Acura showcased the RL in 2005 as a tech powerhouse, introducing innovations such as live traffic in the navigation system and DVD audio, but over the intervening years that technology became run-of-the-mill. Now Acura is back with a whole new tech package in the 2009 Acura TL SH-AWD, building on the advances we saw in the new Acura TSX. The TL SH-AWD is the upper end of a bifurcated TL line-up with two cars differentiated by drive train and suspension, representing a new direction for Acura.
With the new TL SH-AWD and standard TL, Acura restyled the exterior of its midrange luxury sedan, taking the controversial step of accentuating the beak on the grille. The belt-line also takes on prominence while the fenders get smoothed into the body, mimicking BMW's flame surfacing. The TL SH-AWD gets a trunk lip spoiler, a bigger engine, and power to all wheels, making it the sporting brother of the pair, while the standard TL remains a comfortable commuter car. Both cars meet, if not surpass, today's cabin tech cutting edge.
Test the tech: Scenic drive
A new feature of the navigation system that really intrigued us is called Scenic road information, buried under a menu labeled Info. Choose it, and you will see the states listed in alphabetical order, showing the number of scenic roads under each. To test this feature, we chose California, then picked the closest scenic road to San Francisco, labeled as Big Sur Coast Highway, and set it as our destination. The navigation system said it was 99 miles away, so we figured we were in for a pleasant half day's drive.
As we got rolling down the freeway, the navigation system suddenly started showing that our destination was 199 miles away. This change was odd, but we had all day. During the drive time, we tested out the audio quality by plugging in a USB drive full of MP3s to a port in the console that can also be used for iPods. This stereo was the upgraded ELS premium system with 10 speakers, including a subwoofer, centerfill, and two rear surround speakers on the rear deck, and a 440-watt amp. This system is designed for surround sound, and delivers a really immersive experience in the car. As we've found with ELS systems in other Acuras, it seemed to work best with acoustic music, as bass is underemphasized. Fortunately, you can turn up the sub, eking a little more thump out of it. The system is also pretty good on clarity, making it possible to hear individual instruments pretty well.
As we continued on our drive, listening to music, traffic started to slow, so we used the navigation system to check for nearby incidents. Sure enough, there was an accident a quarter mile ahead. The navigation system gave us the option of detouring around it, but we would have appreciated a more proactive response from the system, warning us before we got caught in traffic. We weren't slowed for too long, though, and continued on our route. The navigation system suddenly told us it made a change to our route, lopping off about 70 miles. Strange, but we didn't mind cutting down on our driving time.
After a while, we were driving down the incredibly scenic Highway 1, south on the coast, but still not at the destination set in the navigation system. We enjoyed the coast-scape while gritting our teeth at slower tourists on the road until we hit the scenic road destination. And that was it. We had hoped that the scenic road information would be a series of waypoints laying out some really phenomenal drive, but instead it just plunked us about halfway down what was truly a magnificent road. We like the concept, but think this feature could use a little more work.
In the cabin
The interior fit and finish in Acuras has been very good over the last five years, and none of that lacks in the 2009 TL SH-AWD. The materials all feel good to the touch, and everything seems solid. But Acura has never really done luxury, so expect a lot of plastics and synthetic materials in the TL SH-AWD. For a touch of sportiness, the engine start button is metallic red, making it stand out from the rest of the interior.
The TL SH-AWD's cabin tech interface has been improved a bit from earlier models. Although it uses the same big multifunction knob in the middle of the stack, the buttons around it have been reconfigured, making the layout a little more logical. The onscreen interface has also been redesigned, but more for improved aesthetics than usability. There are still plenty of buttons all over the steering wheel and instrument panel, but Acura has cleaned them up somewhat. The voice command system is also very usable, with commands such as, "What time is it?" or "What's playing?" that tells you the current audio track, along with the usual navigation and audio commands. Strangely, voice command didn't seem available for the Bluetooth cell phone integration.
We're impressed by the hard-drive-based navigation system, the first in an Acura. It's easy to enter addresses, and there are plenty of options for destinations, including a very full points-of-interest database. Traffic reporting is built in, with data delivered by XM NavTraffic. The system does dynamically route around bad traffic, but not specific traffic incidents, as we found out while testing the Scenic road information feature. Weather reporting is also built into the navigation system, similar to what we saw in our review of the TSX.