At first glance, East Liberty, Ohio is one of those sleepy, blink-and-you'll-miss-it midwestern towns, the kind you find buried in every county from Columbus to Kankakee. Then, on the outskirts of town, you round a corner and come face-to-face with an eighteen-wheeler cranking across an enormous banked oval. And a dump truck on a skidpad. And a small, diabolical little road course with more off-camber corners than you can shake a Snell sticker at. Welcome to the Transportation Research Center, otherwise known as TRC.
Acura invited us here for a track-only drive of its TL SH-AWD 6MT prototype, a car that by all rights shouldn't exist. The 6MT bit is the interesting part; it stands for six-speed manual transmission, and the SH-AWD acronym represents Acura's Super Handling All-Wheel Drive. The combination - the most powerful model Acura offers, paired with electronically controlled all-wheel drive and a clutch pedal - is enticing on paper, but in an age of declining manual-transmission sales, it's also a little perplexing. If you're shooting for greater sales and a broader demographic, why bother building a destined-to-be-low-volume car for a rapidly shrinking market?
Predictably, the (lovably impractical) answer can be found in one word: gearheads. A handful of renegade Acura engineers installed a three-pedal setup into an early production TL (the car is currently available only with an automatic) and begged management to drive it. After a little track time, the suits went nuts. We were asked to come to Ohio on the grounds that a manual gearbox transformed the hottest version of Acura's TL, and that the added wait and development cost (an extra twelve months of R&D; the manual TL won't go on sale until fall of 2009) would be worth it. Frankly, we were more than a little skeptical.
A morning's worth of lapping the manual TL on the TRC's Alan-Wilson-designed road course, however, left us a little surprised. In short, Acura's engineers were right. A manual transmission does in fact transform the Big A's midsize sedan, but not in the way that you might think. The manual TL SH-AWD benefits from the same 305-hp V-6 and balanced weight distribution that its automatic sister does, but the biggest change lies in its chassis.
What was a somewhat lazy, neutral-handling car with a pronounced resistance to rotate has morphed into a drift-happy, throttle-adjustable track hound.
Steering feel remains a little on the light/vague side, and clutch takeup is a little mushy, but on a whole, the manual version of the hottest TL feels like a different, much sharper car.
Part of the handling about-face can be attributed to chassis surgery - everything from front spring and damper tuning (softer) to engine mount calibration (stiffer) was tweaked to accommodate the manual gearbox's lighter weight - but most of it is simple physics. With the automatic TL's slow-reacting torque converter and slushbox deep-sixed, the super-handling system is free to, well, allow the car to handle superbly. Acura's all-wheel-drive system reacts much more quickly and accurately here than it does in the automatic TL; mid-corner throttle changes affect the chassis's balance almost instantaneously, and it's almost as if the entire driveline has been completely retuned. The SH-AWD system's biggest asset, its Mitsubishi Evo-like active rear differential, now responds to the throttle with astounding speed, allowing you to magically launch the TL from low-speed corners with ease. Where a BMW 335xi, an Audi S4, or even an automatic-equipped TL SH-AWD fall off into wait-for-it understeer, the manual TL simply stays neutral, even slinking its tail out a little if you get aggressive on corner entry.
As a package, it's all pretty impressive. In a few small strokes, Acura has managed to reinvigorate its thoroughly ordinary midsize four-door for relatively little effort. Fuel economy isn't claimed to suffer, and all predictions have the manual TL's MSRP as being identical to that of the automatic-equipped version. And while it may not send the brand's sales through the roof, it's a sign that a healthy enthusiast heart is still beating in the company that once gave us gems like the Integra Type R. As far as the manual TL is concerned, there's only one real disappointment: it comes with a twelve-month wait.