2010 Acura TL SH-AWD 6MT Review
By Chris Haak
The third-generation Acura TL was, in my opinion, the most attractive car that Acura has ever sold in the brand’s nearly quarter-century history. It had a dramatic wedge shape, a very pronounced character line that encompassed the door handles and side marker lights, and looked different from most other front wheel drive cars on the road. It also had a fairly attractive grille. The third-generation TL was available in the US from the 2004 through 2008 model years.
Then the time came to update the TL with an all-new car. Much about the fourth-generation (2009+) TL is right; the interior is more spacious, technology more impressive, all wheel drive is available, and the engines are more powerful. Yet the clean, lean design of the third-generation car somehow morphed into a car that has a big butt and a cheese grater grille (which Acura calls a “Power Plenum.” With the model changeover, the title of “best looking Acura” slipped over to the smaller Euro Accord-based TSX, and “best looking” became more like “least bad looking.”
Folks in the car business call silver cars – as this test vehicle was – “no sale silver,” because silver cars tend to lack the pizazz of brighter hues, and often stay on the lot longer than other-colored cars may. The upshot of a silver TL (or any new Acura, for that matter) is that the Power Plenum grille is far less obvious when it’s against a silver background rather than a darker or brighter color. White would probably hide the PP’s size and shape reasonably well also, but silver (or Palladium in Acura’s nomenclature) is the best at that chore.
As I spent a week in this TL, though, I began to forget about its exterior design and focus more on how enjoyable of a car it was to drive. It helps that the interior is shod in better-than-Honda-quality charcoal leather, soft-touch surfaces throughout most of the car (with the lower door panels being the only obvious exception), and an impressive technology package with a plethora of audio entertainment options and an easy-to-use navigation system. My test vehicle was the top of the line TL, which includes the upsized 3.7 liter V6 (305 horsepower and a not-Honda-like 273 lb-ft of torque), all wheel drive, and one of the sweetest-shifting six-speed manual gearboxes I’ve ever had the pleasure of rowing. That the gearbox is connected to a front wheel drive-based platform (AWD notwithstanding) makes the gearbox’s accurate, easy feel even in 15 degree weather that much sweeter. I was, however, somewhat surprised that the most expensive TL has metallic-like trim throughout the interior, while a more basic TL that I saw at the auto show in Detroit had wood trim. Since both are fake, I suppose it makes little difference, but the wood did look more appropriate in a car that is presumably a luxury car (though I’d argue that it’s more of a sport sedan).
As mentioned earlier, entertainment choices were numerous and appreciated, particularly on the long highway trip that I took in the TL. Of course, it has AM/FM/CD, but to the standard audio options, it also adds XM Satellite Radio, USB (to connect an iPod/iPhone), HDD (to store music files on the car’s hard drive), DVD audio, an analog auxiliary jack, and my recent favorite, BTA (Bluetooth Audio). Once I paired my iPhone with the car for handsfree telephone purposes (a must-do in a manual transmission car, by the way), the car’s Bluetooth audio feature was also automatically paired. Although you can’t see the track name on the car’s display or change tracks remotely using the car’s controls (an iPhone limitation, not an Acura limitation), sound quality was very good, and wireless convenience is very handy. It’s almost like broadcasting your own mini radio station, and the sound quality is equivalent to FM radio quality. For higher-quality sound, you can connect your iPod or other personal audio player to the car directly via USB interface. Doing that allows you to choose from your iPod’s playlistls and to control specific track selections using the car’s controls.
The only downside to all of this technology is the proliferation of buttons on the center stack. I’m a gadget lover, and even I had trouble finding specific controls I was looking for in my first morning with the TL. After several days and several hundred miles piloting the TL, I was able to find most secondary controls fairly quickly, such as the audio controls and driver and passenger climate controls. The exception was the nearly-hidden “Audio” button, which took until the last day I had the car to find. It’s right below the volume knob, and allows adjustments for balance/fade, equalizer, and most importantly, the display of all audio information instead of just one line at a time as the always-on display shows (particularly helpful when listening to XM, because just knowing a single part of title, artist, channel name, channel category, or channel number is not particularly useful).
The 440-watt sound system is impressive in both its power and clarity. It was particularly impressive-sounding when listening to the DVD audio demo disc that came with the car. But as good as that sounded, I don’t know anyone who takes their music seriously enough to commit to the extra effort and expense of getting their music on DVD-A instead of just downloading the music from iTunes or buying a CD online.
Two gadgets – which are basically safety features – that surprised me by their absence in the TL were a blind spot detection system and adaptive cruise control. The Ford Fusion Hybrid had the blind spot detection system at half of the TL’s price, and some Toyota models (including my wife’s minivan) has adaptive cruise control. So why are they not in a car like the TL that is teeming with so much other technology? Lexus and Infiniti offer both features in cars that Acura wants the TL to compete against.
Since I’ve never had the pleasure of driving a Honda S2000, this TL may be the best-driving car that I’ve ever experienced from Honda. The 305-horsepower V6 has the perfect amount of power to move the car briskly (and sounds fantastic during acceleration), the six-speed manual shifts smoothly with relatively short throws, and the SH-AWD really does help the car’s handling. The “super handling” part of the name is perhaps a bit exaggerated, but if you’re brave, you can actually let the AWD system yank the car through a curve under certain circumstances. When I first drove a TL with SH-AWD over a year ago, it was an automatic model on a track, and the representatives from Acura insisted that I’d be able to (against my normal inclination) give the car power earlier in a curve to let the SH-AWD do its thing. The six-speed manual lets SH-AWD “do its thing” even more directly, as it really seems to come into its own torque-vectoring self in the lower gears with the engine and pull the car through the corner.
Suspension tuning in this car, the sportiest of TLs, was firm, yet over several hundred miles of potholed highway driving, I had no complaints. Even the 19 inch wheels – which I’d hate to have to pay for if the car actually had a direct hit against a pothole – didn’t make their presence known. The benefit of the large wheels and Michelin Pilot Sport S2 245/40 ZR19 summer tires was rapid response to braking and steering inputs, and the expected ride quality trade-off from the large wheels never really materialized to the point where I’d complain. Steering feel was good considering how much of the car’s weight is over the front axle (and even better considering that the TL has electric power steering rather than the traditional hydraulic setup). My only real gripe about the driving experience was the clutch feel; it was perhaps too light and difficult to read. Eventually, I got used to it, and the only time I stalled the car was when moving it from one side of my driveway to another. Incidentally, kudos to Acura for offering the TL with a manual transmission; the take rate is very low, but die-hards really appreciate the availability of three-pedal cars.
The EPA rates the 2010 Acura TL SH-AWD 6MT at 17 mpg city and 25 mpg highway. My observed fuel economy varied greatly depending on how and where I was driving the car. During my normal daily grind, with back roads, highway, and city driving mixed together, I saw about 18 miles per gallon. During a long highway trip, with the car in sixth gear for literally 100 miles at a time and the cruise control set to 74 mph, it returned 24 miles per gallon. Among its most obvious competitors (Lexus IS350, Infiniti G37x, and Cadillac CTS4), the TL SH-AWD gets the worst city fuel economy and the worst highway fuel economy (the Lexus IS350 is not available with AWD; only the less-powerful IS250 is) and the same highway fuel economy as the others, except for Cadillac’s impressive 27 mpg rating.
Acura’s simple model structure makes choosing a model a fairly easy task. Basically, there are no options; the differences between models are AWD or not (non-AWD TLs get a 280-horsepower 3.5 liter V6 rather than the 305-horsepower 3.7 liter V6 that my test car had), Technology package or not, manual transmission or not (available with AWD only), and whether to get 19 inch wheels and summer tires with the SH-AWD model. The SH-AWD adds a significant $3,550 premium to the regular TL, but includes the larger engine, all wheel drive, larger 18 inch wheels, and a few other accessories. The models with the Technology Package adds a $3,730 premium, and gives you navigation, XM NavTraffic and NavWeather, pushbutton start, higher quality leather, voice recognition, and the 440-watt surround sound audio system. The final tab on my test vehicle was $44,195 including destination.
At the end of the day, I enjoyed living with the Acura TL for a week. Its comfort, excellent transmission, good engine power, and technology won me over for the most part, almost to the point that I forgot about its awkward looks. Questions about the car’s value/pricing aside, I thought more than once about whether I would enjoy owning a TL over my Cadillac CTS. The Cadillac tops the TL in looks inside and out as well as performance, but the TL tops the Cadillac in refinement and technology. If the AWD and Technology Package weren’t so expensive in the TL, I’m convinced that Acura could sell far more of them than they do today.
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