2012 Acura TL SH-AWD Road Test

Acura's true flagship tightens up for 2012.

What It Is/Who It's For

Those looking for a sporty, powerful sedan that's also loaded with technology, but tired of the usual German offerings.

Best Thing

Silky smooth engine; generates wonderful sounds inside and out.

Worst Thing

Sure it's a big car, but where's the room to go with it?

Snap Judgment

The Acura may be low on practicality but it fulfills its mission as a fun, luxurious sports sedan.

A Few Photos of this Vehicle

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Introduction

Watching a company react to public outcry is like watching an elephant do the tango -- cumbersome, seemingly slow to react, but always entertaining. Acura put on an impressive show, after its "Power Plenum" shield-looking grille design debuted on the flagship TL, and both enthusiasts and shoppers likened it to a rhinoceros's horn. Or an elephant's trunk, for that matter. Since then, it's taken Acura three years to own up to criticism and tone down the wide expanse of can-opener inspiration to a level suitable for public consumption, and the 2012 Acura TL reflects this.

But there's more to the 2012 TL than a case of "shield envy." A new six-speed automatic replaces the old five-speed unit, bringing a level of sportiness more in line with the luxury brands Acura dreams of playing with. (The Germans come readily to mind, and are priced within earshot.) With 305 horsepower from its 3.7-liter V-6 engine the TL is nothing if not a stout performer: its powerful engine is hooked up to Acura's SH-AWD system that varies power to all four wheels, promising grippy handling with the stability of, well, an elephant. So does it tango as well as it looks?

What We Drove

Our 2012 Acura TL SH-AWD Advance ticked the boxes with Acura's Tech and Advanced packages, which included a voice-activated navigation system, rearview camera, live traffic and weather updates, an impressive ELS surround-sound audio system with 10 speakers and MP3, satellite radio and hard drive capabilities, GPS-linked automatic dual-zone climate control, and beautiful, caramel-colored leather seats that were heated and cooled. The Advance package gave us a blind-spot warning system, 19-inch alloy wheels, and all-season tires to match.

In short, everything Acura could possibly throw at us. The cost for all of this techno-wizardry came to a cool $45,970, including an $885 destination charge. The base TL starts at $35,605, and the overall price range is in line with the rest of the midsize luxury class.

The Commute

The Acura TL is a docile enough car when stuck in traffic. Accelerating onto the freeway is a cinch, even if you don't need to tap into the TL's full 307 horses; a light brush of the gas pedal -- which isn't twitchy at all -- gets the job done. Brakes as well are grippy and balanced, with little of the sudden head-slamming motion prevalent in other sporty driving cars. There was only one setting on the suspension, which coupled with our optional 19-inch sport wheels, echoed the rumblings of washboard highways throughout the cabin. Despite the harsh-riding suspension, little road noise makes it through to the interior, thanks to the TL's active noise cancellation.

Being the techno-driven spaceship it is, there's no "traditional" wood trim; instead, some found the black/grey checkered pattern on the interior trim to be handsome, others chintzy, like it came from a mid-90s toaster oven. Many Acuras have been plagued with button-heavy center consoles -- hey, you pay for the technology, and you get the Byzantine owner's manual. But while the DVD audio format may have fallen by the wayside like the Betamax, the 10-speaker, ELS-designed sound system in the TL makes you wonder why it ever did. Simply put, the TL's sound system is nothing short of seductive, good enough to appease the most finicky of audio snobs, and Acura's included DVD-Audio demo disc even made us appreciate Steely Dan on a level we'd thought nobody ever could. The system may have been designed for DVD-Audio, but those without the 10-disc Pink Floyd boxed set can also listen to MP3s, Bluetooth audio, and XM Satellite Radio with the same clarity and warmth.

The seats also earned nothing but praise. They were grippy and firmly bolstered even up around the shoulders, and their dazzling caramel color never ceased to impress. The plush, perforated leather is heated and cooled, the latter a feature so comfortable on warm days it should be required on all cars by a federal mandate.

Rather unsurprisingly, the TL is supremely comfortable for day-to-day driving, as to be expected in this class. But the audio system and the seats give the TL a pleasantly aural trump card.

The Grocery Run

Don't let the svelte looks fool you: the Acura TL is a big car, built on the full-size Honda Accord platform. Those in front have excellent headroom and frontwards visibility. Two rear-seat passengers will find themselves in carefully sculpted buckets and with plenty of room, but only from the neck downwards. And pity the poor soul who rides in the center back there, who not only has to contend with the same sloping roofline but also a high center tunnel and a pillowcase of a seat to squat on. Acura only offers a seatbelt for the center position as a cruel joke.

The TL has huge blind spots, victims of its designer's pen, and its sloping roofline reduces the rear glass to the size of a mail slot. But the optional Blind Spot Alert system (as well as the standard backup camera) helped make up for the visibility deficiency -- both are features that spoil the modern driver, and ones that seem superfluous until you eventually realize that, like, cupholders and unleaded gasoline, you can't live without it.

Speaking of cupholders, there aren't many. Likewise, there's surprisingly little storage room in the interior. There's a shallow felt-lined bin in the center console that holds a cell phone, but just enough to butt up against the shifter. The glovebox is small enough to only hold kid-sized mittens. Acura's reasoning is that if you're springing for the standard navigation system, map pockets have been made redundant by, well, a lack of maps.

The lack of room also carried over to the trunk, which drew mixed reactions from our staff: Some thought it was more than enough to fit three large bags of groceries, while others thought it was "tiny." How big are those groceries, anyway? Compromised by the all-wheel drive and acoustic hardware, the trunk shape is bordered on all sides by strange lumps, and the high bumper and small opening aren't particularly conducive to Costco runs.

A Few Photos of this Vehicle

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The Weekend Fun

After sampling a cross-section of Acura's lineup, some of us more cynical types derided the company's products as nothing but tarted-up Hondas -- and in some cases as the TSX, they literally are. "What's so special about these that makes them worth more than a loaded Accord?" we asked no one in particular, potentially taking us off the Acura holiday party guest list,.

Well, the TL should neatly alleviate any past concerns about rebadged Hondas. Not a single person at Automotive.com could say that they disliked the TL with a straight face. Simply put, the engine's power and sound were intoxicating. It will make power in any gear, paddle-shifting all the way up to a screaming redline. The TL's estimated 0-60 time of around 6 seconds betrays the car's feeling of explosive acceleration, which pulls and pulls until you either can't take any more or you break triple-digit speeds.

On the narrow roads of the Southern California mountains, the previously rough-riding suspension turned into a necessity, its independent links composing the big TL gracefully around corners, aided by the Super Handling all-wheel drive system's prodigious, relentless grip. The TL's steering is sufficiently reflective of its sporting intent, amplified by a big, meaty steering wheel, outrageously thick and seemingly honed from a tube of salami.

Acura's crisp styling had always been let down by its Depardieu-esque schnoz, but now that it's been tamed, the TL gets the crisp styling it's always deserved. Sharp angles meet big wheel flares and contoured, complex curves in a subtle manner that nobody at BMW would be familiar with.

And while we're at it, our TL was decked out in a deep shade of brown that Acura calls "Mayan Bronze Metallic." We call it a throwback to an era of disco balls, 15-foot Lincoln Continentals, and John Travolta's chest hair, an era where Acura didn't actually exist, but still shamelessly flaunts the style. After we (reluctantly) returned the TL, an MDX showed up with the exact same paint and interior upholstery scheme: Acura, are you vying to be the Official Carmaker of Brown? Either way, it's a bold color in this world of off-whites and monochromes, and we applaud the retro touch.

Summary

The TL is everything that Honda wants its luxury brand to be: Sporty without compromise, techno-laden without becoming overwhelming, and relative value for money. Some practicality niggles diminish the overall package, but for the money the TL is a solid shot into the bow of the legitimate players of BMW's 3-Series, the Audi A4, and the Lexus IS350. Forget the aging, chrome-nosed RL; the TL is the company's flagship in every sense of the word.

Specs

Price-as-tested: $45,085
Fuel Economy
EPA City: 18 mpg
EPA Highway: 26 mpg
EPA Combined: 21 mpg
Estimated Combined Range (Combined multiplied by fuel tank size): 388.5
Cost of Ownership: Poor

Notebook Quotes

"Acura, are you trying to bribe us with copious amounts of BROWN? Because, good sirs and madams, it is certainly working." -Blake Z. Rong, Associate Editor
"The Acura TL blends sport and luxury with sedan practicality as well as its German counterparts. I still prefer German exterior styling, but the engine and interior trim are both up to par." -Matt Askari, Associate Editor
"The demo DVD-A with this is so cool. I'm absolutely in love with this car's audio. It's simply among the best we've tested." -Jacob Brown, Associate Editor
"I loved everything about it." -Jason Davis, Associate Editor

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