Review: 2009 Acura TL and TL SH-AWD

Take the successful 2008 Acura TL, make all the performance upgrades that a tuner could desire, add a techno-geek's dream package of technology and substitute an edgy grille to make sure everyone will recognize this car on the road and you've got the 2009 TL. Then increase the engine power and add all-wheel drive to create the SH-AWD (SH for "super handling") that eclipses the Type S and you've got the second car in Acur's new TL line-up. Leftlane's drive on Californi's coastal backroads north of San Francisco showed that the new TL is going to make a lot of previous TL owners very happy while allowing Acura to entice some performance sedan enthusiasts away from BMW.

Acura product planners said that extensive study of the "entry-luxury" market segment, coupled with focus group research with current TL owners, determined that the buyer targeted for the TL balances rational judgement with emotional reaction when evaluating an automobile - a logical but not particularly surprising deduction. In their effort to keep the TL as the "class-defining performance luxury sedan," this owner definition meant simply that Acura had to improve every single attribute on the new model. From the numbers and a quick 150 miles in the new cars, we'd say they've succeeded.

What is it?
For the mainstream owner looking for a comfortable car with some luxury touches and an affordable price tag, Acura equips the new TL with a 3.5 liter front-wheel-drive VTEC engine producing 280 horsepower and 254 pound-feet of torque, an increase of over nine percent from the previous TL, linked to a paddle-controlled five-speed automatic transmission. Mileage is a reasonable 18 mpg city and 26 mpg highway.

For enthusiasts shopping for a performance sedan, Acura offers the SH-AWD, with a 3.7-liter V6 engine with variable valve timing (VTEC) producing a class-leading 305 horsepower and 273 pound-feet of torque. Incidentally, that's the most powerful engine Acura has ever built.

Power gets to the wheels through a paddle-controlled five-speed automatic transmission and an electronically controlled all-wheel-drive system that can vary torque not only front-to-back but side to side to provide optimum power to each wheel in any type of driving maneuver.

What's it up against?
Acura set the bar high by seeking to hold on to their existing near-luxury customers while going after the luxury sport sedan customer, compelling the designers and engineers to benchmark the new TL against not only the BMW 3-Series, Mercedes C-Class, Audi A4, Lexus IS/ES, and Infiniti G35, but also the larger 5-Series, E-Class, A6, GS, and M35. That's a tough crowd to match when you want to stay near the $35,000 average TL purchase price of the previous model.

Nevertheless, the product planners believe they've achieved their goal. The qualitative evaluation scales of luxury and performance/emotional appeal that Acura presented show the new TL positioned beyond everything in the performance/luxury sedan category except the Audi A8 and BMW 7-Series.

Any breakthroughs?
When you set out to improve your previous offering and beat all your competitors on every luxury and performance attribute, you'd better come up with some major breakthroughs, and there is enough to talk about in the new SH-AWD, and even in the mainline TL that we'll have to devote another article to the technology in these new cars.
Briefly, the next big things in both models can be found in the engine room, in the suspension, in the crash zones and in the center console.

Both engines benefit from advanced valve timing technology, which varies not only the intake timing, but also the exhaust timing, to balance acceleration and top speed capability with fuel economy.

To maintain handling confidence without sacrificing ride comfort, the TLs now incorporate a sophisticated multi-valve system in the shock absorbers that provides taut, level handling on tight corners with a softer valving to absorb bumps on straight sections, and improves the speed with which the shocks can respond to changing conditions.

Underneath the skin, Acura has improved the skeleton of the chassis to increase torsional rigidity while increasing crash zone responsiveness, which is earning them vaunted five-star ratings in front, side, and rear collision testing.

On the interior, the console has been redesigned to improve what Acura calls "intuitive technology" while incorporating a variety of standard and optional audio, communication, and navigation capabilities that compares favorably with any other car on the road today.

How does it look?
Acura says it was their intention to design the car to get attention, and they definitely succeeded, since the first views of the new car we showed you inspired heated discussion. This is clearly not the bland previous-generation Japanese styling that tried to appeal to everyone without offending anyone. Acura says their intention is to make sure that, with all the product advances they're so proud of, the new TL will stand out on the road. To that end, it certainly does.

Their design goals, they say, were to create an impression of linear fluidity by designing smooth lines that flow without interruption from front to rear, and strong presence by using a high, well-defined shoulder line. But the most controversial aspects of the design are the hard, origami-like folded edges along the feature lines, which emanate from the flat, v-shaped surfaces of the signature Acura grille and culminate in a similar v-shaped form at the center rear of the car.

We'd only note that the folded-edge style is not new, having been introduced several years ago by Cadillac, so it isn't likely to create any serious issues for Acura, except perhaps for some previous TL owners who might resist the idea of change.

With only a few subtle differences, both the base TL and the SH-AWD share the same lines. The only way to tell that the car in your rearview mirror or in front of you is the high-performance version is by the small brake ducts in the front fascia that replace the base car's narrow driving lights, the dual tips in each of the two tail pipe outlets on the rear, and the tiny set of chrome initials on the trunk lid.

And inside?
On the inside, except for the slightly fatter steering wheel and stitched leather shift knob on the SH-AWD, the trim is identical between the two models. With high-quality materials of soft-touch vinyl and leather trim, accented with an attractive, pleasant-feeling metal composite material, the TL feels upscale and modern. We liked the choice of materials and the workmanship and definitely felt that the composite metal trim was superior to both the brushed aluminum and retro polished wood that are the typical cliches of most luxury car lines.

The front cabin has been sculpted to create two visually separate passenger spaces, divided by an imposing center console.

That console includes both a huge iDrive-style center knob and a huge array of separate buttons, apparently for every single controllable function in the car. About the only thing not on the console was a tape cassette slot, which Acura was still building into its 2008 models.

The center-stack design is perhaps the one feature in the car where Acura gets barely a passing grade in a class where Audi is the curve-breaker, Mercedes gets high marks for trim quality, BMW compromises between high style and convenience, and even Volvo comes through with elegant understatement. We'd like to say that the Acura design was superior to at least one of these competitors, but unfortunately, the best we can say is that the car has more electronic features than the competitors. To their credit, we were able to find many of the features without cracking the owners' manual in our short few hours in the car.

Acura has excelled in the category of number, size, and placement of stowage spaces, a small, but nevertheless important detail to us, which becomes more significant on the longer journeys for which this car is suited. Neat little iPod and cell phone compartments are situated in the console near the plug-ins, and in the sides of the foot wells, and cup or bottle holders are placed not only in the center console - where they're usually in the way - but in the door panels as well.

Acura excelled in interior space and comfort with the previous TL, and they've raised the bar by adding another inch to rear leg room and a fraction of an inch to rear shoulder room.
Given the comfort and space of the rear seat, we were amazed to find that the trunk is huge as well. We're perfectly willing to believe that there would be no problem in fitting the four suitcases, or the four golf bags, or the full-sized cooler that the Acura's press literature promises.

But does it go?

We love any excuse to get out on the two-lane coastal roads north of San Francisco when we're in any car that promises good handling, so we were pleased to learn that our route would take us from Sausalito along Route 1 to Bodega Bay, where the intricacies of the curves are exceeded only by the breath-taking coastal scenery. After lunch at the north end of the route, we returned to home base through the redwood groves and cattle country just inland of the coastal hills.

For the morning drive, we drew one of the SH-AWD models, which was perfect for the tight curves and unexpected camber changes, and on the return run in the afternoon we settled back and enjoyed the standard TL's comfort over the often rough, but straighter route. Over the 150 mile drive, we were able to experience the handling and performance features of both versions of the TL.

In the morning, whenever we got some space in traffic, we could enjoy the sensation of taking curves at invigorating speeds. The noteworthy feature of the SH-AWD was how competent it was when responding to an unexpected change in camber or curve radius. With most high-performance cars, even the new M3, when things change unexpectedly, you've got to be prepared to drive the car; though they are capable of handling issues that might arise, they don't actually help the driver. In contrast, the modulated torque to each wheel in the SH-AWD actually pitches in to help you handle anything you encounter.

The other advantage of the SH-AWD is under the hood. Route 1 is notorious for slow sight-seeing traffic and sparse passing zones, so when opportunities did present themselves to make a pass, it was a simple matter to flick the paddle to downshift the car and then go from 40 to passing speed in a very short distance. At that point, the improved brakes were more than capable of slowing the car down to the typical 30-40 mph needed to take the next curve.

Both models share the same five-speed transmission, which sounds as if it wouldn't match the smoothness of competitors' six-speed auto boxes, but wider, and more balanced gear ratios probably explain why we found the transmission to be so smooth we could only tell it had shifted by watching the tach.

For those who wonder why Acura isn't doing a TL Type S in the new line-up, the answer is that the SH-AWD already exceeds the S-Type's performance in every dimension. (We're pleased to say that those silly red circles on the dials and fake alloy pedals of the Type S are nowhere to be seen on the new high-performance TL.)

In the afternoon, we pretended we were out just to enjoy the scenery ourselves, and must say that the standard TL was well-suited to that task. Power and handling was more than adequate to handle highway merges as well as grades and descents through the hills.

What was really gratifying was the smoothness of the ride, which we had also noticed in the morning, since the two cars share the same suspension geometry and components. Current TL owners will be more than pleased when they trade in the old TL on this car, and if they comparison shop, they'll be even happier.

Why you would buy it:
What's not to like? With a price that's promised to be between $35,000 and $42,000 (the TL is manufactured in Marysville, Ohio, which Acura doesn't suffer from the exchange rate fluctuations that are hitting their European competitors hard), delivering a car that outstrips comparably priced cars hands-down in performance, handling, space, and comfort.

Why you wouldn't:
No one is going to confuse the luxury touches in the cabin with the elegance offered by some competitors, and that excessively busy center stack with its plethora of push buttons just doesn't say upscale like the rest of the interior does. And some near-luxury buyers have no desire to drive a car that has "look at me" written all over it, no matter how bold a presence it creates.

The TL will be on sale in September, and the SH-AWD on sale in November of this year. Look for official pricing to be released here in the coming weeks.

Words and Photos by Gary and Genie Anderson

2009 Acura TL