Review: 2012 Acura TL SH-AWD 6MT

Michael Karesh
by Michael Karesh

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.

Michael Karesh
Michael Karesh

Michael Karesh lives in West Bloomfield, Michigan, with his wife and three children. In 2003 he received a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago. While in Chicago he worked at the National Opinion Research Center, a leader in the field of survey research. For his doctoral thesis, he spent a year-and-a-half inside an automaker studying how and how well it understood consumers when developing new products. While pursuing the degree he taught consumer behavior and product development at Oakland University. Since 1999, he has contributed auto reviews to Epinions, where he is currently one of two people in charge of the autos section. Since earning the degree he has continued to care for his children (school, gymnastics, tae-kwan-do...) and write reviews for Epinions and, more recently, The Truth About Cars while developing TrueDelta, a vehicle reliability and price comparison site.

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3 of 133 comments
  • Wayne Wayne on Sep 24, 2011

    Hi all, I am new to this site. I just went through an ordeal with this car. On memorial weekend this year I bought this very model from a dealer that is 30minutes away. Everything was great until the Friday right before Labor Day weekend I got a low oil light indicator came while on way to work. The car just turned 4,300 miles and I checked the dipstick and it was bone dry. I called Acura Roadside and they towed it to the nearest Acura dealer which is different than the one I bought car from. They did their check and couldn't find the cause of the issue. All they know was the oil is 2 quarts low. They performed oil change and sent me on my way with a charge for $42.95. The service guy said it's normal for SH-AWD to burn oil. I called Acura Client Relations and they said this is not normal and they will look into it. 3 weeks in the guy seem to have close the ticket. I called numerous times but my district case guy at Acura Clients Relation never call back. There was another issue I logged with them. The second issue was the tow truck that Acura roadside sent was some clown during the towing process he did about $1k of damage to my front bumper. His hook dented bumper on way up and he scratched the front bumper on way down as he was unloading it. I spent countless hours with Acura Roadside vendor (Cross Country Motor) and Tow truck company's insurance and I finally got my front bumper fixed just this past Friday. Today I dropped by the dealer where I bought car from to speak with the GM while my sales guy was there. The whole 45 minutes they denied everything. They said they did checked the oil as part tof their PDI(Pre-Delivery Inspection) but yet they have nothing to show. It was a complete waste of my time. What is my recourse now? The car seems to be fine and I check the dipstick every week and the oil level hasn't move. This is probably my last Acura. Thanks for any advise. .

    • Wayne Wayne on Mar 07, 2012

      So it is since May of last year that I got this Acura TL 2012 SH-AWD 6 speed manual and it has been burning oil at rate of 2.0 to 2.5 qrt about every 5k miles. At first the dealer GM told me to ignore it is part of normal break-in process and said it should never happens again. Another 5k miles later the same thing and then he got his service guys to do oil consumption test for 5k miles. The first 1k miles the oil didn't move according to dip stick. The next 1k miles it burned a bit over half a quart and they added oil. The next day the manager sent me an email saying according to Acura it's perfectly fine for car to buy 1 qrt every 1k miles. I have been telling them the oil burn rate isn't steady. Somewhere between the last 4k miles is when 2.0-2.5 of oil is burned. I have been calling Acura client relations and they kept telling me to go work with dealer. When I told the girl from acura clients relation she believed the dealer and I pressed her that it isn't normal for a modern car to burn 2.0-2.5 qrt oil every 5k miles she got all rude. It doesn't appear the Acura client relations people received any sort of basic 101 auto training and I think this dealership I bought the car from is blowing smoke up my ass. I have such a bad experience with Acura and their service. What is my recourse since I don't have a huge pile of dealer receipts to prove my point? Like clock work when the car computer calculated my oil life at 30% I have to add more oil because it's 2.0-2.5 qrt low. I can't let it go down to 10% so I can change oil. It isn't normal that I have to change oil pre-maturely. I also concern my catalyst converters is taking a beating. I don't know what other headaches I am in the store for later down the road.

  • DenverDr DenverDr on Dec 28, 2011

    Drive ~42K/year (Civil engineer in the western states and can’t fly); Recent company purchased cars include G35x, 330ix; Audi Allroad; 2010 535xi (Boxster S for fun and wife’s 335x coupe). After a complete let down by terrible BMW 5 series build quality, I decided to make a switch to my first Honda product especially with the mileage. I bagged Audi after the Allroad fell apart at 71K and now BMW (wife has a short commute so mileage is not an issue and we do like her 3 coupe). I was hesitant to go with the restyled TL-6MT because of the absent cache. In short, I’ve been totally impressed and anyone who thinks that other cars “blow it away” are drinking the BMW or Audi coolaid. In many ways, this car is a nice mix of 3 and 5 series attributes. It is extremely well balanced – doesn’t outright win any single category, but is excellent as a whole package. The 6MT is simply awesome. The interior is super comfortable and I prefer multiple buttons over menu driven idrive. Not sure what the future holds, but the 6MT is a keeper.

  • C-b65792653 I'm starting to wonder about Elon....again!!I see a parallel with Henry Ford who was the wealthiest industrialist at one time. Henry went off on a tangent with the peace ship for WWI, Ford TriMotor, invasive social engineering, etc. Once the economy went bad, the focus fell back to cars. Elon became one of the wealthiest industrialist in the 21st century. Then he went off with the space venture, boring holes in the ground venture, "X" (formerly Twitter), etc, etc, etc. Once Tesla hit a plateau and he realized his EVs were a commodity, he too is focused on his primary money making machine. Yet, I feel Elon is over reacting. Down sizing is the nature of the beast in the auto industry; you can't get around that. But hacking the Super Charger division is like cutting off your own leg. IIRC, GM and Ford were scheduled to sign on to the exclusive Tesla charging format. That would have doubled or tripled his charging opportunity. I wonder what those at the Renaissance Center and the Glass House are thinking now. As alluded to, there's blood in the water and other charging companies will fill the void. I believe other nations have standardized EV charging (EU & China). Elon had the chance to have his charging system as the default in North America. Now, he's dropped the ball. He's lost considerable influence on what the standardized format will eventually be. Tremendous opportunity lost. 🚗🚗🚗
  • Tassos I never used winter tires, and the last two decades I am driving almost only rear wheel drive cars, half of them in MI. I always bought all season tires for them, but the diff between touring and non touring flavors never came up. Does it make even the smallest bit of difference? (I will not read the lengthy article because I believe it does not).
  • Lou_BC ???
  • Lou_BC Mustang sedan? 4 doors? A quarterhorse?Ford nomenclature will become:F Series - Pickups Raptor - performance division Bronco - 4x4 SUV/CUVExplorer - police fleetsMustang- cars
  • Ede65792611 Got one. It was my Dad's and now has 132K on it. I pay my Mercedes guy zillions of dollars to keep it going. But, I do, and he does and it's an excellent vehicle. I've put in the full Android panel for BT handsfree and streaming with a backup cam.