The TL features sharp-handling, a powerful V6 engine, a fully independent suspension, and the latest active safety electronics to optimize driving dynamics. Its engine doles out abundant power, which is complemented by great handling and powerful brakes. Freeway cruising is made pleasant by the reasonably smooth ride, though the TL is no cushmobile.
The TL is wrapped in a hip, bold, razor-edged design. It's a fully equipped luxury performance sedan in midsize dimensions.
Inside, it's thoroughly modern. It comes standard with the latest in surround-sound. The seats are firm and comfortably bolstered. The TL isn't cheap, but you get what you pay for in performance and features. Every passive safety feature you'd expect in a premium car is included.
For 2006, the Acura TL benefits from a handful of changes. The most important change for 2006 is an active system to control torque steer, the car's one dynamic Achilles' heel. A tire-pressure monitoring system is now standard equipment, and there are a couple of new colors.
Acura TL ($33,100)
The current TL is more than 3.5 inches shorter overall than the previous-generation (pre-2004) TL, yet the wheelbase is essentially the same. (The wheelbase in the distance between the front and rear wheels.) That made the front and rear overhangs shorter, an improvement in the design. The current model is 2 inches wider than the previous version, spreading the tires an inch farther apart in front and an inch and a half farther apart in the rear. This wider track improves handling and stability. The roof is a half-inch taller. And yet the TL claims one of the lowest coefficients of drag (0.29 Cd) in its class. In short, the current TL offers improved space efficiency and better packaging than the previous model.
The strong, chin-like front end is braced by two low-mounted openings feeding cooling air to the engine, the minimalist grille above serving primarily to frame the Acura badge and trademark polished horizontal bar. Squinting headlights wrap around the front fenders, drawing the eye to the character line that begins in the side-marker light just forward of the front door, integrating the perfectly aligned door handles and running the length of the car to terminate in the rear side-marker lights. Molded rocker panels beneath the doors (with a chip-resistant finish) visually widen the car's lower body. Fender flares stretch the body over and wrap snugly around the tires. The tallish greenhouse tapers gracefully inward as it rises from the beltline, giving geometric balance to the rake of the windshield and backlight. The C-pillar, or sail panel, flows smoothly down into the trunk lid, adding substance and solidity to the rear quarters and embellishing the TL's mild, wedge-like profile.
The rear of the TL looks like a Honda. The rear looks conservative when compared to the dramatic styling of the rest of the car. The trailing edge of the trunk lid is sharply crested, with a pleasing Kamm-like aero-overhang. Taillights are severely functional. The black surround setting off the rear license plate is a bit loud. But the body sculpturing produces surface planes that generate some exciting shadows, and dual exhausts with squarish tips in matching lower bumper cutouts boost the sporty image, as do pushing the wheels out toward the corners.
Interior quality is up to Acura standards. Fit and finish is above average. A nice touch is the grained, matte-finish section on the top of the dash over the instrument cluster that reduces reflective glare off the inside of the windshield on bright, sunny days. A seamless dash masks the presence of the passenger-side front airbag, making for a more elegant and stylish look.
Comfortably bolstered seats brace thighs and shoulders against lateral forces during spirited cornering. The driving position is exemplary, which is no surprise given Honda's near obsession with ergonomics. Seat-bottom cushions could extend a bit more beneath the thighs, but overall the seats are quite supportive without being overly firm. The B-pillars are indented in their forward edges about mid-height to make a little more elbow room for front seat occupants. All necessary controls lie within sight and easy reach of the driver. Shift levers and patterns for both transmissions fall readily to hand.
Backlit LED gauges look out from inside three pods tucked under a hood shading them from the noon-time sun. They're easy on the eyes, with a blue-around-white motif. A large, round speedometer sits directly in front of the driver and is centered on the steering column, which is also properly centered on the driver's seat. To the left is a slightly smaller, but no less legible tachometer. The right-hand pod contains the fuel and water temperature gauges.
The melding of function with form works extremely well in the Acura TL. Topmost in the center stack is the LCD screen that displays the climate control and audio settings as well as the optional navigation system's visual aids. With the navigation system comes a line of PDA-like buttons and cursor controller arrayed beneath the screen. Bracketing the screen are perpendicular rows of large, finger-friendly buttons for setting driver and front passenger climate control preferences; a useful Off switch is provided that instantly shuts everything off. Separating the climate controls from the touch-screen this way makes changing fan speeds or adjusting the temperature easy in the TL. With the navigation system, buyers get what Acura calls 3D Solar Sensing Climate Control. Using time of day and direction of travel, this gadget calculates the sun's position relative to the car to adjust side-to-side interior temperatures to maintain desired settings.
Navigation systems are getting better each year and Acura's is one of the best if not the best. It's easy to program and gives clear and accurate descriptions visibly and audibly. The big display and combination of hard buttons and context-sensitive on-screen menus work very well. Still, you have to call up a menu to change radio stations. We found it took 20 seconds after starting the car before we could perform the electronic version of signing a legal agreement and get a map, which seems like a long time when you're in a hurry. The navigation system can recognize nearly 300 verbal commands, including adjustments to the stereo and climate control and selection of more than 7 million points of interest (restaurants, lodging, airports, shopping malls, etc.).
Lower on the center stack are controls for the sound system. Large, round knobs adjust volume and other functions. Right-sized station preselect buttons easily pass the fingernail and winter glove tests. Still, to change CD tracks you have to press the Audio button and go to a menu. In terms of technology, the standard stereo redefines the overused term premium. Not content with a multi-speaker, externally power-amplified, DVD/CD/cassette/AM/FM/XM Satellite Radio system, Acura added a new technology known as DVD-Audio 5.1. DVDs r
The V6 engine delivers its abundant power smoothly, pulling strongly all the way to its 6800-rpm redline to the accompaniment of a deliciously tuned exhaust note. Even with traction control active, the front tires can be made to chirp while accelerating out of corners, or when mashing the gas pedal from a full stop. One of the few dynamic complaints we had with the TL torque steer, has been addressed in the 2006 model. Revised engine management system and steering angle sensors combine to help reduce this phenomenon, common among powerful front-wheel-drive cars.
TL is powered by a 3.2-liter, single overhead camshaft, 24-valve, 60-degree V6 with Honda's F1 racing-developed variable valve timing and lift system (VTEC). For 2006, it's rated at 258 horsepower and 233 pound-feet of torque. Fuel economy is an EPA-rated 20/30 mpg City/Highway when fitted with the six-speed manual transmission. The engine meets California's LEV-2 ULEV standards, the second most stringent in the nation for gasoline-fueled cars and exceeded only by limited production, small-engine subcompacts and hybrids (some of them Hondas).
The automatic transmission works well. With the SportShift left in auto mode, gear changes are almost imperceptible, slicker and smoother than in some cars costing more than twice the TL's price of entry. After shifting the automatic into the manual mode, only the upshift from first is automatic, occurring just south of 5000 rpm. Higher gears are held right up to the rev limiter, which steps in around 7000 rpm.
The shift linkage on the manual gearbox is taut and precise, though clutch takeup requires a little getting used to.
The variable-assist steering reacts to road speed and driver input to make for effortless parking and sure tracking on the highway. Hours spent in the wind tunnel reduced to a whisper the inevitable whistles around the outside mirrors. Barely noticeable hissing around the side windows' trailing edges could well have been more reflective of the test car's early production status than of any design shortcoming.
The TL felt comfortable and relaxed at speed on the Interstates, although we noticed more road noise with the fatter, stickier tires on the six-speed model. On two-lanes, the standard setup was no slouch, feeling ill at ease only when taken where most drivers will never go, and by which time all the assorted active safety technologies will have been alerted. At these extremes, the sportier version delighted, its Brembo brakes confidently hauling it down from mildly irresponsible speeds before it tracked unerringly and with aplomb through tight corners over sometimes bumpy pavement. Perhaps, just maybe, Acura has unearthed the secret to BMW's vice-like grip on the top rung of the sports sedan ladder. Unlike BMWs, though, the TL is front-wheel drive, and the front washes out when accelerating hard around a bumpy corner, a point at which the TL does not feel like the ultimate driving machine.
On the track, the SportShift and the all-season tires proved to be a good match. Only carelessness or inattention could get somebody in trouble with this package. The six-speed manual worked well, too. Its six, close-ratio gears allowed the engine to work in its powerband's sweet spot. And the limited-slip front differential properly apportioned the power between the front tires while negotiating fast, sweeping cu
The Acura TL is as sporty a sedan as is imaginable in a front-wheel-drive configuration. Its SportShift automatic transmission can be left alone or played with to extract some of the joys embodied in a stiff platform and powerful drivetrain. When ordered with the six-speed manual, Brembo brakes and stickier tires, the TL is even more of a sports sedan. Or settle back with some good tunes from the state-of-the-art stereo and book the evening's repast and lodging while following the navigation system's mobile arrow pointing the way across the country. In short, the Acura TL is an excellent choice as a sporty near-luxury sedan.
New Car Test Drive correspondent Tom Lankard is based in Northern California; with Mitch McCullough reporting from Los Angeles.