Pity Acura. Honda gambled in creating the first Asian luxury brand, and enjoyed four years in the spotlight when this bet paid off, only to then be completely overshadowed by Lexus. Acura has spent the last two decades trying to regain car buyers’ attention. The logical solution: offer cars that look and drive like no others. But what is distinctive it not necessarily desirable. And so we have the Acura TL SH-AWD.
There are over six billion people in the world. Six of them might find the current Acura TL more attractive than its predecessor. This car introduced the cheese slicer grille that has since spread to Acura’s other models. Can’t remember the grille on earlier Acuras? Well, that’s the problem Acura sought to fix, and the new menacing face is certainly distinctive. But sometimes the cure is worse than the disease. One suggested solution: opt for silver paint, so that the grille will blend in.
The problem with this solution: light colors accentuate the massive block of sheetmetal ahead of the TL’s front wheels. This unfortunate overhang, yet another sign that the “man maximum, machine minimum” Honda is no longer with us, is best mitigated by darker colors and the 18-inch alloys optional on the base TL and standard on the SH-AWD. So, light or dark? Well, in dark colors the TL’s crisply chiseled shoulders and fashionably arching roofline are somewhat attractive from some angles, which is better than unattractive from all angles. So dark.
Acura continues to stake out a position between mainstream brands and true luxury brands with the quality of its interior materials. It’s a clear step up from, say, a Nissan Maxima, but about even with Buick and no match for Lexus or the Germans. The TL’s interior styling is somewhat sporty, with a “high tech” ambiance, but even with the faux wood on the center console it feels overwhelmingly plastic and lacking in warmth. One glaring oversight: sunlight often washes out the LCD display for the HVAC and audio systems.
One clear strength: the front seats excel in both comfort and lateral support. Thick C-pillars impede the view rearward, but relatively thin A-pillars and a properly-sized and -positioned instrument panel contribute to an confidence-inspiring view over the hood (if not the wide open view that used to be part of Honda’s DNA). The TL’s 195.3-inch length, nearly equal the RL’s, affords decent rear legroom, though the arched roofline precludes a comfortably high rear seat cushion. The conventionally-hinged trunk isn’t expansive, and the rear seat does not fold to expand it.
GM might have finally caved to logic and introduced a modern rear-wheel-drive sedan platform eight years ago, but “innovative” Honda stubbornly sticks with front-wheel-drive. For those applications where front-wheel-drive just won’t do, Acura lately follows Audi with all-wheel-drive. And so the TL is offered in two forms: front-wheel-drive with a 280-horsepower 3.5-liter V6 and all-wheel-drive with a 305-horsepower 3.7-liter. I drove the TL to compare it to the 280-horsepower front-wheel-drive Buick LaCrosse and 290-horsepower front-wheel-drive Nissan Maxima. I opted to drive the TL in SH-AWD form anyway. Why? Because I have a pulse.
Most cars these days, even some acclaimed German sport sedans, feel lazy in day-to-day driving. Their engines and steering systems react slowly and deliberately to inputs, lest they prove tiresome in traffic or on the highway. All-wheel-drive tends to further dull a car’s handling by removing throttle inputs from the equation.
Well, the Acura TL SH-AWD is a refreshing departure from this norm. Blip the throttle, and the lusty, sweet-sounding six immediately snaps you back into your seat. Twitch the small diameter steering wheel even a few degrees, and the chassis similarly reacts RIGHT NOW. The steering doesn’t provide much feedback, but it is quick and firm. Through a rear differential that spins the outside wheel faster than the inside wheel, the all-wheel-drive system contributes to rather than detracts from the dynamism of the chassis. Pair this differential with the strong, responsive V6, and enjoy easily controllable oversteer on demand, a rarity with all-wheel-drive. Thanks to its nose-heavy weight distribution, the TL has an inherent predisposition to understeer, but this is readily overcome. Overcome it overly much, and the stability control kicks in unobtrusively. Even Buick now offers an active rear differential, but Acura’s is far more dramatic than others in its effects.
The transmission is the drivetrain’s weakest link. Shifts aren’t the smoothest, manual shifting is available only via paddles and not the shift lever, and there are only five ratios (in case you needed another clue that Honda’s mission has drifted). Honda recently introduced its first six-speed automatic in the MDX and ZDX, well behind even Chrysler. Perhaps the TL will get this transmission soon. A six-speed manual is available with the SH-AWD, and Honda continues to engineer excellent shifters, but good luck finding a dealer with one in stock.
All in all, the TL SH-AWD is a surprisingly fun car to drive. So why aren’t all cars this responsive? Taut tuning has a price. The TL’s immediate responses to even the smallest inputs would prove tiresome to the non-furious in traffic or on the highway. The ride is very firm, even brutal. Typical of Acura, road noise levels are higher than the luxury car norm. Buick, much less Lexus, has little to fear here.
Ultimately, the Acura TL falls between two stools. Enthusiasts want a more compact car with a more even weight distribution. As well as the SH-AWD system compensates for the TL’s inherent understeer, an inherently balanced chassis would be even better. Non-enthusiasts want a smoother, quieter, more relaxed ride. Both groups want a more attractive exterior and higher quality interior. Honda now seems to realize that it has lost its way, so the next TL should include fewer potential deal-killers. Hopefully the current car’s outstanding responses aren’t refined away in the process.
Michael Karesh owns and operates TrueDelta, an online source of automotive pricing and reliability data