Back in my young and foolish days, I considered swapping a manual transmission into my first car, a front-wheel-drive Pontiac Grand Prix. Thankfully, I didn’t go through with it (the cost of parts alone would have exceeded the car’s value), but I remain a huge believer in the transformative power of a stick shift.
That faith is vindicated with the Acura TL. I’ve driven several versions of the car with the old five-speed automatic (Acura has since gone to a six-speed auto) and found it a perfectly competent yet completely unremarkable sports sedan — good at everything, great at nothing. The six-speed manual changes that. Thanks to one of Honda’s legendary gearboxes, the Acura TL can claim a superlative: Best Shifting Sport Sedan. It’s better than the slightly rubbery gear change in the BMW 3-Series and better than the somewhat notchy action in the Audi A4/S4. Whereas I couldn’t really remember anything defining about the slushbox TL, I will be blathering for weeks about the precise perfection that is the TL’s manual transmission.
Just as important, the three-pedal setup acts as a magic ingredient, enhancing the flavor of several other already good parts. The 3.7-liter V-6, freed of the muffling effect of a torque converter and bolted to the front subframe via stiffer bushings, now growls angrily as it charges through the gears, chirping the tires on 1-2 upshifts. The “Super Handling” all-wheel drive system now seems more aggressive, mostly because the TL is now always in the right gear (or at least what I believe to be the right gear) when the I pin the throttle to shoot out of corners. The only fly in the ointment is steering that’s a bit too light and numb, though it firms up reassuringly at higher speeds.
The new front fascia — the biggest change for this model year — has less of a transformative effect but is still a definite improvement. In the design studio that big ol’ silver beak probably seemed like the perfect way to announce Acura’s bold new styling language. In the real world, it became the only thing people noticed when the car pulled up. The toned-down grille lets the rest of the exterior design take the spotlight. Lo and behold, it’s not a bad design at all — still not on par with style leaders like the Cadillac CTS and Audi A4 but handsome nonetheless.
David Zenlea, Assistant Editor
The Acura TL is a fine sporty package for someone who wants a strong-performing car that’s not flashy. In this all-wheel-drive, stick-shift form, the TL is quite the sleeper. It looks much like any other sharp-edged but somehow understated recent Acura product (although its appearance has been streamlined and softened for the 2012 model year). From the driver’s seat, though, you realize that this TL is one fine-driving machine. Like all Honda manuals, this gearbox has short throws and positive action. The engine sings a smooth V-6 tune. My only complaint is that the car is geared such that the 2-3 upshift comes at 64 mph, a speed that is well over the speed limit on the back roads of my typical commute.
The TL’s cabin features lovely leather and spacious back seats with good side bolstering. The steering, however, offers little feel. I’d rather own an Audi S4 because of the steering, the styling, and the simpler cabin layout — although if I actually had a pen poised over a sales agreement, I might be swayed by Acura’s far superior reputation for reliability.
Rusty Blackwell, Copy Editor
Driving in the rain today I noticed something small but interesting. While driving I had the wipers on intermittent while commuting in stop and go traffic. In a stopped position, once I removed my foot from the brake, the wipers would clear the windshield no matter where it was at in its timed sequence. It would then resume the normal frequency. Interesting.
Kelly Murphy, Creative Director
Even in our constantly changing test fleet here at Automobile Magazine, manual transmissions are becoming less and less common, so I was somewhat shocked when I got into the Acura TL and found three pedals and a stick shift. It may seem an unlikely pairing–a Japanese luxury sedan with a manual gearbox–but it feels quite natural. In fact, a manual gives the TL exactly what it needs: an injection of personality and fun. It helps that the TL is so good to start with and, even more so, that this six-speed is excellent. It has smooth action, is perfectly weighted and, as is typical of Honda manuals, is immensely rewarding and enjoyable to use.
As far as the facelift goes, I hardly noticed the softer schnoz. Upon further inspection, it does seem to be less conspicuous and to mesh better with the overall design of the car.
Jennifer Misaros, Managing Editor, Digital Platforms
I love the manual transmission in the TL-SHAWD. Like pretty much all Honda manuals, the throws are nice and short, the clutch takeup is just right, and it makes you feel like an accomplished driver. The interior of the car is very inviting. The metal that sweeps along the dash in front of the passenger and also runs along the center divider is a nice touch, and the soft leather of the comfortable seats is stitched using French seams, which gives it a real feeling of quality. I do, however, wonder if it’s destined to age prematurely like that in our long-term ZDX. The gauges on the dash are large and easy to read, unlike the convoluted stereo/navigation controls on the infotainment system.
In looking at Acura TL sales, I notice that, compared with a year ago, they’re down 7 percent year-to-date and down 25 percent for the month of May. Considering the more attractive (or at least, not as offensive) styling of the front end, I find this surprising. The TL really is a car — at least with this manual transmission — that is entertaining to drive with a nice dose of luxury at what would seem to be a competitive price.
Amy Skogstrom, Managing Editor
The big news for the 2012 TL is the rhinoplasty it received to help tame the pronounced beak the TL has worn since its new-for-2009 redesign. The look is softer and helps to reduce visual length, though from behind the wheel it still feels as though you have a fair bit of real estate in front of you. The TL really is a sleeper and is ready to get up and go at a moment’s notice. There is some feeling of the nose-heavy weight, but Acura’s Super-Handling All-Wheel Drive works its magic really well to counteract that. The car hungrily attacks turns no matter the speed and is planted under heavy acceleration. The slick, tight, and easy-to-drive six-speed manual adds to the fun factor (so does the neat graphic between the gauges showing how the torque is being vectored between wheels!)
The cockpit of the TL is a wonderful place to be, with high-grade materials everywhere you touch and a surprisingly intuitive and ergonomic center stack. I’ve always thought it was silly to have a separate, old-school-style radio setup right below the big infotainment screen, but it makes dealing with the simple task of changing the radio station simple, something that can’t be said of many other luxury sedans. However, the monochromatic, all-black interior is fairly dour and doesn’t seem all that special — it doesn’t have the feeling of being crafted or designed, something the TL’s closest rival, the Volvo S60, has in spades.
Donny Nordlicht, Associate Web Editor
As a brand, Acura is treading water. The styling has gone from smart to, um, let’s just call it distinct, the curb weights have crept up, and the footprint of the cars has become too large. Inside, there aren’t many new ideas and the infotainment system looks dated, not to mention that it can be found in virtually every Honda as well.
Acura does have a few good things going for it, though. A manual transmission is always a good way to pique the attention of enthusiasts and Acura offers one of the best manuals in the industry. There’s also the Super-Handling All-Wheel Drive system. Even better? The manual and SH-AWD can coexist in one vehicle! The downside to this pairing is that in a nearly 4000-lb sedan the 305-hp V-6 delivers an underwhelming 17/25 mpg. The TL doesn’t offer enough performance to justify the 1990s-era fuel economy numbers.
With a more technologically advanced cabin (note to product planners: Audi is winning this race, go spend some time in an A7) and better fuel economy, Acura could once again carve out a nice niche for itself. Hopefully, Acura can find a less polarizing design language about the time it perfects the performance/fuel economy balance and sales can flourish. As it stands, the TL is a very comfortable and relatively quick luxury sedan without the pretentious badge.
Phil Floraday, Senior Web Editor
Is the TL more enjoyable with a stick shift? Undoubtedly. But is this the very freshest version of this sedan? Perhaps not. Although Acura’s best-selling sedan receives a number of minor upgrades for the 2012 model year, the biggest mechanical revision is the addition of a six-speed automatic transmission (replacing the previous five-speed). Apart from a new nose and a few minor interior modifications, 2012 TLs with three pedals are largely the same as 2011 models.
The TL is still an enjoyable car to toss around, but as we’ve long said, it’s not isn’t quite as sharp as the typical list of its German competitors (BMW 3-Series, Audi S4, et cetera). Larger tires and wheels might help, but sadly, the manual gearbox is no longer offered together with the Advance Package — which includes 19-inch wheels. Go figure.
Evan McCausland, Associate Web Editor
2012 Acura TL SH-AWD Tech
Base price (with destination): $43,745
Price as tested: $43,745
3.7-liter SOHC 24-valve V-6 engine
6-speed manual transmission
4-wheel disc brakes with ABS
Vehicle stability assist
Tire pressure monitoring system
XM satellite radio
MP3/auxiliary audio input jack
USB audio interface
Heated front seats
Steering wheel-mounted audio controls
Auto-dimming reaview mirror
Power moonroof with tilt
Acura navigation system with voice recognition
Acura/ELS surround sound system
10 speakers and AM/FM/DVD-A
CD, DTS Dolby Digital Pro Logic II
Hard disk drive
Dual-zone automatic climate control
Options on this vehicle:
Key options not on vehicle:
Advanced package — $2200
17 / 25 / 20 mpg
3.7L SOHC 24-valve V-6
Horsepower: 305 hp @ 6300 rpm
Torque: 273 lb-ft @ 5000 rpm
Curb weight: 3948 lb
Wheels/tires: 18 x 8.0-inch alloy wheels
245/45R18 all-season tires