Sorry, but this is not a review of the most powerful Acura ever built, the one from all the magazine ads. That would be the 305 hp TL with Super Handling All-Wheel Drive. This is about the 280 hp front-wheel drive version. At first I wasn’t so sure.
When I picked up my test vehicle, I had just gotten off a transcontinental flight from perpetually 75 degrees and sunny Los Angeles to be greeted by a brutal Northeast freeze with a just a touch of wind chill to make it interesting. With the sun already down for several hours, and my warm bed still an hour away, I wasn’t exactly in the mood to give the car a proper once-over before jumping inside, turning on the heat, and making a beeline for the highway.
Although I was positive that I was scheduled to get the two-wheel drive TL, for the first several miles I had a hard time believing that at least some of the power in this particular one wasn’t being directed to the rear. Granted, I wasn’t doing much more than snaking my way through traffic on your typically flat and straight American freeway, but even on the off ramps I could swear that I felt the back end of the car chipping in now and then to keep it on the right line. With constant throttle on decreasing radius turns a little extra steering could even get the rear tires to kick out a little bit.
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That I even thought twice about it wasn’t just a testament to this particular car, but yet another example of the solid argument that Acura and parent company Honda continue to make for front-wheel drive in a world of increasing fuel efficiency standards where rear-drive is at a supposed handicap. No one does it better than they do.
After many more miles I did discover that like all potent front-drivers the TL is not immune to the laws of physics, and driven through turns heavy on the gas it will eventually decide to point its nose toward the guardrail. For the small percentage of drivers that intentionally put themselves into this situation on a regular basis, a mere $3,500 or so will buy you that all-wheel drive option. If that’s not a concern of yours, read on, because there is a more pressing issue to consider first.
Acura describes the look of the new TL as “emotion unleashed.” Compared to every product the company has ever made (yes I’m counting the NSX sports car) the phrase is an understatement. From a grille that is an exact replica of Sir Lancelot’s shield, to bulging flanks borrowed from the USS Merrimack, it is a dramatic departure from “it looks like a Honda” Acuras of old. Reaction is mixed, but the eyes of all passers-by are attracted to the shiny proboscis like the guy who sold it to you is to suit sales at Men’s Warehouse. Chalk one up for originality.
Inside, the TL comes with two distinctly different personalities. To the rear, there is nothing more than Honda Accord simplicity upholstered in upgraded leather, with little else to hold your attention. Turn your eyes forward, however, and the curvy, silvery, wraparound dashboard can lead you to fantasize about blasting through space on the bridge of the Starship Enterprise, your Bluetooth earpiece taking the place of whatever that thing was Uhura had sticking out of her ear.
Of course, this being the Tech model, you’d only be wearing it for show. Not only does it come with a built-in Bluetooth phone connection, but also streaming Bluetooth audio, playable through a 10-speaker surround-sound system that is configurable to the point that you can adjust the output of the center speaker on top of the dash independently of the others.
Just under it is an enormous 8-inch display that handles all of the usual multimedia functions, including a navigation system with live traffic and weather maps, because the U.S. road network makes it so easy to route yourself around approaching weather systems on the way to the mall. The screen is bright, as are all of the illuminated instruments in the TL. This is the first car I can recall that I actually needed to dim the lights in under normal conditions.
If you are tall, and move the seat back to where you fit comfortably, the knob that controls all of the functions on screen is a bit of a reach, positioned up and in front of the transmission selector on the center stack. Trying to enter an address one letter at a time is a lesson in why many cars don’t let you do this while on the move. It’s a good thing that it also has voice recognition and lots of auxiliary buttons.
What it doesn’t have is adaptive cruise control or any of the other active accident avoidance systems that are becoming par for the course even in this price range. Partially making up for the latter are top scores in both NHTSA and IIHS crash testing.
The other relative disappointment is the installation of a mere 5-speed automatic transmission in a segment where the competition comes with 6 or 7. Mostly it doesn’t bother you, as long as you forget about the silly shift paddles behind the steering wheel and just let the wonderful 3.5 liter V-6 go about its business with a smoothness that reminds you that while Honda may be responsible for vehicles like the Element, they still make some of the best engines in the world.
The power in the TL is so tractable, in fact, that you hardly miss the AWOL gear or two. That is until you check your gasoline bill. 18 mpg city/26 highway is nothing to get excited about these days, not when the more powerful, rear-drive Infiniti G37 does just as well, thanks in part to its 7-speed transmission. The Lexus ES350, with 272 horsepower going to the front wheels though 6 gears is rated at 19/27.
In contrast, the Acura retains a tight, efficient, Japanese car feeling that’s beginning to get lost in the raucousness of the G37 and plush environs of the ES. At times, it’s almost retro. Despite that exterior with a trunk lid so pointy you could practically use it as a guillotine, when it comes to dynamics, the TL is the custom fit suit of this bunch. It’s the one that asks very little, but knows exactly what you need, delivering it with minimal effort on your part, as long as you’re already behind the wheel.
Acura had better hope that suit of armor doesn’t end up keeping more people out of it than in.
2009 Acura TL Tech
As tested: 39,445
Type: Front-engine, front-wheel drive, 5 passenger, 4-door sedan
Engine: 3.5L V-6
Power: 280 hp, 254 lb-ft torque
Transmission: 5-speed automatic
MPG: 18 city/26 highway
What do you think of the TL?
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Gary Gastelu is FoxNews.com's Automotive Editor.