The Bottom Line
When the Acura TL debuted in 2009, the big story was the front-end styling, which was, if I'm going to be polite, controversial. (If I'm not going to be polite, I'd say it was rather ugly.) For 2012, Acura has made a host of improvements, first and foremost being a new front fascia (link goes to photo) that de-emphasizes the grille, along with a new rear bumper that makes the back end look slimmer. Other improvements include a 6-speed automatic transmission in place of last year's 5-speed, markedly better fuel economy, and a quieter cabin. Even setting aside the styling, I've never been a huge fan of the Acura TL -- so will the improved 2012 version win me over? Read on.
- Great to drive
- Outstanding build quality
- Front-drive models get very good fuel economy
- Cabin doesn't feel like a proper luxury car
- Lacks premium features found in similarly-priced competitors
- Small, oddly-shaped trunk
- TL is updated for 2012 with cleaner styling, new automatic transmission, quieter ride
- Price range (including options): $36,465 - $45,945
- Powertrain: 3.5 liter V6/280 hp or 3.7 liter V6/305 hp, 6-speed manual or 6-speed automatic, front- or all-wheel-drive
- EPA fuel economy estimates: 20 MPG city/29 MPG highway (3.5 FWD), 17/25 (3.7 AWD manual), 18/26 (3.7 AWD automatic)
- Best rivals: Infiniti G37, Buick Regal turbo, Lexus ES350
Guide Review - 2012 Acura TL review
I don't generally comment much on styling; one look at my picture will tell you why. Still, I will say that the 2012 Acura TL does look quite a bit better than the old version -- with the emphasis taken off its chromium beak, one can better appreciate the TL's subtly aggressive lines.
But styling, as far as I am concerned, was only one of the TL's problems. How is the rest of the car?
I'll start off with what I like best about the Acura TL: It's fantastic to drive. The TL is not an over-the-top seat-of-the-pants powergasm like the Infiniti G37; it's more understated, in the way Handel's Violin Sonata in D is more understated than a fully-armed Abrams tank.
The front-wheel-drive TL is surprisingly good, displaying the sort of balance and precision that a watchmaker could appreciate. It also gets significantly better fuel economy than last year -- 29 MPG on the EPA highway cycle, which is very impressive for a car this big and fast.
But the all-wheel-drive SH-AWD model, which gets a bigger, more powerful engine that compensates for its extra weight, is truly amazing. It's superior engineering is best appreciated by those brave and skillful enough to hammer it into a curve at maximum speed and then boot the gas -- a move that would see most cars throw up their hands and go sliding off the road, fulfilling their driver's apparent desire for a quick and spectacular death. Not the TL SH-AWD -- its wicked-smaht rear differential shifts all the power to the outside wheel, pushing the car even faster through the turn.
I should note that I am neither brave nor skillful enough to try this maneuver; luckily, during our press preview, I drove with someone who was. (Thanks for the memories, Barry.) For us mere mortals, the TL is just a really nice handling car.
Second on my list of loves is the impeccable build quality. Fit, finish and assembly quality are so close to perfect that it makes me wonder how other automakers can get things even a teeny bit wrong. Near as I can tell, creaks and rattles don't exist in Acura's universe.
Sadly, my praise for the TL pretty much ends there.
Here's the problem: My job basically consists of writing "If you like X, you should buy a Y." Examples: If you like a luxury car that drives like a sports car, you should buy an Infiniti G37. If you want to be coddled and don't care about performance, buy a Lexus ES350. If you want to impress your neighbors, buy a Mercedes C-Class. Et cetera.
But for the life of me, I just can't come up with a sentence like that about the Acura TL.
Aside from the way it drives -- which, though spectacular, probably won't be appreciated by 90% of luxury-car buyers -- it's hard to find anything at which the TL is head-and-shoulders above the competition. For starters, the interior doesn't feel particularly luxurious. The metal-look trim is contemporary, to be sure, but I think a luxury car should feel like a reward for all the years you had to work in order to afford it. The TL just doesn't do that. (And it's not like Acura doesn't know how; the TL's bigger sister, the RL, has a cabin that is right on the money.) And the TL has two issues high on my list of pet peeves: Complicated secondary controls and a small trunk.
Despite Acura's marketing slogan - "Advance" - the TL's gadget count isn't very high. The navigation system does have a crisp high-res screen and real-time weather. Leather is standard, and for 2012 the TL gets heated and cooled front seats, which are a nice touch. But conspicuous by their absence are handy features like headlights that turn with the steering wheel, rain-sensing windshield wipers, a power-adjustable steering column, and adaptive cruise control, all features offered by the TL's competitors.
In fact, the most impressive thing the TL did during my test drive was flash a HIGH SURF WARNING on the nav screen, which was only impressive because we were in Austin, Texas, 150 miles from the nearest ocean.
When I reviewed it back in 2009, a reader pointed out that the TL beats its competition in most, if not all, subjective performance tests. That may well be true -- but precision with a stopwatch does not necessarily equate to fun in the real world. I'd like to think I'm one of those people who can appreciate the TL's finesse, even if I'm not quite brave enough to exploit it. But I prefer the big-stupid grins I get from driving an Infiniti G37 or a turbocharged Buick Regal. And at the end of a difficult day, I'd rather ooze into the leather-and-wood luxury of a Lexus ES350 or a Lincoln MKZ.
The 2012 Acura TL may be easier on the eyes than the old model, but taken as a whole, it just doesn't fulfill my concept of what a luxury car should be. You have no idea how bad I feel about saying that, because I really do admire the TL's precision engineering and exquisite quality. But at the end of the day, if it were my $40,000, I'd buy something else. -- Aaron Gold