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.