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Acura's high-class sports sedan

October 31, 2008|DAN NEIL | Neil is a Times staff writer.
(Acura )

One of the best things about moving to Los Angeles from North Carolina was discovering the outrageous cadre of TV weathermen with vaguely meteorological-sounding names: Dallas Raines, Johnny Mountain, Fritz Coleman.

If I were a weatherman I would call myself Rod Lightning.

The Acura TL threatens to put these guys out of their shiny suits. This car offers real-time weather graphics, just like your local newscast's Accu-Mega-3D-Doppler-9200 radar, or whatever. The service, bundled with the car's XM satellite subscription (the Ford Flex has a similar service), comes as part of the car's technology package.

I checked the screen in the TL during my test drive and learned that, apparently, there was no weather in Los Angeles that day. However, scrolling across the U.S. map, I found that, for instance, the weather in Cleveland was a Dante-esque perdition of snow and freezing cats and dogs.

I love L.A.

Technology -- the sheer, dizzy, LED mass of it, piled high -- has always been Acura's raison d'etre. And the new, fourth-generation TL doesn't disappoint.

There are two versions of this car: the base model TL, with a 280-horsepower engine and front-wheel drive, starting around $34,000; and the well-favored, if hilariously named, TL Super Handling All-Wheel Drive (SH-AWD) model. The SH-AWD -- the one I tested -- pushes all the techno-chips onto the table for $43,995.

Under the hood is a 3.7-liter naturally aspirated V-6 putting out 305 hp -- a good trick right there -- while returning 17 miles per gallon in city driving and 25 on the highway with super-low emissions.

This bit of arrow-smithing is attached to a five-speed sequential automatic gearbox, with paddle shifters behind the steering wheel. Finally, the torques emerge through Acura's signature SH-AWD system.

Think of this as front-wheel drive with benefits.

In normal, shoot-me-I'm-commuting driving, up to 90% of torque is directed to the front wheels, for better fuel efficiency. When you start to thrash the TL, accelerating hard and sawing at the wheel, the system's computer says, "Aha, he's gone mental." The torque distribution slides toward the rear wheels, up to a maximum of 70%, for better dynamic performance.

Now here it gets interesting, because not only is the torque distribution optimized front to rear (like all AWD systems) but it is also optimized side to side in the rear. This "torque vectoring" will process all the sensor data -- the steering angle, throttle angle, wheel speed at four corners, lateral G-sensors, the whole smash -- and apportion torque to the outside rear wheel, effectively overdriving it, nulling out understeer and helping turn the car in the direction you want it to go.

Got that? How about I just say this: It corners harder.

Acura badly wants the TL SH-AWD to be seen as an entry-luxury sports sedan, in the gates against the BMW 3 and 5 series, Infiniti G and M cars, Mercedes C- and E-class, the Cadillac CTS -- all rear-drive cars. So the street cred of the car's fancy all-wheel-drive bits is critical. After all, in this class, a front-drive, six-cylinder sports sedan computes like a tofu T-bone.

Does the super-whachamacallit work?

It does, fiendishly so. The car rips most corners a new one (19-inch Z-rated tires sure help). At steady throttle, you can actually feel a little lightening in the steering as the torque-vectoring assist feeds into the outside rear wheel. In a corner where you are coming off the brakes, you can get on the throttle sooner and harder. Simply loverly.

This car definitely has some sporting moxie. The electric steering is twitchy and accurate, though synthetically heavy; the suspension (springs, dampers, stabilizer bars) is tensed and actually a bit scabrous over rough road. Does it boil the sporting blood? Maybe not, but it seems to have purpled my backside.

My reservations have to do with the way the rest of this machine feels, the whole mikva, if you will.

For starters, this is a much bigger car than it used to be, a full 6 inches longer over a wheelbase stretched 1.4 inches. The TL SH-AWD -- schwaddd? -- is nearly 2 tons, about 300 pounds heavier than the previous car. So it's a big car, a Japanese Cadillac CTS, and it feels less lively than before. In fact, the power-to-weight ratio was better in the old car. The foil has become a saber.

Second of all, the TL is buried up to its nose in the kind of hyperfocused refinement for which Acura is known. Is that a good thing in a sports sedan? The engine has the emotional timbre of a Pentium 4 processor, whirring silkily in the ample bosom of its electric motor mounts. The redesigned chassis and body structure is quieter than Ted Stevens' campaign headquarters.

All that honeyed refinement tends to smother the sportiness. Does this car want to be luxo or not?

And then there's the car's astonishing bucktoothed visage, like a very large anime robot beaver. Hah! I shall pound you flat with my electro-tail! Bliss!

So there's a bit of soul-searching left to do here. Otherwise, the top-shelf TL is an amazing car, loaded to the gills -- audiophile sound system, voice-recognition nav, Bluetooth, leather, weather -- and priced thousands of dollars below a similarly equipped Bimmer.

You can't say Acura doesn't know which way the wind blows.

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dan.neil@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

2009 Acura TL SH-AWD

with technology package

Base price: $43,235

Price as tested: $43,995

Powertrain: 3.7-liter SOHC, direct-injection, 24-valve V-6 with variable valve timing and dual-stage intake manifold; five-speed sequential automatic transmission; all-wheel drive

Horsepower: 305 at 6,200 rpm

Torque: 273 pound-feet at 5,000 rpm

Curb weight: 3,962 pounds

0 to 60: 6.5 seconds

Wheelbase: 109.3 inches

Overall length: 195.5 inches

EPA fuel economy: 17 miles per gallon city, 25 mpg highway

Final thoughts: The quiet storm

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