Ed Hellwig, Executive Editor
As we hammer the 2009 Acura TL down some of Malibu's most challenging canyon roads, the big sedan is handling itself well. It carries enough speed through the corners to make us a little nervous, but the lack of tire squeal makes it clear that we're far from pushing its limits.
Jamming this TL into a hairpin doesn't upset it either. The brakes scrub off plenty of speed and the transmission executes perfect, rev-matched downshifts. When we flat foot the throttle on the way out, the newly optional Super Handling All-Wheel Drive (SH-AWD) system puts down all 305 horsepower of the 3.7-liter V6 to the pavement without a single chirp of the tires.
When we finally hit leisurely traffic on Pacific Coast Highway, the TL returns to luxury sedan mode. The cabin goes silent, the transmission smoothly sifts through the gears and the suspension soaks up everything short of a sinkhole. We're not surprised, as this is the classic Acura formula — admirable performance coupled with high-tech luxury, and now the TL has a little more of both.
It's Always More, More, More As capable as this 2009 Acura TL SH-AWD is in the canyons, its bulk is hard to ignore. Like most redesigned cars these days, the TL is bigger than its predecessor. Growth has been the de facto "improvement" for decades now, so much so that it seemed radical when Nissan introduced a slightly shrunken Maxima sedan for 2009.
Acura says it was just listening to its customers who, when asked if they would like more room, shockingly said "yes," so this TL is slightly taller, nearly two inches wider and over five inches longer than the '08 model. All of which puts the 2009 TL Acura squarely in the midsize luxury sedan class, eclipsing cars like the BMW 5 Series and Mercedes-Benz E-Class in overall size.
In fact, the TL is now considerably wider than Acura's flagship RL sedan and only a half-inch shorter in overall length. The TL and RL share the same height and ride on a wheelbase that's within an inch of one another.
The TL is almost as heavy as an RL, as a loaded TL SH-AWD tips the scales at 3,986 pounds. That's just over 300 pounds more than the '08 TL Type-S, the previous range topper which was available only in front-wheel drive. Meanwhile, the 2009 TL with front-wheel drive is only about 100 pounds heavier than before.
Split Personalities Yes, there's still a front-wheel-drive version of the TL. It's now been pegged as the less aggressive model although it still gets a healthy 280 hp out of the same 3.5-liter V6 featured in last year's TL Type-S.
The TL SH-AWD is upgraded with the larger 3.7-liter V6 from the RL. Minor tuning changes push the SH-AWD's V6 to 305 hp at 6,200 rpm and 273 pound-feet of torque at 5,000 rpm making this Acura's most powerful engine ever.
Every 2009 Acura TL regardless of model designation features a five-speed automatic transmission with manual shift capability via shift paddles on the steering wheel. None of the gear ratios have been changed compared to last year's transmission, although the all-wheel-drive model gets a shorter 4.53:1 final-drive to improve acceleration from the relatively heavy car. Acura says a manual transmission is coming for 2010, so expect the return of the Type-S designation then.
Despite the extra power, the TL SH-AWD doesn't feel much quicker than the standard TL. Sure, there's an extra 25 hp on board, but there's also another 200 pounds of weight, too. The TL uses the same Super Handling All-Wheel-Drive system as the RL, so it's able to vary power between the front and rear wheels as well as between the rear wheels themselves.
Both versions of the TL feel plenty fast under full throttle. There's softness at the low end that you rarely get with BMW's twin-turbo 3.0-liter inline-6, but overall the TL's engine is hard to fault. According to Acura, the TL SH-AWD is 0.3 second quicker from zero-to-60-mph than last year's TL Type-S, so figure it will run in the low 6-second range.
The Makings of a Sport Sedan There's a far more noticeable distinction between the two TL models (and their predecessors) when it comes to the ride and handling. The new TL uses the same basic suspension setup as before, with double wishbones up front and a multilink setup in back. In addition to a long list of minor changes like strengthened subframes and hydraulic bushings for the front lower wishbones, the upgrades for the SH-AWD model are more extensive.
According to Acura, the all-wheel-drive model has 32 percent stiffer springs, 20 percent more damping force and 28 percent greater roll stiffness. The new-for-2009 electric power steering system for the TL also has been tuned for increased effort at higher speeds for the SH-AWD, while the front brakes get additional cooling ducts in the front fascia along with revised settings for the power assist.
Wheel and tire upgrades are part of the SH-AWD package as well. Although, even base TLs have been upgraded with 245/50R17 Bridgestone Turanza tires, the SH-AWD versions get even larger 245/45R18 Michelin Pilot rubber. There's also an optional set of 19-inch wheels with even stickier 245/40ZR19 Michelin Pilot Sport S2 tires.
Still a Good Compromise It all sounds very aggressive for an Acura, but the all-wheel-drive TL is still very much the comfortable cruiser it's always been. Even with the optional 19-inch wheels and tires, there's minimal road and wind noise and the more aggressive steering feels more responsive, not just heavier.
The same goes for the suspension, as it manages to give the all-wheel-drive model a much more buttoned-down feel without resorting to an overly stiff ride quality. For such a big car, the Acura TL AWD doesn't roll much when pushed hard through a corner and a good stab of the throttle keeps understeer in check thanks to the SH-AWD system. It's able to direct up to 70 percent of the power to the rear wheels and 100 percent of that power to the outside tire to help get the TL turned in. It sounds gimmicky, but the TL SH-AWD does get through tight corners far more gracefully than its front-wheel-drive counterpart.
Never known for great brakes, this Acura TL has been upgraded to a far more competitive level. The front calipers are now dual-piston units that grab 12.6-inch rotors, which is one more piston and 21 percent more swept area than before. Strangely enough, the rear rotors are even bigger at 13.1 inches, although they stick with single-piston calipers. Pedal feel is quite good and fade proved minimal during our aggressive canyon runs.
A Nice Place To Work If there's one drawback to the impressive agility of the 2009 Acura TL SH-AWD, it's the fact that its dynamic ability reveals a lack of support in the front seats. There are more pronounced side bolsters for the seats of the SH-AWD model, but the seat cushion is still too flat for aggressive driving. A meaty rim for the three-spoke steering wheel is there for you to hang on, so the seats are hardly a deal breaker.
There's plenty of room for virtually any size driver, although curiously enough, legroom and headroom up front have actually declined fractionally, despite the overall increase in the car's package size. Most of the extra interior space went to the backseat, where leg-, hip- and shoulder room are all up a half-inch to an inch or so. The trunk is slightly bigger, too (12.3 to 12.5 cubic feet) although non-AWD models have 13.1 cubic feet since there's no rear differential in the way.
Acura stuck with a center-stack design that's heavy on the buttons, although there's a big joystick for the navigation system that's front and center. It's still not the most intuitive layout we've seen, but it doesn't take long to figure out the basics. Ordering the Technology package adds a huge 8-inch navigation screen at the top of the dash that's capable of displaying directions, photos and even real-time weather radar. A 440-watt, 10-speaker audio system is also part of the package. All TLs get Bluetooth connectivity, a USB connector and an auxiliary jack.
Is This Still Entry-Level? Between its size and price, the 2009 Acura TL looks like its slowly making an exit out of the entry-level luxury sedan class. No final prices have been announced yet, but Acura said the base price for a front-wheel-drive TL will start at around $34,000 when it goes on sale in September. The all-wheel-drive model won't hit dealers until November and a fully loaded version will come in around $42,000.
Those are hardly entry-level numbers, but the TL can justify the price. Put it up against any midsize European sport sedan and it'll likely match it for performance, features and comfort. The TL still lacks the prestige factor, but it's never really relied on that element anyway.
With that in mind, don't consider this TL a remake of the old model. Instead, think of it as more of a bridge between that model and the RL. Hardwarewise, it practically is an RL, but when that car soon converts to a rear-wheel-drive platform with V8 power, the TL will suddenly fit right in. Then it can start worrying about the prestige problem.
Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored event, to which selected members of the press were invited, to facilitate this report.
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