When the redesigned Acura TL debuted in late 2008, it represented a substantial transformation over previous iterations. The third-generation model retained the transverse V6 of its two predecessors, but for the first time included an all-wheel-drive option. But while the torque-vectoring Super Handling-All Wheel Drive is an appreciated addition when you're putting out over 300 horsepower, performance oriented drivers were appropriately miffed that both the TL Type-S and a manual transmission were no longer available.
Thankfully, shortly after the 2009 TL went on sale, Acura announced plans to add a manual gearbox back to the lineup. Unfortunately, it would take an entire year before it hit the market. Now it's here, and we're ready to find out if the Acura TL SH-AWD six-speed can fill the Type-S-sized hole in our hearts.
When Acura took the wraps off its new look in 2008, it was hard to ignore the controversial styling – particularly the shield grille. But on the TL, it works – at least more effectively than it has in some applications. Like the new ZDX, the fascia integrates well with the creased lines and hard strakes, and when viewed from the rear, the pointed protuberance matches the plummeting trunk line.
The vast majority of observers howled at the brand's controversial styling, particularly that new shield grille. Pundits and reviewers have applied an assortment of derogatory names to the grille, and the majority of the Autoblog team has gone on record continuing to hate it. This particular writer remains the exception to that consensus, and aside from the "refreshed" RL, believes the face works well here. The TL and ZDX in particular seem to have the best integration of the fascia with the rest of the vehicle. Thankfully at least one Detroit police officer felt the same way during a traffic stop following an inappropriate left hand turn in an unfamiliar part of the city. Following a stern warning about the driver's navigational skills, he spent the next several minutes just talking about the car.
Although the last generation TL had the cleanest design of any Acura to date, the current model has its strong points. The proportions of the hood, greenhouse and rear deck seem particularly well thought out, but where the design continues to fall flat is in its ratio of wheelbase to overall length. An additional four inches in the middle would do wonders to reduce the overhangs and provide the TL with better overall balance.
Since most observers remain less-than-enamored with Acura's current styling direction, it's likely that the next generation of products will be softened in a similar way to the 2002 BMW 7 Series. During a visit to the Honda design studio in Japan last fall, Nobuki Ebisawa, General Manager of Global Design discussed the reaction to the new Acura language and hinted that changes could be forthcoming. For now, we'll have to live with what we have – in this case a Mayan Bronze Metallic tester that appears to be molded out of dark chocolate infused with metal flakes – and keep in mind that drivers typically spend more time inside the car rather than staring at it from the outside.
From the driver's perch, the TL remains an enjoyable place to conduct business, beginning with front seats that provide an excellent balance of support and comfort. The sweeping dual cockpit layout is thankfully devoid of any wood and instead is highlighted with strips of speckled metal trim. While we have nothing against dead tree inlays, the highly polished veneers infecting most interiors often look overwrought, making even the finest real wood look like the cheap plastic stuff.
The primary controls in the TL are well positioned, with a thick-rimmed steering wheel adjustable for both distance and height, and there's a perfect gap between the wheel and manual shifter. Through that wheel's rim, the large, round gauges are clearly visible and very legible. The information display between the speedometer and tachometer can also be toggled between a number of different readouts, including the torque distribution for the all-wheel drive system. Unfortunately, placing this display in the main cluster pushes it below the driver's main sight-line while cornering, rendering it largely useless.
Back before Ford introduced its SYNC media interface system, we considered Honda/Acura's implementation of a control knob one of the better offerings to date. However, time hasn't been kind to the TL. In particular, digging through the system's menus to find the Bluetooth setup page for our phone was a major chore, and while controlling an iPod was straightforward enough, the TL would inexplicably change the setting to Repeat each time we plugged it in. Setting a destination in the navigation system is easy enough, although it can grow tedious as you have to select individual letters using the center stack-mounted knob.
The rear seating positions are nicely contoured to provide comfort and support on a road trip. However, anyone attempting to occupy that center position will find his or herself sitting up above their neighbors with a solid-feeling armrest pressing into their backside, so it's best to keep your party to four for anything longer than a short jaunt.
All TLs with SH-AWD are powered by Honda's 3.7-liter V6 delivering 305 horsepower at 6,200 rpm and 273 pound-feet of torque at 5,000 rpm. While the automatic version is still saddled with just five forward gears, the manual version gets a sixth cog. Pressing the start button fires the V6 into a smooth, steady idle with the soundtrack you'd expect of a high-tech performance engine. The stop and go pedals are well-placed for easy heel-and-toe downshifts, and the newly added left pedal has a smooth, predictable take-up that engages mid-travel and never feels grabby.
Honda and Acura's manual gearboxes are known for their smooth, slick mechanisms and short throws, and the TL doesn't disappoint. Rowing the lever through its gates, there are no hangups or notches, it simply glides from gear to gear like the precise piece of machinery it is. Let out the clutch and the TL pulls away with nary a lurch, even during hurried launches on dry pavement. The engine's note is more mechanical precision than brutish wail, evolving into a howl as it winds to its 6,700 rpm redline. While the specs remain unchanged, the V6 in this application feels stronger across the range than its automatic counterpart, indicating that the torque converter may have sapped some of the life out of it.
Along with the addition of the manual gearbox, Acura engineers went back and took another look at the power steering calibration. Like most contemporary Honda products, the TL has electric power assist steering (EPAS), which, along with reducing parasitic losses provides for an impressive amount of flexibility with its calibration. Unfortunately, extra flexibility can often make it more difficult for the engineers to find just the right mix.
Think of it like manipulating a digital photo on the computer. There are countless settings and tricks to employ, with the result occasionally ruining the image in the process. While the EPAS on the Honda Fit provides reasonable feedback, that's not the case with the new TL or its smaller sibling, the TSX. Both sedans are plagued with a slight dead zone when pointed straight ahead, resulting in a lack of engagement while cruising along at a steady state. Surprisingly, the new manual TL is a marked improvement compared to its automatic counterpart, with precise, even steering across the full range of motion. The amount of effort required to turn the tiller now feels spot-on regardless of vehicle speed, but there's still a lack of connection between cornering force and the wheel's tendency to straighten up – something we assume could be fixed with a quick reflash.
We've always been fond of Acura's torque vectoring all-wheel drive system whether in sedan or crossover form, and with the TL, it lives up to our expectations yet again. The management of torque distribution to the wheels is integrated with the stability control so that the tractive effort can be sent to outboard wheels under cornering to help the car turn in, mitigating the understeer present in front-wheel-drive models. Think of it as proactive torque steer, but in a good way. The result is much better handling balance and we're more than willing to put up with the extra mass when it works this well. We'd still prefer a proper rear-wheel-drive chassis most of the time, but if the choice is SH-AWD or front-wheel drive in a "sport" sedan, it's a no-brainer.
Since life involves more than just carving corners, the TL also deals well with uneven pavement. The sedan doesn't include a fancy adaptive damping system, but the two-stage "blow-off" dampers do an admirable job of keeping body motions in check while still absorbing potholes and patches without beating up its occupants.
As far as we know, Acura has no plans to re-introduce an actual TL Type-S, so this is as close as you can get for now. Admittedly, most people (at least those who are speaking up) are less than enamored with the styling. However, we found the driving experience of the TL to be a pleasure thanks to the newly available manual transmission and its seamless interaction with the SH-AWD system. For the most part, we aren't fans of paddle-shifter torque converter automatics, so having the ability to opt for a stick that works this well can make up for a lot of faults. And the price for such a complete package – along with the security of all-wheel drive – is more than reasonable.
Kitted out with Acura's comprehensive technology package, our TL tester stickered at $43,195 including delivery, and it came equipped with 18-inch wheels wrapped in Michelin Pilot HX MXM4 all-season rubber. If you are going to opt for the more sporting gearbox, we'd recommend going all the way and selecting the summer tire package for an extra $1,000. With it comes 19-inch wheels and tires, and fewer traction compromises on dry pavement. If you live somewhere that deals with the white stuff, drop another grand on a second set of wheels with proper snow tires and you're good to go – assuming you can get past the TL's looks. We have.