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2012 Acura TL SH-AWD TECH: Midsize sport sedan impresses with performance

Changes include smaller grill, higher mileage
by: ACURA MOTOR CO., Styling refinements are expected to increase the appeal of the 2012 Acura TL.

Am I the only car writer who liked the big Acura grills in recent years, including the one on the midsize TL sedan?

Practically all the reviews of the 2012 TL begin by praising Acura for shrinking the grill and making it more flush with the front end. The previous grill is routinely dismissed as a stainless steel beak or probiscus that marred the TL's otherwise refined lines.

Well, in my opinion, so many cars look alike these days that the grills are just about the only way you can tell them apart at a glance. This has been especially true in the upscale Acura, Infinity and Lexus lines, where even the corporate badges look the same. I appreciated Acura's attempt at a bolder identity. Ironically, even as Acura is going more conservative, Lexus is adopting edgier styling to emphasize its growing emphasis on performance.

But at least everything else about the TL stayed the same, meaning it is still one of the best affordable luxury sport sedans on the planet. It still includes a choice between the well-balanced, basic 3.5-liter V6 model and the sportier Super Handling All Wheel Drive version that features the more powerful 3.7-liter V6. Both are available with either a six-speed manual or six-speed automatic transmission, which means the TL SH-AWD is one of the few all-wheel-drive sedans that can be bought with a manual gearbox these days.

My test 2012 TL SH-AWD TECH came with the manual transmission, which is a joy to use. Shifts are light and precise, and with 305 horsepower and 273 foot pounds of torque on tap, flexibility is the operative word here. Drivers can either race up and down on the gears on open roads or get around just fine in town with only minimal shifting.

The SH-AWD system works magic by transferring power both from the front to the rear and from side to side as needed. For the first few miles, the constant adjustments seemed just a little intrusive, but that feeling quickly disappeared once it became clear how stable the TL remains under different driving conditions. Some mid-May showers reminded me of the benefits of AWD on wet roads, at least for those drivers that aren't content to postpone all the fun until perfectly dry conditions.

The TL is one of those cars that pushes the boundaries between midsize and what passes for full-size these days. It is larger than expected on the inside, providing plenty of leg, shoulder and head room, even with the sunroof. Quality is first rate, with the leather seats and trim styled for younger buyers who are not yet ready for recliners. The guages are appropriately race oriented and the thick, leather-wrapped steering wheel is all business. Like all Acuras, the dash still has too many buttons, but at least they are neatly arranged and well marked.

The optional TECH packages includes what is now becoming the expected array of electronic goodies, including a navigation system, rear view camera, voice activiated everything and connections for personal entertainment and communicaion devices. The upgraded stereo made everything sound good, too.

The exterior restyling not only reduced the appearance of the front grill but shrunk the rear spoiler, too. Although the changes may please the citics, the result is a less distinctive looking car. There's nothing to dislike about the lines, but not a lot to get excitied about, either. But that's a small price to pay for such an otherwise competitive car.

Just about the only issue arose just before the test week started. By coincidence, a series of refinery closures pushed gas prices in the region up 20 cents a gallon while they were falling everywhere else in the country. I normally look forward to testing cars with the biggest engines because they're the most fun, and there's not really much mileage difference between the 3.5-liter V6 and 3.7-liter V6 versions of the TL. And milege is up slightly this year with both of them.

But it made me wonder what happened to all those high performance, super fuel-efficient smaller engines we were promised the last time gas prices spiked. Sure, some subcompact and compact cars offer turbocharged four cylinder engines these days. But when it comes to bigger cars - and especially the luxury ones - traditional V6 and even V8 engines still seem to be the norm. At least the 2012 Acura TL SH-AWD TECH has one worth owning.

Facts and figures

• Model: 2012 TL SH-AWD TECH.

• Manufacturer: Acura.

• Class: Midsize sedan.

• Layout: Front-motor, front and all-wheel-drive

• Styles: Four-door sedan.

• Engines: 3.5-liter V6 (280 hp, 254 ft-lbs); 3.7-liter V6 (305 hp, 273 ft-lbs).

• Transmissions: Six-speed manual; six-speed automatic.

• EPA estimated city/highway mileage: 17/20, 18/21 and 20/29 and 22/32, depending on drivetrain combination.

• Prices: Starting around $35,705 ($43,770 as tested).