DANBURY, Connecticut - Honda's luxury division introduced the first TL sedan for the 1996 model year. In addition to a basic midsize sedan, Acura has also offered sport-oriented Type-S editions.
Two versions of the freshly redesigned TL sedan are going on sale, too, but the Type-S designation is gone. Instead, the step-up model is called the TL SH-AWD, which stands for Acura's Super Handling All-Wheel Drive system. That's right: in addition to the regular front-drive TL sedan, Acura is now offering one with all-wheel drive, a bigger engine, and different chassis tuning.
For this fourth generation, Acura "wanted to retain the core values that made the TL so successful," said Dan Bonawitz, vice-president of corporate planning and logistics. "Emotion Advanced" is Acura's term for the overall TL concept. More sculptured in appearance than most cars, including some whose manufacturers claim a sculpted look, the 2009 TL leads off with a grille that exhibits a 3-D configuration. In fact, rather than a conventional grille, it looks more like a tapered lid above the air opening.
Art Osborne, styling project leader for the TL, expresses his design philosophy as "keen-edge dynamic," relying on "graceful" linear fluidity. In this instance, such flowery words really do seem to describe the vehicle. Osborne particularly notes the TL's "strong, pronounced upper shoulder," intended to produce an authoritative presence. Upper and lower character lines highlight the bodysides, and Osborne noted that his team sought to "emphasize wheel arches" above the 17-inch tires (18- or 19-inch on the SH-AWD model). "We want to showcase the engine" too, he added.
Inside is a complicated-looking dashboard and steering-wheel controls, though all are well-marked. The front seat is highly driver-focused.
Beneath the base car's hood sits a 3.5-liter V-6 engine, generating 280 horsepower and 254 pound-feet of torque. The SH-AWD sedan warrants a 3.7-liter V-6, which produces 305 hp and 273 pound-feet. In contrast, the prior 3.2-liter V-6 made 258 hp, while the 2008 Type-S rated 280 hp.
Fuel-economy estimates from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) are 18 mpg city and 26 mpg highway for the base TL sedan (equal to the outgoing 3.2-liter), and 17/25 mpg for the SH-AWD.
Technically speaking, the 3.7-liter VTEC engine uses completely independent cam profiles, one of them for low-rpm operation. Valve lift and duration have increased, and valve overlap is 47 percent greater than before. Valve operation has been "optimized for both flow and sporty sound," said principal powertrain engineer John Mullett.
All-wheel-drive availability has become a top purchase reason in this entry-premium segment, said senior product planner Geovanny Rodriguez. Most competitors have either rear-drive or AWD, including the BMW 3 Series, Mercedes-Benz C-Class, Lexus ES and IS, and Infiniti G35. Audi's A4, another TL rival, may have either front-drive or AWD. Acura's SH-AWD system transfers torque fore/aft and side-to-side: up to 90 percent of torque to the front wheels, or 70 percent to the rear.
Each model has its own exclusive gear ratios within the Sequential SportShift five-speed automatic transmission. Paddle shifters are always active, which means the driver doesn't have to switch to sport mode to use them. Wnen in Drive, the paddles activate manually, temporarily, when they're touched. If held for two seconds, the transmission reverts to Drive. The S-position is equivalent to D3 (shifting from first to third gear automatically). A manual gearbox will be offered for the TL, but not until 2010.
At a time when most redesigned models grow in size, the TL's dimensions haven't changed much. Wheelbase has increased by 1.3 inches; height, by less than a half-inch. Track width (distance between left and right wheels) is 1.1 inches greater in front, 1.7 inches in the rear. Inside, shoulder space has grown by 0.8 inch in front and almost an inch in the backseat. The double-deck glovebox offers 25 percent greater capacity.
With aluminum applied to the hood, subframe, and bumper beams, the new TL body is both lighter and stiffer. Thicker windshield and door glass is used.
Acura claims braking distance, coming to a halt from 60 mph, is 5 feet shorter than before. Front brake discs are nearly an inch larger; rear, almost 2 inches.
Exercising a touch of excess in his presentation, principal performance engineer Mike Unger suggested that the TL SH-AWD "will take the average driver and turn him into a superstar." Electric power steering is new for 2009. Technology Packages are available for both models, including 440-watt ELS Surround Sound with DVD Audio and 10 speakers.
Six airbags are standard, and the side-impact airbags are larger for 2009. Curtain airbags are internally vented. Acura expects to get five-star ratings all around when the 2009 TL is crash-tested by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. All occupants get active head restraints.
Naturally, Acura is pushing the new SH-AWD model especially hard, and enthusiasts are likely to give it their approval. Acceleration is actually faster than the car feels. Step on the gas hard, and sound is prominent - though not as enticing as some. To pass or merge, the TL SH-AWD takes a moment to downshift, and gear changes are clearly noticeable (though prompt). They don't "ease in," as in some contemporary sport-sedan transmissions.
While delivering a satisfying ride on smooth surfaces, the TL SH-AWD's suspension reacts with some harshness to serious bumps. Though far from ponderous, the performance-oriented TL lacks the lighter-footed nimbleness of Acura's smaller TSX sedan. Instead, it has a solid and secure, but slightly heavy, overall feel. At idle and cruise, this SH-AWD sedan is very quiet.
Surprisingly lighter in feel than the AWD model, the base TL sedan exhibits a rather different personality. Sure, there's a little more body roll in curves; but for many drivers, that's a pleasing tradeoff for a more easygoing ride and less-intense overall sensations.
Although the base model lacks the low-end vigor of the SH-AWD edition, it's certainly no slouch in acceleration. The exhaust sound is sufficiently assertive, but more pleasingly subtle than in the SH-AWD model.
Seats are comfortable but serious, with very good thigh and back support, plus sufficiently long bottoms. (SH-AWD seats are firmer, but with the same idea). Both seats seem aimed toward long-trek comfort. Abundant glass helps provide easy views in each direction.
Rear entry needs a bit of head-ducking, and toe space is somewhat snug. Rear headroom ranks as so-so, but the center position is simply horrible: a hard, high perch that causes some heads to touching the roof and even the rear light fixture.
Regardless of model, the complexity of controls is a drawback. Something as simple as getting the trip odometer displayed turned into a bit of an ordeal. The dual-level glovebox is fairly big, but would be more usefully spacious without the divider.
Acura's available navigation systems gains new Highway Lane Guidance, as well as Fuzzy Logic address searching and 126 built-in scenic drives. Real-time weather information is available on the 8-inch screen, which has four times the resolution of the previous version.
Sales of the base-model TL begin in late September, and the SH-AWD arrives at dealerships in November. Prices are expected to run between $34,000 and $42,000.
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