The Acura TL SH-AWD model's 3.7-liter V6 makes a throaty grumble at start-up; its exhaust system is carefully tuned to sound more authoritative and more like a V8. The gear selector is a simple PRNDS, with no sidetrack for making individual +/- gear selections. To the contrary, as you get under way, a simple flip of the paddle shifters automatically overrides the usual automatic-transmission shift map, immediately giving you the gear you need. That is as it should be in a performance sedan.
Throttle response is immediate and forceful. At normal cruising throttle, the drivetrain is pleasantly quiet, but the minute you tromp down on the throttle, you're reminded that this car is determined, if you are, to go very fast.
Snugly tucked into the well-fitted seat, feeling very much in control, it's natural to exercise this engine, transmission and suspension vigorously. And the more you do so, the more clearly you recognize that wringing out this agile and powerful car might best be done on a racetrack. Acura claims an extremely grippy 0.97g of lateral acceleration on the skidpad, and in real-world driving, the TL's cornering force and stability are impressive.
The big plus of our test TL was its brand-new and oddly named SH-AWD, which stands for the gee-whiz-sounding Super Handling All-Wheel Drive. We had occasion to test the Acura in some raw early-spring Northeast inclemency, a mix of rain and sleet that didn't test the system's hard-core snow-handling capability but nonetheless proved beyond doubt its high competence in similarly demanding conditions. Acura is proud not only of the system's snow traction but of its all-wheel-drive system's vector-guiding directional stability in any kind of slide-inducing conditions.
Driven up to the limit on wet, slippery roads, the SH-AWD guided us with confidence-inspiring surefootedness. The system automatically delivers power to whichever wheel can help most in delivering control and driving the TL forward on its course. This Super Handling drive system is so good that it's tempting to begin thinking you're some kind of foul-weather driving phenomenon. The phenomenon isn't you; it's SH-AWD.
The other standout quality of the Acura TL is its firm, excellent steering feel. It allows you to accurately feel everything that's happening on the road during hard driving. Yet it also lets you drive comfortably at more relaxed speeds, keeping you properly informed whenever something on the road surface demands closer attention. First class.
The sharpened feel of the TL's steering and its alert ride, however, have a consequence that's not quite as happy. The TL ride is tuned to give the driver all necessary road information, and provided the road you're on is in the Sun Belt and billiard-table smooth, the news is all good. Driven on rougher roads caused by winter and frost heaves, however, the TL's ride is sharp and choppy. Conceding Acura's unquestioned ability to produce a superb-handling sporty sedan, the TL misses the real-world ride-quality compromise that will be best for many wintery parts of the U.S. This is in the purist sense an agile, fine-handling car, perhaps just a hair too fine. It could prophet from a little of the Europeans' finely calculated ride compliance; everyone, even the best of us, comes upon a rough road from time to time.
As a near-luxury performance sedan, the Acura TL is well priced and inviting. Its engineering is excellent, and the experience of driving it is very good. But if all-wheel-drive peak performance is the buyer's motive, for only about $5000 more than our test SH-AWD Advance, an Audi S4 sedan, the definitive performance sedan, delivers the kind of visceral brilliance the Acura only hints at. That is another way of saying, the TL is properly priced. If getting a lot for less money is the measure, the Acura will continue to attract masses of buyers. It is a quality sedan of very great capabilities, delivering that little bit extra many buyers crave. And with good EPA figures of 18/26 mpg (the Audi S4 gets 18/27 mpg), our test car is well situated in the market during a time of rising fuel prices.