The whole idea of Acura in America is to market a higher end Honda product to people who have had a Civic or Accord in the past, but now have more cash to spend. Given Honda’s great reputation, Acura has enjoyed healthy sales over the years. The TL, which is based on the Accord, has been a strong contender in the middle of the Acura range since the late 1990s. However, up until recently, it was hard to consider the TL a real competitor in the true luxury car realm because it was only available in front wheel drive. Acura has wised up with the current generation TL, and has fitted their SH-AWD system to all but the base model. This means the TL is now going head to head with the rest of the luxury segment on their own, complete terms, and that raises the stakes a bit.
The TL looks like an Acura, but all Acuras kind of look the same. This trend of shared design language has been used by many manufacturers over the years, and it always leads to cars that look “good” but are never truly distinguished. Even during my drive in this TL, the saleswoman and I both mistook another TL (exactly like the one we were driving) for a TSX.
Even though it’s mistakable for other Acuras, the TL does have a nice, angular look to it. The current generation TL debuted in 2009 with an enormous metallic front grille. It looked more like something Optimus Prime would use as a shield than an automotive styling piece. Thankfully for the 2012+ model years the front grill has been scaled back a good bit, giving the TL a sleeker, if more subdued visual presence.
The interior of the TL follows a “do it well or don’t do it at all” sort of theme. At this price point, “fine wood trim” usually isn’t all that “fine”, and often isn’t even wood at all. Honda seems to know that forcing such things always leads to a tacky and tasteless end result (GM should take notes here). Because of this the TL’s interior mostly consists of leather and high quality plastics (and I do mean high quality). The interior also has a nice design, and well polished feel to it. Despite not reaching for fine materials, it somehow feels right for the price range.
Ergonomics were definitely on the mind of the TL’s design team. There are bucket seats, both front and rear, that you just sink into nicely. The seats seem very well contoured to the human body. Because of that, they hold you in place well during corners, while remaining supple in feel. There are also armrests on both sides of the front seats, making it easy to keep a relaxed driving position on a long highway cruise.
Practicality wise the TL shows its Accord roots. It seats 5 people pretty comfortably, and has a nice size trunk in back. In terms of amenities, the car I drove had the technology package, meaning it has all of the options you’d miss (like Nav), but isn’t quite fully loaded.
On the road
I want to start off by sharing my overall conclusion about the TL: it seems to have found an optimal balance between sporting driving dynamics and uncompromising comfort. Many cars out there have a good mix of the two, but usually they lean to one side or the other. With the TL, the performance and handling are good enough to keep enthusiasts happy, while not going so far as to put off people who want a comfortable ride and an “easy to drive” experience. Conversely, the TL is extremely comfortable with a great ride that keeps comfort minded buyers happy, but it doesn’t go so far as to ruin the car’s crisp handling feel. The balance of execution here that is exquisite.
When just wafting along the road in a relaxed state, the TL feels effortless. The steering is light and easy, the suspension soaks up the bumps, and the car feels reassuringly confident in all situations. The SH-AWD acts as a further safeguard in rain and snow, and will ensure you can always get where you need to go without worry.
If you are a more sporting driver, like myself, then you will be impressed with the TL’s dynamic talents. While the electric steering doesn’t let you feel much of the road, it responds to your inputs. The chassis seems to respond immediately, surprisingly with very little body roll, giving the TL a “sharp” feeling.
In corners the TL will surprise you with tons of grip and a chassis that does a decent job of talking to the driver. Its real ace in the hole while attacking corners though, is that SH-AWD system. The four wheels are not just coupled to the engine in some crude fashion, this is an intelligent system that thinks and reacts on the move. During a hard corner, the instant you could feel the front end beginning to loose grip, the system sends most of the power to the outside rear wheel. When this happens, any understeer seems to evaporate and the car gives you the confidence to get on the gas and blast out from the apex. Despite being a rather large luxury car, the TL is capable of holding a pretty serious real-world pace.
A 3.7L V6 provides the thrust on all SH-AWD models, and it makes an honest 305hp. The TL is quite fast by the standards of most people. 0-60mph has been measured as low as 5.2 seconds, 0-100mph in 13.1 seconds, and the 1/4 mile in 13.7 seconds @ 102mph. Top speed is electronically governed to 130mph, but I think that is enough trouble for most Acura buyers anyway.
From behind the wheel the TL’s engine feels pretty energetic. Throttle response is very crisp and immediate, and it may take a little getting used to. There is a reasonable amount of midrange torque for relaxed maneuvering, but the engine really needs to be revved out to access its true performance. Like most Honda products, the TL’s 3.7L V6 has VTEC, but here there is enough power for the change to be noticeable. The aggressive cam seems to hit around 4500rpm, and when it does this quiet luxury car becomes more of a high strung sports car, in a Jeckle and Hyde sort of way. A healthy amount of induction hum erupts suddenly as VTEC “kicks in”, and the resulting noise is quite exciting. Speed does pile on pretty well, and if you let it run, you will be far into illegal territory in no time. The TL definitely has the power it needs to compete with other luxury cars.
The transmission in the TL is also very impressive. It seems perfectly matched to the characteristics of the V6, and its VTEC system. In Drive it will bring revs into the mid range pretty quickly for reasonable acceleration. In Sport mode the transmission always keeps the revs around 4000rpm, right on the cusp of VTEC, for maximum immediate performance. Should you wish to shift for yourself, all TL models come with paddle shifters. I liked how the car drove in manual mode. Shifts were certainly quick enough, and the paddles were set up properly (pull right to upshift and pull left to downshift).
More than any one aspect of the car, the thing that impressed me most about the TL was the seamless execution of every aspect of the car together. You can just tell that Acura’s right and left hands were talking to each other during the development of this car. From a dynamic standpoint, the TL’s solid chassis is made to handle better by an intelligent all wheel drive system that allocates the plentiful amount of power to the road via a transmission that is perfectly tuned to maximize the effectiveness of the engine’s characteristics. This car has been extremely well designed, and it really shows through when you drive it. A rev-happy V6 isn’t always right for a luxury car (Cadillac XTS), yet with good execution Acura has pulled it off. Also keep in mind the impeccable balance of performance and comfort that I mentioned at the beginning. No part of the TL seems to step on the toes of any other part of the car, and that all comes down to intelligent design and planning.
Dollars and sense
The car I drove came in around $45,000, and was fitted with the Technology package. Within the TL lineup, this is the smart one to buy because it has all the options you really want, but doesn’t waste your money with the extra gimmicks.
As far as the package the TL offers, I see it as right in between what you get from the Audi A6 2.0T and Audi A6 3.0T. Performance wise the TL trounces the 2.0T, but it would get trounced by the 3.0T (which really has around 380hp, not 310hp as they claim). That said, what the TL offers, overall, is much similar to what the A6 3.0T gives you. The kicker is the price. For $45k you could only get a bare bones A6 2.0T with Quattro. For the A6 3.0T you need at least $50k, and for the same level of options as this TL, the Audi will cost you around $60k. So the TL is a similar car, and saves you $15,000.
Even if you don’t look at the European luxury cars, the TL is still a tremendous value. Compare it to a Lexus GS 350 AWD and an Infiniti M35x. Similarly equipped, those two cost 7-10k more than the TL, and they offer exactly the same thing. In fact, most tests show the Acura to be a little faster than the GS 350 and M35x. Even image wise, there is no difference between Acura, Lexus, and Infiniti, so why would you pay more for the same thing?
The TL is definitely a bargain buy compared to many similar cars out there, however it does face some tough competition at its own $45k price point. In my opinion, money is really the biggest factor in what cars get cross-shopped against one another, despite what automakers and magazines may have you believe. For around the same price as the TL you can also have a Volvo S60 T6 AWD, a Volkswagen CC VR6 4-Motion, and an Infiniti G37x (soon to be the upcoming Infiniti Q50). All of these cars have six cylinder engines pumping out around 300hp, all of them are all wheel drive, and all of them see around the same fuel economy, high teens in the city and mid 20s on the highway.
Honestly these are all great cars, and it is difficult picking a definitive winner among them. The TL’s fantastic balance of comfort and performance does give it an appeal of its own in this company, though. While all these cars are comfortable and perform well, I would say that the S60 and the CC lean more toward luxury, while the G37 leans toward sport. Buyers from either side of the fence cannot go wrong with the Acura TL. So while I would recommend trying out all of the above before you commit, the TL is always a solid purchase in this segment.
As a side note, I feel I should also mention that the Acura TL is built in Marysville, Ohio. While Honda is a Japanese company, the production of this car does in fact employ American workers. So for all of you who make it a point to buy American, this car should be squarely on your list.
The Acura TL SH-AWD is a brilliantly executed car that offers solid value for your money. Honda has taken what it does best in the economy car range and applied it to luxury cars. With the addition of all wheel drive, I do feel that the Acura TL now solidly competes in the full luxury market. It will hold its own against the best from BMW, Audi, or Mercedes, and is a bargain buy compared to similar Infiniti and Lexus models.
The TL is what I call a “smart money car” because it is more about function than it is about flash. Acura is a great brand unto itself of course, but there is no superficial up-charge here like there is for many other luxury cars out there. The TL offers everything people want in luxury car, and I cannot stress its quality of execution enough. In short, this is $45 grand well spent.
WoM Score: 2013 Acura TL SH AWD
Primary Function: Luxury: 2
Secondary Functions: Performance(2) Practicality(2) MPG(1): 2
Visual Appeal: 1
Build Quality: 2
Value for Money: 2
Final Score: 9/10
PS: A special thanks to Davis Acura for giving me access to the Acura TL for this review.