By Charles Krome
Okay, the first thing you should know about the 2012 Acura TL—outside of the fact that it was provided to me by Acura with a full tank of gas—is that this is one good-looking car. Rarely have I gotten as many compliments on a vehicle’s appearance as I did with this one, and they came from a wide range of people, from middle schoolers to mothers-in-law.
That probably comes as a surprise to those who have only seen it in pictures, or perhaps can’t get the 2011 model, with its “power plenum” grille, out of their mind’s eye, but that’s what a few design tweaks can do. The grille on the 2012 TL still has a solid chrome upper piece as its main design cue, but the grille surround has been dramatically toned down so that, overall, the front of the car is much better integrated with the rest of the vehicle’s exterior. Plus, there are now visible, horizontal blades filling the bottom half of the grille, so you get less of a gaping mouth effect. At the same time, a horizontal crease has been added just underneath the grille, and the lower air inlets/light treatments get some subtle changes, mostly involving different accents. The result is a front view that is still dynamic and dramatic, but without being so far beyond the pale that it scares some potential owners away.
I also liked the overall sculpted appearance of the TL, which relies on some relatively subtle bodywork to make a strong impression. For example, although the sheet metal may seem bland initially, when you look closer, you can see the creases in the hood and top of the trunk lid, and the roof has a smooth, rounded ridge that flows nicely into the chrome accent strip. And by the way, I advise readers to look at the photo of how that chrome strip is finished as it runs down and “disappears” into the TL’s hood, and then look at the photos from my recent MKS review to see how (poorly) Lincoln handles the same detail.
My favorite exterior touch, however, is probably the way the rear windshield is inset into the C-pillars; I’ve seen this kind of thing on other vehicles before, but I still think it’s cool. My least favorite? The way the chief character line on the car’s flanks suddenly rounds off at the front of the car to echo the front wheel arch. From some angles, it ends up making the car look a bit like a “tadpole”-style motorcycle—the kind with two wheels up front and one in the back. I suppose this could be a way of emphasizing the TL’s front-wheel-drive setup, but that seems like an odd thing to bring attention to in a sport sedan.
But then again, the TL isn’t really that sporty, at least not without the extra 25 hp and hi-tech drive system you get in the SH-AWD models. The standard TL makes do with a 280-hp, 3.5-liter V6 that’s capable of 254 lb.-ft. of torque, and that’s just not a lot of power in the car’s segment, especially when it needs to haul around about 3,700 lbs. The slightly bigger 2011 Buick LaCrosse V6 has almost identical power numbers (280 hp/259 lb.-ft. of torque) and a curb weight north of two tons, but one thing the LaCrosse is not is a performance vehicle. And regardless, the 2012 V6 model will pack more than 300 hp.
Perhaps a better comparison can be found at Infiniti, since that brand puts the same kind of explicit focus on performance as Acura. But whether you match the TL up against the G37, which is roughly the same price, or the M37, which is approximately the same size, the Infinitis have a significant 48- to 50-hp advantage. Interestingly, the Infiniti sedans also have the edge when it comes to transmissions, since they boast an advanced seven-speed automatic setup and the TL sports a mere six cogs.
Now, Acura makes a lot of its transmission—another new feature for the 2012 TL—but I found it both difficult to use and surprisingly rough. The paddle shifters were mounted too close to the back of the steering wheel for my tastes, and the gear changes, especially when the car was in “Sport” mode, were quite clunky. I really felt I could have done better myself.
The powertrain is EPA-certified to deliver 20 mpg city/29 mpg highway, and I got just over 20 mpg. The driver information center includes real-time feedback on fuel-efficiency, which helped—although I did turn that function off when it showed I was getting too close to the teens during some driving.
And I did a fair amount of driving because, Acura’s extensive efforts to provide an athletic, responsive, yet comfortable driving experience paid off with excellent reflexes and a very planted feel, even/especially during cornering. The electric power-assisted steering was firm and natural, and the steering wheel itself felt like an aftermarket piece, but in a good way. Torque steer was very very minimal, although that was partly as a result of the engine’s relatively underwhelming torque output, and if anything, the TL’s handling was a bit too controlled. But again, that goes back to the TL’s not-exactly-eye-popping power levels. And if I seem to be overly focused on the car’s performance, it’s only because Acura is as well. The brand touts the TL as “Aggression in its most elegant” form, and while there’s much elegance in evidence, there’s not much in the way of aggression. Acceleration isn’t lacking, but it’s delivered as a more of a sustained force then a sudden shove in the back.
I suppose you could say the interior of the TL was quite aggressively designed. The materials are nice, and Acura uses what I have to call high-quality plastics in a way that makes you forget/not care that they’re plastic. And it lets Acura use a variety of curved/carved shapes that give the cabin a well-crafted appearance but that also, in places like where the front passenger door meets the dash, get a perhaps a bit too busy. The only letdown was the steering column and that’s not the kind of thing most folks will notice—but it does bring me to a unique (as far as I know) feature in the TL. Right between the steering column and the push-button start, there’s a little niche built into the dash, and I just could not figure out what is was. Finally, I even had to break down and look in the owner’s manual. It turns out that the keyfob fits right in there, which solves a problem I often have with push-button-start vehicles. When I get out of the car and I want to lock up, I can never remember in which pocket the dang thing is. Acura solves the problem quite ingeniously, by allowing you to just sort of plug the fob in right there on the dash before you start the TL, so when you stop the car, it’s right there. That got me thinking that perhaps the company could take the next logical step and introduce some kind of little device that you carry around that you have to plug into the dash somewhere to start the car, and you can eliminate the push-button system entirely. I’ve even got a name for this device: A “key.”
Which brings me to the state of Acura technology in general. As a brand that builds its reputation on engineering and tech prowess, I set the bar somewhat high in the TL, and for the most part, it delivered. In fact, the sole disappointment technology-wise was the TL’s voice-recognition functionality, which was neither as accurate nor as “natural” as Ford’s.
The blind-spot alert system, on the other hand, was very accurate; I’d go as far as to call it the best I’ve experienced, particularly when I take into account where the actual warning is given. In most vehicles I’ve driven with blind-spot systems, the alert comes in the form of a light integrated into the side-view mirrors. In the TL, the light-up alert is built into the A-pillar. I found it gave me a better, quicker sense of other vehicles around me, because I could see the driver’s side alert in my peripheral vision when I was looking straight ahead, and I didn’t have to turn my head as far to the right to see the passenger’s side alert. It truly made for a noticeable difference. The TL’s own side mirrors were covered in some sort of glare-reducing cool-blue finish.
The ELS surround-sound audio system was excellent, and I appreciated that the USB port was mounted on its own little cord in the center storage console. It’s much easier to connect devices when the connection is right there in front of you instead of deep inside the console where you can’t see it. The TL also had the requisite comfort/convenience technologies like heated/vented seats, an auto-dimming rearview mirror, sunroof, full nav setup, etc., etc.
The 2012 Acura TL Advance comes in at $41,535, and that bumps up to $42,420 after destination and handling charges are factored in, which puts it on it the pricey side of the segment. But it does offer some compelling technologies, with an equally compelling case for some folks as a sophisticated sport sedan with an effective, distinctive design.