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 Acura's navigation interface is easy to use and it lets you enter destinations while driving.
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.
The Acura's manual transmission made us very happy.
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.
Setting the TL SH-AWD apart from similarly engine sport luxury cars is its all-wheel-drive system, which Acura calls Super Handling All-Wheel-Drive. By shifting torque not only fore and aft, but also across the rear axle, the system aids the SH-AWD in cornering by pushing extra torque to the outside rear wheel in a turn, rotating the car. The effect is very good, minimizing understeer.
When we first pulled the TL SH-AWD out of our parking garage, the steering gave a telltale whirring sound as we cranked the wheel, indicating an electric power steering unit. While initially worrying, Acura proved to us that it knows how to tune this type of steering rig as we got the car into some corners. The car dials down the numb electric power feel, letting the feel of the road come through.
Likewise, the suspension system kept this car's sport intentions pure. In normal city and freeway driving, the ride was a little stiffer than you would want in a luxury car. However, the car's stiff ride paid off in the corners where it maintained excellent stability, helping keep the tires planted on the pavement.
You can get the TL SH-AWD with a five-speed-automatic transmission, but we think opting for that gearbox would be a mistake. For sport driving, Acura's automatic transmissions are notoriously weak, and the TL SH-AWD is not a car to leave in the garage on weekends. However, the standard TL works fine as a commuter car.
The sound system also roars
Not that the TL SH-AWD can't handle the daily commute as well as fast drives over good roads, it is just a little stiffer than its more sedate counterpart is. The ELS audio system, which uses 10 speakers and a 440-watt amp, delivers excellent audio quality and adds to the car's interior comfort. We enjoyed the system's bass response, which came through strong with little distortion, as well as its clear, warm vocals. While the system's highs didn't sound as distinguished as we would like, lacking really fine detail, overall we were satisfied with it.
The Acura's iPod interface does not have the same interface design as other screens in this cabin tech system do.
With a hard drive in the car for map storage, Acura reserves space for music storage. We particularly like the interface to browse music on the drive, which uses the same design as that for satellite radio and the navigation system, with big icons for album, genre, artist, and playlist. Strangely, the interface for browsing a connected iPod's library is nowhere near as nice, putting the same categories in an ugly little list. It is an odd inconsistency.
Acura rounds out its cabin tech with a Bluetooth phone system. It does a nice job of presenting the phone's contact list on the car's LCD, but the voice command system does not support dialing by name.
That LCD also shows an image from the rearview camera, with an overlay of distance lines. But Acura has not included any other driver aid technologies, such as blind spot detection.
Everything about the 2010 Acura TL SH-AWD is very nice, and we looked forward to taking it out for test drives. However, none of its tech, barring the audio system, reaches for the stars.
In particular, the car's engine and transmission, although nicely refined, are standard. However, the all-wheel-drive system and suspension tuning raise the car's level of handling significantly, and we give it credit for that.
All of the cabin tech systems are very usable and modern. We like the navigation system, especially the route guidance, but there is nothing here we haven't seen in other cars. The stereo includes the usual audio sources, and we like the audio quality of this system. Where the car really falls behind the competition is in driver aid technologies.
The exterior design of the TL SH-AWD might be controversial, but it is certainly distinct from other brands, if not other Acuras. The car's electronics interface is very usable, and some of the onscreen menus look good, but Acura hasn't embraced the notion of simplicity when it comes to buttons.
|Model||2010 Acura TL|
|Trim||SH-AWD 6-Speed Manual with Technology Package and High Performance Tires|
|Power train||3.7-liter V-6, 6 speed manual transmission|
|EPA fuel economy||17 mpg city/25 mpg highway|
|Observed fuel economy||Not recorded|
|Navigation||Hard drive-based navigation with traffic|
|Bluetooth phone support||Standard|
|Disc player||MP3 compatible single CD/DVD player|
|MP3 player support||iPod integration|
|Other digital audio||Bluetooth streaming, onboard hard drive, USB drive, satellite radio|
|Audio system||ELS 440 watt 10 speaker surround sound system|
|Driver aids||Rear view camera|
|Price as tested||$44,245|