Daniel Pund, Senior Editor
Test-driving cars in Southern California is like eating meals only when you're ravenous. Even the lowliest Sysco-truck-delivered frozen dinner tastes a little more palatable when your blood sugar level has bottomed out.
And so as we (which is to say your humble Senior Editor, Detroit) look out our office window at a patchwork of white snow, snotty gray slush and black ice all topped with a sky the color of raw aluminum, we accept that our criteria for automotive goodness might be slightly different from that of the Santa Monicans we call colleagues.
And that brings us to the 2010 Acura TL SH-AWD, which is available for the new year with a six-speed manual transmission. How so?
Well, after extensive testing in the hinterlands of southeastern Michigan (as well as track testing in California), we are ready to award the Acura TL SH-AWD manual the very classy honor: The (Northern) Gentleman's Sporty Sedan.
Snow: The Concealer and Revealer
OK fine, it is true that we first conceived of the idea for "The (Northern) Gentleman's Sporting Sedan" when we stepped out to our driveway one morning and saw the 2010 Acura TL SH-AWD covered in a couple inches of snow. At the risk of putting too fine a point on it, the TL bodywork does not look worse when covered in a couple inches of snow. We were pleased enough with the gently curving new white body that we decided to leave the snow on the vehicle instead of brushing it off. We're not saying you should do this. Nor are we saying that we entered public roads, such as, say, Woodward Avenue on a Tuesday morning, trailing a whiteout of snow blowing off the car.
Further, it's true that you wouldn't even have to brush off the rear window to back out of your narrow two-track driveway because your 2010 Acura TL comes with the Tech package, which comes with a rearview camera mounted on the trunk lid. Now, in theory, one could simply look at the 8-inch, high-resolution color display mounted in the dash, with occasional peeks out the only lightly dusted side windows, and successfully back out while the rear defroster works its magic. We're not entirely sure the mangled boxwood hedge would agree that the back-up was entirely successful, but that's why you should never listen to your bushes.
But then you reply, "Sure, but I could do something that dumb in the TL SH-AWD equipped with the automatic or even in the standard front-drive TL." That is true. However, what you cannot do, at least not as easily, is jolt the accumulated snow off the car at will with intentionally rough shifts once under way. Remember what evil Jackie Stewart, the dark side of the three-time Formula 1 driving champion, used to say: "Smooth is for wee namby-pamby knicker-wetters." The idea here is to initiate a quick vehicle attitude and speed change to get your snow pile wind-erosion thing kicked into action. A simple clutch-drop on the 1-2 and 2-3 shifts usually does the trick nicely.
Smooth, Baby, Smooth
And the Acura makes this even easier than usual because you don't have to try hard to shift roughly in this car. The clutch take-up is abrupt and occurs high in the clutch-pedal travel. This is a consistent, if not exactly cherished, characteristic of Acuras with manual transmissions, if we remember the old CL Type-S accurately. Acura says it has designed an entirely new clutch for this TL compared to the previous-generation version. We believe them. But it still feels a lot like we remember.
The six-speed gearbox is as smooth in operation and mechanically pleasing as the clutch is not. It operates something like a Honda shifter, then. It's the addition of this new transmission to the TL's existing torque-vectoring all-wheel-drive system that makes the 2010 Acura TL SH-AWD manual such a Northerner's joy. Though Honda conceived of this all-wheel-drive system with dry performance as high a priority as foul-weather traction, it's a welcome companion in all kinds of weather.
SHAWD-a Had a Different Name
Acura's clumsily named SH-AWD system is anything but clumsy in operation. And that goes for dry roads, our dry slalom test or snow pack. Its ability to overdrive or spin up an outside rear wheel in a corner keeps understeer at bay and does more to hide the Acura's nose-heavy weight distribution than we would have thought possible. And the system reacts quickly enough that only in the most extreme high-speed cases, such as a full-bore blast through the slalom course, will a driver notice any lag in the system's operation. Since the laws of physics remain in place even in Michigan, the Acura torque-vectoring trickery is as welcome on the snow as on Mulholland Drive out there next to Santa Monica.
With the power delivery system taking up some of the work of improving handling and increasing stability, Acura has been able to dial back the TL's standard stability control system. As our track tester noted, "The remarkable ESP system merely trims the car's heading as a last resort." Still, you're going to want to turn that stuff off before you perform your vehicular ballet demo in a snow-covered parking lot.
The electric-assist steering is quick and accurate, if a little lacking in feel. Somehow, it suits the techy character of the car, though. Ride quality is a bone of contention, though. Opt for the Michelin Pilot Sport PS2 summer tires and 19-inch wheels that come with the $1,000 HPT option and you should be prepared for a ride that falls on the sporty side of the luxury-sport continuum. This is how our track-test car in California was equipped and we heard some complaints from passengers. Our Detroit tester wore the standard 18-inch all-season Michelins, and we registered no ride quality complaints. Our ideal setup would be summer tires on the 18-inch wheels that we would swap out for a set of 18-inch winter tires. Best tools for the job and all that.
With the PS2s, the 2010 Acura TL SH-AWD manual pulled essentially the same number in our slalom test as the last TL SH-AWD automatic did, which is no real surprise, since that car wore the same kind of tires. The six-speed TL will rock through the slalom at 67.6 mph with the traction and stability control on and 68.5 mph with it off. The last Infiniti G37 managed 66.7 mph. The last BMW 335i we tested made it through at 68.4 mph. (Both competitors wore summer performance tires as well.) The Acura stops from 60 mph in 110 feet, a foot shorter than the BMW, identical to the Infiniti and only a foot longer than the sportier Audi S4.
But the automatic TL SH-AWD proved last year that it could post impressive handling numbers at the track. What was missing was the accelerative force to hang with the sport-sedan class leaders.
The six-speed manual transmission helps a great deal in this regard. That the newly designed gearbox is 110 pounds lighter than the automatic helps, and the additional gear ratio doesn't hurt either. The manual car is a full second quicker both to 60 mph and then through the quarter-mile than an otherwise identical TL SH-AWD carrying the familiar five-speed automatic. At 5.6 seconds to 60 mph (5.4 seconds with a 1-foot rollout like on a drag strip) and 13.9 through the quarter-mile at 100.1 mph, this car matches almost exactly the numbers posted by the last G37 we tested. Sure, that Infiniti was equipped with a seven-speed automatic, but a G37 coupe we tested was no faster with the six-speed manual. The TL still falls behind the manual BMW 335i by almost a half-second in most measures of acceleration, however.
With this performance, Acura has taken away one of the reasons to not buy the TL, though. With similar tires, the Acura would trounce the rear-drive dandies in any test of acceleration on a snow-covered surface (which is the everyday environment of the Northern Gentleman).
What else? Well, the rest of the 2010 Acura TL SH-AWD manual is just like the automatic version. Same trying looks, same button-happy center stack, same price, same broad breadth of capabilities.
Importantly, the manual version also uses the same toggle-switch-style seat heater controls. The significance of this cannot be understated for mid-winter mornings. No need to turn on the seat heaters every time you start the car. In January, you just want the bun-warming to begin immediately. That switch would just stay on HI from late November through March.
The manufacturer provided Edmunds this vehicle for the purposes of evaluation.
Chief Road Test Editor Chris Walton says:
It's not called the Acura Bobsled for a reason. It doesn't transmit the texture or grip levels of the surface it travels over through its electric-assist power steering. The pedals seem to have been designed to isolate any sense of an actual mechanical connection to brakes or clutch engagement. The throttle pedal merely makes a needle on the tachometer move without an accompanying aural sense of a powerful or willing engine connected to it. And the shifter, while light and precise, feels the same regardless of whether the car is idling or running at wide-open throttle.
And yet the car's real name, "TL SH-AWD 6MT," is strangely more appropriate because that moniker is as passionate as the driving experience it provides.
While I can't refute the TL SH-AWD 6MT's track results (I know because I was behind the wheel), I've felt more like a necessary part of the process when testing a Suzuki Kizashi (a surprisingly enthusiastic car, by the way). Don't get me wrong. I congratulate Acura for putting the comically named "Super-Handling All-Wheel Drive" system to better use than on the underrated MDX crossover. The SH-AWD system is one of the most sophisticated, proactive all-wheel-drive systems in the world. It actively sends power not just fore/aft as a reaction to lost traction, but also left-right as needed before the stability system is required to intervene. In many ways, SH-AWD is the type of tech that occasionally finds its way into motorsports, only to be banned as an unfair advantage.
Had the 2010 Acura TL SH-AWD 6MT been included in our Audi S4 versus BMW 335i comparison test, it would have given either or both a run for the money — on paper, that is. A tenth of a second here, a foot there and the nearly identical handling results of the Acura would have made it a worthy adversary. However, the TL's utter lack of driving passion would have earned it an equal number of demerits from our enthusiast test drivers who stubbornly value how a car feels as much as the empirical numbers it produces.
Look, I know Honda/Acura know how to build in high-tech without removing driving feel. I've driven several Acura NSXs, Integra Type Rs and even the Honda S2000, so they do get it. It's just too bad they forgot to remove a little of the luxury from TL and add a little more sport when they built this otherwise remarkable car.
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