2005 Acura TL Expert Review:New Car Test Drive
New Car Test Drive
Performance as sharp as its looks.
Acura's badge is a set of engineering calipers, symbolizing the brand's focus on precision engineering. That symbol holds more than ever with its latest models, the all-new 2005 Acura RL and the sportier and only slightly smaller Acura TL, which was completely redesigned and re-engineered as a 2004 model. (The 2005 Acura TL carries into its second model year with no major changes.)
The Acura TL is a true sports sedan, albeit with front-wheel drive. The TL delivers sharp-handling, a powerful V6 engine, a fully independent suspension, and the latest active safety electronics to optimize driving dynamics. Its engine doles out abundant power, whether for back road barnstorming or passing other vehicles on the freeway. Barnstorming is aided by great handling and powerful brakes. Freeway cruising is made pleasant by the reasonably smooth ride, though the TL is not a soft cushmobile.
Where previous TL models were subtle, tailored and conservatively handsome, this latest-generation TL is hip, bold, and razor-edged. It's a fully equipped luxury performance sedan in midsize dimensions. Every passive safety feature you'd expect in a premium car is included.
The interior is thoroughly modern and features state-of-the-art surround-sound. The seats are firm and comfortably bolstered. The TL isn't cheap, but you get what you pay for in performance and features.
Acura TL is a midsize, front-wheel-drive, four-door sedan powered by a 3.2-liter V6 engine. Acura offers the TL in only one trim level ($32,900). Nearly every luxury feature comes standard and there are few options.
TL buyers choose between two transmissions: five-speed automatic or six-speed manual; the cost is the same. Included with the manual transmission is a limited-slip differential, Brembo four-piston front brake calipers and larger front brake rotors.
Leather is standard and trims the seats and door panels and wraps the shift knob and steering wheel. Also standard: the DVD/CD/cassette/AM/FM/XM Satellite Radio system with DVD-Audio 5.1. Hands-free, wireless, cellular telephone capability employing Bluetooth technology is built in. The TL comes with dual-zone, dual-mode automatic air conditioning with micron filter, power everything, xenon high-intensity discharge headlights, green-tinted glass and a long list of other features.
Safety features: seat-mounted side-impact airbags and full-cabin side curtain airbags are standard. The side-impact airbag sensors note the seat occupant's height and position to minimize potential injury to out-of-place and smaller-stature individuals. Frontal airbags are dual-stage and dual-threshold, meaning they deploy at different rates depending on the severity of the crash and whether the front seat occupants are belted in. For 2005, a weight sensor has been incorporated in the front passenger seat; if the total weight on the seat is less than 65 pounds (the weight of a small child or a car seat), the right front airbag will not deploy. On the driver's side, a new position sensor has been added, so if the seat is within half an inch of the most forward position, the airbag will only deploy in the more gentle, dual-stage mode. If the seat is farther than a half inch from the forward position, the airbag deploys in either single or dual-stage mode based on the severity of the collision. LATCH child seat anchors are included.
Active safety features include anti-lock brakes (ABS) with Electronic Brake-force Distribution (EBD), Brake Assist and Vehicle Stability Assist electronic stability control.
The optional navigation system ($2,000) is bundled with 3D Solar Sensing Climate Control. High-performance tires are optional ($200) with the 6-speed manual transmission only.
The Acura TL has a solid stance, tall and lean, with muscular lines. It looks compact and coiled, tensed, ready to move in any direction with quickness, certainty and precision. The designers say they kept the image of a soccer player in mind as they sketched the latest TL. To our eyes the result looks a little forced, even melodramatic; but a close look at the car's proportions and styling cues gives the design credence.
While maintaining approximately the same wheelbase as the pre-2004 TL, the designers shaved more than three and half inches off the overall length. Yet the latest model is nearly two inches wider, riding on tires spread an inch farther apart in front and an inch and a half farther apart in the rear. The roof is a half-inch taller. And yet the TL claims one of the lowest coefficients of drag (0.29 Cd) in its class.
The strong, chin-like front end is braced by two low-mounted openings feeding cooling air to the engine, the minimalist grille above serving primarily to frame the Acura badge and trademark polished horizontal bar. Squinting headlights wrap around the front fenders, drawing the eye to the character line that begins in the side-marker light just forward of the front door, integrating the perfectly aligned door handles and running the length of the car to terminate in the rear side-marker lights. Molded rocker panels beneath the doors (with a chip-resistant finish) visually widen the car's lower body. Fender flares stretch the body over and wrap snugly around the tires. The tallish greenhouse tapers gracefully inward as it rises from the beltline, giving geometric balance to the rake of the windshield and backlight. The C-pillar, or sail panel, flows smoothly down into the trunk lid, adding substance and solidity to the rear quarters and embellishing the TL's mild, wedge-like profile.
What most other drivers will see of the TL, the back end, looks like, well, a Honda. This isn't necessarily bad, although it looks conservative when compared to the dramatic styling of the rest of the car. The trailing edge of the trunk lid is sharply crested, with a pleasing Kamm-like aero-overhang. Taillights are severely functional. The black surround setting off the rear license plate is a bit loud. But the body sculpturing produces surface planes that generate some exciting shadows, and dual exhausts with squarish tips in matching lower bumper cutouts boost the sporty image, as do tires pushed out to the car's edge.
The TL has a comfortable cabin with back seats that are roomy and comfortable. Its interior space and dimensions are close enough to those of the BMW 5 Series and the Volvo S60, the two cars Acura expects most buyers to cross-shop.
Interior quality is up to Acura standards. Fit and finish is above average. A nice touch is a grained, matte-finish section on the top of the dash over the instrument cluster that reduces reflective glare off the inside of the windshield on bright, sunny days. A seamless dash masks the presence of the passenger-side front airbag, making for a more elegant and stylish look.
Comfortably bolstered seats brace thighs and shoulders against lateral forces during spirited cornering. Seat bottom cushions could extend a bit more beneath the thighs, but overall the seats are quite supportive without being overly firm. The B-pillars are indented in their forward edges about mid-height to make a little more elbow room for front seat occupants.
Backlit LED gauges look out from inside three pods tucked under a hood shading them from the noon-time sun. They're easy on the eyes, with a blue-around-white motif. A large, round speedometer sits directly in front of the driver and is centered on the steering column, which is also properly centered on the driver's seat. To the left is a slightly smaller, but no less legible tachometer. The right-hand pod contains the fuel and water temperature gauges.
The melding of function with form extremely well in the Acura TL. Topmost in the center stack is the LCD screen that displays the climate control and audio settings as well as the optional navigation system's visual aids. With the optional navigation system comes a line of PDA-like buttons and cursor controller arrayed beneath the screen. Bracketing the screen are perpendicular rows of large, finger-friendly buttons for setting driver and front passenger climate control preferences; a useful Off switch is provided that instantly shuts everything off. Separating the climate controls from the touch-screen this way makes changing fan speeds or adjusting the temperature easy in the TL. With the navigation system, buyers get what Acura calls 3D Solar Sensing Climate Control. Using time of day and direction of travel, this gadget calculates the sun's position relative to the car to adjust side-to-side interior temperatures to maintain desired settings.
Navigation systems are getting better each year and Acura's is one of the best if not the best. It's easy to program and gives clear and accurate descriptions visibly and audibly. The big display and combination of hard buttons and context-sensitive on-screen menus work very well. Still, you have to call up a menu to change radio stations. We found it took 20 seconds after starting the car before we could perform the electronic version of signing a legal agreement and get a map. We didn't try to use them, but the navigation system can recognize nearly 300 different verbal commands, including adjustments to the stereo and climate control and selection of more than 7 million points of interest (restaurants, lodging, airports, shopping malls, etc.).
Below is the control head for the sound system. Large, round knobs adjust volume and tuning/tone/fade/balance. Right-sized station preselect buttons easily pass the fingernail/winter glove test. Still, to change CD tracks you have to press the Audio button and go to a menu. In terms of technology, the standard stereo redefines the overused term premium. Not content with a multi-speaker, externally power-amplified, DVD/CD/cassette/AM/FM/XM Satellite Radio system, Acura added a new technology known as DVD-Audio 5.1. DVDs recorded with this technology triple the channels in traditional stereo and virtual (electronically synthesized) surround sound systems, from two to six. The hope is to do for digital recordings what Dolby did for analog tapes. This more discrete surround sound is common in reco.
We've driven both versions of the Acura TL: the one most buyers will choose, with the SportShift automatic transmission and all-season tires; and the sporty iteration with the six-speed manual gearbox and wider, stickier tires. Our driving routes traversed suburban neighborhoods, two-lane backroads and multi-lane highways, and included a racetrack, where limits could be explored without interruption from flashing red lights and screaming sirens, or the unexpected bus or motorhome. In all but two measures, the new TL easily met or exceeded expectations.
Its driving position is exemplar, which is no surprise given Honda's near obsession with ergonomics. All necessary controls lie within sight and easy reach of the driver. Shift levers and patterns for both transmissions fall readily to hand. Clutch takeup on the manual requires a little getting used to, but the shift linkage is taut and precise. With the SportShift left in auto mode, gear changes are almost imperceptible, slicker and smoother than in some cars costing more than twice the TL's price of entry; in manual mode, only the upshift from first is automatic, occurring just south of 5000 rpm. Higher gears are held right up to the rev limiter, which steps in around 7000 rpm.
The variable-assist steering reacts to road speed and driver input to make for effortless parking and sure tracking on the highway. Hours spent in the wind tunnel reduced to a whisper the inevitable whistles around the outside mirrors. Barely noticeable hissing around the side windows' trailing edges could well have been more reflective of the test car's early production status than of any design shortcoming.
The V6 engine delivers its abundant power smoothly, pulling strongly all the way to its 6800-rpm redline to the accompaniment of a deliciously tuned exhaust note. Even with traction control active, the front tires can be made to chirp while accelerating out of corners, or when mashing the gas pedal from a full stop. In every-day driving, evidence of the TL's front-wheel-drive layout is nicely suppressed.
The TL felt comfortable and relaxed at speed on the Interstates, although we noticed more road noise with the fatter, stickier tires on the six-speed model. On two-lanes, the standard setup was no slouch, feeling ill at ease only when taken where its drivers will never go, and by which time all the assorted active safety technologies will have been alerted. At these extremes, the sportier version delighted, its Brembo brakes confidently hauling it down from mildly irresponsible speeds before it tracked unerringly (as close to the ragged edge as is prudent on public roads) and with aplomb through tight corners over sometimes bumpy pavement. Perhaps, just maybe, Acura has unearthed the secret to BMW's vice-like grip on the top rung of the sports sedan ladder. The TL is front-wheel drive, though, and the front washes out when accelerating hard around a bumpy corner.
TL is powered by a 3.2-liter, single overhead camshaft, 24-valve, 60-degree V6 with Honda's F1 racing-developed variable valve timing and lift system (VTEC). It's rated at 270 horsepower and 238 pound-feet of torque. The EPA rates it 20/30 mpg City/Highway when fitted with the six-speed manual transmission. The engine meets California's LEV-2 ULEV standards, the second most stringent in the nation for gasoline-fueled cars and exceeded only by limited production, small-engine subcompacts and hybrids (some of them Hondas).
On the track, the SportShift and the all-season tires proved to be a good match. Only carelessness or inattention could get somebody in trouble with this package. The six-speed manual worked well, too. Its six, close-ratio gears allowed the engine to work in its powerband's sweet spot. And the limited-slip front differential properly apportioned the power between the front tires while negotiating fast, sweeping curves and tight, power-sapping, left-right-left es.
The Acura TL is as sporty a sedan as is imaginable in a front wheel-drive configuration. Its SportShift automatic transmission can be left alone or played with to extract some of the joys embodied in a stiff platform and powerful drivetrain. Fitted with the six-speed manual, Brembo brakes and stickier tires, the TL is even more of a sports sedan. Or settle back with some good tunes from the state-of-the-art stereo and book the evening's repast and lodging while following the navigation system's mobile arrow pointing the way across the country. In short, the Acura TL is an excellent choice as a sporty near-luxury sedan.
New Car Test Drive correspondent Tom Lankard is based in Nothern California; nctd.com editor Mitch McCullough contributed to this report.
Acura TL ($32,900).
Options As Tested
six-speed manual transmission (NC); Acura Navigation System with Voice Recognition ($2,000); high-performance summer tires ($200).
Acura TL ($32,900).
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