It's unusual to be invited to drive a car that is over a year away from going on sale, so it's no surprise that the press event itself was anything but ordinary. Normally, a press event involves around two dozen journalists per "wave". For the 2010 TL SH-AWD event, there were two waves, and the wave in which I participated included only 3 journalists. Also, due to the location of the event, we were respectfully asked to leave any photography and video equipment behind.
The entire event took place at the Dynamic Handling Course of the Transportation Research Center (TRC), located near Honda's East Liberty manufacturing facility in Ohio. Here, we spent several hours circulating the 1.65mile circuit in the 2010 TL SH-AWD 6MT prototypes and a competitive set of peers, including the BMW 335i, BMW 335xi, Audi S4, and Infiniti G35S. Every vehicle in the competitive set was equipped with a 6-speed manual transmission, sport suspension package, and the most aggressive tires offered by each manufacturer. In order to cope with the hours of track abuse that these cars would be facing during our event, Acura's engineers equipped each vehicle with upgraded brake pads, all using the identical compound. There was no "street time" spent in any of the vehicles - all of the following impressions are strictly related to our time on track with the subject vehicles.
Since we were driving unprepared (apart from the brakes) street cars , each stint in each vehicle was limited to 4 laps: one out lap, two hot laps, and a cool down lap. This measure helped prolong the tire life on all of the subject vehicles, and avoided other possible heat related issues.
Stints 1 and 7: 2008 BMW 335i (300hp, 300lb-ft, FR, ~3600lb. Best Lap: 1:44.5)
While I have driven a number of BMWs over the years, this was my first chance to try out BMW's highly regarded 3.0L twin-turbo I-6 in the E90. As the benchmark in the class and based upon my past experiences with BMWs, my expectations for this car were very high. In my first go with the 335i, I came away somewhat disappointed. The twin turbo 3.0 I-6 provides really good midrange thrust, sounds fantastic, and is supremely smooth. On the negative side, throttle response is a little bit lazy, there's a tiny bit of boost onset delay, and at the upper reaches of the tach it's just not pulling any harder than its peers, despite its weight advantage. Also, on the track, I had to fight the shifter more often than I felt was necessary. Upshifting or downshifting while traveling straight wasn't any problem, but upshifting while exiting a turn or downshifting upon entry both created frustrating challenges. Even with the sport package, the 335i had a bit of a viscous feel to it compared to the rest of the vehicles, with more pronounced body roll and a filtered feel to the steering and throttle. It didn't feel as crisp as the G35 or even the S4, so I was a little bit surprised that I ended up turning my 2nd fastest lap of the day (on the 7th stint) in the 335i. Despite the FR layout, the 335i was more prone to understeer than oversteer, though I'm sure you could probably coax it into some lurid tail-out attitudes if you really wanted to. Though we didn't drive any of these vehicles on the street, I came away with the feeling that the 335i sport was probably tuned more for the street.
Stint 2: 2008 BMW 335xi (300hp, 300lb-ft, AWD, ~3814lb curb weight. Best Lap: 1:46.2)
Driving this car back to back with its rear-drive sibling was like a highlight reel of pretty much everything that I dislike about AWD when compared to FR. First of all, the difference in curb weight is only around 200lbs, but it felt more like 500lb. It accelerated slower, braked worse, exhibited more understeer. I just didn't like it. While Acura's pro driver had the 335xi turning the 2nd fastest lap behind the TL SH-AWD, my best lap in the 335xi was the slowest of the five cars I drove. To be fair to BMW, the track was still very new to me when I was behind the wheel of the 335xi, but it was the least enjoyable car I drove around the circuit. The shifter felt exactly the same as the 335i's (relatively speaking, not very good), and while working it through the more challenging turns, I could hear the center diff chattering a bit. Compared to Acura's and Audi's AWD systems, this one seemed crude and offered no benefits that I was able to exploit.
Stints 3 and 6: 2010 Acura TL SH-AWD 6MT (305hp, 273lb-ft, ~3800lb curb weight. Best Lap: 1:43.2)
Jumping in this car immediately after the 335xi was like gulping a breath of fresh air. At first, the bulkiness of the TL was a little bit intimidating, but it only took a single chicane to appreciate the advantages of SH-AWD. In this company, the new 6-speed manual transmission and clutch interface is a work of art. Precision is spot on, whether you're accelerating at full throttle down the straightaway or trying to manage an upshift or downshift under heavy lateral loads. Acura's efforts to improve clutch feel have paid off immensely - the 2010 TL's 6MT transmission now ranks amongst Honda's best efforts. Outstanding.
Compared to the two BMWs, the TL SH-AWD 6MT felt very fast during my first outing in it, but unfortunately the prototype I was driving in that stint didn't have a functional 12V socket, so I was unable to log my lap times. It's not a big deal, since I'm sure I was quicker on my second outing with the TL, but one thing I noticed on the first outing was that I managed to overwork the front tires to the point that the car was beginning to push to a fun-killing degree. On my second outing in the other TL that was present, I seemed to have subconsciously adjusted my driving approach, as this wasn't at all an issue.
As I suspected, the TL's 305hp J37 felt fantastic hooked up to the 6MT. Acura has intentionally set up the gear ratios so that gears 1-4 are designed to pull hard and 5 and 6 are the "cruising" ratios. Out on the track, I never got the TL above 4th gear, but I can tell you that the spacing of the first 4 ratios is about as close to perfect as you're going to find. Acceleration is fierce from the moment you roll into the throttle in 1st gear, and every time you nudge the shifter (with the shortest throw of all its peers, and even shorter than the TSX's) into the next gear, there seems to be almost no dropoff in thrust. One thing that irritated me (and other TOV editors) with the previous generation TL's 6-speed gearbox was the diverter valve within the clutch that slowed the clutch engagement when the clutch pedal was released. Thanks to the AWD system and beefier driveline hardware, this has been completely eliminated for the 2010 TL, and the result is brilliantly direct and instantaneous clutch engagement.
The 2009 TL got a new set of brakes, and the 2010 6MT model runs with exactly the same stuff. Out on track, these proved to be amongst the best in the group, never fading or wavering in pedal feel and always providing significant stopping force. In fact, they were so strong that under the most severe braking circumstances I felt like the TL was standing on its nose, which of course reminded me of the TL's short wheelbase (relative to its overall length).
Stint 4: 2008 Infiniti G35S 6MT (306hp, 268lb-ft, 3532lb curb weight. Best Lap: 1:44.9)
I actually liked this car quite a lot. Based purely upon driving enjoyment, this was clearly my pick above everything I drove apart from the TL, and even then it was a pretty close call. I have driven a number of first generation G35s, and one of my biggest turn-offs has always been the VQ35 engine, particularly its gravelly demeanor. It seems that Infiniti's engineers have finally quelled those NVH issues, as this motor felt much smoother and considerably more potent than any of the past G35s I've driven. The G35's chassis is quite good, and while it seemed to have a bit of a jones for oversteer, I had fun with it. The G35 wears staggered (front to rear width) tires, presumably to dial some of the inherent oversteer out of the chassis. During the early laps of my stint, it was generally pretty neutral if not slightly pushing, but after a few hot laps went by, the rear tires got positively greasy and a little Keichi Tsuchiya devil perched upon my shoulder, goading me to hang the tail out. The G35S's brakes were reassuringly strong, and like the TL, never altered their feel. I liked the auto tensioning function of the seatbelt under the most severe braking, as it kept me firmly planted in my seat. The only major letdown with the G35S would be the shifter - it felt very much like the shifter in the BMW 335s, and also suffered from similar precision issues. The G35s is supposed to come with a (viscous) limited slip diff, but on some corners I definitely experienced mild wheelspin from the inside rear tire. Not such a big deal was the G35's relative lack of headroom. I doubt it would be a problem when not wearing a helmet, however.
Bottom line, even though it didn't return my fastest laptime of the day, the G35S delivered one of the purest driving experiences, and would have surely been quicker with a better shifter.
Stint 5: 2008 Audi S4 6MT (340hp, 302lb-ft, 3990lb curb weight. Best Lap: 1:44.8)
After toiling in the 335xi, my expectations for the S4 weren't all that great. I have driven a number of S4s on the street, and they've always felt a little bit ponderous and nose heavy to me. Then there's the fact that the S4 was the heaviest vehicle in our group by nearly 200lbs. On the track, however, the S4 made me forget much of that. The S4's balance was much better than I expected, and it felt quite natural being guided through the circuit. It didn't quite have the "magical" feel that SH-AWD exhibits through some of the turns, but it did a great job maintaining a "light on its feet" feel. The 4.2L V8 made thrilling sounds and pulled the 2-ton Teutonic beast around with real authority. Steering felt a little bit light but was plenty precise. The shifter was also light in feel, and very precise, but had longish throws. Overall, the S4 was an enjoyable drive on the track and felt like it was working more with me than against me.
Some folks wanted to know exactly which tires were fitted to the subject vehicles. The following table provides a summary.