Each new model introduction serves as a critical moment for any automaker. As Acura's top selling sedan, the TL plays an especially important role for the luxury division of Honda. Furthermore, Acura has declared their intent to shift itself into the realm of "Tier 1" luxury automakers, so the pressure placed upon the TL is greater than ever.
The TL nameplate was introduced in 1996, which was the year that Acura commenced their transition to alphanumeric nomenclature. Since then, Acura has seen several dramatic revisions to its brand strategy, and these shifts in strategy have been signaled by each revision of the TL.
The 1996 TL carried mild sporting undertones, but the emphasis was clearly tilted more towards luxury. This Japanese-sourced TL was built to a high standard but it was relatively pricey, and its packaging and performance failed to sufficiently set it apart from the competitive landscape in the US market. This basically summed up Acura of the mid '90s.
The 2nd generation TL was introduced in the 1999 model year with a sticker price that heavily undercut not only its competitors, but also its predecessor. The Gen II TL was engineered and manufactured in the USA, and since it was based upon the less costly Accord platform, the TL was able to bring premium features to a more affordable price bracket. Performance was up slightly, but performance wasn't necessarily a focal point of the Acura brand at this time.
The 1999 TL's reformulation proved to be quite successful in the marketplace, so when the third generation TL bowed in 2004, Acura largely stuck with the high-content/low-price script. The 2004 raised the TL's game substantially with an even greater emphasis placed upon styling, technology, and performance. Along with the TSX, this third generation TL signaled a renewed emphasis on performance and driving enjoyment at Acura.
Long criticized for doggedly sticking to its front-drive-only status, Acura has taken the fourth generation TL to the next performance level by offering it with Acura's innovative Super Handling AWD (SH-AWD) system and the most powerful engine ever sold by Honda or Acura.
For 2009, the TL is offered in two basic flavors: base (front-wheel-drive) and SH-AWD (Super Handling All-Wheel-Drive). Each version offers an optional Technology Package, and in addition to the Technology package, the SH-AWD model is available with a 19" wheel package upgrade which includes high-performance Michelin Pilot Sport PS2 tires.
Base TLs are motivated by Acura's venerable J35 3.5L SOHC VTEC V6, which pumps out 280hp and 254lb-ft in this trim. SH-AWD models get a bored-and-stroked version of this motor, which displaces 3.7L and develops 305hp and 273lb-ft. This 3.7L engine is essentially identical to the new-for-2009 3.7L SOHC VTEC V6 that's found underhood of the RL, but unique intake and exhaust hardware and optimized valve timing allow the TL version to develop an additional 5hp and 2 lb-ft over the RL version (see New Hardware for more details).
For enthusiasts who were hoping to see a 6-speed transmission offered in the 2009 TL, whether automatic or manual, your continued patience is necessary. For 2009, the sole transmission offered with the TL is a 5-speed automatic with Acura's Sequential SportShift. We don't know when or if the TL will get a 6-speed automatic, but Acura was quick to inform us that there will be a 6MT TL coming in 2009. The 5AT has Acura's standard SportShift functionality and "F1-style" shifter toggles on the steering wheel. To help offset the 260+lb weight penalty of the SH-AWD, the transmission has been fitted with a 5% shorter final drive ratio vs the base model.
Behind the Wheel
The 2009 TL press event was hosted in New York City, but all of the driving took place out on twisty roads winding through the woods of western Connecticut. Our starting point was Highcroft Racing's headquarters, located just adjacent to the airstrip of Danbury Municipal Airport. Following a quick breakfast and a comprehensive technical presentation, we were paired up and sent off in a shiny new 2009 TL.
The majority of vehicles on hand were SH-AWD TLs, and all of these were equipped with the Technology and 19" wheel packages. There were a few FWD models sprinkled into the mix, but I went straight to a Mayan Bronze Metallic SH-AWD with Umber interior. I wasn't particularly jazzed by this particular hue, but it seemed to be a favorite with others attending the event.
After settling into the TL's comfortable seats and taking a moment to admire the interior, I quickly familiarized myself with the TL's cockpit's layout, tapped the engine start button and fired the 3.7 V6 to life. The car quickly settled into a smooth idle, so I depressed the brake, slid the shifter's straight gate down into "D", and we set off.
As usual, we were provided with a route book, but our Navi system was pre-programmed with the day's destinations, so I took the opportunity to explore the updated navi interface a little bit. I've only been moaning about this for a half dozen years or so, but now we finally got it. That's right, the screen now features VGA resolution, baby! Yes, I realize that there are mobile phones that can match or exceed this, but compared to the Colecovision resolution of last year's Navi screen (And sadly, *THIS* year's Navi screen for every other Acura model), it's like looking at HDTV for the first time. The text and maps look very crisp, and the new HDD-based navi system operates considerably faster than the older DVD-based units, whether it's calculating routes or searching for the nearest nail salon.
Back to the drive, I wasted little time in toeing the throttle and found that the TL SH-AWD lunged rather eagerly in response to my right foot. Sometimes the lunging wasn't quite desireable, however - I soon found that in some cases the car would lurch somewhat when lifting off of the throttle. It felt like maybe the drive-by-wire gain was possibly calibrated a bit too aggressively, and combined with the inherent lag of the drive-by-wire throttle, it may result in some of that lurching sensation in certain situations.
Acceleration in first and second gear feels quite robust. The gear ratios in the 5-speed Automatic transmission are rather widely spaced, so unfortunately the pace falls off rather noticeably when third gear comes up. That's not to say that the car is slow by any means in third gear, but relatively speaking it does feel like the thrust falls off maybe a bit more than I had hoped. I did not have the opportunity to precisely time the acceleration of the TL SH-AWD, but if I had to guess, I would say the 0-60 would probably fall into the low 6-second range. Considering the 2008 TL Type-S 6MT has been clocked as low as 5.8 seconds, I would expect the 2010 TL SH-AWD 6MT to be able to at least match that number.
The intake and exhaust note of the SH-AWD's 3.7 give the SH-AWD a nice sporty sound. It's never intrusive, and the overall drivetrain NVH characteristics are very good. Compared to the 3.7L found in Infiniti's G37 coupe, Acura's 3.7 is a bit smoother and makes more pleasing sounds (the VQ37 sounds a bit like a high capacity industrial fan when wound out), but doesn't quite match the violence with which the VQ37 propels the G37 (referencing a 5AT-equipped G37). Given the TL's additional mass, additional drag (from the SH-AWD system), and rather widely spaced gearing (5th gear is ridiculously overdriven at 0.491:1), this is understandable. We can't wait to see how the 6MT TL SH-AWD matches up.
Road and wind noise are kept to commendably low levels in the TL. Acura's use of acoustically insulated windshield glass, foam-filled pillars, PVC undercoating, 360° dual sealed doors, and heat molded inner fender liners has paid off. The 19" tires on our test model transmitted an acceptable level of road noise - if you listen for it, you might be able to hear it (depending upon the surface), but most of the time it's not noticeable.
Those of you who read my 2009 TSX first impressions know that I wasn't too happy with the feel of the TSX's electric power steering (EPS) system. I was somewhat worried that the '09 TL's EPS would be a similar disappointment, but fortunately it turned out okay. Maybe it's just because after driving the '09 TSX for a week, it doesn't feel so alien to me, or perhaps it's just calibrated differently; I'm not quite sure. It does feel a little bit overboosted for my tastes, and somewhat vague on center, but the effort levels build up to more pleasing levels with speed, and there is just enough feedback to keep the wheel from feeling completely dead in your hands. As with the TSX, accuracy isn't a problem at all - the car responded quite naturally to my inputs. The steering wheel itself is a nice leather-wrapped three-spoke unit, with "Euro Lancia" style stitching (on the SH-AWD model, this stitching is done in a contrasting color). The steering wheel rim is pretty meaty, and features the standard contoured "grips" at the 10 and 2 o'clock positions. The SH-AWD wheel is said to be even thicker, but the main distinction (between the SH-AWD's steering wheel and the one found in the base TL) I noticed were some ridges protruding from the outside edge of the steering wheel rim at roughly 8 and 4 o'clock.
With the 19" wheels and Michelin Pilot Sport PS2s, the TL SH-AWD possessed seemingly endless grip. During the few times where I probed the TL's limits, the car exhibited pretty good balance. The two-ton heft of the TL SH-AWD was well masked by the tires' tremendous grip, the wonders of SH-AWD, the light steering feel and the TL's phenomenal new brake package, but all of these attributes can't quite cover for the sheer bulk of the vehicle. If you're accustomed to driving smaller, lighter cars, it will take some time to get used to the TL's feel - especially on tight roads.
From a dynamic standpoint, the 2009 TL is the best showcase of Acura's SH-AWD technology to date. It's tremendously entertaining to transition the TL SH-AWD through a set of esses with the throttle opened wide, but the one area that may put off some potential shoppers is the somewhat crusty ride of the SH-AWD model. Over poor surfaces, the suspension feels as if its bashing the pavement into submission. Much of this sensation can be squarely blamed on the 40-series sidewalls of the 19" wheel/tire package, but the SH-AWD's suspension is also stiffer than the base TL's, not only to cope with the AWD system's added mass, but also to provide the sporting edge promised by the SH-AWD model. Otherwise, some drivers may sense a bit of the AWD system's additional driveline inertia and subtle-but-there low frequency mechanical hum.
What about FWD?
Eventually, we switched vehicles and took the wheel of a Base (FWD) TL with Technology package. Quite honestly, this Base version seemed to possess virtually all of the thrust that the SH-AWD model offered. The thing is, if you plan to make use of the loud pedal often, just know that relatively speaking, the FWD version suffers from a substantial deficit in grip. So, the SH-AWD version will likely outsprint the base TL from a dead stop due to its superior grip, but on the roll, during my brief time in each car I didn't sense a huge difference between the two.
Torque steer isn't really an issue (Acura has refined the suspension to have 8 percent less lift during acceleration), but cracking open the throttle with any notion of urgency while negotiating a turn is likely to lead to loud protests from the tires. For this reason, this version of the TL feels a bit inappropriate for hammering the backroads. It seems happiest when fed steering, throttle, and braking inputs in moderation. By contrast, the SH-AWD version can be muscled around quite a bit. I got the feeling that the Base model was best suited for long-distance touring duty, as it rode smoother and a little quieter than the SH-AWD version.
Much like the relationship between the standard 2008 TL and the 2008 TL Type-S, the Base '09 TL offers a more compliant ride, at the expense of some body control. This is no real surprise, as the SH-AWD version weighs some 260lbs (~7%) more than the base model but has been fitted with 32% stiffer springs and 20% greater damping rates. Bottom line, the FWD TL is fine if you don't plan on tearing up the back roads very frequently.
There's no doubt that the new TL is a fine automobile. For AWD enthusiasts, the TL SH-AWD offers a compelling combination of performance and luxury at a fairly aggressive price. For others who have been waiting for years for a "right-wheel-drive" Acura sedan, the 2009 TL SH-AWD probably represents further disappointment, however. I happen to fall into the latter category but I still enjoyed driving the 2009 TL SH-AWD. The FWD TL is a very nice car, but I can't help but feel that it seems to have lost some of the third gen TL's youthfulness. It should be poised to more closely compete with the Lexus ES350.
Acura hopes to sell 70000 of these TLs per year. They've had little trouble hitting these numbers in the past with previous TLs, and all of those were strictly front-wheel-drive. Competition is fierce these days, and it's coming from more angles than ever, so considering the TL's controversial new design it's going to be interesting to see how the TL fares, not only in terms of sales numbers but also in terms of Advancing Acura's brand image.
Official pricing hasn't been released yet, but Acura gave us a range of $34,000 to $42,000. The FWD TL goes on sale next month and the SH-AWD should hit showrooms some time in November.
For more in-depth impressions and information, continue reading.