There was only one problem with the 2009-'11 Acura TL. Its designers unknowingly beat it with an ugly stick on their way to giving the sedan "progressive" styling.
The result was a car praised for its class-topping dynamic abilities but panned for its weird lines, most notably that in-your-face grille. Lackluster sales followed (for the TL, that meant 34,000 cars in 2010), and dealers complained.
Acura blames the car's lackluster reception less on a flawed design and more on the fact that the fourth-gen TL was simply "too bold for the new, more conservative market" brought on by the weak economy. Regardless, the design team was sent back to their CAD screens and charged with coming up with a midcycle refresh for the 2012 Acura TL a good nine months sooner than originally planned.
Less Plenum = More Sophistication
When launching the 2009 TL, Acura used the term "linear fluidity" to describe its styling. This time around, the tagline for the 2012 Acura TL is "sophisticated emotion." In English, that means Acura reworked the car's more awkward lines. The grille is noticeably smaller, while the chrome strip just above the grille is now body color, having the effect of making the hood look longer even though it's completely unchanged.
Other updates include a smaller front bumper, darker-tint headlights and redesigned foglights and turn signals. Together, their main objective is to make the TL appear wider.
The rear got a makeover as well. Again, the goal was to break up the previous car's massive amounts of flat surfacing and shrink its tail end. Acura accomplished this via a smaller rear bumper with a horizontal cutline, a higher license plate mount, smaller rear reflectors, a 6-inch-higher rear diffuser and a thinner bright strip at the base of the trunk lid. All the new styling changes resulted in an inch less overhang up front and a half inch less at the rear for a new overall length of 194 inches.
Gears Are Good
Although the most grandiose updates to the 2012 Acura TL occur at its bow and stern, there is one bit of mechanical news to be had: a new six-speed automatic transmission from the 2011 RL sedan, replacing the previous five-speed in both the front-wheel-drive TL and the SH-AWD (super-handling all-wheel-drive) model.
With lower gear ratios for 1st through 5th versus the five-speed, Acura estimates the TL SH-AWD will accelerate about 0.4 second quicker to 60 mph (figure 6.3 seconds) versus the outgoing version.
A taller 6th gear (versus the five-speed) aids fuel economy, as does the new torque converter's multiple lock-up discs, which offer better lubrication and improved cooling. These changes, along with reduced piston friction and a new cold-air intake in the 3.5-liter V6-equipped front-drive TL help fuel economy jump from 18 city/26 highway mpg for the 2011 model to 20/29 for the 2012 edition. The 3.7-liter V6 SH-AWD's mpg is less noteworthy, rising only 1 mpg across the board to 18/26, while the SH-AWD six-speed manual (which has just a 3 percent take rate) remains at 17/25.
Above and beyond the notable mpg increases and slightly quicker acceleration, you probably won't notice anything too dramatic in your daily driving with the six-speed versus the old five-speed. As with the five-speed, the new transmission shifts smoothly at all times in Automatic mode, but can also be shifted manually via standard-issue steering-wheel paddles. The software blips the throttle to smooth downshifts, making aggressive driving easier and more fun. It holds gears at redline unless you're in 1st.
About the only downside is the six-speed's desire to get to high gear as quickly as possible, even if it means lugging the engine a bit. It's all for the sake of the improved fuel economy, of course. Running it in Manual mode gets rid of that problem, so it's an easy fix if you're so inclined.
Oh, Those Engines
Part of the reason the new automatic doesn't massively improve the 2012 Acura TL driving experience is that it was already a damn good driving machine. Credit goes to the TL's powerful, high-revving V6s, the outputs of which remain unchanged for 2012.
The TL front-driver continues with 280 horsepower at 6,200 rpm and 254 pound-feet of torque at 5,000 rpm, while the SH-AWD continues to hold its claim as the most powerful Acura ever, rated at 305 hp at 6,300 and 273 lb-ft at 5,000.
The V6s in both the TL and SH-AWD are quiet and buttery-smooth at low engine speeds. They're equally impressive when you wind them out, too. Both engines seem to thrive on being pushed to the redline, an easy thing to do when using the manual shift paddles.
Crazy for Curves
Another area Acura chose to leave untouched was the TL's double-wishbone front and multilink rear suspension — damping, spring rates and antiroll bars remain identical to the specs of the 2011 model. Acura also ditched the summer tire option for the SH-AWD model due to the fact that almost no one (1 percent, we're told) opted for the grippier rubber.
Without the summer tires, the TL SH-AWD has lost some of its phenomenal, almost unfair handling abilities. But the TL in general (especially the SH-AWD, with its stiffer setup) still has the same spot-on suspension tuning. TLs with all-wheel drive put the power down with the utmost precision thanks to a torque-vectoring rear differential. The lighter front-drive model (3,726 pounds vs. 3,968), on the other hand, has a penchant for spinning its front tires when you exit tight turns with the throttle to the floor.
Although the 2012 Acura TL SH-AWD runs out of grip sooner without its stickier summer tires, it still has the same wonderfully competent and stable chassis that makes it a sport-sedan stalwart. Yes, the ride of the non-adjustable suspension is firm and can be jiggly on bumpy back roads, but the car's precision makes it worth any minor amount of harshness.
About the only gripe is the TL's electric power steering. It delivers more assist than we would like, but some of that can be forgiven since it's transmitted through a thick-rimmed, leather-wrapped steering wheel that feels great in your hands.
Only Fix What's Broken
Since the main focus of the 2012 Acura TL's redesign was the car's exterior, Acura pretty much left the already excellent interior intact. The minor updates include new platinum plating on the center stack and inner door handles, along with optional ventilation for the TL's wide, yet laterally supportive front seats. Other changes include a dedicated phone button on the center stack and active phone pairing to automatically locate Bluetooth devices.
The 2012 Acura TL, which was designed at the company's California studio and is built in Marysville, Ohio, goes on sale March 18. The TL front-driver starts at $36,465, with the SH-AWD beginning at $40,015 (prices include $860 destination), $300 increases for both models. The SH-AWD with a six-speed manual costs $43,745, the higher sticker due to the fact that it's offered only with the Technology package.
Even with the price increases, the TL is still quite a value compared to most German sport sedans. Dynamically, the 2012 Acura TL is the same stirring-to-drive performance sedan as before, only now with an extra gear and improved fuel economy. Not bad for a car with so much horsepower and a sizable interior.
And although Acura won't come right out and say it screwed up the styling the first time around, the significant exterior reworking of this version is about as much of an admission of guilt as you're ever going to get.
It was a smart move. The TL is too good of a sedan to get overlooked because of some overzealous styling. The changes effectively addressed the issue, so now Acura no longer has any excuses. We doubt it will need any.
Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored press event to facilitate this report.