2010 Acura TL SH-AWD 6MT

Sam Smith
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2010 Acura TL SH-AWD 6MT

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.

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