For the introduction of Acura's updated 2009 TL model, the company invited a number of automotive journalists to drive the car over some excellent roads in Marin, just north of San Francisco. Actually, we would be driving two very different cars, as Acura split the TL between a standard and performance version. The latter isn't the TL-S from past model years, but an all-wheel-drive version that Acura felt it had to develop because of bias against front-wheel-drive cars amongst enthusiasts, which all previous TLs had been. This performance-oriented TL is called the TL SH-AWD, and along with Acura's all-wheel-drive system gets a bigger engine than the standard TL. We got to drive both cars on some of our favorite roads, going up the coast on Highway 1, then coming back down on a series of winding country roads.
On the first leg of the trip we drove the 2009 Acura TL, and one of the first things we noted were the cleaned up buttons on the steering wheel. Although still a fairly cluttered steering wheel, Acura fixed one thing we've been complaining about in our reviews, that there are two sets of voice command buttons, one for the phone system and one for all the other car systems. Now Acura has integrated its voice command so there are only one set of buttons, lessening that confusion. Buttons on the instrument panel have been cleaned up a little, as well, although it still has quite a few. Better than all that is the high-resolution LCD, with much better-looking maps stored on a hard drive, putting Acura back on par with its car tech competitors. This new navigation system shows XM NavTraffic, which it did before, and now includes weather, and even a Doppler radar map of the country. Of course, a hard-drive-based navigation system means room for music storage, which complements the TL's iPod integration and streaming Bluetooth capability. These are some very nice tech additions.
Unfortunately, our local transit authority doesn't report traffic conditions on Highway 1, so we had to cruise slowly behind all the tourist traffic for this first leg. But that gave us a chance to note how quietly and smoothly the car drove. Acura took pains to insulate the cabin from exterior noise, even using thicker glass than on previous models, and those efforts pay off. The company also worked on the car's five-speed automatic transmission, putting in rev-matching for smoother shifts. The gear bands also felt wider than in previous TLs we've driven. When we had a chance to punch the gas, the TL's 3.5-liter V-6 moved us forward at a good pace, but didn't make a lot of noise about it, again keeping with its refined character and keeping torque steer under control.
It wasn't until we drove the TL SH-AWD that we were rewarded with a nice engine growl when we hit the gas. The TL SH-AWD uses a 3.7-liter V-6, giving it more power than the standard TL plus a more advanced VTEC system. This 3.7-liter V-6 generates 305 horsepower at 6,200rpm and 273 pound-feet of torque at 5,000rpm. SH-AWD stands for Super Handling All-Wheel-Drive, a system Acura uses in its RL and RDX. This system generally biases torque to the front wheels, but shifts it to the rear wheels as needed, and can also move the rear torque between the left and right wheels. Because it has the same body as the standard TL, with its focus on noise reduction, the growling engine was muted from inside the cabin. But we could feel the increased acceleration. Although Acura makes a fantastic six-speed manual transmission, which we saw on the new TSX, the TL SH-AWD only comes with the five-speed automatic. We spent some time using the transmission's manual mode, selecting gears with the paddle shifters, and found we could rely on third gear for a lot of the twisties. We even got it up to 60 mph in second gear. Handling felt pretty good, although the car still has a somewhat suburban character. Both models use electric power steering to save fuel.
We came away from the drive thinking the standard TL would make a very good everyday car, and we particularly liked the upgraded cabin electronics. The TL SH-AWD proved a fun driver, but it wouldn't be our top choice for a sports car.
The 2009 Acura TL will be at dealers in September, and the TL SH-AWD will show up in November. See pictures of the car in our 2009 Acura TL gallery.