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The 2012 Acura TL is like the more accomplished second son: it does just about everything better than its older brother, but it still can't shake the RL's seniority. Looking at the Acura lineup, there is no good reason to choose the RL over the TL. The cars are approximately the same size and get similar performance gear, and the TL offers newer cabin tech.
Buyers also get their choice between the standard TL or the more powerful TL SH-AWD, the latter sporting a bigger engine and a sport-oriented all-wheel-drive system. The 2012 Acura TL SH-AWD also lays claim to being the raciest of the Acura lineup.
An identity crisis shows itself in recent generations of the TL. Acura designers made the front grille piece bolder and bolder, up to the previous generation where this silver beak grew so prominent it looked like a giant bottle opener. With the 2012 generation, insecurity set in, with the silver grille piece looking more like an integrated part of the car.
That, along with neatly inset headlights and lower air intakes, gives the new TL a smooth, modern look. The hood is also set between the fenders, similar to Infiniti's recent styling. From the sides, the roofline flows nicely toward the trunk lip, and a high beltline angles down toward the front. The result is a good-looking car without ostentation, with front and rear cues that identify it clearly as an Acura.
The cabin design exceeds that of the more expensive RL in luxury feel, with soft-touch surfaces and thick leather covering the seats. Heated and cooled seats are a nice touch.
The car sent to CNET, a TL SH-AWD loaded with the technology package, still suffered from a button-happy dashboard and steering wheel, but it showed an obvious attempt to make these buttons look more integrated. Also of note was the main interface controller, a combo joystick-dial that sticks out less prominently than in previous TLs and other, current Acura models, without losing any functionality.
Bypassing all those buttons, a new voice command system in the 2012 TL SH-AWD lets drivers request music from a connected iPod by artist, album, or individual track. This feature, called Song By Voice, worked well in testing, easily recognizing the names of a variety of artists, even newer and obscure ones.
A particular high point of the TL SH-AWD is the stereo, with its wide range of audio sources and exceptional sound quality. An onboard hard drive holds a library of MP3 tracks, a USB port in the console connects up an iPod, and Bluetooth audio streaming allows easy playback from most modern smartphones.
The interface for audio streaming is minimal, only allowing pause and play, but that is typical for current implementations of this specification. The onboard and iPod library interfaces use similar designs, allowing easy access to categories for artist, album, and genre. The iPod interface can be a little slow to populate its screens.
The ELS audio system, with its 10 speakers and 440 watts, produces pleasing sound quality, with rich tones and detailed instrumentation. The TL SH-AWD allows fine-tuning of the sound, as well, with separate controls for sub- and center channel levels, making it easy to bring more bass into the mix, or setting the system for better acoustic playback.
Acura designs the TL SH-AWD to be sold with or without navigation, which leads to a legacy radio display on the center stack along with the main LCD. That radio display shows an abbreviated version of the audio information available on the main screen. If Acura wants to make a real luxury play, it should look to making the LCD standard, and fielding a more integrated dashboard not saddled with these types of legacy elements.
The navigation system, hard-drive-based as it is, draws maps and calculates routes quickly. But Acura does not tax its resources much, only using 2D maps and eschewing the richer perspective views used by competitors. Despite the limited views, the maps are clear and easy to read, using good resolution and graphics to show upcoming turns. Route guidance lacks text-to-speech, but will use traffic information to dynamically avoid problems.
The navigation system has some nice features, such as integrated weather information. Drivers can call up a weather forecast for locations around the country, and the system will also warn about severe weather along a programmed route. The point-of-interest database includes Zagat-rated restaurants, and Acura also loads the system with a database of scenic drives, listing just about every state.