I get the feeling that the people at Acura are getting really frustrated. For years, Acura has had to fight off the perception that their cars are nothing more than overgrown Honda Accords. (Acura is a division of Honda.) For 2009, Acura has attempted to take the mid-size TL -- their best-selling model -- in an entirely new anti-Accord direction, with styling and technology intended to differentiate the TL from its competitors. Does the all-new 2009 Acura TL have what it takes? Read on. Price range $35,715 - $43,995, EPA fuel economy 17-18 MPG city, 25-26 MPG highway.
First Glance: Huh?
I'm not sure where to begin this review, because frankly, I'm not sure where Acura is going with the new TL. I get that they want the TL's styling to stand out from other luxury sedans. (It does.) I get that they want the TL to be seen as more of a driver's car. (It is, sort of.) And I get that they want the TL's in-car technology to be unique among its peers. (It is, unfortunately.) But when I step back and look at the whole package and think, "Who is going to buy this car?" I just can't come up with an answer.
Let's start with the styling. There are some nice details -- the profile is pleasing and I like the crease that runs down the center of the trunk. But I just can't get past that big satin-chrome grille. It looks relatively subtle in the photos, thanks to my test car's silver paint job, but in person it stands out like -- well, like a really ugly satin-chrome grille stuck on the nose of an otherwise-okay-looking car. From what I've read, some Acura dealers have taken to painting the grille body-color in order to increase the TL's showroom appeal.
This year's TL lineup consists of two models, front-wheel-drive ($35,715) and all-wheel-drive ($39,265), the latter saddled with the unfortunate moniker SH-AWD ("Super Handling All-Wheel-Drive"). All TLs come with leather upholstery, dual-zone climate control, and an 8-speaker stereo with iPod interface. The sole option is a $3700 Technology Package, which includes navigation with real-time traffic and weather, a back-up camera, upgraded stereo, and keyless ignition.
In the Driver's Seat: Why'd you have to go and make things so complicated?
The TL's cabin offers decent space in both the front and back seats, though the trunk is small (not much bigger than a Honda Civic's) and oddly shaped. The dashboard is a cacophony of disharmonious shapes, swoops and creases that looks like something a twelve-year-old would design. I prefer simple controls that promote distraction-free driving, but my Technology-Package-equipped test car's center console had a total of forty buttons, two toggles, two dials, and a joystick just to control the stereo, air conditioner and navigation system. It will take weeks, if not months, for a TL owner to learn to use those controls without looking away from the road -- and that means a higher risk of an accident.
I've complained about Acura's dial-operated (as opposed to touch-screen) navigation system in the past. Acura's standard answer is, "That's why we have a voice-command system." During this test, I made a concerted effort to program the system by voice commands, and you know what? It sucks. There's simply no way to use voice commands without looking at the screen. If you say a street name, for example, you still have to pick that street name from an on-screen list. If you want to find a destination by name, you have to spell the name, one letter at a time, and sound-alike letters also have to be picked from a list. It's such an excruciatingly slow process that it's quicker just to use the dial -- or to drive aimlessly around town until you stumble upon your destination by chance. And for this, you have to pay $3,700? A $300 Garmin works better.
On the Road: Surprisingly satisfying
The one thing I really like about the TL is the way it drives. I spent a week with the lesser of the two TLs, the front-wheel-drive base model, which is powered by a 3.5 liter V6 producing 280 horsepower and 254 lb-ft or torque. (For those keeping score, that's just 6 hp and 2 lb-ft less than last year's hot-rod TL Type S.) SH-AWD models get a bigger 3.7 liter V6 that puts out 305 hp and 273 lb-ft, and both versions come with a 5-speed automatic transmission.
I was genuinely surprised at how enjoyable the front-drive TL was on the About.com Cars Top Secret Curvy Test Road. The TL exhibited accurate steering, good grip, lots of power, and an unobtrusive electronic stability control system. It wasn't quite as thrilling as the Infiniti G37 Sport, but it matched the fun factor of the Nissan Maxima and Mercedes-Benz C300 Sport. That's not bad company in which to be. I also took a brief spin in an SH-AWD model, and while it was noticeably quicker and gripped the pavement better, I can't say it was significantly more enjoyable to drive. Perhaps that will change next year, when Acura adds a 6-speed manual transmission as an option on the SH-AWD.
On the open road, the 2009 TL was quick and quiet. The ride isn't quite Infiniti-hard, but it's noticeably more firm than a Lexus ES350 or a Hyundai Genesis. I didn't mind that, though I did mind the loud clunks and clonks over larger bumps -- that's not what I expect from a car in this class. I also don't expect great gas mileage, but the TL returned 23.9 MPG, a good 2-3 MPG better than I was expecting given the TL's power and size.
Journey's End: Not my first choice -- or my second, or my third, or...
Much as I liked driving the TL, I think it totally misses the mark. Most luxury brands have designed their products to establish a clear identity. Infiniti's cars are sporty and elegant. Lexus' cars are all about comfort and prestige. Acura? I have no idea. And the TL doesn't clarify things for me.
The TL bills itself as a high-technology driver's car -- but where's the technology that actually aids the driver? The TL doesn't offer active cruise control or headlights that turn with the steering wheel. It doesn't have blind-spot or lane-departure warning systems. It doesn't even get rain-sensing wipers, which you can get on a $23,000 Mazda3. What does the TL have, technology-wise, that its competitors don't have? Well, you can upload photos via the TL's USB port and display them as wallpaper on the high-res VGA screen, which is neat -- but honestly, Acura, is that the best you can do?
The 2009 Acura TL isn't a bad car. It really isn't. But if I was going to buy a luxury sedan, I can think of a half-dozen cars in the same general price range that I'd rather have. (They are the Lexus ES350, Infiniti G37, Hyundai Genesis, Nissan Maxima, Cadillac CTS and, believe it or not, the Lincoln MKS.) I asked my friend Dwane, a long-time Infiniti owner, to drive the TL and give me his opinion. He said, "If I bought a TL, I wouldn't be disappointed. But if I was shopping and compared it to other cars in its price range, I wouldn't buy it." I don't think I can sum it up any better than that. -- Aaron Gold