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Thursday, November 13, 2008

First Full Test- 2009 Acura TL

In preparing to write this full test of the new 2009 Acura TL, this writer was reminded by the powers-that-be that automotive styling is a subjective matter.

Indeed, continued the boss men, it would be helpful to no one to simply tee off on what is a truly lovely car in every way except the one judged by human eyes.

Besides, it was determined, no honor or lasting joy could be had by poking fun at a car that's an easier target for ridicule than a fat kid on a scooter. The last communication from the Home Office read, in part, "...your conscience (such as it is) will be your guide."


Not Silly-Looking
The bigger, longer, entirely new-looking 2009 Acura TL is one of the more sensible entry-luxury cars on the market. "Sensible" is encoded into Honda Motor Company DNA. One could rightfully claim that the 6-inch increase in length and the roughly 100-pound weight increase of this new TL compared to the one it replaces is not a historically Honda-like thing to do. But with a larger Acura TSX nipping at its heels and the super slow-selling Acura RL wasting away in the Size L segment, the TL had room to grow. It is now essentially identical in size to the RL, except that the "midsize" sedan is now 2 inches wider than the "large" sedan.

The upsizing yielded a slight increase in overall passenger volume (from 97.9 cubic feet to 98.2 cubic feet). But the bigger story is that essentially all of the extra room has been given to the rear-seat passengers — something Acura says owners of the current TL requested. There's an almost 1.5-inch increase in rear legroom compared to the '08 model and about an inch more hiproom. That might not sound like very much, but it's a meaningful improvement when you're the one stuck in the back.

Pretty Motor
To maintain the same level of performance as the well-liked outgoing model, Acura dropped a 3.5-liter V6 into the standard TL in place of the 3.2-liter of the '08 TL. You'll recognize the 3.5-liter from the outgoing TL Type-S. In this application, the 3.5-liter makes 280 horsepower at 6,200 rpm and 254 pound-feet of torque at 5,000 rpm. That's down 6 hp and 2 lb-ft from the Type-S. But this base engine (which burns premium fuel, by the way) represents a 22-hp increase over the old base engine.

That Acura managed its super-sizing — both in terms of engine displacement and dimensions — while maintaining the same EPA fuel economy numbers as the smaller, less powerful TL (18 mpg city/26 mpg highway) is no small feat, certainly considering that the car uses the same five-speed automatic transaxle as before.

In our testing, the '09 front-wheel-drive TL cranked off a 6.7-second run to 60 mph (6.4 seconds with 1 foot of rollout like at a drag strip). Because of its additional weight, the higher-performance, higher-horsepower all-wheel-drive TL SH-AWD model is no quicker and indeed returns identical numbers. These acceleration figures put the TL between the Lexus IS 250 (7.5 seconds to 60 mph even with a manual transmission) and the IS 350 (5.3 seconds to 60 mph). It's quicker than the new Audi A4 3.2 (6.9 seconds to 60 mph), but not as quick as a Mercedes-Benz C350 (around 6.0 seconds to 60 mph) or a Cadillac CTS with the direct-injection V6 (6.3 seconds to 60 mph). It is utterly annihilated by the Infiniti G37 sedan (5.4 seconds to 60 mph) and the BMW 335i (5.2 seconds to 60 mph).

At $39,445 with every possible convenience feature a sensible person could want and then a few more, the TL represents something of value in this class. Also, if lots of interior volume and a price tag at or below $40,000 are prerequisites, several of the TL's competitors won't make the cut.

Pretty Moves
The TL is categorically not a four-door sports car in the mold of the BMW 335i or the Infiniti G37. The Acura's 60/40-percent split in front-to-rear weight distribution sees to that. It is instead a vehicle with a broad range of talents — something, in other words, like a Honda.

Still, our early drive in the car on Southern California's indomitable expressway system had us believing that Acura had more or less given up on the sporty aspect of this model. It rides beautifully on its modified Accord platform; this is one benefit of the longer wheelbase. The suspension is tuned beautifully, returning quite good body control without suffering the freeway hop that's a by-product of Los Angeles' aging freeways. The ride is supple enough that we were almost prepared to forgive Acura for trading the car's handling moves in return for it.

A night run down Angeles Forest Highway convinced us that no such forgiveness was necessary. The big TL casually and confidently attempts to outrun its headlights. We did not keep up with the BMW 135i that was apparently being driven straight out of Hell. But then, we wouldn't have been able to match that lunatic even if we had been driving an identical 135i.

Our TL wore all-season, 17-inch (245/50R17) Michelin tires that delivered a middling 0.83g on the skid pad. For comparison, a TL SH-AWD with sticky 19-inch Michelin Pilot PS2s will generate 0.93g and a Infiniti G37 with 18-inch Bridgestone Potenzas posts 0.91g. But we tell you, when you're out driving on that dark, swaying ribbon in the mountains, ultimate grip is a less critical parameter than how progressively and smoothly those grip limits are revealed.

The TL responded beautifully to steering inputs (using an electrically boosted system, no less). It takes a set early in a corner and tracks faithfully through with little to no steering corrections. For its size, weight distribution and modest tires, the TL is a pretty remarkable handler. The five-speed automatic might be down a gear compared to many competitors' automatics, but it remains a faithful ally, snapping off clean shifts.

Our only quibble with the car's back road performance is its less-than-exceptional brakes. They're better in hard running than the 122-foot 60-mph-to-0 panic stop test figure indicates (the tires are a factor here), but they are the weakest link in the TL's dynamic performance.

We Got Yer Gadgets, Right Here
True to Acura form, the TL comes fully equipped, sort of. The standard TL comes in at $34,755 (including $760 destination charge). That'll get you heated, power-adjusted, leather-upholstered front seats with memory function as well as an eight-speaker, six-disc CD-changer stereo with satellite radio, Bluetooth, USB port and auxiliary input, steering-wheel-mounted controls for cruise and audio, moonroof, dual-zone climate control and more.

Acura insists on calling cars with its Technology package by a separate model name. This "model" costs $39,445. If you choose to refer to your TL as simply a TL with the $4,690 Technology package, Acura will hunt you down.

At any rate, the package comes with an upgraded stereo with 10 speakers, a 12.7-gig hard drive and a 440-watt amp and speed-sensitive volume control (which is, as ever, annoying). Also Acura's excellent navigation system with voice recognition comes with the package and is displayed on a lovely, high-resolution 8-inch screen. The Tech customer also gets keyless entry and push-button ignition, real-time traffic and traffic rerouting capability and radar weather maps with one- and three-day forecasts along with severe weather alerts. A rearview camera and chrome-accented door handles make the cut, too — chrome apparently being higher tech than painted material. And Acura throws in a GPS-linked, solar-sensing adaptive climate control system with humidity control. We're not sure we need quite this level of technology in our climate system, but we note that we were quite comfortable.

Broadly speaking, we were comfortable with the whole of the interior, even if it is, in places, as overstyled as the exterior. Even the bewildering mass of buttons and knobs on the center stack fairly quickly came to make sense to us. Once you realize that each function (climate control, navigation, audio, etc.) has its controls clustered in its own territory.

Still Not Silly-Looking
As ever, the 2009 Acura TL is a weird bird in the entry luxury segment. It's a large front-drive V6-powered sedan, similar in performance and price to the Nissan Maxima 3.5 SV. But Acura is the corporation's luxury or rather premium nameplate, putting it in de facto competition with the Infiniti G37. It's a brand that's never really been pitched as a full-on luxury brand competing with the Germans. Instead, it's operated (most successfully) as a sensible step up from the sensible Honda models. Despite the redesign for the TL, this positioning hasn't changed for 2009.

And the TL is an even weirder bird than the lovely outgoing model because it has a large metallic squid beak on the front of the car. Whoops. We mean a broken buck tooth. No. What we mean is that the TL looks like what Pontiac designers of five years ago thought the future would look like. Oh, forget it. The TL is a lovely car.