Thumbs Up: Fast, comfortable and quiet; a GT car with a bargain price tag.
Thumbs Down: Improved automatic transmission still disappoints.
Buy This Car If: You’re looking for a solid bargain in a luxury sport sedan.
It’s easy to jump on the Honda / Acura bashing bandwagon these days, and many critics feel that Honda has lost its way. While concessions were made to get the new Civic to market at a certain price point, in a certain time frame, the 2012 Acura TL is proof that the automaker still listens to its customers and still builds aspirational cars.
When the fourth generation Acura TL was released in 2009, nearly everyone panned the car for it’s odd and unpleasant styling. While the car resembled a Nissan Maxima from the side, the front styling left even fans of the marque cold. The previous generation TL’s front end had been pleasantly conservative, but the new car’s “beak” grill was an exercise in over-the-top styling.
Enter the 2012 Acura TL, which has now been reshaped to provide a more mainstream look. It’s still distinctive, but it’s no longer unpleasant, and while the car may not be as handsome as the third generation, the styling will no longer keep buyers out of showrooms.
The other big change for 2012 is a six-speed automatic transmission, which replaces last year’s five speed gearbox. The new unit is said to boost both performance and efficiency, and features rev-matching on downshift, with the required change in engine speed handled by the ECU. It’s a multi-clutch design as well, but don’t get the impression that it’s a properly sporting transmission. Even in “Sport” mode, shifts executed via paddle shifter are positively glacial in speed, which negates the advantage of providing paddle shifters in the first place. For the true enthusiast, however, Honda offers the TL SH-AWD (for Super Handling, All Wheel Drive) with a six-speed manual transmission as well.
If you’re looking for other complaints about the Acura TL from this reviewer, you won’t find any. In every other regard, the TL SH-AWD is absolutely superb, and would be near the very top of my list for cross-country road trip cars. It’s almost obscenely comfortable, it handles better than you’d expect from a car of its size and it’s nearly as quiet inside as a Buick. Better yet, all controls are laid out in a logical fashion, and have a great tactile feel. The Acura TL is one of those rare automobiles that feel like you’re getting more content than you should be, given the price on the sticker.
Inside, the front sport seats (part of the Tech package) are designed for day-long comfort, yet provide a substantial amount of bolstering for spirited driving. The leather is soft but substantial, and matches what you’d find in cars costing thousands more from other manufacturers. The driver gets a 10-way power seat (with memory), while the passenger still enjoys an 8-way power seat. As you’d expect, front seats are heated, and cars equipped with the Advance package (like my Acura-supplied tester) also get perforated leather front seats with fans for cooling.
Rear seat passengers also get premium leather seating, but go without the benefits of seat heating and cooling. The TL can carry five passengers (on short trips, anyways), but cross-country hauls are best limited to four passengers. The TL is a large sedan, so there’s plenty of leg, shoulder and head room for rear-seat passengers.
Dash layout of the TL is superb, with controls for the audio system, HVAC system and nav system separate and intuitive. All controls have a high quality feel to them, and the steering wheel of the TL is equally impressive in layout and hand feel. Some complain about the TL’s painted plastic trim, but I’d much rather look at this than at oddly colored fake wood or glossy black plastic. If you’re the kind of driver impressed by wood (or fake wood), the TL likely won’t appeal to you. On the other hand, if you’re more concerned with actual performance, comfort and amenities, the TL will probably impress you with the amount of content delivered for the price.
The TL’s instruments are designed to convey the car’s sporting intentions, and the four primary readouts (temperature, tachometer, speedometer and fuel) are contained in separate, silver-trimmed pods. In between is a driver information display, which will show the usual trip information but can also display the amount of power being sent to each wheel (in case you like to keep track of such things).
Under the hood, SH-AWD models come with Acura’s 3.7-liter V-6, good for 305 horsepower and 273 lb.-ft. of torque. That may not sound like much, but it’s enough to get the big TL from zero to sixty in under 6 seconds, and the car feels even faster than that. For day-to-day driving, the standard “Drive” mode delivers reasonable performance and the best fuel economy. The EPA rates the TL SH-AWD at 18 mpg city and 26 mpg highway, and I saw an indicated 19.7 mpg in mostly city driving. When you want to stretch the TL’s legs, opting for “Sport” mode delays transmission upshifts to higher RPMs, and quickens the pace of gear changes. I wasn’t impressed with the function of the car’s paddle shifters, and most drivers will find that letting the TL shift for itself in Sport mode delivers the best results.
On the road, the TL is a strangely satisfying car to drive. I say “strangely satisfying” because it doesn’t really fit into any conventional category. It’s big and relatively heavy for a sport sedan, yet it feels more nimble than you’d expect. It’s as quiet as a luxury car, yet the ride is very connected, not isolated like a traditional luxury sedan. Front-drive TLs have always felt nose-heavy to me, the the SH-AWD models feel far more balanced than their weight distribution would have you believe. Take the TL SH-AWD into a corner at speed, and you’re met with an impressive amount of steering feel, grip and driver feedback that blend to inspire confidence in the TL’s capabilities. In fact, most drivers will run out of courage long before taxing the TL SH-AWD’s handling limits, on public roads at least.
So what does it all mean? The TL SH-AWD isn’t a car for the driver who wants to get from place to place as quickly as possible, and it won’t provide substantial entertainment on a race track. On the other hand, the combination of power, traction, ride quality and amenities make it an ideal long-distance hauler that isn’t averse to taking the scenic route, no matter how twisty the road may get. If you’ve written off Acura and you’ve only driven FWD TL’s in the past, the SH-AWD version is worth a test drive if you’re shopping for a luxury / sport sedan. It’s proof that Acura still builds cars for enthusiasts, and like many classic Hondas of years past, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.
My press fleet TL SH-AWD Advace package tester had a sticker price of $45,945, including a destination charge of $860. While Honda / Acura doesn’t break down package pricing, my car came equipped with both the Tech package (navigation system with voice recognition, rearview camera, real-time traffic & weather, sport seats, ELS surround sound audio, push-button ignition, GPS linked dual-zone climate control, keyless entry) and the Advance package (blind spot information system, ventilated front seats, 19-inch wheels with all-season tires). For comparison, a similarly-equipped BMW 535i xDrive would sticker for $60,425, while a comparable Infiniti M37x would list for $57,895.