Front wheel drive sucks. Case in point: the Acura TL. Here's a perfectly good car ruined by the simple fact that its front wheels have to steer and propel at the same time. Give the TL's gas pedal a shove, feed the engine some revs, unleash a bit of torque and, well, it's all a bit too much for the front tires. Traction takes a powder, taking with it any chance of giving the TL a proper thrashing. In fact, you can't even give the TL a mild slap on the wrist without a dramatic loss of steering control.
What a shame. While Toyota's Lexus has firmly established itself as a distinct and worthy competitor to Germany's finest, Acura is still trying to convince the world that an Acura is more than a Honda with a slightly bigger engine, leather, wood and a few toys. Which, in this case, it is. Anyway, given Honda's impeccable engineering and build quality, there's nothing particularly wrong with this "Acura as a posh Honda" product perception. But there's nothing particularly right with it either—especially when cachet (a.k.a. "snob value") sells cars in this segment.
The TL's exterior highlights Honda's struggle to raise Acura's game. Its designers have done everything possible to separate the Acura TL from its donor DNA: narrowed headlights, split front spoiler, indented swage line, raised side skirts, five-spoke alloys, rear lip spoiler, dual exhausts and sharper rear lights. The end result is… a Honda Accord with a bit of Alfa Romeo 156 thrown in. It's not a displeasing design, but it isn't terribly classy or, um, bling.
The TL's interior, by contrast, is both. High end materials have Cinderella-ed the Accord's cabin into a comfort zone as sharp as a Chanel suit— worn by Missy Elliott. Check out those hooded, backlit blue dials and glowing key slot. Safe! And if that's not massive enough, pop in a DVD-A and crank up the 5.1 Surround Sound. Yes, the new format means you have to buy all your favorite music again. But the TL's eight-channel audio attack easily justifies the re-re-re-investment. Until BOSE unleashes its own DVD-A system (with better bass response), Acura's boom box is about as good as it gets. If not better.
I wish I could say the same about the TL's driving dynamics. The trouble began the moment I slotted the test car's five-speed auto box into Drive. Er, Neutral. Wow! Who would have thought that Honda – sorry, Acura – could come up with a shift gate that rivals BMW's iDrive for counter-intuitive complexity? Once I figured out why I was going nowhere fast, I was free to explore the TL's heart and soul: its engine.
Honda makes some of the world's best engines: smooth, powerful, tractable, free-revving, frugal and clean. The TL's V6 powerplant is typical of the breed. Although the 3.2-liter engine stumps up only 30 more horses than the Accord's [optional] six, it's noticeably punchier throughout the rev range. The TL's two hundred and seventy horses (fed on Variable Valve Timing) fling the car from zero to sixty in a fraction under seven seconds– provided you can find a way to coax and baby the go pedal at the same time. Otherwise, you're right back where we started: Wheel Spin City.
To its credit, Acura's boffins have attempted to mitigate the problem with Vehicle Stability Assist and an electronic traction control system. No dice. In a straight line, the TL's nose squirm is annoying. Around corners, it's positively alarming. The defining handling characteristic of this pretender to the mid-sized sports sedan throne is neither understeer nor oversteer; it's no steer. Press-on drivers will need both sensitive hands and nerves of steel.
Bummer. Everything else about the TL's set-up is superb. The double wishbone front and rear suspension allows just the right amount of road feel, without a hint of discomfort. Four-way disc brakes combine consummate linear control with serious stopping power. (The six-speed manual adds Brembo brake calipers up front.) Overall body control is exemplary. Granted, the TL is not a focused sports sedan in the 3-Series sense of the term. But if Acura had bitten the bullet and built a rear-wheel-drive TL, I reckon it could have given Munich's medium-sized meisterwerk a decent run for the money.
Ah yes, money. For value-driven buyers, the fully equipped Acura TL is a steal. It offers quality, reliability and every conceivable luxury for thousands less than anything else in its class, and much above. For the rest of us, the TL is maddeningly close to greatness. Luckily, it's only a matter of time before Honda/Acura follows Detroit's lead and converts its premium products to rear wheel drive. When that glorious day arrives, Acura will prove once and for all that it's ready to play with the big boys.