Acura TL SH-AWD – a winner by more than a nose

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

We were blown away by the looks of the 2004 Acura TL when we first encountered it in 2003. The clean exterior design that moved away from the cookie-cutter look of so many mid-sized sedans in the early part of the decade, including the previous iteration of the TL, came with a load of newfangled technology, outstanding performance, a knock-'em-dead sound system and wonderful day-to-day livability.

The 2004 TL with its distinctive character line flowing through the door handles upward into the rear fender grabbed us by the neck and said, “love me.” It was love at first sight and then love at first drive.

Since then that once rather unique styling application has been copied dozens of times with varying degrees of success. It had, in fact, become somewhat dated.

But some folks back then thought the ’04-’08 generation TL was, well, bland. Styling like economics brings loads of opinions. In this case we must point out that the last generation TL was Acura’s runaway best seller.

And that brings us to the all-new TL. Acura is betting the farm on keeping it in the best-selling category. But for us, love for the exterior package is harder to conjure up this time around.

Specifically, we can’t get our mind around the snowplow front end. The dominant grille with a “jack-o-lantern” smile has been called everything from a vegetable slicer to a gladiator shield. The V-shaped rear decklid is also a puzzler. From the side, the design is handsomely conservative rising above the ordinary with muscular wheel arches and interesting character lines. And the TL presents a wide, solid stance.

Acura officials say they wanted to steer clear of conventional design. We say they succeeded, but to what cost?

Our ambivalence over the front and rear styling is not shared by everyone, however. We stopped off to pay a bill (yes we pay our bills) and two people who had never seen a new TL offered us unsolicited, complimentary opinions of the big-blade nose. “I like the front, it’s pretty cool,” said one.

“I could easily live with this car,” one spouse offered, also unsolicited as we cruised down the interstate. “I could own this car.”
What about the front end? “I’ve got no problem with that.” Beauty is indeed it the eye of the beholder.

While some of the TL’s styling exercises may be controversial, they are probably the only aspects of the new TL that won’t draw rave reviews.
The TL is another standout sedan from Acura, and we hope the polarizing front end treatment doesn’t turn prospective buyers away. 

The TL is available in two versions — TL and TL SH-AWD.

The TL in SH-AWD guise is a marvelous driving machine. Acceleration is strong if not cutting edge, the suspension provides just the right amount of ride comfort while performing class-leading handling duties. The electronic steering offers excellent feedback, and the five-speed automatic transmission with paddle shifters goes about its duties with the adeptness of six-speed shifters found in most entry-level luxury cars these days.

All-wheel drive is a first for the TL and there’s a reason it’s called SH-AWD (Super Handling — All-Wheel Drive). The all-wheel system is rather sophisticated normally allotting 90 percent of the torque to the front wheels, but quickly moving as much as 70 percent rearward in aggressive driving and then sending as much as 100 percent to either rear wheel to keep the car moving in the proper direction.

Running hard and fast on our usual winding road test route proved smile inducting. The old torque steer problem — actually, it wasn’t much of an issue in the last TL — has been wiped away if you opt for the AWD model.

There are two engine choices, a 3.5-liter V-6 generating 280 horsepower and 254 pound-feet of torque in the TL and a 3.7-liter V-6 making 306 horsepower and 275 pound-feet of torque in the SH-AWD. 

Because of the all-wheel drive system, the SH-AWD is more athletic, a true sports sedan. The TL is more in the image of the Lexus ES 350, less entertaining than the SH-AWD but no less a very acceptable entry-level luxury sedan.

The SH-AWD is one of those cars that fit into the category, “feels better than the numbers.” It’s been measured from 0-to-60 in 6.3 seconds and 14.8 seconds at 97 mph in the quarter mile. While this falls a bit short of a couple of key competitors including the BMW 335i, the TL responds flawlessly whether driven leisurely or aggressively.

Add in the wonderfully designed interior and its wide array of comfort features (great seats, for example) and modern technology (an unequaled navigation system and state-of-the art sound system) and the big neon sign in your head lights up, “winner.”

The leather-clad driver’s seat, nicely bolstered for wide bodies, proved extraordinarily comfortable even on long drives. The dual- cockpit design is striking, bluish-white LED lighting elegantly illuminates gauges and controls, and the eight-inch navigation screen is as good as it gets in 2009.

But the most striking feature that comes with the technology package is a 440-watt DVD audio system that is simply unrivaled. A demonstration audio DVD produced by Grammy-winning record producer and recording engineer Elliott Scheiner is provided by Acura to prove the point.

Scheiner helped develop the Acura ELS Surround Premium Audio System and he shows on the DVD the difference between two-channel stereo and 5-to-1 surround sound.

If you are an audiophile the sound system alone will sell you this car.

As in all Acura products, there are virtually no options. In the case of the TL, you purchase packages with the base TL starting at $35,715 and the base SH-AWD starting at $39,265.
We highly recommend adding the technology package for $3,690 whether you opt for the base or the SH-AWD. It includes a hard-drive based navigation with voice recognition, real-time traffic, real-time weather forecasts, GPS-linked and a solar-sensing adaptive climate control system, keyless ignition, a rearview camera and the DVD audio system with 12.7 GB of digital music storage.

Summer tires and 19-inch wheels can be added for another grand.

Our SH-AWD test car with technology package came in at $42,995 including destination charge.

If you can get past the controversial front end as many do, you will find a rewarding driving experience worth a serious look.


Base price: $35,715; as driven, $42,995
Engine: 3.7-liter V-6
Horsepower: 306 @ 6,300 rpm
Torque: 275 foot-pounds @ 5,000 rpm
Drive: all-wheel
Transmission: 5-speed automatic
Seating: 2/3
Wheelbase: 109.3 inches
Length: 195.3 inches
Curb weight: 3,955 pounds
Turning circle: 38.5 feet
Luggage capacity: 13.1 cubic feet
Fuel capacity: 18.5 gallons (premium)
EPA rating: 25 mpg highway, 17 city
0-60: 6.3 seconds (Road & Track)
Also consider: BMW 335i, Cadillac CTS, and Infiniti G37

The Good
• Aggressive all-wheel drive system
• Many high-tech features
• One of the best automotive sound systems in existence

The Bad
• Price is up between a $1,000 and $3,000 over 2008 models

The Ugly
• Acura wanted to make a styling statement, but unfortunately it might be the wrong statement