At first glance, East Liberty is one of those sleepy Midwestern towns you find 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. Welcome to the Honda-owned, 4500-acre Transportation Research Center.
Acura invited us to the TRC for a track-only drive of its 2010 TL SH-AWD 6MT prototype. 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. Like other SH-AWD models, the TL SH-AWD currently isn't offered with a manual, but Acura engineers claim that the transmission swap transforms the car. Surprisingly, they're right.
The manual TL SH-AWD benefits from the same 305-hp V-6 and balanced weight distribution that its automatic sister does, but its biggest advantage lies in its chassis. What was a slightly lazy sedan has morphed into a drift-happy, throttle-adjustable track hound. Steering remains a little light and vague, and clutch takeup is slightly spongy, but overall, the manual version of the hottest TL feels like a much sharper beast. Part of the about-face can be attributed to minor chassis surgery - everything from front suspension tuning (softer) to engine mountings (stiffer) was tweaked to accommodate the new gearbox's lighter weight - but most of it is simple physics. With the automatic TL's mushy torque converter and slushbox deep-sixed, the Super Handling system is remarkably undiluted. The system's biggest asset, its Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution-like active rear differential, now responds to throttle changes in a heartbeat, allowing you to catapult the TL from low-speed corners with ease. Where a BMW 335i xDrive or an automatic-equipped TL SH-AWD fall off into understeer, the manual TL simply stays wonderfully neutral. And while the complete package is a whole year off, if you have a functional left leg, it's more than worth the wait.