Acura's lineup of sedans all seem to blend together, kind of like the latest crop of young actors gracing the cover of Entertainment Weekly. The cars, not the actors, have a midlevel of luxury and fit into the midsize sedan segment. Since Acura gives them names such as TSX, TL, and, RL, anyone would be forgiven for mixing them up.
However, there is one model that stands out. A variation of the TL that lives loud and can be favorably compared with a BMW 3-series. We are talking about the 2010 Acura TL SH-AWD, which gets a bigger engine than the standard TL, along with an excellent manual transmission and a high tech all-wheel-drive system.
The TL SH-AWD that rolled into our garage came with all the extras, which Acura rolls into a single trim level. Its Technology package added GPS navigation and the ELS audio system, and a High Performance Tire package set the tone for a good bit of our testing.
With its last update in 2009, the TL SH-AWD embodies current Acura design. The car has a very strong belt line and front fenders that protrude upward. The front and rear of the car are the most controversial elements, both forming a center point. We like the small number of openings up front, minimizing grille aperture, but the beak-shaped grille surround is a bit harder to take.
Inside the car, the Acura's main interface controller is a very prominent, big knob/directional controller in the center of the stack. We like the controller's ergonomics and usability, but it's unsightly and doesn't exactly evoke feelings of refined luxury. Acura designers have also notoriously been button happy; and although the dashboard is a little cleaner in the 2010 TL SH-AWD from previous models, a field of buttons still covers the stack and steering wheel.
The main controller makes entering a destination into the navigation system easy to do while driving, which is something Acura does not prevent you from doing. The car also has a very capable voice command system for destination entry.
The hard-drive based navigation system's maps look good and have decent resolution. However, the maps are strictly 2D, with the normal direction of travel and North-facing options. The car's navigation system receives traffic data that shows traffic flow and incident information on the maps. It also uses that data to calculate routes free of traffic jams where possible.
Two things stand out about the Acura's navigation system: the route guidance and a special scenic roads feature. Along with having voice prompts that speaks street names, the system's route guidance graphics give lane guidance and show you upcoming junctions in a perspective view to help you prepare for the turn.
The system also has a neat scenic roads feature that lists picturesque drives in every state but Hawaii. We chose the Big Sur Highway, which is down the coast from San Francisco, and the system guided us to a central point on the route.
The Acura that roared
Rather than letting us enjoy the scenery, the TL SH-AWD made us want to drive fast. Its 3.7-liter V-6 engine makes a delightful growl when given throttle, and the six-speed-manual transmission is just about perfect with a precise gate and a solid feel.
We wouldn't say this engine is the stuff of legend. It uses a single overhead cam and Honda/Acura's tried and true VTEC system to wring out 305 horsepower and 273 pound-feet of torque, but that is plenty for this 3,889-pound vehicle.
Coupled with the close ratio gearbox and its short-throw shifter, banging through the Acura's gears on a run to 60 mph is a lot of fun. Also, the precision of the gate makes shifting in even stop-and-go traffic painless.