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2012 Acura TL: Better than ever, and that's saying something

Refined styling and six-speed automatic transmission improves already admirable midsize sedan
by: Honda Motor Company Acura has toned the styling down slightly but upgraded the automatic transmission to a six-speed on the 2012 TL.

People have bought plenty of ugly cars over the years, including Ford Pintos, AMC Gremlins and Pacers, and just about everything designed by Chrysler in the 1960s.

But when Acura redesigned the midsize TL sedan in 2009, many automotive writers howled about its looks, especially the large silver upper grill. All but lost in the commotion was the fact that the TL is among the best affordable luxury sport sedans in the world - well made, quick, comfortable and responsive, especially when equipped with the company's Super Handling All Wheel Drive system.

Instead, a large number of the reviews were obsessed with the car's grill, even though every current Lincoln has a far larger one.

So now Acura has refined the styling of the TL and made the grill a little smaller. And guess what? Many reviewers are spending way too much time saying how much better they think it looks. Almost overlooked in the fuss is the real news - Acura has changed the automatic transmission from a five-speed to a six-speed, making the TL even better than it was before.

Who would have thought when Honda introduced its upscale Acura brand in America in 1986 that it would one day compete against the best cars in the world, including those from Audi, BMW and Mercedes. Like the Infiniti line from Nissan and the Lexus line from Toyota, the early cars were a step up from those produced by their parent companies but hardly earth shaking. In fact, one early Acura, the Legend, was produced jointly with Austin Rover and suffered from some of the same reliability problems that plagued all British cars back then.

But Acura kept introducing better and better models and by the early 2000s they had to be taken seriously. Most Acura models offered a surprisingly good level of performance, including the RDX crossover that could be bought with a turbocharged inline four-cylinder engine and SH-AWD. But the sedans began garnering the best reviews, including both the TL and larger RL.

As far as the styling goes, most Acura models have always been more angular than those from Infiniti and Lexus. Company designers called the look 'Keen Edge Dynamic' and began pushing its limits even more in 2007. The 'Power Plenum' upper grill included on the 2009 TL was an extension of this design theme, even though many reviewers seemed to think it came out of nowhere. The funny thing is, now that the grill is a little smaller, they don't seem to notice the rest of the car is more angular than ever before. Go figure.

The interior of the new TL is largely unchanged. It is still a contemporary blend of high-quality materials, large gauges and mostly push button controls. Fortunately, unlike some competitors, the buttons are reasonably large and well-labeled, reducing the need for the driver to take his or her eyes off the road to adjust the temperature or change the stereo.

As befits a car with a sporty lineage, the front bucket seats are well bolstered and supportive, yet comfortable enough for long trips. The thick leather-wrapped steering wheel and automatic transmission shift lever in our test model reinforces the image, although the six-speed manual would have been even better.

On the road, the 2012 TL is a pleasure to drive. Everything from the engine to the transmission to the steering and the suspension comes together in a perfectly balanced mix. Two-wheel-drive versions can be bought with the 3.5-liter V6 that produces 280 horsepower. Our test model included the all-wheel-drive system that is only available with the 305 horsepower 3.7-liter V6 engine. It was very easy to drive slowly around town but came alive with just a little encouragement, scooting quickly up to freeway speeds and beyond. The grip was tremendous on curves and through sharp corners, making spirited driving a breeze.

Some might find the suspension in the SH-AWD a little stiff. If so, the two-wheel-drive version offers a softer ride and, even though the engine is down 25 ponies, plenty of power for everyday driving. The EPA estimated 29 mpg is significantly better than the 3.7-liter V6, which is rated at 21 mpg, too.

The two-wheel-drive TL starts at a very reasonable $35,605 with the least expensive SH-AWD version beginning at $3,550 more. Our test model was equipped with Tech and Advance packages that boosted the price to $45,945, which is still below comparably equipped European sport sedans.

Facts and figures

• Model: 2012 TL SH-AWD.

• Manufacturer: Acura.

• Class: Midsize car.

• Layout: Front engine, front or all-wheel-drive.

• Style: Four door sedan.

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

• Transmission: Six-speed manual; six-speed automatic with manual shift mode (steering wheel mounted pedals).

• EPA estimated city/highway mileage: 18/26 (as tested).

• Price: Beginning at around $40,015 ($45,945 as tested).