First Drive: 2012 Acura TL
For years, Acura approached the evolution of its vehicles with the deliberate patience of a carpenter wielding a sanding block. Rough mechanical or aesthetic edges were banished not with axe swings, but with small motions that seemed barely perceptible compared to the ranging whims of the competition.
Then the 2009 TL came along.
While the automaker had already begun to dabble with its then-new corporate shield grille, the TL took the piece and ran with it in a direction no one else was heading. Ask Acura about the thinking behind the design, and the company will say that the look was a product of the times. When the vehicle was penned, the world was preoccupied with ever larger displays of affluence, and Acura wanted a sedan that was unmistakable in every way. Unfortunately, the fourth-generation TL landed right as the housing bubble popped and the rest of the economy began circling the drain.
In order to right the TL's wrongs for 2012, Acura has put down the chainsaw in favor of the carving knife to build an altogether more attractive vehicle that brings additional fuel economy to the table as well. Are the small changes enough for the luxury sedan to put its dreaded beak behind it?
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Photos copyright ©2011 Zach Bowman / AOL
Acura's designers set about reorganizing the front fascia and the rear valance of the 2012 TL to diminish the vehicle's vertical look in favor of more horizontal lines. First and foremost, that involved shrinking the formerly massive grille by backing it away from the headlights and off of the hood. That simple change serves up some much needed proportion to the nose, and a new waterline nestled below the grille and above the air inlets is a simple detail that changes the sedan from slab-faced to athletic. The grille also wears a new variety of materials, including a set of gloss black wings tucked below the shield to help break up the negative space down low.
Speaking of those air inlets, Acura has trimmed down the size of both the turning indicators and the fog lights and added in some attractive chrome detailing to do away with the gaping holes in the old car.
As much as all of the small details help, two larger overall changes up front have made the biggest difference for the face of the TL. The designers trimmed the front overhang by a full inch and pushed the nose down for a more poised look. Park the 2012 TL and its 2011 sibling next to one another and the changes are immense.
That shorter overhang becomes more apparent as you move along the side of the vehicle, where the wheel wells seem pushed to the corners. That effect is amplified by the fact that the company's designers trimmed an additional half-inch from the rear valance as well. Otherwise, you won't find too many differences between the flanks of the 2011 and its replacement. While the company has brought two new 17- and 18-inch wheel designs to the option sheet for 2012, the larger 19-inch roller from the last generation will remain on hand.
Along with that diminished rear valance, the 2012 TL packs a slew of design tweaks out back, too. Those include a significantly smaller garnish along the trunk sill, smaller reflectors and a new diffuser mounted low. That last bit of kit goes a long way towards breaking up the vast cliff face of plastic that adorned the old model and does much to carry the horizontal design cues of the front around to the vehicle's tail.
For all of the moaning that the exterior design of the fourth-generation Acura TL evoked, we never really heard too much bellyaching about the vehicle's cabin. That's largely because Acura got the cockpit in its bread-and-butter sedan right the first time around. Designers have swapped out the dimpled chrome accents of the dash and door panels for a fish-scale material that looks more at home in a vehicle of this caliber, and buttons along the stereo are now color-matched to the rest of the controls on the dash. It's not a reinvention of the wheel by any stretch of the imagination, but we never felt that the cabin was an unpleasant place to spend time to begin with.
We're still frustrated to see Acura sticking with the company's cumbersome wheel/joystick interface for the infotainment system instead of a more natural touch-screen layout, or at least a horizontally mounted controller. The system sticks out like a sore thumb in an interior that's largely very intuitive. While the center-stack is a bit button-happy, we never found ourselves struggling to adjust the cabin temperature or the stereo's volume.
While buyers are likely to respond to the new face of the 2012 Acura TL, the most serious changes to the vehicle lurk under its redesigned hood. The automaker's engineers have managed to dig up an additional two miles per gallon city and three mpg highway from the lower-rung 3.5-liter V6 engine thanks to aerodynamic tweaks, a few engineering tricks and a new-to-the-platform six-speed automatic transmission.
That new face doesn't simply look better. It also helps serve up a 5.4-percent reduction in drag thanks to changes in the grille and lower fascia. Additionally, airflow through the radiator has been optimized and new underbody cladding helps reduce turbulence from below to make the sedan as slippery as possible.
Engineers also bolted on a new intake system that focuses on bringing in fresh, cool air from outside of the engine bay. Cooler temperatures mean denser air, allowing the ECU to slightly advance the engine timing to increase torque and efficiency. Additionally, the pistons in the 3.5-liter V6 now make use of a moly-dot coating to reduce friction. The piston skirts wear a matrix of lithium dots that work in concert with a new block boring process to keep mechanical drag to a minimum.
Those substantial alterations join new dual-fine-electrode spark plugs and low viscosity 0w-20 oil to make the 3.5-liter as fit for fuel economy duty as possible. All told, the engine is good for 20 mpg city and 29 mpg highway – up from 18 mpg city and 26 mpg highway in the last generation – all while delivering 280 horsepower and 254 lb-ft of torque.
Of course, that leap in fuel economy isn't solely due to the clever engineering under the valve cover. Acura finally said adieu to the aging five-speed automatic transmission in the 2011 model and welcomed a new six-speed to the party for 2012. Make no mistake, adding an additional gear makes a huge difference to how the vehicle drives and clearly helps the jump in fuel economy, but competitors from Lexus, Infiniti and elsewhere are all dabbling in gearboxes with an ever-growing number of speeds.
We pinged the company's engineers on why exactly they opted for a more conservative six-speed automatic instead of something with a higher cog-count like their competitors. As it turns out, a larger number of gears was investigated, but officials say they were found to offer returns that paled in contrast to steep development costs and added complexity. The bottom line? At nearly 30 mpg, Acura simply didn't need an eight-speed transmission.
Interestingly enough, even though the more powerful 3.7-liter V6 engine skipped many of the fuel-saving tweaks of its smaller-displacement kin, it also gained an additional one mpg in both city and highway cycles thanks to the aerodynamic alterations. That engine is still good for 305 hp and 273 lb-ft of torque.
We were able to spend time in both the 3.7-liter-powered TL SH-AWD and the front-wheel-drive TL with the 3.5-liter V6 under the hood during our time with the vehicle. Both sedans deliver refined handling characteristics thanks to a new damper design that uses an internal bypass. Under normal driving conditions, the damper provides an aggressive rate to deliver more precise handling, but should the vehicle hit a pothole or strike an uneven portion of pavement, the valve will open to allow a greater amount of fluid to move more quickly from one reservoir to the next. The change allows the suspension in the TL to soak up irregularities in the road surface while still offering a stable driving experience.
While the TL SH-AWD still retains its specific spring and damper rates to work in concert with the vehicle's tarmac-gripping all-wheel-drive system, the standard TL isn't exactly a slouch when the road starts twisting. We found that both vehicles are capable of serving up an enjoyable run through the Texas hills. Unfortunately, the electric power steering on both sedans feels unnecessarily light and vague.
Still, we don't imagine too many TL buyers will find that problem to be enough to dissuade them from writing Acura a big, fat check. The one issue that we simply couldn't wrap our minds around was why Acura insists on offering two V6 engines with this platform. Yes, we know that the SH-AWD system adds a not-inconsequential 242 pounds to the sedan's 3,726-pound curb weight, and an extra 25 ponies goes a long way to offset that heft, but the smaller 3.5-liter V6 is an absolute star. Acceleration from that engine is smooth and linear and seems to offer more propulsion than its power figures would suggest.
For those who don't exactly find themselves braving glacial roads for a good number of days out of the year, we'd just as soon recommend saving some money and sticking with the front-wheel-drive TL with its new-found enthusiasm for fuel efficiency. Speaking of money, Acura has priced the 2012 TL starting at $35,605. If you absolutely must have the SH-AWD, be prepared to fork over $39,155.
It's worth noting that Acura kept the excellent six-speed manual transmission as an option for the TL, but it's only available in SH-AWD configuration with the Technology Package. As such, that vehicle will command a lofty price tag of $42,885. We love ourselves some third pedal, but over $7,000 is a steep price to pay for the joy of rowing your own. Given that the new six-speed automatic transmission leaves nothing to be desired in the cog-swapping department, we'd have a hard time ponying up for the manual.
We're thrilled to see Acura invested in toning down its over-the-top styling in favor of lines that are significantly more palatable. Here's hoping that the 2012 TL will be the new face of things to come from Acura.
Photos copyright ©2011 Zach Bowman / AOL
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