2010 Acura TL SH-AWD: World-class road car

Revised sedan blends sportiness, luxury in sophisticated package
by: JAIME VALDEZ, Aggressive styling is surpassed by stunning performance of new sports  

I never realized how many avid Acura fans there were until the 2010 TL arrived for a test drive.

Several times after parking it, people walked up to me and asked if it was the 2010 model. They knew it had the larger and more powerful 3.7-liter V6 engine, and were impressed it was equipped with a six-speed manual transmission and the company's Super Handling All Wheel Drive system - the first time a manual is available with SH-AWD in any Acura.

It only took a few days to understand why Acura has attracted such a loyal following, and why they are so looking forward to the new TL. Put simply, it is an incredibly well-balanced driving machine. The 305-horsepower engine is docile around town but fearsome under heavy acceleration. The transmission shifts smoothly and is much more satisfying than manual modes in automatics. And the SH-AWD kept the car glued to road, even during heavy rains.

The interior driving environmental was also top-notch. The leather seats were comfortable and supportive, the gauges were big and readable, the center console was well designed, and the controls were logically laid out and easy to reach. The materials were also first rate, including the aluminum mesh trim pieces where wood accents are usually found.

On the road, the TL SH-AWD was solid and quiet. The suspension easily absorbed most surface imperfections, but always felt taut, not flacid.

Some reviewers have criticized the exterior, which features a blunt nose, bulging fenders and tapered rear end. All of the people who stopped us liked the design, however. Perhaps it was because the black paint set off the chrome parts so well.

The largest shortcoming in a week of driving was an intermittent but noticeable pulling on the steering wheel. Unlike normal torque steer, it was not pronounced under heavy acceleration. Instead, it seemed to surface occasionally under deceleration or when the clutch was depressed under moderate acceleration. It was more surprising than alarming, and losing control was never an issue.

No one was really sure what to think when the Big Three Japanese car companies introduced their performance-luxury brands in America in the 1980s - Honda's Acura, Nissan's Infinity and Toyota's Lexus nameplates. In fact, some of the early models seemed little more than slightly upgraded versions of existing models by the parent companies - more refined, maybe, but hardly worth the higher price. (Anyone still remember the early version of the Acura Legend? Not exactly a collector car these days.)

But as time went on, the quality of the new offerings gradually improved to the point where they all rival at least the lower-priced equivalent offerings by the German automakers. In fact, especially among younger buyers, the Japanese brands now have more cache than the German ones - something that Audi, BMW and Mercedes-Benz all seem to be acknowledging by pitching their newer models at younger buyers.

The 2010 TL SH-AWD demonstrates just how far Acura has come in less than two decades. It easily rivals the Mercedes C-Class in fit, finish and performance, yet costs thousands less when similarly equipped. Although part of the cost difference is probably related to differences between the values of the currencies, the result is a competitive advantage for Acura, at least among cost-conscious buyers.

Facts and figures

• Model: 2010 TL.

• Manufacturer: Acura.

• Class: midsize.

• Layout: Front engine, front or all-wheel-drive (as tested).

• Style: four-door, five passenger sedan.

• Engines: 2.7-liter SOHC 24-valve V6 (305 hp, 273 lb-ft.)

• Transmissions: 5-speed automatic; 6-speed manual (as tested).

• EPA estimated city/highway mileage: 17/25 (as tested).

• Price: Beginning at approximately $35,000 (as tested $44,195).