Review: 2010 Acura TL SH-AWD

Michael Karesh
by Michael Karesh
review 2010 acura tl sh awd

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

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4 of 103 comments
  • Malkiyyah Malkiyyah on Jul 19, 2010

    As one of the apparently few 2010 Acura TL owners, I feel compelled to weigh in. While I agree the styling is unusual, I personally think it looks great - striking lines with attractive detailing. And its not just me - at least once a week I'm stopped (at the carwash, in the grocery store parking lot, etc) and complimented on the vehicle. However, most of those people are younger - age seems to be a major factor in whether you like this car. Personally, I like being able to drive a luxury car that doesn't feel like I borrowed it from my grandmother. And at least in the tech version, the interior is luxe and lovely. Again, very modern, which some people may not like, but its certainly not cheap looking. Its well laid-out interior is comfortable both for me at 5'3" and for my husband who's a foot taller. So don't bash it unless you actually drive one. And while it may not be to your personal design taste, that doesn't make it crap.

    • See 1 previous
    • EChid EChid on Jul 22, 2010

      Somedude: I wouldn't take it that far. The Buick interiors are nice, but Acura still comes off better, and the build is still better. Plus, have you been in a CTS's interior? I'm sorry, I sat in one. It was disappointing, pretty cheap and had some nasty lines showing. Definitely not as good as Acura. And overpriced Accord? Umm, in that it uses the same platform? Beyond that, it uses a different engine, excellent AWD, offers a manual tranny where the Accord dare not and has a compeletely different driving dynamic over the Accord. I compared the two interiors too. Acura is still significantly better. Take a look at cars that compare on the power/tech/fun/equipement levels scale and few compare price-wise. The only way Buick is better is in the ride department, and that is a decision of the automaker. Plus, a Buick is an overpriced Opel, by your calculations, except their are very few changes. Oh, and the ES is an overpriced Camry, etc. The reason this car hasn't sold as well is because expensive cars with taught suspension are a niche market. Once people get up above $35k they expect smooth. This is also the same reason the Mazda 6 sells poorly. Ironically,if Acura went soft riding everyone would whine endlessly about the "good-old days" when Acura's where driver's cars and about how consumer demand is forcing every car company to make soft, isolated bubbles for cars. In a marketplace where Honda is becoming more and more of a follower and more mainstream, I'm glad to see they have one model remaining that at bucks their trend a little.

  • Speedlaw Speedlaw on Jul 21, 2010

    The huge grille looks OK on the MDX, but overwhelms the smaller TL. Sat in one recently, and while nice, the Bavarians still speak louder.

  • Keith Maybe my market's different. but 4.5k whack. Plus mods like his are just donations for the next owner. I'd consider driving it as a fun but practical yet disposable work/airport car if it was priced right. Some VAG's (yep, even Audis) are capable, long lasting reliable cars despite what the haters preach. I can't lie I've done the same as this guy: I had a decently clean 4 Runner V8 with about the same miles- I put it up for sale around the same price as the lower mile examples. I heard crickets chirp until I dropped the price. Folks just don't want NYC cab miles.
  • Max So GM will be making TESLAS in the future. YEA They really shouldn’t be taking cues from Elon musk. Tesla is just about to be over.
  • Malcolm It's not that commenters attack Tesla, musk has brought it on the company. The delivery of the first semi was half loaded in 70 degree weather hauling potato chips for frito lay. No company underutilizes their loads like this. Musk shouted at the world "look at us". Freightliners e-cascads has been delivering loads for 6-8 months before Tesla delivered one semi. What commenters are asking "What's the actual usable range when in say Leadville when its blowing snow and -20F outside with a full trailer?
  • Funky D I despise Google for a whole host of reasons. So why on earth would I willing spend a large amount of $ on a car that will force Google spyware on me.The only connectivity to the world I will put up with is through my phone, which at least gives me the option of turning it off or disconnecting it from the car should I choose to.No CarPlay, no sale.
  • William I think it's important to understand the factors that made GM as big as it once was and would like to be today. Let's roll back to 1965, or even before that. GM was the biggest of the Big Three. It's main competition was Ford and Chrysler, as well as it's own 5 brands competing with themselves. The import competition was all but non existent. Volkswagen was the most popular imported cars at the time. So GM had its successful 5 brands, and very little competition compared to today's market. GM was big, huge in fact. It was diversified into many other lines of business, from trains to information data processing (EDS). Again GM was huge. But being huge didn't make it better. There are many examples of GM not building the best cars they could, it's no surprise that they were building cars to maximize their profits, not to be the best built cars on the road, the closest brand to achieve that status was Cadillac. Anyone who owned a Cadillac knew it could have been a much higher level of quality than it was. It had a higher level of engineering and design features compared to it's competition. But as my Godfather used to say "how good is good?" Being as good as your competitors, isn't being as good as you could be. So, today GM does not hold 50% of the automotive market as it once did, and because of a multitude of reasons it never will again. No matter how much it improves it's quality, market value and dealer network, based on competition alone it can't have a 50% market share again. It has only 3 of its original 5 brands, and there are too many strong competitors taking pieces of the market share. So that says it's playing in a different game, therfore there's a whole new normal to use as a baseline than before. GM has to continue downsizing to fit into today's market. It can still be big, but in a different game and scale. The new normal will never be the same scale it once was as compared to the now "worlds" automotive industry. Just like how the US railroad industry had to reinvent its self to meet the changing transportation industry, and IBM has had to reinvent its self to play in the ever changing Information Technology industry it finds it's self in. IBM was once the industry leader, now it has to scale it's self down to remain in the industry it created. GM is in the same place that the railroads, IBM and other big companies like AT&T and Standard Oil have found themselves in. It seems like being the industry leader is always followed by having to reinvent it's self to just remain viable. It's part of the business cycle. GM, it's time you accept your fate, not dead, but not huge either.