Sunday, October 14, 2012

2012 Acura TL - Quick Drive

Plastic surgery complete, is it still a good car underneath?

            The TL has always been a well-rounded alternative to the Accord for those who like their buttered bread lightly toasted. It shares the same platform with the Accord but unlike it, has offered a more luxurious feel and a dash of sporting flavor starting in 2002 with the Type-S trim that has vanished and resurfaced with the tides. This current TL first showed its face in late 2008 as an ’09 model and that face was immediately and widely criticized. The matte chrome ‘power plenum’ grille dominated the front end, spilling over onto the leading edges of the hood. The rear suffered from the same exaggerated genetics, sporting an enormous bumper resplendent with large reflectors and an edgy trunk lid flanked by tiny taillights. Some claimed the car looked like a pouting Transformer from the rear but viewed from the side, one could see handsome lines trying to be heard over the shouting extremities. Regardless of whether you were a fan or not, Acura heard the criticism loud and clear and tamed the edginess for the car’s mid-cycle refresh.

            No longer dominated by extravagant additions, the TL has been simplified and honed into a handsome package without managing to look like the smaller TSX. Acura hopes that this draws in those originally turned off by outward appearances to see what a fine car it really is. A TL with the Technology Package was mine for the evening so I took it out to see what it had to offer for its $40,330 asking price.

            Initial impressions were quite promising. Unlike many cars of today, the window line is actually very low and provides excellent sideways visibility. The windshield is similarly shaped and only the rear window suffers from the gun-slit syndrome. To assist in reversing maneuvers with that high decklid, a rear view camera is standard on all models with the Technology Package and above. The front seats are very comfortable and offer a wide range of power adjustments for both driver and passenger. Front seat heating is standard on Tech models while springing for the Advance Package will also give you ventilation for those hot summer days. Storage space also abounds with a large center console, a small cubby at the base of the console and a glove box is which is cavernous enough to be useful even with the owner’s manual booklet in there. Fit and finish is also spectacular with nice stitching touches on the leather wrapped around the steering wheel, shift knob and emergency brake handle. The navigation screen is a high-definition work of art, the nifty sliding power point cover is just plain cool and the gauges with their floating needles were very easy to read at a glance, even if they were a bit on the plain side. With almost 6,000 miles on the odometer, all the leather surfaces inside looked brand new, nothing rattled or squeaked and panel gap consistency was excellent, just what we’ve come to expect in an Acura.

            Gripes with the driving environment were few but present nevertheless. With the Technology Package, the reason why other manufacturers ball lots of functions into the navigation screen is made vividly clear. The TL reserves the navigation screen for essentially just that and as a result, the center stack alone is home to a whopping forty-five buttons not including the hazard lights and starter button. There are then another sixteen buttons on the steering wheel, only four being for the cruise control and many of which lack tactile identification, making them tough to operate without taking your eyes off the road. Although they are easy to get used to, having to learn all these buttons may be daunting prospect for some. Also, controls for the heated seats are placed directly in front of the cup holder so it’s only a matter of time before something fizzy and sugary is spilled on them. Despite these niggles, the TL’s interior is a wonderful place to spend time and may easily find itself the preferred family vacation cruiser.

            The TL’s bulk is propelled by Acura’s excellent 3.5 liter V6 producing 280 horsepower and 254 pound feet of torque in front wheel drive spec. Models equipped with the physics-defying Super Handling AWD (SH-AWD) receive a 3.7 liter version of the same V6 that bumps output to 305 horsepower and 273 pound feet of torque. Off-the-line acceleration is brisk and smooth with the expected torque steer very well tamed, something not likely to be said about the previous generation TL. The six-speed automatic has paddles on the steering wheel should you prefer to shift yourself but either way, it provides silky and seamless performance, even under heavy throttle applications. Stopping nearly two tons isn’t an easy task but the brakes fitted to the TL are superb and at full power, can quickly find a new place for anything in the interior that isn’t fastened down. Anti-lock control is excellent and pedal feedback is very good.

            The ride is very comfortable and controlled without being too hard and firm or soft and floaty. Pockmarked streets of downtown Portland weren’t able to faze the TL and it soaked up highway miles without complaint but upon heading into the hills, I found myself disappointed. Despite everything else that it has going for it, the TL’s steering is disparagingly and unforgivably numb. On-center feel is non-existent so don’t even bother looking for it and even driving briskly into a corner gives one reason for pause as the complete lack of feedback through the wheel provides the sensation that you’re losing grip even if that’s not the case. Even the larger RL offers superior steering response at speed but still suffers from the Novocain on-center sensation. Without an SH-AWD model to compare it with, I’d have to say that the steering in the TL is the only thing letting down an otherwise perfect car.

            There is a TL to fit every taste including, by the grace of the automotive gods, a six-speed manual version, an option virtually extinct in this class outside the BMW 3-Series. Prices for the TL start at just under $36,000 and with the AWD Advance Package, can get awfully close to $46,000. A BMW 335i xDrive starts at $44,800 and while that may sound appealing, it quickly passes the $50K mark without adding many options that the TL includes as standard fare. A fully-loaded example will easily get close to sixty grand, a tough pill to swallow.

 Although this was a quick drive, the TL left a very favorable impression in my mouth and if Acura only corrected the steering feel, this car would be about as good as those costing a third more.


What's Hot: Good visibility, luxury without the price, comfortable seats, compliant ride, excellent acceleration and brakes, butter-smooth power delivery, top-notch materials and fit and finish.

What's Not: Steering needs help with communication skills, button-loaded dashboard may prove confusing for some.

The Verdict: A handsome and proficient all-rounder let down by a single character flaw.

This car was graciously loaned to me courtesy of Martin Parr at Ron Tonkin Acura in Beaverton, Oregon.

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