In its prior incarnation, the grille was hideously toy-like. And the car, as a whole, lacked the sort of styling panache buyers of luxury sport sedans demand when they lay down $40,000-plus.
But the Acura TL for 2012 has gone under the knife and gotten a Heidi Montag makeover to enhance its physique and overall allure. Now in its fourth generation, the TL has been plumped to slightly larger proportions and pumped up under the hood.
Honda Motor Co.'s luxury marquee has put a lot of effort into finessing its bestselling sedan, upgrading its style, performance and fuel economy in recognition of the significance of the entry-level premium vehicle segment.
This highly competitive category is expected to grow at a rate of almost 6% annually through 2016, so Acura has put pedal to metal.
I was happy to follow suit as I tested the most performance-oriented incarnation of the mid-size sedan: the super-handling, all-wheel-drive version, or SH-AWD, with the 3.7-liter V-6 — the most powerful engine ever used on an Acura.
For tearing up the deliciously curvy Arroyo Seco Parkway on my morning commute along the vintage 110 Freeway, Acura is not the first brand that comes to mind. But few things are better than a vehicle that defies expectation, and the TL SH-AWD did just that.
Outfitted with a six-speed manual transmission, it accelerates quickly and shifts smoothly without a lot of leg and hand effort. Even better, its 18-inch wheels and torque-vectoring all-wheel drive kept the car planted as I performed my usual morning ritual: wheeling out of a ridiculously short 90-degree entrance ramp to join traffic traveling at 70 miles per hour, and blissfully driving along for a mere two miles before traffic came to a dead stop.
That’s when the creature comforts come into play — 10-speaker surround sound stereo, voice-controlled navigation, anything to distract from the torture of the remaining commute.
For the 2012 TL, Acura has upgraded its onboard technology. Particularly pleasing is the larger, 8-inch monitor holding court in the center of the dash.
Backlit with LEDs, the screen is bright and HDTV crisp. I’ve always found the navigation system on Acuras intuitive and easy to use. The enhanced color makes it more aesthetically appealing and easy to read.
The number of songs drivers can store on the car’s new 60-gigabyte hard drive has increased to 3,500. The information about those songs has also been enhanced with Bluetooth audio that can access songs and artists when drivers speak their names.
When the stereo fades, drivers probably will notice how calming and quiet it is in the TL’s well-appointed cabin with its soft, stitched leather seats and LED mood lighting.
Many of the criticisms of the prior-generation TL weren’t so much about its interior but exterior style, which Acura has attempted to remedy with a more sculptured and sophisticated silhouette.
The 2012 model is much improved, especially its front end. The plastic-looking grille has been refined and diminished so it’s less distracting. And the rear has a pleasing crease that’s similar, if inverse, to the elegant Cadillac CTS.
But overall, its looks continue to lack drama and excitement. There’s a disconnect between the satisfying and enhanced performance under the hood and its overall appearance, which points to this vehicle’s biggest flaw.
That flaw isn’t so much the car but the market. It’s a lot of car for the money, but dollar for dollar in a value-oriented marketplace, the TL, premium as its amenities are, doesn’t accord the same amount of style or status as, say, a Mercedes-Benz C-class.
This model is a high-functioning prestige product. If only Acura itself had as much prestige, considering the money spent.