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The Good: More power, safety, sporty all-wheel drive, hot new stick-shift version coming for 2010
The Bad: Controversial looks, tight rear headroom
The Bottom Line: Acura's flagship sedan gets bigger, fancier and sportier
A funny thing is happening at Acura these days. For the '09 model year, Honda's (HMC) luxury division redesigned both its flagship Acura TL sedan, and its smaller, cheaper TSX. The net result: Customers are now flocking to the TSX, which is adapted from the version of the Honda Accord sold in Europe. It's one of the few models on the U.S. market that has seen its sales increase (by 7.6%, to 4,699) in the first two months of this year. With the economy in crisis, it seems that smallish, sporty European-style sedans with economical four-cylinder engines are in vogue.
Meanwhile, sales of the new TL, which debuted last September after being redesigned specifically to appeal to American tastes (bigger, more powerful, fancier), plunged 34.8%, to 4,807. That's about par for the course for an entry-level luxury car. Other models in the segment, from the BMW (BMWG) 3 Series to the Mercedes C Class to Toyota's (TM) Lexus ES, was off 25% to 40% in the first two months of this year.
So, should you run out and buy an Acura TSX, as so many other shoppers are doing? Not necessarily. If you want a more luxurious car with V6 power, the new TL has a lot to offer. It's priced about the same as the Mercedes C300, Audi A4, Lexus ES 350, yet comes packed with fancy digital conveniences and safety gear. I also really like the car's sophisticated new all-wheel-drive system, which dramatically improves handling. Due out this fall for the 2010 model year is a new stick-shift version of the all-wheel-drive TL that the company is billing as the "best-performing Acura ever."
The '09 TL is already sportier than before. The TL now comes standard with front-wheel drive and a 280 horsepower V6 that generates 254 ft.-lb. of torque (22 more horsepower and 21 more ft.-lb. of torque than in the previous TL). Alternatively, the new SH-AWD (short for "super-handling all-wheel drive") TL is powered by a 3.7-liter, 305-horsepower V6 that generates 273 ft.-lb. of torque. (The SH-AWD replaces the souped up Type S TL, which was dropped for '09.)
The TL starts at $35,715 with front-wheel drive and the smaller engine, rising to just under $44,000 for the SH-AWD version with the Technology Package, which includes keyless entry and starting, hard-drive-based navigation and surround-sound audio systems, and real-time traffic information and weather forecasts. As with other Acuras, the TL comes fully loaded. Other than all-wheel drive and the big engine, the Tech Package is just about the only option.
The downside is that the new TL can't match the fuel economy of the TSX, which gets 30 miles-per-gallon on the highway. The TL is rated to get 18 mpg in the city and 26 on the highway with the smaller engine, and 17/25 with the larger engine. In 212 miles of heavy-duty winter driving, I got 18.9 mpg in the AWD TL.
A strong selling point is Acura's wonderful safety record. Every model in Acura's lineup, including the new TL, is a Top Safety Pick of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, which is the highest rating the IIHS gives. The TL's standard equipment includes a full panoply of airbags, stability and traction control, and electronic braking assistance.
Behind the Wheel
One of the main raps against the new TL is its controversial styling, but I found that the car looks much better in reality than in photos. The grille does make the front-end seem like it has a goofy grin, but the car's angular styling makes the car less anonymous looking than previous TLs. The '09 also has a more imposing road presence. At 195.3 inches long and 74 inches wide, the TL is now 17 in. longer and 2.5 in. wider than the '09 BMW 328i, and half-a-foot longer than the previous TL.
The TL feels tight and solidly built, and is very quick. With the larger engine, the car will jump from 0 to 60 in a mere six seconds, according to Car and Driver magazine, about the same as the BMW 328i. Both versions of the '09 TL have steering-wheel-mounted paddle shifters for drivers who want to shift gears themselves.
Driving enthusiasts, however, may want to wait for the new 2010 stick-shift version of the all-wheel-drive TL. That model will be juiced up with a special sports suspension system, heavy-duty engine mounts and drive shaft, and a high-tech self-adjusting clutch. Acura also promises the short, tight shift throws that set a driving enthusiast's heart aflutter.
The main reason to pay extra for all-wheel drive is handling, not winter driving capability. During hard-cornering, the TL's all-wheel drive system shifts power to the car's outside rear wheel to maximize road grip and keep weight balanced. I tested out an AWD TL at the Pocono Raceway last year, and the system really is remarkable. When your brain is screaming at you to hit the brakes, you can hit the gas instead and accelerate through a curve.
All of the AWD TL's road-gripping power, however, doesn't help you in the snow. Ice builds up and clogs the narrow wheel wells. The low-profile performance tires don't grab during braking and acceleration. I took my test car out on unplowed roads after a five-inch snowfall and at one point I slid down an icy hill through a stop sign and onto a highway (luckily there was no other traffic at the time). At another point, I pulled to the side of the road to wait for a snowplow to go by and immediately got stuck in a spot where a front-wheel drive car with all-weather tires would have done fine.
The TL's interior is very stylish, if a little busy, with sculpted forms built into the doors and dash trim. The steering wheel is small and chunky, like the one in a BMW M3, with big bulges that form handholds at 3 and 9 o'clock. The rear seats don't fold down but there's a lockable pass-through for skis and other long objects. The two-tone coffee and black leather in my test car was both striking and attractive.
However, the TL doesn't seem much roomier inside than its rivals. Front head and legroom, for instance, is about the same as in the BMW 328i and General Motors' (GM) Cadillac CTS. But the TL's rear-seat headroom, which is only rated at 36.7 inches, is somewhat tighter than in either of those rival models.
The TL's trunk is only rated at 12.5 cu. ft., slightly bigger than the 328i's, but smaller than in the CTS, Lexus E 350, and Infiniti G37.
Buy it or Bag It?
The '09 TL's average price so far this year is $36,264. That's about the same average price as the Mercedes C300 ($36,486), Lexus ES 350 ($36,762), and Audi A4 ($36,839), according to the Power Information Network (PIN). Somewhat more expensive rivals include the BMW 3281 ($41,327), the CTS ($40,204), Ford Motor's (F) Lincoln MKS ($40,785), and Nissan's (NSANY) Infiniti G37 ($38,007). (PIN, like BusinessWeek, is a unit of The McGraw-Hill Companies.)
The TL is the bargain of the bunch, though, if you factor in the amount of high-tech gear that comes packed into it. Acura says 70% of all buyers take the Tech Package, and 18% take the SH-AWD version of the car. Start loading up a rival model with options and the TL's 36 grand average price seems downright cheap.
Personally, I would wait until the 2010 models come out this fall. I can't wait to test drive the new stick-shift version of the all-wheel-drive TL.
Click here to see more of the all-new 2009 Acura TL.
Thane Peterson reviews cars for BusinessWeek.com.