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.
Acura toned down some of the styling features of the TL for the 2012 model year.
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.
A new voice command system lets drivers ask for music on a connected iPod by name.
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 TL SH-AWD's center stack features an LCD, radio display, and lots of buttons.
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.
The blind-spot detection system lights up an icon at the base of the A pillar.
As a new feature for Acura, the TL SH-AWD offers a blind-spot detection system, lighting up warning icons at the bases of the A pillars when cars are in the lanes to either side. It also shows a rearview camera view on the main LCD with distance lines, but not the more sophisticated trajectory lines of competitors. Acura also does not make the adaptive cruise control system, optional for the RL, available in the TL SH-AWD.
Automatic vs. manual
One big new feature for the 2012 TL SH-AWD is a six-speed automatic transmission, replacing the previous generation's five-speed. This transmission has sport and manual shifting modes, but the former is not particularly aggressive, and the latter still suffers from torque converter lag during gear changes.
Considering the TL SH-AWD's sporting character, buyers should be opting for the six-speed manual transmission instead of the automatic. The manual shifts with a beautiful mechanical precision, and is much more satisfying to use. And it will be easier to get in the right low gear for high-speed cornering. The automatic transmission's proper place is in the standard TL.
The TL SH-AWD gains an extra gear for 2012, but we recommend the manual transmission.
The engine, a 3.7-liter V-6, remains unchanged from the launch of the TL SH-AWD in 2009. It uses Honda's VTEC variable valve timing for efficiency, generating 305 horsepower and 273 pound-feet of torque. Those middling power figures reflect the age of this technology, in an era in which sport luxury competitors are pushing direct injection and other efficiency technology.
Acceleration comes on smoothly, and this power train makes the TL SH-AWD easy to drive. It can creep along in traffic or roar down the road with the tachometer pushing 6,000. The car exhibited a lack of power during passing maneuvers, mostly thanks to the transmission's hesitancy to downshift. In manual mode, you can get the gears low enough to get some push from the engine.
Acura lists EPA fuel economy for the TL SH-AWD with the automatic transmission as 18 mpg city and 26 mpg highway. During testing weighted toward freeway driving, we saw an average of 23.8 mpg, suggesting the EPA numbers are realistic.
Although the TL SH-AWD might be the sportiest Acura available, in the continuum of sport cars it ranks only moderately. That fact becomes clear from the suspension and steering response. The car uses a double wishbone in front and multilink at the rear, pretty standard stuff for its price range. There are no active elements in this suspension.
Acura's engine works well, but does not exploit newer efficiency technology.
Tuned for a compromise between comfort and handling, this suspension isn't screwed down tight, but won't bounce and roll, either. It holds the car down in the corners while allowing a little sway, and competently smooths over bumps and rough patches in the road.
Likewise, the electric-power-steering unit offers a comfortable level of response. It doesn't require minute corrections while traveling down the freeway, reducing road trip fatigue. But it also turns the wheels where pointed when you feel like burning off some tire tread. Turning the wheel requires enough effort to let you know the road is making contact with the tires.
Finally, the TL SH-AWD has one trick up its sleeve for handling, signified by the latter half of the model's name, which stands for Super Handling All-Wheel Drive. It's a modern all-wheel-drive system intended more for sport driving than dealing with slippery conditions. As such, it vectors torque across the rear axle as well as distributing it dynamically between front and rear wheels.
In the TL, SH-AWD defaults to 90 percent front-wheel torque, but can push 70 percent to the rear wheels as needed. Additionally, torque vectoring across the rear wheels puts more twist on the outside rear wheel in a turn. The result is a precise push around the corners, with the feeling of the car taking the turn for you. It is nearly push-button handling, very useful when you know what to expect.
In the last couple of years, Acura has upped the level of its cabin tech substantially, adding hard-drive-based navigation and weather data to the existing traffic information. The 2012 TL SH-AWD features the latest Acura has to offer, along with the excellent Bluetooth phone and ELS audio systems. These features are solid, but don't push the boundaries of cabin technology.
The onscreen interface for this cabin tech looks good, and is easy to use, but the interface loses points for the mass of buttons spread over the console and steering wheel. Also on the design front, Acura's efforts to tone down the car's looks are a good aesthetic choice, and the TL SH-AWD doesn't suffer from any ergonomic issues.
Acura has good performance tech in the all-wheel-drive system and power-steering unit. The new transmission helps the TL SH-AWD come up to modern standards, but it doesn't stand out. Nor do the conventional suspension and engine. However, Acura tuned the performance gear well to make the TL SH-AWD an easy driver.
|Model||2012 Acura TL|
|Power train||3.7-liter V-6, six-speed automatic transmission|
|EPA fuel economy||18 mpg city/26 mpg highway|
|Observed fuel economy||23.8 mpg|
|Navigation||Hard-drive-based with traffic|
|Bluetooth phone support||Standard|
|Disc player||MP3-compatible single CD/DVD player|
|MP3 player support||iPod integration|
|Other digital audio||Onboard hard drive, Bluetooth audio streaming, USB drive, satellite radio|
|Audio system||ELS 10-speaker 440-watt system|
|Driver aids||Rearview camera, blind-spot detection|
|Price as tested||$45,945|