Driven: 2012 Acura TL SH-AWD

By Seyth Miersma

March 28, 2011

—Austin, Texas

Any of you that read the monthly instantiation of Winding Road’s digital magazine, are likely to have digested your author’s wide-ranging diatribe about the styling of this new-for-2012 Acura TL. For those of you that haven’t (and who aren’t interested in following the link above), we’ll summarize by saying that the styling of the new TL is decidedly more mainstream than the outgoing model, if a little less daring. Beyond that we’ll leave comment of the car’s new exterior design up to you, after perusing our gallery of images, in the “comments” section, below. Have at it.

With the argument about the TL’s reskin thusly pawned off, it remains to be said that this is, mechanically, a car that is very similar to the model that you have been able to buy for the last few years. That’s almost entirely a good thing, we think, as the TL has been providing, albeit somewhat under the radar, a fine alternative to German mid-size luxury cars for some time now. We don’t make that statement lightly, either, as the competition in question is quite good, and Acura’s reputation is, at best, a bit confused in the minds of many buyers/drivers these days.

So, short of the not-to-be-mentioned-again nose job (last one, promise), what’s new for 2012? The biggest change for the driver is a new six-speed automatic transmission, which can be operated via the same wheel-mounted paddle shifters found in the last version (or via the central gearlever, if you prefer). We found the action of the sixer autobox to be relatively rapid and good to use, though not entirely different in a back-road situation than the five-speed affair that preceded it. The big wins for the new transmission are a slightly more refined (meaning quiet) character on the highway, and better fuel economy.

The added mpgs are more significant for the 3.5-liter V-6 engine, than they are for the 3.7-liter motor found in the SH-AWD, though. The smaller engine gets a host of tricky friction-reducing technologies, in addition to a revised intake system, to garner economy ratings of 20/29 miles per gallon, in the city and on the highway, respectively. That highway number represents a gain of 3 mpg over the 2010 car. The 305-horsepower 3.7-liter, meanwhile, only nets 1 extra mpg for both city and highway driving (18/26 mpg total). For reference, the lighter, smaller BMW 335i xDrive is rated at 17 mpg in the city and 27 on the highway when equipped with the six-speed automatic.

And that BMW comparison is apt, we think, given that the TL remains Acura’s very best driver’s car, and a good one, at that. Focusing almost all of our time and energies toward driving the larger-engined SH-AWD version of the TL, we came away with the renewed opinion that car is an enthusiast gem that deserves more of a share of the spotlight.

Two winters ago we were able to test, and then testify to the abilities of Acura’s AWD system in very adverse conditions, but our trip to Texas this time proved that SH-AWD is most fun in the dry. With an aggressive route plotted though Austin’s aptly named “hill country,’ we pushed the grippy TL over tight and winding roads that do a passable impression of SoCal’s vaunted canyon fare. With a lot of tight cornering and elevation change to push through, we were basically never able to force the TL into giving up its super-sucker grip on the road. Certainly the 245-cross-section Goodyear Eagle tires had a lot to do with that stickiness (that’s the width of tire for every TL model, front- and all-wheel-drive, by the way), but the torque-vectoring system was an absolute wonder in keeping power flowing to the right wheel, too. Mid-corner, no matter the speed, we had the sensation of being pulled around the apex, rather than the sort of controlled, sliding, loss of traction that is the norm a these velocities. It’s probably important to note then, that those who simply prefer the looser, less controlled experience of a well-balanced rear-driver won’t be in some way “fooled” by the SH-AWD experience. The system wants only to maximize grip at speed, and doesn’t mess with trying to impersonate a rear-wheel-drive car.

Even with the relative heaviness of the all-wheel-drive system taken into account, the TL manages to feel a lot smaller than it is. To start, much of the mass of the 3900-pound car is disguised by low-effort steering that is exceptionally responsive. The car’s willingness to rotate is exaggerated (in a positive way) by the fast-acting nature of turn-in. And, while many drivers don’t care for the artificial feeling created by a highly boosted power steering setup, the TL’s lightweight action doesn’t server to remove one too much from the experience while at speed. Still, it would be nice if the weighting were more natural here. Volume of steering inputs from the tires and road are pretty average for the class—you won’t get much more information from a BMW, or much less from an Audi. Still, many people equate high-effort steering with being “premium,” which is how the German companies often win enthusiasts to their cause.

We experienced the same very well balanced ride/handling profile that we’d come to expect from the last TL, with what could be appropriately labeled as a “medium-firm” ride for this class of car. There’s more feedback, and less cosseting from the suspension than you’d find in mid-sizers from Lexus (or Toyota, for that matter), though we didn’t experience the sort of racecar firmness we’ve come to expect from true performance sedans like the M3, or the S4. Clearly this kind of tuning is aimed more at the sport-seeking driver than the luxury-seeking one.

A similar ethos can be seen and felt in the cabin of the TL, which remains exactly as we remember it. That means an upscale blend of leather and metal finishes, along with the very serious-looking, but ultimately easy-to-use central stack. There are loads of buttons to be found here, but the combination of steering wheel controls and voice controls make it pretty easy to keep one’s focus on the road ahead. We also found the seats remarkably supportive and comfortable, though drivers that are slightly skinnier than us may want for thicker bolsters (or better control of the existing bolsters). By and large we felt properly ensconced, but without sacrificing forward visibility.

And, though we had far too little time with the one test car made available on this trip, we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention that Acura is bringing back the manual-transmission-equipped SH-AWD model for 2012. If we could, we’d wave our magic wand and make every enthusiast-leaning shopper of the mid-size premium segment take a test drive in this cog-swapping dream. The transmission is good enough to be transformative in a car that is already plenty fun to drive—short of throw, with smooth, substantial action between gears and almost inerrant precision—and we certainly applaud Acura for making it available again. Mark our words: very few of these will end up being sold, and the stick-shift TL SH-AWD will become a cult classic.

When we reviewed the 2009 TL, we were pushed to compare it closely to the BMW 3-Series, both because of the close pricing and the car’s smaller handling abilities. It’s probably fair to mention, though, the this TL is actually in the size/horsepower class as cars like the A6 3.0T and BMW 535i xDrive, despite being stickered at thousands of dollars less. That’s a dollar/content relationship that we think works out very well for Acura, and one that should be getting more attention.

Redesign? What redesign?

2012 Acura TL SH-AWD 6AT
Engine: V-6, 3.7 liters, 24v
Output: 305 hp/273 lb-ft
0-60 MPH: 5.6 sec (est)
Weight: 3968 lb
Fuel Economy, City/Hwy: 18/26 mpg
Base Price: $39,155
On Sale: Now