Thumbs Up: Impeccable build quality and all weather capability
Thumbs Down: Tires and transmission take away from car’s sporting potential
Buy This Car If: You want an utterly reliable and relatively amusing AWD sedan
The Acura TL has been one of those “cars I nearly purchased” since the third generation redesign for the 2004 model year. I drove it as soon as it hit dealer lots in 2003, but the 258 horsepower was simply too much for the front wheels to handle. It’s not that the car had problems with torque steer, it’s just that you couldn’t get on the gas with enthusiasm mid-corner, unless you liked lots of push. I bought a BMW 3 series instead. Fast forward a few years later, when reliability concerns forced me to sell the BMW just as the warranty ran out. I convinced myself that my next car would be an Acura TL; I drove it once again, but just couldn’t warm to the handling. I bought the smaller, more nimble TSX instead.
If Acura had offered the SH-AWD TL in the third generation, I probably would have opted for the TL over the TSX. The SH-AWD corrects all of the FWD TL’s handling flaws, and it’s a very comfortable ride. It leans more towards luxury than sport, but the SH-AWD TL still provides drivers with reasonable expectations amusement behind the wheel. It’s also got one of my all time favorite interiors and audio systems.
Acura restyled the TL for the fourth generation, launched in the 2009 model year. The exterior follows the same unconventional design as the rest of the Acura lineup. Love it or hate it (and very few people are undecided on the TL’s looks), there’s no mistaking that the TL comes from Honda’s premium brand. From the metallic, chevron-shaped grille to the slanting headlights and slash cut driving lights, the TL makes a unique design statement, and the chevron theme is carried over to the rear spoiler and trunk lid trim as well. The last generation TL was sexy but bland; whether the new generation is sexy or not is the subject of debate, but no one can call it bland.
Climb behind the wheel, and you’ll quickly realize that the new TL improves what was already one of the industry’s best interiors. The supple leather seats are comfortable enough to drive from coast to coast, stopping only for Starbucks and bathrooms. They still manage to provide sufficient bolstering for spirited driving, and are heated for all weather comfort. The driver gets an inflatable lumbar cushion, but the passenger goes without. Also missing from the TL is seat ventilation; it’s not really necessary, but it is expected once you reach the TL’s price point.
The rear seats are deeply dished and offer plenty of head and leg room. I can’t imagine anyone objecting to spending time in the back, whether the trip is cross town or cross country. Rear seat passengers get dedicated HVAC vents, and the rear headrests fold out of the way to increase driver visibility when not in use. There’s a pass through from the trunk to accommodate oversized items such as skis, but the rear seats don’t fold flat to offer additional cargo room. If you routinely haul items that require an oversized trunk, the TL may not work for you. On the other hand, there’s plenty of conventional trunk space and the trunk opening is low and wide to facilitate loading.
The dash is a pleasing blend of shapes, textures and materials. A screen printed plastic is used on lower portions of the dash and console, and gives the TL a “high tech” look. Some have complained that this looks artificial, but I find it more visually appealing than fake wood grain plastic or even aluminum colored plastic. I appreciate the TL’s separate controls and display for the audio system, nav system and climate control, and I found the nav interface especially easy to use. Believe all the hype you’ve heard about the sound system in the TL; it really is that good and will probably sound clearer than the system you have at home, unless you driving speakers that cost as much as the TL with tube amps.
The three spoke steering wheel is a very comfortable size and shape, and controls for the audio system, phone, cruise control and driver information display are well placed. The leather wrapped shift knob allows the driver to select Drive for normal automatic transmission operation, or Sequential for manual gear selection via paddle shifters. The sequential mode also operates like a conventional automatic transmission if the paddle shifters aren’t used, but extends the range of gears 2 though 4 for smoother stop and go driving in traffic.
I’ve always loved the simple but sporty layout of the TL’s instrumentation, which features four gauges (temp, tachometer, speedometer, fuel gauge) set in deep binnacles with aluminum colored trim. The center of the tach and speedometer also have displays for warning lights, and the manual gear indicator sits at the base of the tach. A shift position indicator splits the tach and speedometer, and an LCD driver information display sits above and between the two.
The SH-AWD version of the TL comes with a 3.7 liter V6, good for 305 horsepower, which is 25 horsepower more than the 3.5 liter in the front driver version puts out. The SH-AWD can run from zero to sixty in 6.7 seconds, which is about the same as the FWD version. In other words, the 25 additional ponies compensate for the weight of the AWD system, and you only get a 1 mpg penalty for choosing the AWD version. My AWD tester was rated at 17 city, 25 highway, and I saw an average of 18.4 mpg in mixed city and highway driving. Enthusiastic driving, I should point out, which leads me to agree with the EPA ratings for the average driver.
I was really impressed with the wet weather handling of the SH-AWD platform. We don’t get much snow or cold weather in northern Florida, but we do get monsoon style rains that can flood streets in a matter of minutes. I took the TL through its paces in some particularly nasty weather, and the car never stepped out of line at limits most drivers would call sane. When pushed to the limit on dry pavement, the SH-AWD TL was hampered by all season radial tires that lacked sufficient grip for enthusiastic driving, and by the delayed shift action from the steering wheel mounted paddle shifters. In both cases, these flaws could easily be overcome by offering an “S” version of the TL on the SH-AWD platform. Re-calibrate the paddle shift software to bang off quicker shifts, offer a summer only tire option and stiffen up the suspension, and the TL would be a whole new animal.
My SH-AWD Tech Package tester had a sticker price of $43,195 including destination charge. It was loaded with features such as factory nav with voice recognition, rearview camera, sport seats, 10 speaker surround sound stereo, Real Time traffic and weather updates, power moonroof, dual zone climate and humidity control and XM Radio. By comparison, a comparably equipped Infiniti G37x would sticker at $43,185, and a comparable BMW 328i xDrive would sticker at $49,175.
The 2010 Acura TL SH-AWD is a very comfortable car, and it’s a very safe car, having received five star ratings in every government crash test. The only reason it’s not an IIHS Top Safety Pick is simply because they haven’t tested roof strength yet, but I’m sure the TL will pass without issue. If comfort, reliability and safety are your big three hot buttons, then the Acura TL SH-AWD may be the sedan you’ve been looking for. If you throw “sporty” or “fun to drive when the road tightens up” in to the mix, the TL may not float your boat. I don’t see this as a problem for Honda, I see it as an opportunity to produce a TL Type S. When they do, I’ll be the first in line to drive it.