Even if the Acura TL SH-AWD 6MT were not a good car, it would still deserve our support as the only upscale midsize sedan available with both all-wheel-drive and a manual transmission in North America. Even BMW has vacated this space. You can still get the 5-Series with either all-wheel-drive or a manual transmission, but not both in the same car. If you need all-weather capability and ample space for four adults, but also want to row your own, the TL is it. So, what are you stuck with?
The 2004-2008 Acura TL was an astonishingly attractive car. There was nothing flashy about the exterior, but its athletic proportions, its angular (but not too angular) lines, its size—everything was just right. But then the Accord was super-sized, and took its Acura platform mate with it. At the same time, Honda had somehow received the message that its designs were too subtle. So the 2009 TL was cursed with bulky bodysides, pointy ends, and a chunky chrome cheese grater for a grille. A unique look, certainly, but also one with many vocal critics. For 2012 the pointy ends have been blunted and the grille genericized, yielding a blander exterior that, while still not likely to inspire lust, should at least blend safely into the crowd.
The 2012 TL’s interior received no readily evident changes. So the atmosphere remains high-tech and the materials semi-premium, roughly on a level with Buick and Lincoln. Ergonomics are first rate, with the secondary controls logically arranged and close at hand. Many functions are handled via a large knob mounted just ahead of the shifter—so close that I bumped it a couple of times while grabbing third. The instrument panel isn’t nearly as low or compact as those in classic Hondas, but the A-pillars are thin by current standards, the windshield rake and instrument panel depth are both moderate, and the view forward is open. The view rearward is compromised by the high tail and sweeping roofline, but this is typical of current sedans. The nav system includes a rearview monitor to aid in rearward maneuvers.
While other auto makers shape and space their front bucket seats’ side bolsters to fit the average NFL linebacker, those in the TL are shaped and positioned to actually provide lateral support for the average adult. Yet the thickly padded seats are also comfortable unless your posture is more upright than most, in which case the headrests jut too far forward. In the rear seat, knee room is plentiful and headroom sufficient for adults up to 6-2 or so. The shortcomings here: minimal toe space under the front seats and a cushion that’s a little too close to the floor. At 12.5 cubic feet, the trunk is small, especially considering the 194-by-74-inch exterior. And, as in other Asian upscale sedans, the rear seats don’t fold to expand it. The glove compartment and center console are similarly minimal.
Honda’s engine technology remains about a decade behind the bleeding edge, so there’s no boost and no direct injection. While even “nothing wrong with pushrods” GM finally coughed up the nickles for DOHC, Honda remains wedded to a Rube Goldberg valvetrain that connects the dozen valves in each head to a single belt-driven cam. So the valleys between said valves aren’t as deep as they’d optimally be. No matter. While 305 horsepower is on the low side for a modern, premium-burning 3.7-liter engine, the big V6 delivers where it counts, with strong, immediate responses and a song that gets sweeter the closer you get to the 6,700 rpm redline. Even without a turbo it’s possible to get to sixty in well under six seconds. GM’s, Ford’s, and Hyundai’s V6s might employ more recent technology, and Infiniti’s might be stronger, but the Acura powerplant sounds and feels the best in this bunch. But when you don’t want to hear the engine, you don’t. When cruising at highway speeds the exhaust, so throaty at full throttle, is barely audible. Despite a 3,889-pound curb weight and all-wheel-drive, fuel economy isn’t bad, either, with low twenties reported by the trip computer in suburban driving. (The EPA reports 17/25.)
Though not the engineering powerhouse it used to be, Honda remains the master in a few areas, and manual transmissions are one of them. Despite some softening in the car’s overall character, the TL’s six-speed shifter retains short throws that positively engage each gear with the direct, mechanical feel of a rifle bolt. Though clearly under pressure to cater to a broader market, Honda’s engineers drew the line here. The gear ratios are near ideal, with a short first gear then a minimal drop with each shift. While it would have been easy given the minimal sales potential to toss a manual transmission into the car and call it a day, someone clearly sweated the details.
The TL’s all-wheel-drive system, though largely unchanged since it debuted in the 2005 Acura RL, similarly remains the standard towards which other manufacturers should aspire. Perhaps if Acura’s marketers had coined a catchier trademark than “SH-AWD” (doesn’t quite roll off the tongue the way “quattro” does) the engineers would receive the recognition they deserve. While active rear differentials intended to provide all-wheel-drive cars with the feel of a rear-driver have become increasingly common, they often fail to make a substantial difference. Acura’s system goes a step further than simply shunting torque to the outside rear wheel—it actually spins this wheel a little faster than the others. Get on the gas through a curve, and the effect is readily evident. Like the best rear-wheel-drive cars, the TL can be precisely steered with the throttle. Despite the TL’s decidedly nose-heavy 58/42 weight distribution, underteer is minimal to begin with. With even a touch of acceleration it’s gone altogether. Press on and the chassis progressively transitions into oversteer.
And then you run up against the not-so-good changes. Last year the car was available with sticky 245/40YR19 Michelin PS2s. For 2012 these have been replaced with 245/40VR19 Goodyear Eagle RS-As that, according to the Acura flacks, “offer significantly improved performance in snow and ice.” What they also offer: much less grip and squishier steering feel on dry pavement. Adding insult to injury, the 19s are now only available together with a blind spot warning system and cooled front seats as part of the Advance Package, and this package is only available with the new-for-2012 six-speed automatic transmission. There’s now only one tire available with the manual: 245/45VR18 Michelin Pilot HX MXM4s. A touring tire, these readily (and loudly) give way when subjected to more than half of the capability of the drivetrain. Go for a quick corner exit, and the rear end rolls over into a mushy slide. If they were going to make only one tire available in conjunction with a clutch, it shouldn’t have been this one.
The aforementioned roll indicates that all isn’t quite right with the suspension tuning, either. The suspension is far from soft, with a somewhat lumpy, busy ride. The 2010 I drove a couple years ago felt harsher, but the suspension tuning supposedly remains the same so this is probably because the 2012 car is quieter. Bumps are still felt, but they aren’t so much heard. Despite this firm tuning, when pushed the car doesn’t feel as tied down or as precise as the best, partly because the body structure isn’t as solid, and body roll is especially evident at the rear end in hard turns. While the TL initially feels responsive and agile thanks to quick steering and the trick AWD system, push it and those inches and pounds make themselves known.
The 2010’s electric-assist system didn’t provide much in the way of road feel, but at least it had a heft commensurate with its quickness. For 2012 they’ve lightened the SH-AWD’s special steering calibration to, in the words of the press release, “generate a more relaxed on-center feel at normal road speeds— a steering feel that more closely matches that of the front-wheel-drive TL.” More relaxed? Try comatose. There’s now a dead zone on-center that, in combination with the quick ratio, makes it too easy to dial in too much angle. Even off center and at higher speeds the lobotomized steering never approaches its former firm feel. Some manual transmission intender asked for this?
If you want a 2012 Acura TL SH-AWD 6MT, then it’s going to list for $43,770. With the manual transmission the Tech Package (with nav and ELS audio) is mandatory while the Advance Package is not available. As mentioned in the intro, there are no direct competitors to this car. The closest match: an Audi S4, which has tighter handling but also a tighter interior. Equipped like the TL SH-AWD Tech, the Audi lists for over $12,000 more. Adjusting for feature differences using TrueDelta’s car price comparison tool narrows the gap to just under $11,000.
Don’t need the premium brand or the perks that attend it? Then (as some readers reminded me below) Subaru offers the Legacy GT (or at least did in 2011; changes for the 2012 haven’t been announced). The LGT with nav lists for $9,600 less, and adjusting for feature differences cuts this to about $6,800. There’s actually more room inside the Legacy, but the interior materials and driving experience aren’t what they were in the 2005-2009 car.
My criticisms notwithstanding, the Acura TL is a good car, even a very good car. If you need the traction of all-wheel-drive and a midsize interior, but also want to have fun, this is your car. Nothing beats a manual transmission for driver involvement, and the TL’s is one of the best. The highly responsive engine and chassis similarly encourage uncivil behavior. But the TL could have been a great car. The engine, transmission, and drivetrain carry the ball within a couple yards of the goal line, only to have the steering and tires promptly fumble it. With the 2012 revisions, Acura has tried to address the shortcomings of the 2009-2011 car, but it’s hard to see what they were thinking with these tweaks. The powertrain remains optimized for driver involvement, while the lighter steering and mandatory touring tires do a mushy 180 in the other direction. Tires, of course, can be swapped in an hour. With any luck, it’s also possible to have a dealer reflash the steering system with the 2010 software. So perhaps these changes for the worse can easily be reversed. But to put so much brilliance and sweat into the powertrain and then hobble it makes me wonder about Acura. Who do they think this car is for? Unless they’re trying to kill what remains of 6MT sales (and perhaps they are), they should pair the SH-AWD with tighter, more communicative steering and stickier, sharper-handling treads pronto. Marketers can’t identify the tastes of the target buyer? Just ask the engineer who fine-tuned the transmission or the one who dreamed up the trick differential what he’d like in his car.
Acura provided the vehicle, insurance and one tank of gas for this review.
Michael Karesh operates TrueDelta, an online source of automotive pricing and reliability data.