Don’t like it? Fine, but it’s your loss.
The 4th generation Acura TL debuted in 2008, for model year 2009, alongside the 2nd generation TSX. The styling, part of a gamble to make the car more of a viable competitor to Ze Germans, was, well, a radical departure from the previous two generations, which were subdued but handsome cars (though the 2nd generation, sold from 1999 to 2003, is mostly remembered for eating transmissions). The original 4th gen was, to put it mildly, ghastly. Acura introduced its infamous beak grille, but unlike the TSX where the grille was just an odd piece of an otherwise fine-looking car (thanks to it being sold as the Accord in non-Acura markets), on the TL the company had made the poor decision to base the car’s styling around it. That, along with the additionally-poor decision to continue with a 5-speed automatic transmission instead of matching rivals’ 6- and 7-speed autos, caused sales to tumble despite the car becoming more powerful and adding the excellent Super Handling All-Wheel Drive system from the RL and RDX as an option. (An additional option on the AWD model starting in 2010 was a 6-speed manual transmission.) The SH-AWD TL had a larger, more powerful engine than the FWD model, giving it the position that the Type S trim had in the previous generations. Three years later, the car was mercifully given a rather extensive facelift. The styling was toned down; the beak was reduced in size to look like that of the TSX (which had gone through its mid-cycle refresh a year earlier, though it was nowhere near as extensive: the biggest changes for the TSX were a slight update to the front bumper and the addition of the wagon to the lineup) and the automatic was given an additional gear to finally match the by-then-ancient 2nd gen Lexus IS350 (which itself had just gotten an AWD option the year prior after being in production for five years). These changes made for a significantly better car, but sales never got back to what they were in the previous generation (nor have they ever really recovered at all; a lot of Acura buyers have gone to Ze Germans, particularly Audi, instead). Also for 2012, a new option called the Advance package (known as the Elite package in Canada) was added only on automatic cars, giving the car even more goodies, such as blind-spot monitoring and ventilated seats, atop those of the Technology package. TL production continued into 2014 (with the only changes being a propeller shaft update for the AWD models and the introduction of the gorgeous Fathom Blue Pearl paint, both in 2013), until the TLX consolidated what was to that point a crowded Acura sedan lineup by combining parts of the TL and TSX into one car with three drivetrain options. After owning my 6-speed 2009 TSX for a year, I decided that in the long term a manual car wouldn’t be as good a daily driver as it currently is (thanks to the nature of my company, should I get another promotion my commute will become longer and almost certainly have to go through city traffic on a daily basis), and I also leaned towards getting something with all-wheel drive. I’d had two TLX loaners in the first half of 2018, one of them equipped with SH-AWD, and I enjoyed it, but the car wasn’t quite in my price range. After sifting through a few candidates, including the TLX itself, the TSX wagon, the new Civic Si, and the IS350, to name a few, I decided the TL would be the best one for the job.
(Full disclosure: Acura wanted me to drive this car so badly that they made a few critical design errors when it came out. They fixed them a few years later, but the damage was done. Fast forward to 2018, when my girlfriend abandoned me around the same time I got a substantial pay raise, and it fell into my price range.)
Obviously the exterior looks are what turn most people off to the 4th gen TL, but the facelifted version has grown on me, a lot. I see some Prelude from the side when I squint. Mine is finished in Honda’s ubiquitous Crystal Black Pearl, which is a fine color. The beak grille was toned down from the early models to match the TSX and other stablemates of the time. The trunk has the optional, though very common, flush-mount spoiler, which I think is a subtle but excellent enhancement. Other OEM exterior pieces that are available that I don’t have include body side moldings, mud guards, and a rarely seen aero kit. The Advance package got 19” Enkei wheels that look fantastic (but don’t always photograph well) and fill the wheel well quite nicely. The 19s were a dealer option on lower trims; depending on drivetrain and trim level the lower cars got either 17s or 18s. The tires on mine are different pairs; the fronts, which were replaced by Carmax, are Hankook Optimo H426s. Not what I would have chosen, but a noticeable step up from the Chinese no-names that they’d put on my TSX when I bought it. The rears, though, are Michelin Pilot Sport A/S 3+’s, which are much more my style and I plan to get a full set of them soon. The body has a couple of small blemishes, but overall it’s in fine shape.
It doesn’t look much different than the TSX inside, but there are some noticeable changes. It’s roomier, for one. There are more buttons, for another. (I still don’t know what all the buttons do and I’ve had the car for over a month!) Like the TSX, and unlike the TLX, there’s a real shifter and a real parking brake. The Technology Package added a red push-button starter for a nice fighter-jet look, enhanced by the faux carbon fiber and glossy gunmetal around the center console. The interior color on my car is Taupe, a very light beige that almost looks grey in certain light, and a vast contrast to the black of my TSX and Prelude. There was, of course, a black interior available (called Ebony), and a third option, another shade of beige called Parchment. The rear seats have more room than the TSX or TLX, but the transmission tunnel limits the space between them so a fifth passenger would be uncomfortable. The trunk is on the small side, with the rear drivetrain components taking up some space towards the cabin. The pass-through between the rear seats and the trunk is very narrow, only really good for skis, a catback exhaust, or other similarly shaped items. I have an OEM rubber trunk mat, which is a cool touch. The steering wheel and shift knob are wrapped in leather with contrasting stitching. Wood grain was an available option for both, but I think that would clash with the other interior elements. However, I might get an OEM rear seat cover so I can take my black doggo places in the car without his fur messing it up. The seats are comfortable and supportive, which is important since I plan to spend a lot of time in it.
To quote Bill Hader’s famous Saturday Night Live character Stefon, this place has everything. Ventilated seats, torque vectoring, a hard drive, Roman J. Israel Esquire. There’s a lot to talk about, but I won’t go into all of it in this paragraph. The Technology Package introduced most of the upgrades, including the navigation system. I could write an entire review’s worth of words on the infotainment system alone; it has its own separate 200-page manual independent of the owner’s manual. (And there’s a 3rd manual separate from those that discusses some of the electronic goodies of the Tech and Advance packages, but that’s only 35 pages.) The navigation system has Honda and Acura logos where respective dealers are, which is a pretty cool touch. It also shows logos for some, but not all, gas stations, but they aren’t always up to date. (For example, it still shows Texaco and Chevron stations that used to be around me, but both of those brands left Virginia before the car was even built.) It also shows route numbers that don’t exist anymore. GPS updates are about $100.
The sound of the J37, stock for stock against the VQ37 and 2GR in the TL’s respective competitors from Infiniti and Lexus, sounds the best to me, and was one of the things that put the TL over the IS350 for me. It’s pretty quiet down low, with a slight grumble that gradually turns into a wonderful roar as it climbs the rev range. It sounds even better with an aftermarket exhaust. Interestingly, the FWD version’s J35 sounds significantly different, much less imposing. The Technology Package gave the car a fantastic Panasonic ELS audio system with Dolby surround sound. CD, aux, Bluetooth, DVD audio (why?), and USB are all integrated into the head unit, as is a 60GB hard drive that automatically records CDs played in the car for future use. The system lives up to expectations, sounding very crisp.
The AWD version of the 4th gen TL got a slightly larger engine than the FWD version, a 3.7 liter V6 also used in the contemporary RL, MDX, and the elusive ZDX. Both engines were from Honda’s venerable J-series family, which means one camshaft on each cylinder bank. The J37 received VTEC on both the exhaust and intake side despite the SOHC setup. With the new 6-speed automatic, the AWD car’s 0-60 time was bumped up to about 5.8 seconds (and I have seen videos that were a bit faster), however that was still about half a second slower than the manual version due to the manual having additional suspension tuning, significantly shorter gearing, slightly less weight, and possibly a little extra horsepower. On the flip side, the manual gets even worse fuel mileage than the 6AT, though still better than the old 5AT. (Seriously, there’s absolutely no reason to buy an 09-11 TL unless you hit the jackpot and find a manual version.) When I first test drove this car, I did a manual-mode pull in 1st and 2nd gears from a red light. By the time I was getting close to redline in 2nd, I was going over 60 and didn’t even realize it. Though it would likely get dusted by the likes of Coyote Mustangs on the track, it keeps up with them in the real world. One thing to note about the J37 is that it, like many modern high-performance engines, is known to often consume some oil. Acura says that up to a quart per 1000 miles is normal. I’ve been checking mine since I bought it, and it doesn’t seem to consume anywhere near that much. The J35s in the FWD models do not have this issue, but I think it’s worth the trade-off for what is overall a significantly better drivetrain.
Part of the Advance package is the addition of blind-spot monitoring. The icons on the A-pillar light up when a car is in the blind spot, and if you use your turn signal with one on it starts flashing. The blind-spot monitoring can be disabled, something I’d imagine would be useful in city driving. Like the TSX, the car has xenon headlights; LED’s didn’t come until the RLX and TLX appeared a couple years later. The brakes stop the car beautifully; the 12.6” rotors are shared with the Ridgeline. A backup camera was part of the Technology package. It has distance markers but, unlike the TLX (or even the 9th gen Accord), does not change their trajectory, the only knock against it, admittedly a very minor one. Like the TSX, there are several airbags present, and the driver’s side was affected by the Takata recall. There’s been talk online that the passenger’s airbag also contains a faulty inflator, but there hasn’t been an official recall for it. The doors automatically lock once the car is put into reverse or drive.
Overall, the ride on the TL feels a little bit stiffer than the TSX and the TLX, and the 19” wheels on the Advance package add to that a bit more (though it is a much more sport-oriented car, so I find the tradeoff worthwhile). Inside, the seats feel nicer than the TSX, and road noise is pretty muffled, though you can still hear the growl of the J37 nicely. Seat heaters are standard, but ventilation was reserved for the Advance package. This was my first experience with ventilated seats, a welcome addition for first getting into the car on a hot summer’s day. The rear seats are roomy and have their own vents. I still felt comfortable after a couple hours of nonstop driving, something I could not say with my other cars. Overall I’d say it’s slightly more comfortable than the TSX.
II have to admit, I’ve been worried about taking the plunge on an automatic V6-powered Honda. The first few years of the 4th gen TL, which includes my own car, had some minor transmission issues, namely the torque converter and, on AWD models, the propeller shaft bearing. Both had been fixed by 2013, the torque converter with a software update and the prop shaft with an updated bearing. The torque converter is covered under an Acura factory warranty until 105,000 miles, but with my MaxCare warranty I’m covered for a bit longer. That said, the 6-speed automatic shifts pretty smoothly, noticeably better than the infamous ZF 9-speed of the TLX. The SH-AWD system has gotten glowing reviews online, up there with Audi’s Quattro and Subaru’s Symmetrical AWD as one of the best systems in the business. I can only imagine how it couples with a Honda-built manual transmission. Mostly because there are approximately 9 manual 4th gen TLs in existence. (OK, I’m exaggerating, but manual 4th gen TLs account for about 1% of production and get snapped up very quickly in the rare instance that one comes up for sale.) The gears on the automatic are very long, and combined with the programming trying to keep the car at as low RPMs as possible in regular Drive mode, you spend a lot of time under 2000 RPMs. In 6th gear, the car is turning 2000 at 75 MPH. Sport mode, however, changes the behavior of the car completely. The shift points become significantly higher on the tach, and you can use the paddle shifters for changing gears at your own volition. (You can use the paddle shifters in D, but the car will go back to automatic mode once you’re at a set speed for a few seconds. It’s quite a useful feature when going up hills or passing.) Unless you’re in manual mode, S won’t shift up to 6th, and in either mode you can’t manually downshift from 2nd to 1st if your foot is off the gas. Still, overall it’s just solid. My only complaint is that there can be a bit of lag to downshift if you don’t manually do it. Maybe my dislike of the lag is because I’m just not used to an automatic anymore after 6 years of almost exclusively driving manual, but I’ll get there.
My first experience with SH-AWD was on the car’s successor, the TLX. I thoroughly enjoyed how that car drove, but only the ill-fated 2015s were really within my budget, which is part of why I didn’t end up with one (and even then, I would have been pushing it once I added MaxCare and the TSX payoff). The system is a descendent of the ATTS torque vectoring system on the 5th gen Prelude, but is much more reliable. It absolutely shines on back roads, feeling more planted than it has any business being. A Miata it ain’t, but it also very much doesn’t feel like a front-biased two-ton midsize sedan. Handling is overall pretty neutral, with minimal body roll, and the steering is light. Suspension is double wishbones up front and multi-link at the back. I probably will try autocrossing it at some point. It looks like it holds its own.
Depreciation has hit the 4th gen TL a bit harder than the contemporary 2nd gen TSX. Facelifted AWD models have dropped below the $20,000 mark, and if you’re willing to live with a higher-mileage model without many options they’re already getting close to $10,000. As I’ve mentioned a few times now, the early models aren’t worth your money unless you find a manual, though they have dropped under $10k. It’s thirstier than a TSX or TLX; the J37 doesn’t have the latter’s fuel-saving mode, though as mentioned above it tries to stay in the teens in RPMs in Drive mode whenever possible. With that in mind and the fact that it requires premium, fuel costs will be higher than its successor car. (I average about 20 MPG combined, though my typical driving areas lean more towards city and suburban hell than open highway.) I think it makes up for it in other ways, though. It sounds better than the TLX, I prefer the real shifter and parking brake, the consensus is that the TL was built better, and, most interestingly, the AWD TLX is no faster despite having more favorable gearing, more efficient performance, and a little less weight. I definitely feel like I made the right choice.
If you can get past the exterior styling, the facelifted 4th gen TL SH-AWD is a brilliant car that unfortunately hasn’t really gotten its due because of its looks. It kind of reminds me of the Porsche 996 in that way, though its mechanical problems are much less intensive. If you’re interested in an AWD TL, I’d say to try to find a 2013 or 2014, as they’d finally worked out all the kinks by the last two years. 2012s are still fine cars, though.
Engine: J37A4 3.7L SOHC VTEC V6 (FWD models have a J35Z6 3.5L V6)
Transmission: 6-speed SportShift automatic (2012-2014; 2009-2011 automatics were 5-speed and there was a 6-speed manual available from 2010 to 2014 on SH-AWD cars with the Technology Package but not the Advance Package)
Power/torque: 305 HP/273 lbft (280/254 on the FWD version)
Curb weight: 3948 pounds (AWD AT), 3873 pounds (AWD MT), 3699 pounds (FWD)
0-60: 5.8 seconds (AWD 6AT), 5.2 seconds (6MT), 6.3 seconds (FWD 6AT)
Top speed: 135 MPH (electronically limited)
MSRP: $36,000 (FWD base), $39,000 (SH-AWD base), $43,000 (SH-AWD Tech/manual) $45,000 (SH-AWD Advance)