Slow and lifeless steering, polarizing exterior styling.
Critics of the 2009 Acura TL and its, um, interesting styling should recall 1889. That's the year Parisians and artistic experts were aghast at a hideous mass of steel and rivets rising over their city of lights — a "black blot" it was called. They took solace in the fact that after 20 years, its lease would end and it would be dismantled. Well, the Eiffel Tower still stands 119 years later and most consider it rightly beautiful.
Two factors kept La Tour Eiffel around. The first was practical necessity — they utilized the tower for radio transmissions — and the second was that it grew on people as time went on. That's the real parallel with the Acura TL. Auto writers and car junkies have lambasted the all-new TL and its radically different styling. That huge silver grille has taken the brunt of the verbal attack: It's been called everything from a metallic elephant seal to a giant vegetable slicer. ("Silver blot" was probably uttered by Parisian auto hacks.) The oddly bulbous rear end hasn't fared much better. The fact that the '09 TL replaces a sharp, highly touted predecessor doesn't help.
However, this completely redesigned 2009 Acura TL has a lot of practical necessity going for it. From the ground up, Acura listened to customer suggestions and complaints to create a better car for the people who really matter — those with the checkbooks. There's more interior room, a more powerful V6 engine, new technology features and lighter steering weighting to help with parking lot maneuvers. Although our test car was a base front-drive model, there's also an available all-wheel-drive model known as SH-AWD that adds a more powerful V6, bigger wheels, better brakes, different steering tuning, more supportive seats and differing exterior and interior trim.
For the typical luxury car buyer, this is a better car. Therefore it falls to the second part of the Eiffel Tower metaphor. Will the TL's styling grow on people as they start seeing it more? We'll let you decide. After all, experts were wrong in 1889. Who says we know any better in 2009?
The 2009 Acura TL is bigger, heavier and more powerful than the TL it replaces. Under the hood is a 3.5-liter V6 that produces 280 horsepower and 254 pound-feet of torque — only a smidge less than the outgoing, high-performance TL Type-S. Because of the weight gain, the '09 TL isn't quite the sprinter the Type-S was, but our test car accelerated from zero to 60 mph in 6.7 seconds, which is still respectable performance and on par with the BMW 328i. Out in the real world, the TL has no problem hauling itself up freeway on-ramps or dispatching slow-moving lane hogs. Although the TL's standard automatic transmission features only five speeds, it's hard to say it's any worse for wear, with smooth shifts, an eagerness to downshift (particularly in Sport mode) and standard paddle shifters.
During its two-week stay in our care, our TL test car managed an average of 20.4 mpg, which is pretty good considering our typically lead feet; the EPA estimate for the new TL is 16 mpg city/26 mpg highway and 21 mpg combined.
Our test car was a base TL, or rather, the front-wheel-drive version that lacks Acura's aptly named "Super Handling" all-wheel-drive system (or SH-AWD). Aside from being SH-AWD-less and with the consequent drop in road-holding, the base TL features less powerful brakes and lighter, less communicative steering than the TL SH-AWD we also tested. The base TL's panic stop from 60 mph in 122 feet is acceptable, but the SH-AWD's 106 feet is superb and who wouldn't prefer it? The base TL's electric power steering is effortless at parking lot speeds and pleasingly weights up at higher ones. However, it feels utterly lifeless compared to the SH-AWD's electric steering setup, which offers a quicker ratio, more weight and more feel while remaining parking-friendly. It's a much better compromise between aggressive and commuter driving.
As such, the 2009 Acura TL would not be what we call fun to drive and we'd sooner recommend the TL SH-AWD (both offer identical acceleration). However, the front-wheel-drive model still provides its driver with confidence to control its sizable proportions, certainly better than most front-drive competitors.
Ride quality is one of the all-new '09 TL's master strokes. Bumps, holes and expansion joints are eaten up with a reassuring, almost Germanic thump that befits a luxury car with the TL's price tag. Driving down the freeway at 80 mph is comfortable without ever being floaty, while both wind and road noise are kept well in check.
The TL's front seats offer a nice blend of comfort and support. They're neither pinchy like those in the Infiniti G37 nor bloated couches like the Lexus ES 350. Front space and seat adjustability are very good for most driver sizes, with all primary controls (pedals, wheel) and climate/entertainment controls within easy reach.
The TL has grown for 2009, which can best be seen in the backseat. Our tallest driver could still sit behind his own front seating position, with his knees just grazing the front seatback and the tips of his spiky hair touching the roof. The seat bottom is well-shaped and cushy.
With our tester TL's $3,730 Technology package, there's a whole lot of stuff that needs to function correctly and Acura's designers mostly succeeded in this regard. There are certainly four or five too many buttons, but the myriad buttons are at least grouped logically and once you know where they are, function much quicker than a strict BMW-like screen and knob setup. The TL has a knob, too, but it's only needed for less frequently used features like programming the navigation system or checking the real-time weather forecasts. It's also perfectly suited for controlling the excellent iPod interface.
While those who want the most raw, thumping power may be a little underwhelmed by the 10-speaker ELS surround-sound system, it is remarkably crisp and clear. Live albums in particular are sensational — you'd swear Lindsey Buckingham or Dave Matthews were performing in the car for you. Actually, in-car performance seems like the only music format missing in the TL, which features FM, AM, XM, CD, DVD audio, iPod, regular aux jack and hard-drive digital storage. Having said that, the TL lacks its predecessor's tape deck — aw, shucks.
Trunk space is only average, but while the 2009 Acura TL may lack in overall space, it's at least a wide, useful shape that can swallow two sets of golf clubs plus a suitcase or two. A wide opening allows for those clubs to be dropped in easily. A child seat fits just fine in the backseat, while the flip-down head restraints make installation easier.
Design/Fit and Finish
We've already gone over the rather controversial exterior, so let's stick to the interior. Those who prefer a mostly stark, businesslike design will be pleased, but those who like pretty wood and flashy chrome should stick to Cadillac and Lexus.
The TL's materials quality is beyond reproach. The entire upper dash and door panels are covered in a beautifully grained, low-sheen squishy material, while other surfaces, including switchgear, are also high-quality. The interior's metallic trim drew mixed reactions from our editors in terms of its aesthetic appeal, but it certainly seems like high-end stuff.
Who should consider this vehicle
Someone who likes or can at least live with the styling. Beyond that, those who want all the latest electronic goodies in a user-friendly package. Also, those who prioritize interior space, reliability and a ride that straddles the line between sport and comfort.