Five-Point Inspection: 2013 Acura TL SH-AWD

Mike Schlee
by Mike Schlee

The fourth generation Acura TL has had a hard time fitting in during its short lifetime. Sized closer to a mid-size luxury sedan, the TL is powered, optioned and priced more like a compact luxury sedan. In fact, at a base $36,030, the TL is actually cheaper than the BMW 328i.

With such a cheap entry fee, how is it that the TL still gets outsold by many compact and mid-size luxury sedans? Well, there are many factors like controversial looks and badge snobbery at play here. But not everyone cares about those factors and we wanted to find out for ourselves if this senior citizen is indeed a great luxury performance bargain, or just an also ran ready for a reinvention.

The cornerstone of the fourth generation TL was the addition of Acura’s Super-Handling All-Wheel Drive system. Sure it means upgrading to the larger engine, but the fact it can be had with an automatic or manual transmission means Acura earns some major kudos. The SH-AWD is a torque vectoring AWD system that will send power to whatever wheels the system deems necessary to provide optimal traction and cornering performance.

The system works well in slippery conditions like the rain. Hammer the gas mid-corner and the back-end will not slide in a lurid drift, but punch-out momentarily and cause a bit of a tail slap before falling back in line with the front wheels. It will get the car around the corner as fast as the tires can possibly grip in these loose conditions. Combined with a tight handling chassis, the car responds to inputs well from both the steering wheel and throttle pedal.

2014 Acura TL SH-AWD

Although a less powerful 3.5 L V6 is standard, all TLs featuring the SH-AWD system come equipped with a 3.7L SOHC V6 pumping out 305 hp and 273 lb-ft of torque. Even weighing in at 4,000 lbs., the engine motivates this car with decent urgency and becomes quite powerful once opened up.

The Achilles heel to this engine though is the lazy six-speed automatic. It takes a fortnight to change gears and when it finally does so, it is in an abrupt fashion like a spaced out teenager hastily answering a teacher’s question upon realising his name was being called for the past 2 minutes.

The TL’s sport mode improves things to a degree, but is really only holding gears longer to keep the engine in the sweet rpm range as opposed to actually quickening up the shifts. The transmission wants to drive very slow or very fast and has issues with more moderate driving. The good news is that there is a fantastic six-speed manual available for the TL SH-AWD and the automatic’s lackluster performance may be the best reason to get the manual.

When the TL was restyled for 2009, people were less than impressed by the wedgy, futuristic look this mid-size Acura was now clothed in. Drawing the most ire was the protruding plastic front beak grafted to the front grill. Looking like a bad aftermarket addition, some were turned off of the TL purely by this styling cue.

Last year Acura performed a mid-cycle refresh to correct this issue as well as other styling tweaks that saw the replacement of the bizarre semi-split dual exhaust tailpipes with more conventional rectangular units. As much as the revisions have improved the TL’s overall looks, it still is unique in this segment with styling that’s not for everyone.

The TL handles better than expected for a front-wheel drive based mid-size luxury car thanks to the SH-AWD and well calibrated suspension set-up. But to achieve this level of spottiness, ride comfort has paid the ultimate price. The suspension is far too stiff for this segment as every bump is not just felt, but presented to the passengers in vivid detail. The TL is a sports sedan; not a sports car and it should drive like it.

It shows how far things have come in this class when it comes to chassis designs as most of the TL’s competitors can match it in handling, but offer a suppler ride thanks to things like adaptive dampers and adjustable shocks. We expect the next generation TL should address this issue.

2014 Acura TL SH-AWD

The interior design of the TL may look a bit dated, but the materials are top quality. The leather used on the steering wheel and seating surfaces feels rich and smooth. The driver’s seat is comfortable, but after a three straight hours behind the wheel, the lack of thigh support becomes evident.

We appreciate actual buttons (rather than some complex new i-Drive system) on the interior, but the ones used here look out of date. Speaking of which, the navigation screen and non-color display radio are relics of a bygone era.

Priced at $46,405 after destination, the TL SH-AWD with Advance Package significantly undercuts the BMW 5 Series and Mercedes-Benz E-Class. Dated as the design may be, the TL still does offer bargain luxury compared to these more traditional mid-size vehicles.

Still, unless you’re in love with the design, it’s hard not to think that the next-gen TL will deliver the same sort of value, without any of the drawbacks.

Curious about buying a new TL? You can learn more about Acura’s lineup of cars in AutoGuide’s new car section. Or if you prefer, navigate directly to the latest version of the car that started it all by clicking here.

Discuss this story on our Acura Forum

Mike Schlee
Mike Schlee

A 20+ year industry veteran, Mike rejoins the AutoGuide team as the Managing Editor. He started his career at a young age working at dealerships, car rentals, and used car advertisers. He then found his true passion, automotive writing. After contributing to multiple websites for several years, he spent the next six years working at the head office of an automotive OEM, before returning back to the field he loves. He is a member of the Automobile Journalists Association of Canada (AJAC), and Midwest Automotive Media Association (MAMA). He's the recipient of a feature writing of the year award and multiple video of the year awards.

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