We're impressed by the hard-drive-based navigation system, the first in an Acura. It's easy to enter addresses, and there are plenty of options for destinations, including a very full points-of-interest database. Traffic reporting is built in, with data delivered by XM NavTraffic. The system does dynamically route around bad traffic, but not specific traffic incidents, as we found out while testing the Scenic road information feature. Weather reporting is also built into the navigation system, similar to what we saw in our review of the TSX.
Although we couldn't use voice command with the phone system, this is better phone integration than we've seen in previous Acuras. Once you have paired a phone, you can choose to copy your phonebook to the car, making all of your contacts available on the LCD.
You can also use a paired phone to play music, if it supports Bluetooth streaming. Acura includes Bluetooth as an audio source, and we've found that you can go seamlessly from playing music off of a phone to accepting or making a call. Acuras have had a CD/DVD drive for a while now, which reads DVD-audio discs and MP3 CDs. But in the TL SH-AWD, you can also rip a CD to the car's hard drive. We found it pretty easy to use this feature, as the car's music database immediately recognized a CD we had in the player, and gave us the option to rip it. The USB port is also new, a very convenient feature that lets you plug in an iPod or USB drive, but with the latter you can only browse through folders; it won't organize music from a USB drive by artist, album, and genre. XM satellite radio is also present, of course.
Under the hood
The main difference between the standard TL and the TL SH-AWD is the engine, a 3.5-liter V-6 in the former and a new 3.7-liter V-6 in the latter. That 3.7-liter engine, using Acura's VTEC variable valve timing, delivers a peak 305 horsepower at 6,200rpm and 273 pound-feet of torque at 5,000rpm. That torque comes on a little late for our tastes, as the TL SH-AWD starts off the line with some sluggishness before it builds up a surge of power. But once it gets going, and the tach needle flies over the 5,000rpm mark, the engine makes a delightfully aggressive sound.
That power is channeled through a five-speed automatic. In the past, we've been critical of Acura's transmissions, because they seem to mute the power edge of a fine engine. But this transmission is improved, although still not perfect. In the TL SH-AWD, the gearing seems better and the shifts, at least in sport mode, happen quickly. The TL SH-AWD also gets shift paddles on the steering wheel, making it easy to go into manual mode from sport. In manual mode, the programming lets you hold gears right up to redline, with no intrusive shifts. In sport driving, we found that third gear offers a wide enough power band for a lot of roads, although in severe twisties you can take it over 60 mph in second gear, and get treated to that aggressive engine note. While we were reviewing this car, Acura announced it would offer its six-speed manual on the 2010 TL SH-AWD. We've been very impressed by Acura's manual transmission, and think it would be worthwhile to wait for the 2010 model, if you enjoy a sportier ride.
The other big difference between the TL and TL SH-AWD, noted in the model name, is that the latter gets Acura's Super Handling All Wheel Drive, a system designed more for sport driving than slippery conditions. It biases torque to the front wheels, but moves it to the rear as needed, and also throws power back and forth between left and right rear wheels. In hard cornering on some serious switchbacks, we felt some understeer going into the turn, but the traction was excellent--power going to the proper tires to keep the car on its line and responding well to the acceleration we applied.
Letting us down a bit in this type of cornering were the suspension and transmission, at least in sport automatic mode. The transmission doesn't aggressively downshift, so it's better to use manual mode, and the suspension shows some travel--not a lot, but enough to keep the TL SH-AWD from feeling like a real screwed-down sports car. That suspension travel results from tuning that's geared just a little more towards comfort, something the TL SH-AWD succeeds at. Cruising down the highway, the car delivered a good ride--not soft, but with solid damping of jolts and bumps.
The TL SH-AWD earns an EPA-rated 17 mpg city and 25 mpg highway, the latter an impressive number for a car lacking a sixth gear. While driving along the freeway, we saw the average economy on the trip computer hit as high as 25.5 mpg, but our tank average with the car came in at a solid 21 mpg, which really isn't bad for an engine of this size. The TL SH-AWD also does well on emissions, earning a ULEV II rating from the California Air Resources Board.
The TL SH-AWD also gets the best safety ratings from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) of any car, getting the top rating in all of the Institute's crash tests. Because of these test results, and the fact that the TL SH-AWD has a variety of electronic road-holding gear, including traction and stability control, the IIHS named it a Top Safety Pick.
As with other Acura models, the 2009 TL SH-AWD is sold as a trim model with or without tech, each trim coming in at a single price. So our 2009 Acura TL SH-AWD with tech came in at a base price of $42,235 with no options. Add on $760 for destination, and the total comes out to $42,995. By contrast, the standard TL with tech runs $38,685. For about seven grand more, you can get an with Quattro all-wheel-drive, a car that we feel offers a more sporting drive but inferior cabin tech. Or for a hardcore sport all-wheel-driver, there's always our favorite , which has a similar price to the Acura.
In our ratings, we consider the cabin tech excellent, as it offers some cutting edge and useful features. There are a few quirks here and there, though. For performance, the TL SH-AWD is very good, making a nice compromise between a sport and daily driver. Design is good, but not great, as it suffers from too many buttons on the instrument panel. The exterior might face some criticism, but it's easy to get over the initial jolt of the heavily beaked piece over the grille.