The Sport Sedan Establishment Should Be (Slightly) Worried
Chris Walton, Chief Road Test Editor
The unceasing risk inherent to benchmarking your competition is that they have smart, creative folks all working just as hard to improve their products. The brass ring on the sport sedan ride is one of the most highly coveted in the world, and it's also the fastest-moving ride there is.
We've seen this pattern unfold before. But for right now, this prototype of the 2010 Acura TL SH-AWD equipped with a close-ratio six-speed manual transmission is one of the most remarkable fast sedans we've ever driven, faster than all the big names in the sport sedan game. And yet it will face newer versions of the sport sedan elite that might appear before this 2010 model reaches the street next year.
A Day of Reckoning We are compelled to admit that this was an Acura event that took place at a facility owned by Honda (overseen by the Transportation Research Center) with all the test cars supplied and prepped by Acura R&D. It's not exactly our usual comparison format, in other words. This was our opportunity to drive a prototype of the 2010 Acura TL Super Handling All-Wheel Drive six-speed manual transmission (SH-AWD 6MT), so Acura arranged some track time at its test facility near its U.S. engineering facility in Ohio, and a competitive set of sport sedans.
We'd go out, run one lap, two hot laps and one cool-down in lap. Then we'd come in and switch cars with our press colleagues and repeat until all five cars were sufficiently flogged. We repeated the round robin twice and were given the opportunity to revisit any two or three cars we thought we hadn't had enough time in.
The 2010 Acura TL SH-AWD 6MT kicked serious butt. And we're not talking tenths of a second on a 1.6-mile racetrack, but instead 2 seconds (a light-year on a short racetrack like this) separated the TL from the next quickest sedan, the Audi S4 Quattro, on the challenging Dynamics Handling Course. This Alan Wilson-designed, 13-corner course is a laboratory instrument, and it dissected the strengths and weaknesses of these five cars with an array of fast/slow, compressed/unweighted, opening/closing corners.
The Lab Results We rapidly came to some conclusions. Here's how we ranked the cars after our testing.
1st Place: While the 2010 Acura TL SH-AWD 6MT might not have the horsepower to keep up on the straight with any of these other sport sedans, it works best by far in the corners and made up time over its competition in speed at the apex and at the exit. At nearly every corner, the SH-AWD was so astute and intelligent that you could literally slap the go pedal to the carpet and let the all-wheel drive sort out how best to put the power to good use. And yes, these optional 245/40ZR19 Michelin Pilot Sport PS2 tires (the largest and stickiest of any of the tires in the entire group) really help, but it was in combination with the SH-AWD where the rubber really made a difference. This car carves the corners.
2nd Place: While the 2008 Audi S4 Quattro would seem to hold an advantage by the sheer fact that it hangs a 340-hp V8 over its front wheels and offers the traction of all-wheel drive, it is hampered by stubborn understeer on the entry to slow and moderate-speed corners. The steering remained light and precise throughout the course, as did the feel of the light-effort clutch and shifter. The S4 was the only car here other than the TL that was able to put the power to the pavement before the apex of the corners — a real advantage thanks to all-wheel drive. Poor weight distribution keeps it from getting close to the TL.
3rd Place: The BMW 335i maintains its composure even when driven extremely hard, yet it feels surprisingly slow and out of place compared to the TL and S4. Of course, putting power down with just the rear wheels means the front wheels almost needed to be straight before the throttle could go all the way to the floor. The throttle response from its twin-turbo 300-hp inline-6 is only happy and snappy in the upper rpm range, and the steering feels indirect and slow in comparison. Great brakes, but this wasn't enough to make up the 2.7-second gap to the TL. It's just too slow to react.
4th Place: Hoping the BMW 335xi's all-wheel drive would allow the 3 Series to put its 300 hp to better use, we discovered that it only further snubbed the responses of the sedan. The steering became less direct, the throttle response grew worse and the understeer became more pronounced. The added weight of the car was obvious, especially in a high-speed corner with an apex at the crest of a hill.
5th Place: To be honest, the Infiniti G35s didn't even get a second drive in the comparison. From the second corner of the first hot lap, it was painfully obvious that the heavy effort and lurching response of the clutch pedal (it turns out they're all like this), the heavy-effort shift action and an inability to keep its rear tires hooked up on anything less than a dead-straight piece of track kept the G35s from being able to put up a good fight. On this track, it required constant vigilance just to keep the G35s on the pavement.
Bits & Pieces
As with the 2009 Acura TL SH-AWD we drove last month, the 2010 TL SH-AWD 6MT features the most powerful engine Acura has ever offered in this 3.7-liter 305-hp V6 with an advanced version of iVTEC. It's linked to one of the most sophisticated all-wheel-drive systems known to man, but the big news here is that Acura has, for the first time, combined a manual transmission with its highly developed SH-AWD system.
The six-speed gearbox has been designed and built solely for this car. It's more than simply an evolution of the front-wheel-drive 2008 TL Type-S's six-speed, but instead a design that accommodates both the engine's impressive output as well as the additional complexity of all-wheel drive. Though its mainshaft and axle half-shafts have been beefed up to accommodate the V6's 273 pound-feet of torque, the manual transmission manages to be 110 pounds lighter than the five-speed automatic in the same car.
Even with the closely spaced ratios of this high-performance transmission, there's plenty of room beneath the V6's 6,700-rpm redline for a wide range of thrust in each gear. We expect the TL SH-AWD 6MT to return fuel consumption rates very close to those of the five-speed automatic, which are estimated at 17 mpg city and 25 mpg highway.
Shift action is light but precise, and the double- and triple-cone synchros never seem to mind being punished with quick shifts. Our only gripe here is that the clutch pedal doesn't offer enough information about when the clutch pack is about to bite.
Tuning With Electrons The tuning for the car's electronic stability program, all-wheel-drive system, suspension action and steering have been brought up to the same level of accomplishment as the transmission. The SH-AWD's unique powertrain control module watches over everything from engine rpm and intake airflow to gear-ratio selection. Of course, we still shut off the uniquely tuned stability program for our lapping exercises.
Because the nose of the 6MT-equipped TL is nearly 90 pounds lighter than that of the automatic version, the engineers have tailored spring and damping rates to offer quicker and more precise turn-in characteristics. Overcook a corner entry, however, and understeer is as certain and pronounced as one would expect from a car with 58 percent of its weight over the front tires. If you've ever put a 12-pack of beer in the nose of a shopping cart then moved it to the rear, you'd know what a difference weight distribution makes.
The electric-assist power steering has been remapped to offer a more pronounced build-up in effort as the speed of the car increases, but even if some still consider the general feel to be light, we are huge fans of a low-friction feel as long as the overall effect is quick and precise like this. Because the electric motor is located on the steering rack itself rather than the steering column, there's good communication between the front tires and your hands.
The All-Wheel-Drive Future All things considered, Acura has finally put its highly complex and effective SH-AWD system to its best use in the 2010 Acura TL SH-AWD 6MT. This all-wheel-drive technology has always seemed a bit wasted in the MDX and RDX sport-utilities. It belongs in a sport sedan, and it has found a worthy home in the TL.
We also have to applaud Acura's determination to make its products more than just another premium-brand spin-off of an existing sedan. That's what makes Honda and Acura intriguing and forward-thinking carmakers. It's also what will make our job harder when it comes time to score what will be a very tight comparison test next year.
You see, this car won't get here for another year. And in the next 12 months, the BMW 3 Series will be released with improvements. And the Infiniti G37s will arrive with more power and hopefully more poise. And finally, Audi's S4 will undergo both a heart transplant with a turbocharged V6 and a new all-wheel-drive system.
We'll see who gets the brass ring on the carousel ride around Honda's test track next year.
Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored event, to which selected members of the press were invited, to facilitate this report.
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