Once upon a time, I mistook an automotive journalist for a member of ZZ Top. After a proper introduction, L.J.K. Setright subjected me to a twenty-minute lecture on the Euro-Accord’s five-spoke wheels. He was deeply offended by the fact that the lug nuts didn’t line up with the spokes. I got the message: people who truly understand and appreciate engineering excellence are wrapped WAY too tight. And yet, the desire for a meticulously designed automobile transcends geekery. The market rewards over-engineering– or at least the aura of over-engineering (cough Mercedes cough). In that sense, the Acura brand is not without inherent appeal– despite the TL’s inability to live up to the marque’s upmarket aspirations. Which is a fancy way of saying the TL is an epic fail.
You don’t need a degree to reach that conclusion. Let’s put it this way: when a buff book says a car’s looks are “a matter of personal taste,” you know it’s Medusa-class ugly. Personally, I don’t find the Acura TL’s smiling snow plow prow grossly objectionable. Not like, say, a maggot-ridden squirrel carcass. The TL’s snout is a bit… ungainly. Like a confused squirrel before it gets run over. The TL’s central crease– an over-literal interpretation of “cutting edge”– is just plain silly. The car’s profile shows the design team how it should have been done. It’s subtle, elegant and vaguely European; a striking differentiation from the mass market machine with which the TL shares a platform.
Yes, there is that. Suffice it to say, there’s more than aesthetically challenged sheetmetal to separate the sibs. The TL offers a few extra inches of lebensraum here and there. The TL’s materials are also suitably luxe, except for the buttons, which are not. (L.J.K. would have had a conniption over the power outlet cover’s herky-jerky sliding action.) The TL’s meaty steering wheel and hooded dials are the cabin’s finest hour. But there’s no disguising the fact that there’s no “there” there. The TL is as generic as a blank box of Kleenex.
Lurking within the TL’s all-too-familiar interior: enough gizmology to annihilate the car’s resale value in ten years or less. I mean, mandate an hour-long handover and at least five post-purchase phone calls. I’m slightly skeptical about some of the toys’ utility. Why would I want to burn CDs onto a built-in hard drive when I can just plug-in my iPhone? The more I use voice recognition systems the less I use them. (Although I’m always amused by a car’s answers to life’s big questions. What’s the meaning of life? “XM channel 18 on.”) And if I can upload ten images to wallpaper the nav screen, why can’t I create a slideshow? Or can I? GPS-linked climate control? Real-time power distribution meter?
Ah yes, power. A 3.7-liter V6 powers the top spec (of the two) TL. With 305hp and 273 lbs.ft of torque on tap, the TL makes a powerful case for itself as a performance sedan. In theory. In reality, the TL’s engine is a sonic affront at anything less than 5000rpm. Whiny. Tinny. Cheap. Although the TL’s five-speed autobox has a class-leading ratio spread (how’s that for a boast?), it’s a couple of bolts short of class-compliant silkiness. Traditionally, steering feel is a Honda/Acura strong suit. In this case, the electric variable power-assisted helm is, as the Brits say, pants. The TL’s brakes are effective enough, hauling the porky four-door down from speed with fade-free confidence. But the stoppers are numb in both initial bite and subsequent modulation.
Ask any Lexus driver: a novocain nature is not the worst thing that can happen to a car. Which is why the TL’s suspension is such a shock. Literally. As far as I can tell, K Mart supplied the Acura’s independent double wishbone (front) and independent multilink (rear) components. The TL’s 18″ wheels and all-season rubber crash and thump over the slightest imperfection. At city speeds, the TL feels nervous. Jumpy. Cheap. It’s an unforgivable sin for a car cresting the $30k mark.
The only possible justification for a ride that reminds me of the last gen GT-R: super handling. While the all wheel-drive part of the TL equation keeps the Acura planted, the two-ton sedan feels more like an oak than a willow through the bends. Worse, the seats don’t offer enough bolstering when you get stuck in. The TL’s sweet spinning six delivers a lovely grinding growl at maximum revs, but there’s only one situation where the TL feels the equal of a BMW 3-Series. No wait, there isn’t.
As L.J.K. would tell you, a well-engineered car adheres to a coherent philosophy. By trying to be everything to everyone, the TL is nothing in particular to anyone, save expensive. Back to the drawing board, then. Next time, start with the wheels.