Type S - Formula for Success?
Though the TL has been quite a sales success, the success has come in the face of unyielding criticism from a number of scribes from enthusiast magazines. The flare point of all this criticism is the TL's front drive architecture, which is faulted for a variety of transgressions, with the two primary fouls being "torque steer" and a general corruption in feel as the car approaches its (rather high) limits. While we're counting the days until Acura quenches our thirst for a true FR (front engined, rear wheel drive) sport sedan, the criticism hasn't been entirely deserved. Sure, the TL may not feel quite as polished at the limits as the BMW 3-series, but there's no question that the TL has been very competitive in its class in terms of overall performance - it's always had far more performance than is really necessary for street use. When rumors surfaced that a 3.5L TL Type-S would be introduced for the 2007 model year, there were numerous angst-ridden forum discussions regarding the wisdom of attempting to deliver even more power and torque through the TL's front wheels. After driving both 5AT and 6MT versions of the 2007 TL Type-S, we can assure you that Acura's engineers have done a commendable job of doing just that.
Acura's pretty much locked into the FF layout for this generation of TL's, so there's little point in beating a dead horse at this point. While the entry premium FR sedan marketplace has expanded since the 3rd generation TL's introduction, Acura's decision was pretty much set in stone long ago, so for 2007 they had to make the best of the situation and focus on evolving and improving the TL to the best of their abilities. To that end, the Type-S has been endowed with even more thrust and a sportier suspension.
Borrowing Big Bro's Motor
While the TL's drivetrain configuration hasn't handicapped sales, it didn't take long for the third generation TL's initial horsepower leadership position to erode. Infiniti was first to respond with a 280hp/298hp (AT/MT) update to their G35, followed by Lexus with their IS350, which (thanks to its sophisticated 306hp 3.5L DOHC Direct Injection V6 and 6-speed AT) boasts of rather astonishing straightline performance. Entering the 2007 model year, BMW, Lexus, and Infiniti all currently offer competing products with 300hp (or more), so Acura had to act quickly so as not to be left in the dust.
Fortunately for the engineering team, they didn't have to look far to stay in the hunt. As most of our readers already know, the 2005 Acura RL launched with a 3.5L SOHC V6 that was rated at 300hp (later revised on paper to 290hp due to the recent SAE standards revisions). Since this motor is essentially a stroked version of the TL's 3.2, it was a natural choice for the TL Type S. Under the hood of the TL, this new motor brings the output totals up to 286hp@6200 rpms (+28hp) and 256lb-ft@5000 rpms (+23 lb-ft). The great news is that this added thrust is generated by a motor that weighs about 15lbs less than last year's 3.2L motor. Acura attributes the weight savings to the use of hollow camshafts, a plastic oil strainer (instead of steel), and the use of magnesium for the cylinder head covers and intake manifold. Additionally, while the new motor has gone from an oversquare design (89x86mm bore/stroke) to an undersquare design (89x94mm bore/stroke), nothing in the way of smoothness or revs have been sacrificed with the redline remaining at 6800 rpms. While the 3.5 pulls strongly, quietly, and smoothly in the RL, the ferocity level has been dialed up several notches in the lighter TL chassis, but the motor remains very well mannered.
More Beef in the 'Mission
In order to reliably deliver this additional twist to the pavement, Acura had to spec brawnier transmissions. The TL's new 5AT 'mission is a four-shaft design that's based upon (you guessed it) the RL's tranny, though according to engineers it has been beefed up slightly since it has to deliver 100% of its maximum torque to only two wheels instead of distributing it through all four contact patches. The 6-speed manual transmission is a beefed up version of the '04-'06 6MT with higher strength gears, increased bearing capacity and a new carbon synchro applied on the reverse gear. Revisions to the shifter have reduced the shifter operating load by a claimed 20%. Shifter feel is indeed light and smooth, approaching the feel of the TSX's superslick gearbox.
One of the biggest improvements to the 6MT drivetrain is the clutch take-up. I can't tell you how many times we stalled the '04 TL 6MT during our 2004 winter road test where three TOV editors rotated between 3 different 6MT Honda products over several thousand miles of driving. Every time we swapped vehicles, the TL was inevitably stalled almost immediately. The problem was the TL's nanometer clutch take-up. To address this problem, Acura engineers revised the geometry within the clutch mechanism and have changed the characteristics of the friction disk so the clutch take-up now takes place over a longer duration of the pedal's stroke. It now feels more natural and consistent with other Honda and Acura products. Indeed, during this first encounter I managed to drive the TL Type-S 6MT without once stalling it.
On the 5AT side, Acura has added steering wheel mounted paddle shifters and new logic to the transmission which electronically blips the throttle to smooth downshifts and contribute to the "raciness" of the Type-S badge. The rev-matching downshift effect is largely transparent until you call for a downshift near the top of 1st or 2nd gear's operating ranges. It's most fun and "F1-like" when you're kicking down to first at around 30mph or so - the engine revs jump very quickly, releasing a bark of the exhaust that tingles the hairs on the back of your neck. You may find your inner child encouraging you to call for frequent and unnecessary downshifts. Otherwise, I'm a bit of a spoilsport when it comes to "paddle shifters", though - so far none that I've tried have kept me from wishing I was driving a manual transmission instead. At least with the Type-S, Acura didn't make the mistake of eliminating the secondary gate on the console shifter - with the Type-S you get your choice of either, because most paddle shifter implementations are useless as soon as the road gets twisty.
Now, You Call the Shots
Mechanically, Acura now has sufficient confidence in the integrity of the new transmission that the 5AT's logic has been programmed to allow the driver to downshift into 1st gear as well as allowing the driver to fully control the 1-2 upshift point (previously the 5AT wouldn't allow forced downshifts into first, and it would automatically upshift from 1st-2nd just short of the redline, regardless of the driver's input). Additionally, Acura has raised the limit on (closed throttle) downshift speeds on both '07 TL models, permitting you to shift down into a lower gear sooner than the 2006 and earlier editions, with the TL Type-S having the most aggressive mapping and a claimed 26% improvement in downshift response time (Acura shows approximately half that level of improvement for the base '07 TL). This new freedom is appreciated, but for those times when you are denied a request for a downshift because you're 100rpm outside the acceptable range, it would be nice if the Type-S' transmission would "remember" any downshift requests for maybe five seconds or so and then kick down to the preselected gear as soon as the vehicle speed has slowed sufficiently. This would make it much easier to preselect a gear during heavy braking into a corner. For the record, Acura's 5AT still needs to shift down through the range sequentially - e.g. you can't quickly skip from 5th directly to 3rd without going through 4th. This is how some of the newer German automatic transmissions work. Generally the 5AT transmissions work pretty well, executing upshifts and downshifts with efficiency and precision. Most importantly, the TL never feels like the 5AT is robbing it of much performance, particularly in the Type-S model.