We've been a little disappointed with the Acura cars we've seen lately, so the 2008 Acura TL Type-S surprised us with its fun performance. Last year's Acura RL in particular was a letdown, as its electronics were old and its performance wasn't particularly fun or economical. But the 2008 Acura TL Type-S proved to be a car we wanted to drive. And although its electronics are dated, its audio system is one of the best around.
A good part of what made this TL fun was that Type-S trim, signifying the sport-tuned version of the car. The Type-S gets a slightly bigger V-6 engine than the base model, and a limited slip differential. But it's still a front-wheel-drive car, making handling a bit weird, and the optional five-speed automatic transmission kills the car's performance. Fortunately, our test car came with Honda's six-speed close ratio manual, a transmission we've enjoyed on many other Honda cars such as the S2000 and the Civic Si.
Test the tech: GPS sport drive
As our car was equipped with navigation, we took it out on a search for good driving roads. GPS is the perfect companion for our favored activity of exploring, as we can drive into all sorts of unknown territory with no fear of getting lost. For our drive, we set our initial destination as Kentfield, just north of San Francisco.
On the first leg of our drive, we found the TL Type-S very manageable in traffic through the city, dealing with start-stop conditions and quick lane changes to avoid double-parked cars, using second and third gear work through it all. The navigation system in the TL Type-S has live traffic, supplied through XM satellite radio, so we could see by the green lines highlighting the Golden Gate Bridge that cars were moving above 40 mph. Once we crossed the Bay and got onto the freeway, we could open the car up a bit. The 286 horses from the engine were just as lively at 20 mph as they were at 70 mph, letting us roar along in the fast lane.
But the nav system guided us off the freeway, taking us through suburban streets to Kentfield. After that, we continued north, heading for an area where the navigation system showed winding roads with infrequent intersections. As we drove, the roads got more and more interesting. We sped along Sir Francis Drake Boulevard, a two-lane road with some good stretches but too much traffic for any real fun, which led us to the Nicasio Valley Road. The navigation system's maps made this road look like fun, and we weren't disappointed. The road had little traffic and many good corners, so we were able to put the TL Type-S through its paces.
On our first good corner, we downshifted and braked, then hit the gas as we attacked, following our line through it. The car had plenty of power for this maneuver, but we immediately had to compensate for some understeer. It wasn't excessive, but more than we would expect on a performance-oriented car. We also noticed a little body roll. We continued up the road, trying out more corners and getting more familiar with the car's handling, keeping on in a northerly direction on the equally fun Point Reyes-Petaluma Road.
At some point we reckoned a road trip to Oregon wasn't a good fit for the day, so we checked the navigation to figure out how to get back to San Francisco. We decided to try the Hicks Valley Road, which the map showed heading over to the coast. This stretch proved to be roughly paved with many very tight corners; in other words, a real challenge. As we dove into these hard turns, the TL's front tires felt like they were squirming around, probably because of the limited slip differential fighting with the traction control. At this point we wished Acura had equipped the TL Type-S with the all-wheel-drive system from the RL and RDX. But weird control feeling aside, the car didn't lose traction. The rest of our drive was a scenic and much slower cruise, because of tourist traffic, down Highway 1 and back into San Francisco.
During this drive, we also got to work in some 0-to-60-mph runs. We made our best run with the traction control turned off, coming in at 6.4 seconds. To get this time took a lot of careful modulation of the throttle, because the tires were prone to spin in place under heavy acceleration. We also did a few runs with traction control on, achieving a best time of 6.65 seconds. Under these conditions, the tires were still prone to spin some, but the traction control kept it in check, and we didn't have to be quite as careful with the gas pedal.
In the cabin
The interior of the 2008 Acura TL Type-S is comfortable and upscale, but short of the luxury found in Lexus and Mercedes-Benz models. Navigation and the premium ELS audio system are standard in the TL Type-S, and the car employs all the tech tricks, such as voice command, that we've seen in Acura models for the last three years.
During our run up north, the navigation system offered very usable route guidance, although the maps could use better resolution, as they look a bit rough in areas with lots of streets. We input our initial destination using the map and found one limitation of the interface. The LCD lets you use its touch-screen capability for some functions, but not all. To pick a place on the map for our destination, we had to use the inconvenient joystick/button controller below the LCD. Otherwise, you can enter addresses through the car's voice command, which works very well, or the touch screen.
One thing we really like about this navigation system is its complete list of points-of-interest. The Places database, as Acura calls it, includes just about any place you can find in the Yellow Pages, making this car useful for running impromptu errands. Live traffic is another nice feature of this system, although we've seen better integration on the Cadillac CTS. On the TL, traffic data received from XM gets shown on the map screen as red lines for stopped traffic, yellow for slow, and green for averages speeds more than 40 mph. In addition, it shows icons for particular incidents, such as accidents or road construction. But where the Cadillac will warn you ahead of time if you are about to enter a traffic jam, the Acura lets you drive right into it. The Acura's system won't even offer a detour if you are driving under route guidance and there are traffic obstructions ahead.
After Acura launched the RDX, it started to roll out that car's premium ELS stereo system in other models, and the TL Type-S gets it standard. This stereo sounds extremely good, with very crisp highs and equally strong bass. At its default settings, it's a little trebly for our tastes, but we merely turned up the subwoofer and the bass, and decreased the center speaker volume, making the sound perfect for our musical choices.
For sources, this stereo has good, bad, and inexplicable points. Its six-disc changer plays DVD audio, Super Audio CD, MP3 CDs, and regular CDs. Strangely, it doesn't show ID3 tag information for MP3s on its LCD, but it will show that information on a secondary LED display. It comes with XM satellite radio standard and has an auxiliary input in the console, but no iPod adapter is available. But the weirdest feature is a case deck, right in the stack under the CD player. And we thought CDs were becoming passe.
The last major cabin feature, Bluetooth cell phone integration, is also standard. And we have to reiterate our often repeated complaint about Acura cars that it's annoying to have one set of buttons for voice command, and another set for cell phone voice command. Short of fixing this problem, Honda recently duplicated it in the updated 2008 Honda Accord. For cell phone integration, the system works, but it doesn't have advanced features such as phone book importation.
Under the hood
We covered the performance characteristics of the 2008 Acura TL Type-S above. This front-wheel-drive car gets 286 horsepower and 256 foot-pounds of torque from its 3.5-liter engine. Not only does the engine produce enough power to get the front wheels spinning in place, it gets reasonable gas mileage for a performance car. The EPA rates it at 18 mpg city and 27 mpg highway. During our mixed city and freeway driving, we got a solid 22 mpg, impressive in that many six-cylinder cars we review can't even break 20 mpg. On top of that, the TL Type-S gets a ULEV II emissions rating from the California Air Resources Board, a step up from the minimum LEV II rating.
The handling is pretty good, although short of what we really want from a Type-S. Some understeer means you need to crank the wheel around to negotiate those really tight turns. Acura keeps torque steer under control, a necessity given this car's horsepower. But we never got comfortable with the combination of power, front-wheel-drive, limited slip differential, and traction control when hitting the throttle through a tight turn. During longer turns, we also noticed some body roll--not a lot, but more than you would get in a BMW 335i.
Acura uses a simplified pricing scheme, so unlike many other brands, you won't find big lists of options. Our 2008 Acura TL Type-S came with high-performance tires and all the electronics we mentioned above for a set price of $38,425. The $715 destination charge brings the total up to $39,140. Without the high-performance tires, the car goes for $200 less, and either version can be had with manual or automatic transmission with no difference in price. We highly recommend the manual transmission if you want to have fun, as the automatic is bland.
As our tech test shows, the Acura TL Type-S was a car we enjoyed driving, especially out on winding country roads with some good music blasting from the stereo. But as we've seen more cars with hard-drive-based music servers, that's a feature we missed on the TL Type-S. iPod integration would have done the job, too. For a little more money, you could get an Infiniti G37, which has better handling and technology.