As the market for luxury sport sedans moves back toward rear-wheel drive (and all-wheel drive) Acura's TL increasingly stands apart as one of the few models of its kind that remains committed to the front-wheel drive layout.
It's a theoretical weakness in terms of absolute handling ability "at the limit", where a rear-drive BMW, Lexus, Infiniti or Cadillac has a built-in advantage. But how often do you drive "at the limit" -- which in a modern sport sedan (front-drive or rear-drive) is a very high limit indeed? It's not 25 years ago, when a better-than-average driver could push a new car close to its limits without overstepping his own. Today's sport sedans -- no matter the drivetrain layout -- have thresholds of grip so high that to get close to them, on a public road, is risky (and felonious) at best -- assuming you're an exceptional driver -- and dangerous at worst (assuming you are a driver of average skill). A freeway off-ramp you might have played with 25 years ago at 10-15 over the recommended maximum speed can now be taken at twice that, with deceptive ease, before the car begins to get loose. And by that time, things begin happening very quickly indeed. Unless you're an expert driver -- or extremely lucky -- you may find that which pair of wheels are putting the power to the pavement matters to you a whole lot less than how well the car did in government crash testing. (The TL scores well here, incidentally.)
Meanwhile, there are some real-world advantages to the FWD layout and having the weight of the engine/transaxle on top of the drive wheels -- including better grip when it's wet and slippery outside. These are conditions you're apt to face much more often than power sliding through a 35 mph curve at 60.
On the other hand, the TL's FWD layout does create some negative feedback during full-throttle charges. Especially the performance-themed Type-S version -- which now packs a 286 horsepower version of Acura's 3.5 liter V-6 engine.
I can't say this is the case for automatic-equipped versions, but the six-speed version I tested had some pretty herky-jerky torque steer when you punch it. This is an inherent problem with FWD cars -- and it's often more pronounced in powerful ones like the '07 Type-S. The front wheels are trying hard to steer the car at the same time nearly 300 horsepower is being applied to them. This creates a fairly violent tug-of-war as the forces of acceleration battle the armies of directional control. In a rear-drive car, the battle is split up to opposite ends of the car; the rear wheels handle power delivery while the front wheels steer the car. This provides better balance and control. Even when the rear wheels are sliding around under hard acceleration, it's still relatively easy to keep the car pointed in the right direction by counter-steering. But in a front-drive car, the front end (and steering wheel) yanks to the left and right -- which is uncomfortable as well as difficult to control.
This is the TL's biggest real-world weakness -- because it's one that you will have to deal with virtually every time you nail the throttle from a stop. It can be managed, if you learn to do rolling starts -- and feather the throttle until the tires have regained their composure. But it's not as fun (and probably causes a lot more wear to the CV joints, front axles and so on) than dumping the clutch (or power braking) a similarly potent rear-drive machine.
If you don't drive like a gearhead, this may not matter -- but that begs the question: why buy the Type-S to begin with? A standard 2007 TL has ample power for sporty driving (it comes with a 258 horsepower, 3.2 liter V-6), shares the sharp, modern styling of the Type-S (though the Type-S does get exterior enhancements, including four "organ style" exhaust tips, as well as some interior upgrades, including aluminum pedals and carbon fiber-style trim), has the same "Acura" status as a premium-brand model -- and costs a lot less: $33,625 vs. $38,125 for the Type-S.
It's true the Type-S comes completely loaded with literally "everything" -- including GPS (extra cost on base TLs) plus functional upgrades such as high-capacity brakes, a limited slip axle, sport-tuned suspension with 17-inch rims and performance tires, sport buckets on the inside and the more aggressive-looking exterior bodywork mentioned above. A five-speed automatic is a no-cost extra. The only remaining option you can even order is ultra-performance summer tires. That's it.
Also, it's the only way to get the six-speed manual gearbox in a new TL; regular 2007 TLs are now automatic-only. But at $38,125 the Type-S is priced neck and neck with some very tough competition, including the twin-turbo, 300 horsepower '07 BMW 330i ($38,700) and the 305 horsepower Infiniti G35 - which carries an MSRP of just $32,250. Or how about a Cadillac CTS? The mid-level version of Cadillac's popular mid-sized luxury sport sedan offers a 3.6 liter V-6 with 255 horsepower for a sticker price of $36,285.
You can get a six-speed gearbox, too.
It's true many of these competitors do not come standard with such things as a sunroof, leather trim - or the standout eight-speaker Surround Sound stereo with DVD audio capability that comes included with every TL, including base models. Let alone the GPS unit that's included with the Type-S. Add some of this stuff to the competitors' models listed above and the price gap does narrow - at least in some cases.
But it's going to be a hard choice -- and harder sell -- than it was even as recently as last year, when competitors such as the previous BMW 3-Series and others like it didn't offer as much power as the Type-S (for one thing) and the price disparity wasn't as noticeable (for another).
The new Infiniti G35, especially, presents a grave challenge -- and not just to Acura. It's nearly six grand less, for openers, than either the BMW 330i or the Type-S -- and its 305 horsepower engine outmuscles everything in its price range, some by as much as 50 horsepower or even more (as in the case of the Caddy CTS).
Had this new TL Type-S appeared in 2005 (or even 2006) it would have been one of the top two or three cars in its segment -- no matter which pair of wheels put the power to the ground. It's still a good choice -- and definitely worth considering. Especially if you just like the way it looks -- and like Acuras.
But the margins aren't what they used to be.