Acura TL is about ten inches longer and two inches wider. In fact, its interior is sufficiently voluminous to push the TL into the next EPA size class. The S4’s lower beltline and bigger windows give a better view out, though, effectively eliminating any difference in perceived interior size. It’s only from the back seat where the size differential becomes pronounced, but the S4 still offers sufficient space for a young family. Although the Acura’s trunk is also larger, its rear seats don’t fold down.
Slam one of the TL’s doors a little too hard, and you can’t help but notice how tinny it sounds. Not so for the S4, which sounds and feels like the proverbial bank vault. The S4’s attractive interior is up to Audi’s typical high-quality standards, but the Acura’s cabin is more striking, with a dashboard draped in symmetrical, sinewy curves trimmed with black-on-silver dot-matrix-patterned aluminum that provides a modern ambience without the risk of glare in sunny weather. The punctuation mark is a red metal start button, and although the shifter is located a bit too far toward the passenger side, its heavy weight and perfectly precise throws are among the best in the business. So, too, are the turn-signal stalks. But then there are the buttons. There are seventeen of them on the steering wheel alone, and perhaps another eight thousand on the dashboard. Despite being organized logically in clusters for climate control, stereo, and navigation functions, their sheer number means that it takes a good bit of time to become comfortable using them.
The S4, meanwhile, is intuitive from the get-go. The uncluttered dash and Multi Media Interface system are both easy to use, and the Audi’s seats are just as comfortable and supportive as the Acura’s (which is to say, very), but the German seat heaters are far more powerful. Unfortunately, Audi’s base stereo isn’t. For enjoying anything other than AM radio, you’ll need to budget an additional $850 for the 505-watt Bang & Olufsen sound system.
The TL SH-AWD comes standard with a 440-watt premium surround system that is nothing short of phenomenal. You can’t, however, get three-blink turn signals, rain-sensing wipers, or swiveling bixenon headlights in the Acura, all curious omissions at this price point. Acura also doesn’t offer an equivalent of Audi’s Drive Select, the S4’s user-selectable chassis system that customizes steering boost, suspension damping, and throttle response. We’re still not fans of Audi’s particular setup, as it seems to never offer the right combination of modes. The steering vacillates between being overly boosted or artificially heavy, sometimes in the middle of a corner. And maddeningly, the system defaults to the auto setting at each restart. At least the S4’s ride quality is superb in any setting, and its electronic adjustability allows it to combine a more supple ride than the TL’s with far better body control, two typically contradictory assignments.
The Acura’s steering is lightning quick, with an overall ratio nearly as fast as a Mitsubishi Evo’s, and its thick rim communicates more feedback to the driver, especially at the limit, where the Audi’s steering goes numb. If there’s one place where the Acura could use driver-adjustability, it’s in the throttle mapping. Several factors conspire to make the TL frustratingly difficult to drive smoothly around town: First, the computer seems to interpret one quarter of the accelerator pedal’s travel as a request for full throttle. And it’s slow to close the throttle as you back off the gas. Further complicating matters is a clutch pedal that engages high in its travel and over considerable distance, making it a challenge to locate a consistent engagement point. What’s more, since the V-6 is so surprisingly responsive, you wind up leaving traffic lights like an amateur with way too many revs on the tach. Or worse, too few, resulting in an embarrassing stall.
The TL’s willingness to rev (and stall) no doubt comes from the particulars of its V-6. Like most cars based on a front-wheel-drive design, the Acura’s engine is installed transversely, and a narrow engine helps maximize both frontal crush space and interior room. To that end, Acura uses a 60-degree angle between cylinder banks. This layout is well-balanced as far as V-6s go and negates the need for balance shafts. Despite its size (a robust 3.7 liters of displacement), it revs instantaneously, and the only drawback to the low rotational inertia is slightly gritty power delivery. That’s a nonissue in the TL, since any coarseness is overshadowed by magnificent intake music, especially as the valvetrain switches over to the high-lift cam profiles at the fun end of the tach. It pulls hard to its 6700-rpm redline, and the harder you drive the TL, the better this powertrain becomes.
You won’t hear a single complaint from us about the Audi’s driveline. Except that if “Acura TL SH-AWD 6MT” is a stupid name for a car, then “3.0T” is a stupid badge to put on a supercharged engine. Unless, of course, the device is called a Tupercharger in German. Which it’s not. Mounted longitudinally, the 3.0-liter V-6’s banks are splayed out at a 90-degree angle, and thanks to balance shafts and counterweights, it’s as smooth as silk. It’s also decidedly more high-tech than the Acura’s engine, with four cams instead of two, direct injection, and of course, the silent tupercharger that you never hear but, oh, my word, do you ever feel. The power-to-weight ratios may be similar, but the S4 is a full league quicker and faster than the TL thanks to the additional torque across the entire rev range.
The Audi’s extra thrust should have been a huge advantage at Pittsburgh’s BeaveRun racetrack, which rewards straight-line speed with two long straightaways — especially since, on paper, the Acura carries no advantage in cornering or braking: the two cars have similar weight, tire section width, and suspension designs. The Audi’s slightly better weight distribution would, we thought, be nixed by the Acura’s wider track. And we were right — as expected, the cars posted similar braking and cornering numbers in standardized testing.
But on a racetrack, the TL showed us exactly why Acura used the word “super” to describe its Super-Handling All-Wheel-Drive system. Despite its significant power advantage, the Audi S4’s fastest lap beat the TL’s by only 0.4 second.
Although the two all-wheel-drive systems are different in design, they both strive to accomplish the same thing: temporarily routing extra power to the outside rear wheel to help rotate the car in a turn. The big difference here is how these two cars are set up to handle to begin with.
The Acura is blessed with nearly perfect cornering balance, so its rear differential can easily and dramatically alter the car’s handling attitude. It takes a little while to build up trust in the system, but you soon realize that if the car can handle any amount of power in the middle of a turn, it can handle anything the V-6 can throw at it. There’s no reason to be scared of the right pedal-the TL begs you to steer it with the throttle. The more power you add, the more neutral the TL’s cornering balance and the faster it scrambles through turns. Indeed, the Acura was faster than the Audi through nearly every single corner at BeaveRun.
The Audi’s all-wheel-drive system is crippled by so much understeer built into the chassis that, at very best, it will help the car approach neutrality. You can feel the computer shuffling power around, but it’s slower to react than the Acura’s system, so it takes patience and smoothness to get there. Add too much power or turn in too quickly and you’re back to drowning in a pool of understeer. The S4 is far less bothered by midcorner bumps or puddles than the TL, but its cornering balance changes dramatically at very high speeds, when it transitions to oversteer. That’s a surprise that no one likes.
The other surprise was how spectacularly undersize the Acura’s brakes are. Even on a cool, rainy morning, one lap of BeaveRun was sufficient to fry the brakes completely. Each timed lap was completed only after a lengthy cool-down period and a call to our mothers saying we made it through alive.
If it seems like neither car can pull an advantage here without the other catching up, you’ve been paying attention. The final equalizer is that, comparably equipped, the Audi costs nearly $11,500 more than the Acura. That kind of money can buy the TL a serious brake upgrade. But the price difference isn’t much of a factor here, since we’ve never actually heard of someone cross-shopping a TL and an S4.
It’s beside the point to declare a winner or loser when comparing two cars that fall into such different hands in the real world. As that most rabid of enthusiasts, you already have your own prejudices and opinions based on the brands alone, not to mention the countries from which they hail. If we could combine the Audi’s good looks, brakes, and tupercharged V-6 with the Acura’s steering, handling, and all-wheel-drive system, we’d have discovered luxury car nirvana for the enthusiast driver. In the absence of that elusive hybrid, we walk away from these two wolves in sheepish skins knowing that they are absolute equals in one way: the ability to reassure us that there is, in fact, life after Evo.
Techtonics: Dueling 4WD
While the Acura and Audi four-wheel-drive systems differ in hardware, their performance goals are the same: excellent traction and stability on slippery roads with rear-wheel-drive feel and agility on dry surfaces. Forcing the outboard rear wheel to turn faster during hard cornering is the trick that helps both of these front-heavy sedans mimic the steering and handling behavior of a nicely balanced rear-driver. A control computer informed by sensors determines when the overdrive nudge is needed.
The Audi S4’s fifth-generation Quattro system ties the front and rear axles together with a center differential that provides a 40/60
front/rear torque split.
A Torsen device inside the center diff and automatic front brake applications limit individual wheel slippage.
When the Acura TL’s SH-AWD (Super-Handling All-Wheel-Drive) system chooses to send power rearward, the driveshaft to the rear wheels spins 1.7 percent faster than the front axles. Partially engaging both of the rear-wheel overdrive gears diminishes the torque conveyed by the front wheels. To produce a yaw moment beneficial to handling, only the outboard rear wheel’s overdrive is engaged.
– Don Sherman
2010 Acura TL SH-AWD
Engine: 24-valve SOHC V-6
Displacement: 3.7 liters (224 cu in)
Horsepower: 305 hp @ 6300 rpm
Torque: 273 lb-ft @ 5000 rpm
Transmission: 6-speed manual
Steering: Electrically assisted
Suspension, front: Control arms,
Suspension, rear: Multilink,
Brakes f/r: Vented discs/discs, ABS
Tires: Michelin Pilot Sport PS2
Tire size: 245/40YR-19
L x w x h: 195.5 x 74.0 x 57.2 in
Wheelbase: 109.3 in
Track f/r: 63.2/63.8 in
Weight, dist. f/r: 3860 lb, 58.0/42.0%
EPA Mileage: 17/25 mpg
0-60 mph: 5.4 sec
0-100 mph: 13.5 sec
0-110 mph: 16.3 sec
0-120 mph: 20.5 sec
0-130 mph: 24.9 sec
0-140 mph: *
0-150 mph: *
1/4-mile (sec @ mph): 14.1 @ 102
30-70 mph passing: 6.8 sec
peak g: 0.66 g
70-0 mph: 157 ft
Peak g: 1.15 g
Speed In Gears
1: 37 mph
2: 64 mph
3: 88 mph
4: 120 mph
5: 133 mph*
6: 133 mph*
*limited to 133 mph
Price: $46,725/$54,075 (base/as tested)
Engine: 24-valve DOHC supercharged V-6
Displacement: 3.0 liters (183 cu in)
Horsepower: 333 hp @ 5500 rpm
Torque: 325 lb-ft @ 2900 rpm
Transmission: 6-speed manual
Steering: Hydraulically assisted
Suspension, front: Control arms, coil springs
Suspension, rear: Multilink, coil springs
Brakes f/r: Vented discs/discs, ABS
Tires: Pirelli Cinturato P7
Tire size: 245/40YR-18
L x w x h: 185.7 x 71.9 x 55.4 in
Wheelbase: 110.7 in
Track f/r: 61.1/60.6 in
Weight, dist. f/r: 3940 lb, 55.3/44.7%
EPA Mileage: 18/27 mpg
0-60 mph: 5.0 sec
0-100 mph: 11.5 sec
0-110 mph: 13.5 sec
0-120 mph: 16.4 sec
0-130 mph: 19.7 sec
0-140 mph: 23.4 sec
0-150 mph: 28.6 sec
1/4-mile (sec @ mph): 13.5 @ 110
30-70 mph passing: 5.7 sec
Peak g: 0.69 g
70-0 mph: 158 ft
Peak g: 1.08 g
Speed In Gears
1: 38 mph
2: 65 mph
3: 93 mph
4: 124 mph
5: 153 mph
6: 153 mph