The Good: High tech but not complicated, great value
The Bad: Front wheel drive still limiting
The Bottom Line: Knight Rider smarts without the David Hasselhoff looks
The market for affordable premium sport sedans is white-hot. In fact, most luxury brands sell more of those models than any other, sometimes many times over. That has created a high-stakes sweet spot between 30 and 40 grand, populated by some incredibly fun, well-priced models.
Enter Acura's TL. Honda's (HMC) luxury brand has honed its offering in accordance with the company's high-precision, more-is-more philosophy. A low-hassle, high-tech crowd-pleaser since its 1996 introduction, the TL is packed with digital goodies and power to spare—particularly with the return of the high-performance Type-S edition.
The TL is Acura's best seller. According to Automotive News, through the first eleven months of 2006 the company sold 65,503 TLs. That's nearly twice as many as the less expensive TSX and more than six times the number of larger RLs. Moreover, the TL makes up half of Acura's U.S. car sales.
Sales numbers for the model last year were down by about 8%, the result, no doubt, of the model's midlife crisis (the TL should get a more comprehensive redesign sometime in 2009) and increased competition from BMW and Infiniti. Still, the TL far outsells the Infiniti G35, Mercedes C Class, Audi A4, Cadillac CTS, and Volvo S60.
A great deal of the TL's charm is its everything-included packaging. Besides a few cosmetic upgrades, the only real option on the lower level trim is the $2,500 navigation system. It comes standard on the up-powered Type-S, which I drove. Choosing an automatic or manual transmission doesn't alter the price any either. My top-of-the-line test model weighed in at $38,795, including $670 destination charge.
Behind the Wheel
After a three-year absence, the Type-S trim is back. That model comes with a 3.5 liter V6 that delivers 286 horses and 256 lb.-ft. of torque. Other upgrades include a sport-tuned suspension, four-piston Brembo front brakes, firmer anti-roll bars in the front and rear, and stiffer hocks and springs.
The only option on the Type-S model is the transmission. I tested the five-speed automatic, though a six-speed manual is available for the same price. The automatic comes standard with the wheel-mounted paddle shifters that have come into vogue lately. These allow manual-like gear changes without a clutch pedal.
Acura's implementation is solid and doesn't produce the annoyingly contrarian hesitation exhibited by some competing models. But, the system is still not quite as slick as the industry's best, made by Audi. Nor does it provide the complete control of a real manual. The TL drives extremely well, without the punishing harshness of some sport-tuned suspensions. Horsepower is more than adequate, though under hard acceleration the car exhibits a slight bit of torque steer, not a factor in rear- and all-wheel drive competitors.
Design-wise, the company has a lock on high-tech styling. Over the years the TL has cut its visual ties with the Honda Accord, adopting its own anima. Acura's press materials say the TL exhibits "Bauhaus with attitude." Sorry, but I don't see it. Instead, the TL's sharp lines remind me of high-end Japanese knives, modern but also steeped in a tradition. In other words, though up to date, the TL looks like an Acura. Think of it as an antidote to the excessively curvy BMW 3 Series and Lexus ES.
Inside, the TL is likely the most technologically savvy thing on four wheels since the debut of KITT, the computerized car from the 1980s TV series Knight Rider. The features are far too many to list—but rest assured geeks in the crowd, the TL will provide endless hours of enjoyment before you leave the driveway.
Audiophiles ought to love the car's stereo setup. Acura was the first to deploy DVD audio—the compact disk equivalent of high-def TV—in a car. That equipment now also supports digital files like WMAs and MP3s. There's a sophisticated noise-cancellation system that keeps the cabin quiet, whether audio is on or not. And, best of all, there's still a cassette tape player—a dying breed.
The navigation system is top-notch, easier to use than competing offerings from Mercedes-Benz and BMW. On top of excessively smart features from real-time traffic information and Zagat restaurant ratings, it features, hands-down, the best input device in the industry: a sort of joy-stick meets iPod click-wheel that makes getting around the system's copious functions a stress-free, one-finger affair.
Otherwise, the cabin is a study in high-quality materials. The beefy sport seats are fit, yet comfortable. And rear-seat occupants have plenty of room. Despite a cockpit's worth of lights, the dash is easy to read quickly and without distraction. As you'd expect from a Honda product, the TL also turns in exemplary gas mileage. The 20 to 29 mpg figure isn't a stretch—I earned an average of 27 mpg on mixed highway and city driving. Government crash results are also above average.
Buy It or Bag It
Acura's capital A-shaped badge looks like a pair of calipers—and that's no accident. Precision is the keyword around which the company has built its identity. And particularly where the TL is concerned, it shows.
I wish the TL were offered in a rear- or all-wheel drive variant like the larger RL. That would go a long way toward helping it grab market share back from BMW and Infiniti. As it stands though, the TL provides a lot of temptation for buyers not willing to or interested in putting up with higher initial pricing or long-term maintenance costs.
Despite a panoply of high-tech features and performance worthy of praise, the best reason to own the TL may still be reliability and a low cost of ownership. The model earns highest marks in the category from Consumer Reports and according to Edmunds.com costs less to own over the long haul than anything out of Germany or Detroit.
Click here to see the slide show on the Acura TL Type-S