Thursday, December 26, 2013

Test Drive: 2014 Acura TL SH-AWD 6MT

For our final test drive of the year, I opted to select a car from a brand that is near and dear to my heart. As a long time owner of Acura cars, my 2012 TSX being the fifth Acura I have personally owned, I have always followed the brand closely and frequently return to them when I am seeking a starting point when searching for a new car. Therefore, you can imagine my disappointment when the initial version of the 4th generation Acura TL was released, the prominent beak overshadowing all other design aspects of the car, which carried a muscular profile that nobody cared about because of that grille. For 2012, Acura made a course correction and toned down the styling of the TL for its mid-model year change, resulting in a rather more conventional, but significantly more handsome version of the now signature Acura look. It had been a while since I had taken the 4th generation TL out for a spin and I had yet to drive the 6-speed manual transmission version with Acura's utterly brilliant super handling all wheel drive (SH-AWD) system.

It is hard not to draw comparisons of this car with the 3rd generation TL Type-S that I owned back in 2008. That car had the strongest motor in the TL line-up at the time, putting out a claimed 286-hp to the front wheels and, if you had the manual transmission (which of course I did), a limited slip differential. That car is still, to me, the one that got away and I regret ever agreeing to sell it. Despite being FWD, it handled surprisingly well and was extraordinarily well balanced between comfort, performance, luxury, reliability, and cost. Coming into my test of the 2014 TL, I was expecting Acura to deliver once again on this formula, given its past success, but I would leave feeling more than a little let down.

Since I already mentioned the styling, I will leave that subject alone, except to say that it is still polarizing, though much less so now than when the car was first introduced. However, step inside and it is unfortunately apparent that some corners had to be cut in order for Acura to keep the technology level high on this car, but maintain the price tag. The design itself is actually quite good, with well laid out controls, comfortable seat, and convenient storage abound. Visibility is excellent and at no point did I feel like I was unable to comfortably see my surroundings. It was really the use of materials that I was disappointed with, especially following my recent test drive of the S4. My former TL Type-S, a 2008 model, had its fair share of plastic, but none of it was quite so prominently on display as it is in this updated 2014 car. In fact, much of what used to be covered in a textured aluminumized plastic insert was now a dark reflective gray plastic that does a poor job trying to pass as metal. The dash materials, while certainly soft to the touch, had the same texture as the dash in my TSX. That texture just fails to pass off as anything other than plastic and the lack of any interesting details, such as stitching, made the large expanse of plastic feel somehow cheaper. If there is one area that I am glad Acura poured serious money into for its newly released RLX and MDX models, it is that the interior materials once again look and feel as premium as they should for the price point.

Where I have no complaints, however, is in the drive train. Acura's excellent J-series V6, coming in at 3.7L in this application, and produces a slightly underwhelming 305-hp. While on paper, the engine seems like it will easily be outrun by the competition in this class, the TL holds its own in part because Acura has done such a tremendous job on the overall character of the engine. During my time with the TL, I never once felt like there was a lack of power, although it also never quite blew me away, either. It does, however, deliver a syrupy smooth wave of motive force when called upon and accompanies it with a beautiful mechanical symphony from under hood. Somehow, Acura does manage to make one of the best sounding motors, even if it is down a bit on power compared to its rivals. One suggestion would be for Acura to find a way to get a slightly more aggressive exhaust note, especially on the performance model of the line-up. Even if it is not the fastest car, nothing says it cannot sound like it has a little more grunt.

Mated to that excellent V6 is the equally excellent 6-speed manual transmission. In this application, the clutch is well-weighted, though the feedback could stand to be a little less stifled. The shifter slots smoothly into each gear although I could do with just a touch shorter shift throw. The action is less precise than the rifle-bolt sharpness of the ILX 6-speed manual, but is still one of the top manual transmissions in this class.

Steering, however, is not as lively as I would like in a car with such performance potential. The electronic power steering offers good accuracy, but could stand to be weightier to compensate for the lack of feel. I was shocked to find that getting back into my TSX, the steering action actually felt stiffer and offers a greater level of feel and precision than the steering in the much larger and much more expensive TL.

Out on the road, which still had a thin layer of salt, sand, and frozen snow on it, I had a chance to really press the car in conditions that tested the AWD system's ability to not only maintain traction, but really take this two-ton car and make it handle like something significantly smaller and lighter. The beauty of Acura's SH-AWD system is just how seamlessly it is able to transition between powering only the wheels with traction to forcing nearly all power to the outside rear wheel to help the car rotate in a corner. There is still a bit of initial understeer as the TL is a nose-heavy car, but almost as soon as the understeer rears its ugly head, it disappears as the power is shifted to induce rotation and the car tracks as if on rails through any corner. However, you must stay on the power in order for things to work since the system is only able to distribute the power when torque is being applied from the motor. That can lead to some pretty seriously crazy moments if you are looking to push the car hard and is a great way to scare your passengers half to death. Ultimately, what it boils down to is an AWD car that is incredibly throttle steerable.

That trick AWD system is attached to a very stiff chassis by a traditional double-wishbone front and multi-link rear suspension. The spring rates and dampers are well tuned to offer both great control and a ride that is sporty without being harsh. There are no fancy electronically adjustable dampers here so everything has to be done right and, for the most part, Acura has gotten it to where the greatest number of buyers will accept the compromise. However, at the end of the day, it is still a compromise and with competitors moving more towards electronically adjustable damping, Acura needs to give that some serious thought on future generations of this car.

As my time with the TL SH-AWD drew to a close, I could not help feeling just a bit let down by some of the choices that Acura chose to make with this car, especially as compared with how good the third generation TL Type-S was. Being long-time Acura owners, my family has often been able to overlook some of the shortcomings in order to embrace what have generally been excellent cars and while empirically, the TL is a very good car, it simply lacks some of the driving character of its predecessor and tries to replace that with technology and that very polarizing look. With the news that our first look at the 2015 TLX is only weeks away, and the fact that we just acquired two very handsome new Acuras to replace ones we already had in our long-term fleet, I hold out hope that the mistakes in this fourth generation car will be addressed and the new TLX will restore Acura's sedans to their glory days from just a decade ago.

Special thanks to the team at Bernardi Acura of Boston for providing the vehicle for this test drive and the lively banter on the general state of the Acura brand.