Even with sales down 22 percent so far this year, the TL is still the company's best-selling model. The 2009 TL takes a lot of its design cues from Acura's SUVs and its TSX, but what will make it a winner is what has always been a strength for Acura: value teamed with performance.
Get past the looks (or drool over them, depending on your point of view), and what you find is a TL that's improved in every way. The 2009 TLs go on sale in September.
The biggest change for 2009, besides the new design, is the introduction of an all-wheel-drive trim level that makes 305 horsepower. One of the most common inquiries we get at Cars.com revolves around all-wheel drive. Buyers want it, even if they don't need it, and they're willing to pay for it. Acura says the SH-AWD — which stands for Super-Handling All-Wheel Drive — trim level was created to attract driving enthusiasts who shop BMW and Infiniti, both of which use rear- and all-wheel-drive setups in their cars. Enthusiasts looked down on the previous front-wheel-drive TL even though it sold in great numbers, meaning some people obviously didn't mind or notice.
I'm not sure if Acura will achieve what it wants to with both versions of the new TL, but any fan of the old car — or any shoppers looking for a little luxury in their next sedan — won't go wrong with the base model. The uplevel TL SH-AWD, though, is an interesting beast; it may be too much for those who just want all-wheel drive and too little for those looking for an ultimate performance machine.
Before I get into how remarkable a car the new TL is, there's just no escaping its looks. The phrase "love or hate" is used a lot in today's automotive world because executives believe a car needs to stand out in a crowd to attract buyers. Even if 70 percent of people hate the look, designers would rather draw the eyes of that other 30 percent. The new TL will certainly draw stares. On my test drive through Connecticut, before the TL was revealed to the public, other drivers definitely stared my way. Sure, some of them seemed to know they were getting a sneak peek, but I think most were gawking at the car's pronounced beak.
The Acura "shield" grille is well-integrated, and the thin headlights resemble both the previous-generation TL and the rest of the redesigned Acura lineup. Along the side is a strange "snarling" bulge above the front fender. It isn't repeated over the rear fender, making the front stand out even more. I call this the "Elvis Lip Curl," and it's even more pronounced on models with dark exterior colors.
When you go around to the back, things really get interesting. The rear bumper and trunklid jut outward as you move from the side of the car to the middle. Yes, it's pointing backward. Most back ends try to be flat across, not convex. It's a strange look that reminds me of a spaceship from "Buck Rogers," not a modern luxury sedan. Still, I always wanted to fly Buck Rogers' spaceship.
Piloting the new TL is a pretty smooth experience when you're in the base model. Acura is going with two TL trim levels: There's the base, front-wheel-drive model with its 280-horsepower, 3.5-liter V-6. That's 22 hp more than the outgoing base TL produced. The other trim is called the TL SH-AWD. As the name implies, it features Acura's all-wheel-drive system that the automaker humbly dubs "Super-Handling." Besides the different drivelines, there are other major differences between the two.
Namely, the SH-AWD model gets a 305-hp, 3.7-liter V-6. The suspension is tuned for more aggressive driving, and the exhaust note is meant to make more noise. Even the seats get larger side bolsters to hold you in place during all the thrashing you'll no doubt put the car through.
I can simply say that both trims are excellent machines, and you'll have to carefully consider how you enjoy your commute before choosing one. After testing both, I would say that ride comfort is the most significant difference between the two, not the all-wheel drive. The base TL is one of the smoothest, quietest-riding sedans of its size that I've tested. It's almost Lexus-silent, but it delivers precise steering and plenty of driving fun, all while cushioning the driver from bad roads.
The TL SH-AWD is obviously the faster model, but not to such an extreme that you'll miss the extra power in passing moves when driving the base TL. The bigger difference is that the SH-AWD's handling is remarkably crisp and aggressive, like sport sedans from BMW and Mercedes-Benz. But like those two brands, the suspension is quite firm. The stiff setup means you will feel road imperfections, and I think that will turn off some previous TL owners. My few hundred miles of test driving came on winding country roads that were impeccably well-maintained. Anytime there was a change in road conditions, you could certainly tell in the TL SH-AWD without looking at the road. It was very pronounced. The engine also roared a tad, just enough to intrude into the cabin, but without the kind of aural pleasure you get from a good American V-8.
Of course, the TL gets better mileage than a V-8-powered sport sedan. The 3.5-liter engine returns an EPA-estimated 18/26 mpg city/highway, which is identical to the 2008's mileage. The 3.7-liter engine gets 17/25 mpg city/highway, which would be a normal drop for any model going from front-wheel drive to all-wheel drive, let alone increasing power by 25 hp. The numbers are better than you get from Infiniti's G35 but trail Cadillac's CTS and Lexus' ES 350.
Both TLs have a five-speed automatic transmission with shift paddles mounted to the steering wheel. A manual transmission isn't offered, and shifting with the paddles, while smooth, doesn't deliver the same kind of thrill as doing it with a shifter and clutch pedal. For the traditional TL driver this shouldn't make a bit of difference, but Acura's aiming at a new, enthusiast audience with the TL SH-AWD.
The big question for enthusiasts will be if the TL SH-AWD bests the competition's best. It's a close call. While I still think the BMW 335xi is one of the top performers in this segment, the TL SH-AWD holds its own against the all-wheel-drive Infiniti G35x. The recently revised manual transmission in the 2008 G35 is terrific, however, and a more powerful 2009 G37 sedan will be out at the same time as the 2009 TL.
The one car I compared the TL to the most was the new Cadillac CTS because of their relative sizes, aggressive looks, similar prices and available all-wheel drive. I drove an all-wheel-drive CTS the week I returned from testing the new TL, and realized pretty quickly that the TL SH-AWD certainly would be my choice over the Cadillac. The CTS is just as harsh over rough roads, but doesn't handle nearly as well as the Acura.
To my core, I'm a bang-for-the-buck guy, and I think that speaks more to Acura shoppers than it does to all-out performance enthusiasts who shop BMW and Audi. There's nothing wrong with that; the idea that every car needs to be the ultimate track star is ludicrous when most drivers never get to experience anything more thrilling than twisty country roads. The base TL takes those twisties just fine, and if you have a significant other, he or she won't mind going on a drive in the smoother-riding base model. The light steering will be a blessing for those who find BMWs and Infinitis to be heavy-handed affairs as well.
Acura sure doesn't go too crazy with its interiors. The new TL is more refined and slightly more upscale than the previous generation, but as radical as the exterior is, the interior is completely sedate. The only relatively avant-garde aspect was the color palette. Besides standard black, there's also a deep chocolate option used on the upper dash and doors that goes with a cream leather for the seats. This was my favorite combination. There's also a bright-bronze leather selection available in the TL SH-AWD.
The front seats were both comfortable and supportive; after six hours of straight driving, my back felt fine. As a baseline, this is usually not the case for me, and I take note when my spine isn't bothering me on long drives. I had also spent three hours on a plane and two hours in a helicopter immediately preceding the test drive, so, yes, I was paying attention to seat comfort.
The backseat is also comfortable, gaining a slight amount of extra legroom over the 2008. I wouldn't want to take a long ride back there, but it was vastly roomier than any of the competition from BMW, Audi, Cadillac or Infiniti.
There were a number of subtle yet stylish touches inside that I enjoyed but which may go unnoticed. On Technology Package-equipped models, the meshed-metal surface that's used to cover parts of the dash, doors and center console and create a flowing design is real metal; when you touch it, it feels cold. There's even a metal sliding door that hides the 115-volt plug for electronic accessories.
The hooded gauges are sporty, and while they're not the most impressive I've seen, they do stand above most of the direct competition. Dual cupholders in the center console are deep enough for water bottles, and they hugged soda cans, too. They also have an attractive sliding cover.
My favorite feature was the center armrest's sliding drawer. Yep, there's a shallow drawer that pops out at a touch designed to hold cell phones or an iPod . It's lined with soft carpeting, too. While I expect it to remain open during most drives, it's nice that you can just slide it in when you leave the car so passers-by can't see what kind of expensive electronics you've left in the car.
Speaking of expensive technology, the TL packs a lot of gadgetry of its own.
All TLs come with an eight-speaker, six-CD stereo system, Bluetooth, iPod/USB connectivity and an auxiliary input jack. Even with the Tech Package, however, the USB slot only works with iPods or USB flash drives. If you own a non-iPod MP3 player, you'll have to use the auxiliary jack.
The Tech Package really ups the ante in terms of features, and Acura says it expects most buyers to opt for it. The most important addition in this package is the voice-activated navigation system, which works well and features improved screen graphics compared to Acura's current system. However, it's still not as clear as systems from the likes of Mercedes, or even Lincoln's new high-tech system. Acura has refined the knob interface that controls navigation and audio controls. There are now clear shortcut buttons that make it easier to jump from audio to navigation or other menus, and the knob itself is smaller and easier to manipulate.
It does have more than just navigation, though. Included in the Tech Package is XM NavWeather and AcuraLink live traffic. Now, it's important to note that even though XM NavWeather requires a monthly fee that can be bundled with XM Satellite Radio, the AcuraLink traffic updates — which show road construction and highlight congested roadways on the navigation map — is separate; it will work without the XM service plan. Choose the additional service plan, though, and you'll also get traffic updates over a voice channel — yes, it speaks to you — though if you live in a major metropolitan area we're guessing you know the local news radio station that updates traffic every 10 minutes.
An upgraded sound system, tuned by professional sound engineer and producer Elliot Scheiner and Pioneer, moves up to 10 speakers with 440 watts. I tested the previous generation of this system in Acura's RDX and MDX SUVs, and the upgraded version sounds just as crisp as before, with perhaps better handling of power for fans of louder music, like me.
There's a 12.7GB hard drive in the stereo system as well, which allows users to upload music from CDs or flash drives, but it can't take tunes from your iPod. Acura uses a system called Gracenote — which is actually used by iTunes and automakers like Infiniti and others — that's meant to recognize the artist and track names from the CD you want to record. Despite its success importing tracks into iTunes (on a computer that's presumably connected to the internet), I've found this system to rarely work well in cars. Acura says you can upload updates to the Gracenote system via a USB drive to get the most recent information, but that seems like a lot of work to me, especially with so many people already toting 80GB iPods with tracks they bought online that can't be downloaded anyway.
The hard drive also allows owners to upload digital photographs for use as wallpaper on the navigation screen when it's not in use, such as when you start the engine or turn off the informational display. I have no earthly idea about the benefit of this, other than getting to see your favorite image every time you start your car, and even then I'm not sure I'm happy that Acura spent time developing this rather than allowing non-iPod MP3 players to work with the USB plug.
Features and Trim Packages
At this time, Acura has not yet released pricing information for the TL lineup. The automaker has said pricing will be in the range of $34,000 to $42,000, with the $42,000 figure representing a TL SH-AWD with the Tech Package.
The base TL comes with leather seats, a 10-way power driver's seat, an eight-way power passenger's seat, heated front seats, high-intensity-discharge headlights, a moonroof, heated side mirrors, speed-sensitive windshield wipers, 17-inch wheels, the stereo mentioned above, a tilt/telescoping steering wheel, paddle shifters, dual-zone air conditioning, two 12-volt power outlets and Bluetooth. There's also steering-wheel-mounted controls for the stereo, phone, cruise control and other features.
The TL SH-AWD comes with all the above and adds chrome-accented door handles, a trunk spoiler, a backup camera, 18-inch wheels and sport seats.
The Tech Package adds the technology features mentioned above and also includes a keyless access system and push-button ignition. On base TLs, it also adds the spoiler and backup camera that are standard on the TL SH-AWD.
Safety features like stability control, traction control, side curtain airbags, front-seat side-impact airbags and active front head restraints are standard.
Neither the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety nor the federal government has crash tested the 2009 TL as of this writing.
TL in the Market
The entry-level luxury sedan market is a crowded, competitive field with few sub-par players. For the price, the base TL will be a value pick that offers a lot of room and features for the money. Only the Cadillac CTS, Infiniti G and Audi A4 play in this realm in the same price range. For the commuter who favors a smooth ride and gadgets to an all-out driving experience, the base TL really delivers the goods, with a radical look to boot.
I'm much more hesitant to whole-heartedly recommend the TL SH-AWD. While it's a very good car and fun to drive, I just don't think it does enough to win over enthusiast drivers who yearn for the powerful grunt of an Infiniti G or the silky-smooth turbo power of a BMW 335i. For those who just want an all-wheel-drive version of the TL, it also loses the refinement of the base model.
The TL's pricing will surely keep both trim levels in consideration among shoppers in this segment, as it will beat most competitors when comparably equipped. My hope is that the frenzy around ultimate performance doesn't stop people from testing what really is a better all-around car.
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