Click above for high-res gallery of the 2009 Acura TL
Beginning in February at the Chicago Auto Show, Acura began rolling out redesigned versions of its three sedans in the span of six months. Beginning with the RL in Chicago, Acura has rolled out its new design ethos intended to make these cars stand out in the increasingly crowded entry luxury segment. When we first showed you the RL, it got what would charitably be described as a negative reception. The new shield grille design was almost universally reviled both in the media and amongst you readers. By the time the entry-level TSX arrived a month later, reactions softened somewhat as people became accustomed to the look. In its first few months on the street, sales of the new TSX have jumped more than 20 percent compared to the old model.
The last to arrive and arguably the best looking of the three is the mid-level TL, which arrives this September to replace the best selling sedan in Acura's lineup. Acura invited us to New York to sample its new mainstream model on the roads of Connecticut and the Empire State in mid-July. While the TL was the last to be unveiled, it is actually the first and only one of the three sedans to be completely designed around this new look. Read more about the new TL and our first drive impressions after the jump.
The entire TL effort was handled by Honda R&D in the United States with Art Osborn leading the exterior design at Acura's new design studio in Torrance California. After getting approval for the new look, the decision was made to at least add the shield grille to the other sedans and roll them all out at about the same time. Unfortunately for the RL, this means that the grille looks tacked on and far less integrated than the TL. The TSX isn't as bad, but the nose still looks better in Europe where it is sold as the Honda Accord. The next generation of Acuras including the upcoming NSX replacement and the next generation, all-new RL will incorporate a style more in keeping with the TL.
Osborn discussed the look of the new TL with its "keen-edge dynamic" language saying, "On the one hand we have technology which is precision machined, billet and shear, high-tech, and on the other hand we have emotion which is human, dynamic, sensual. We fuse those together and get keen edge dynamic." Regardless of what you might think of the aesthetic, there is no doubt that they succeeded in their goal of giving the car a strong presence. While The RL was almost universally reviled at its launch, Acura's new design language is now growing on us, especially with the new TL that looks like its name should be followed by "concept car". It retains the linear headlight shape and solid lower bumper of the previous generation, while the back end look is dominated by sharp angles that pull together all of the lines flowing from the front of the car over the top and sides.
At both ends of the car the design team incorporated a sharp longitudinal crease that is especially prominent in the rear. Interestingly, the crease in the trunk-lid is concave rather than convex. The flowing roof-line at the C-pillars was deemed to have a more upscale look, though the fastback greenhouse leaves a deck-lid that's both short and high. To prevent the deck-lid from looking too high, the center crease was bent the opposite direction, giving the appearance of a piece of paper that has been folded in half and in half again before being partially opened. In spite of the still controversial shield grille, the overall look of the TL is handsome and far better integrated than its siblings.
Acura is offering two distinct models of the TL for 2009 with different drivetrains. The previous Type-S model is gone (for now at least) and replaced by the SH-AWD model. As that acronym implies, the top model has inherited the Super Handling-All Wheel Drive that is used on the RL, MDX and RDX. The base TL continues with only the front wheels receiving drive torque from its 3.5L V6. Helping to overcome the extra mass of all that hardware to drive the rear wheels, the SH-AWD gets a larger 3.7L version of the V6.
The new TLs were waiting for us at the shops of Highcroft Racing in Danbury Connecticut when we arrived. Highcroft is one four teams running the Acura AXR-01B in the LMP2 class of the American Le Mans Series and we arrived in Danbury just days after the team had captured the first overall win for an Acura in an ALMS race.
The TL has a similar look and feel inside as its little brother the TSX with sweeping metallic trim separating the upper and lower halves of the dash that flows all the way from the doors to the console. The sweep of the forms separates the front cabin into a "dual personal structure" giving individual space to each front occupant. The upper surfaces are covered in a soft-touch rubberized material that is eerily devoid of visible seams. The center is dominated by the navigation screen with a cluster of buttons and switches with the now standard Acura/Honda control knob in the middle of it all.
The TL also gets the latest edition of the ELS premium sound system produced by Panasonic. The 5.1 channel surround sound system has support for DVD-audio playback, which sounds absolutely amazing in demonstrations. Unfortunately, only about a dozen people have actually bought DVD-A discs, which means most drivers will only ever experience the system in stereo. One complaint of the previous generation ELS system was that rear seat passengers couldn't really appreciate it, with the sound being dominated by the rear deck speakers and sub-woofer. That's been addressed by adding a pair of speakers to the rear doors that provide a much fuller experience for all passengers. Along with the THX certified audio system in the new Lincoln MKS, this TL's audio quality is among the best we've ever experienced in a car.
We picked out a 3.5L front-wheel-drive model for the first leg of our journey. The smaller engine is rated at 280 horsepower and 254 lb-ft of torque, while the 3.7L unit gets bumped up to 305 hp and 273 lb-ft. That makes it the most powerful V6 Honda has ever produced, though both engines are tuned to run on premium unleaded gasoline.
Unlike an increasing number of competitors in the segment, Honda has opted to stick with its existing five-speed automatic with both models getting the same gear ratios. The AWD model gets a lower 4.533:1 final drive ratio compared to the 4.312:1 of the front-wheel-drive car to help compensate for the extra 260 lbs that comes with the rear drive hardware. Front drive TLs come with 17-inch rolling stock while the the SH-AWD gets a bump to 18-inch rims standard and 19-inchers as an option.
The drive route consisted of the usual blend of urban stop and go, highway cruising and some marvelous curving rural roads. The front-wheel-drive TL felt lighter on the road than its 3,700-lb mass would lead you to expect. The seats, which are shared with other recent Honda/Acura models like the Accord, are comfortable and supportive. The thickly rimmed steering wheel has the usual array of switches for audio, communication and information systems. Since Americans are so averse to operating clutch pedals, Acura has equipped the back side of the steering wheel with paddle shifters that yield quick, smooth gear changes when the driver feels like getting more involved in the process.
Unfortunately, the TL also inherits the mediocre steering feel of the TSX. There still seems to be a bit of a dead spot around the straight ahead position and the overall feedback about the tire-road interaction is vague at all speeds. The rest of the mechanisms for controlling wheel motion did a good job of absorbing imperfections in the road surface while keeping the body relatively parallel to the ground. Mild understeer could be felt at the limit on tighter corners as we started pushing the TL harder. That's a handling trait that largely vanishes when you move into the SH-AWD model.
A-pillars on many cars grown into tree trunks, increasingly blocking the driver's view to the front corners of the vehicle. One thing that's readily apparent when you drive off in the new TL is its slimmer pillars. Acura claims that the visual obstruction from the TL's pillars has been reduced by five percent compared to the outgoing model, a welcome difference.
The top TL is equipped with the latest version of Acura's torque vectoring Super Handling-All Wheel Drive. A pair of electronically controlled clutch packs in the rear axle are integrated with the sensors used for the stability control system. This allows the car's computer to direct more drive torque to the outside rear wheels when understeer is detected, which helps the car bite the road and turn in. The result is that the stability control doesn't have to brake the inside front wheel to accomplish the same effect, and therefore less engine torque reduction is required to get around the corner. The system works seamlessly to provide wonderfully neutral handling, making the TL go precisely where it is pointed.
One common complaint of many existing Acuras with the SH-AWD system has been that the brakes aren't up to par, quickly fading into a smoky mess after relatively short periods of hard driving. Since the AWD system encourages more aggressive driving, this is a non-trivial matter. The TL SH-AWD model gets ducts routing air directly from the fascia to the front brakes providing increased resistance to fade. During our time in the TL, the brakes never let us down.
While the SH-AWD TL feels more neutral and buttoned down, it also feels more massive and rides harder than the front-wheel-drive version. The spring rates are increased by a third while damping forces have been bumped up by 20 percent. Combined with the larger, heavier wheels, the TL definitely doesn't ride as well as its lesser sibling, meaning that drivers will have to decide whether they want more performance or a more luxurious ride. Those living outside of Michigan where they actually pave roads probably won't have any issues with the SH-AWD ride. We'll be looking forward to trying out the SH-AWD on Michigan's pot hole-ridden roads in the near future to find out if it's remotely livable as a daily driver.
Acura hasn't announced pricing for the new TL yet, but the cars should be in dealerships in a few weeks. For those not enamored with the styling, we highly recommend making a trip down to an Acura dealer and viewing one in person before making a decision. The TL is another one of those cars that looks far better in the metal than in a picture.