2012 Honda Acura TL

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Satisfying to drive and priced in the upper $30s, the 2012 Acura TL is refreshingly different.

ACURA, as every motorhead knows, is Honda’s upmarket division, and the TL is Acura’s midsize sedan, available in FWD or all-wheel drive. Front-wheel drive, as every motorhead also knows, is for wimps.

Under power in a tight corner, we want the rear wheels to dig in and shove the back end around, thus helping the car through the bend. Front-wheel drive, under power, is overworked in a corner.

It has to both pull the car along and steer through the corner. This is too much to ask of one pair of wheels, so the car understeers—it tends to run wide, to go straight instead of arcing neatly along part of a circle.

But, you ask, what if I don’t wish to corner under power? What if I drive like a sane person instead? Aha, what a concept. Well, in that case the Acura TL behaves beautifully, towing you through the bend with no muss (whatever that is) and little fuss. In fact if there’s snow, ice, gravel or, say, Vaseline on the road, FWD may just get you through the corner with less drama than RWD.

Which is why so many cars today are powered by their front, steered wheels. Carmakers are painfully aware that possessing a license to drive is no guarantee of driving skill.

Honda, however, has given the Acura TL sporting aspirations. More than mere aspirations, actually—this car is a textbook performance sedan in every way except for the front-wheel drive.

See, Acura is buttering its parsnips here: In the TL they’ve given us the security of FWD with the option to have some fun the rest of the time. Pulling the shift lever on the center console back one click, from D to S, engages Sport mode.

Now the 6-speed automatic feels like one of the new clutchless gearboxes. It will hold a gear till you get tired of listening to the engine scream and flick the steering wheel paddles to shift.

This Sport setting has a pleasantly mechanical feel to it, and it shifts when the driver wants it to, not when a computer gives it the OK.

Front-wheel drive has another weakness in a performance car: Too much power sent to wheels that can change direction—as front wheels do—makes them squirrely. Torque steer, it’s called, and in olden days hot FWD cars would zig-zag horribly under power. A few still do, but not the TL.

Under full throttle you can feel the steering wheel thinking about being wayward, but then it behaves. This is all the more impressive when we realize that the TL’s 3.5-liter V6 engine generates about 80 more horsepower than was once thought tops for FWD. Torque-steer aside, this much muscle used to chew up steering bearings. Bravo, Honda engineers.

Thus endeth the lesson on FWD.

Otherwise, the FWD TL is quintessential Acura, which is to say understated almost to an extreme. (Even the engine output is so Acura: 280 is a nice round number; over 300 would be just showing off, don’t you think? And this way you can get almost 30 miles per gallon.)

Especially in silver-gray, from some angles the TL looks like yesterday’s BMW 5-Series, before the 5 became a downsized 7-Series.

The interior is a bit dour—black on black, with gray here and there for relief—but tremendously comfortable. The array of buttons on the center stack can be confusing, but for basic chores you may use the ones in the steering wheel, and there is little need to consult the owner’s manual when you wish to tap into the TL’s plentiful high-tech gadgetry.

Lexus (Toyota) and Infiniti (Nissan) always seem to be trying to knock off Mercedes-Benz and BMW. Acura, on the other hand, always seems to be going its own way. It’s as though the company were saying, “If you’re cool enough, and if you get it, we just might sell you one of our interesting cars.” The new TL is an excellent expression of that philosophy.