Acura Sharpens its TooL
by Chris Walton
A tool is an object designed to do a particular kind of work. The type of work the 2007 Acura TL is designed to do is maintain its leading sales position within the Acura lineup and close the gap on the entry-lux sport sedan sales leader, the BMW 3 Series. While Acura is pleased with current TL progress, holding steady at around 80,000 units a year, it seems the product planners at Acura have been watching the success of their recently rereleased European and Japanese counterparts in the entry-lux segment. BMW 3 Series sales shot up at the end of 2005, and the new Lexus IS Series is gaining ground every day. Infiniti just made public the all-new G35 and we predict nothing but well-deserved success.
But unlike the headline-grabbing rear-drive sedans — some of which are or will be available as a coupe, convertible or wagon, with a turbocharger, AWD and even with rear-wheel steering — Acura's TL comes in front-drive-only, V6-only and sedan-only forms. But for 2007, the TL will arrive in regular and maximum-strength versions. The standard-issue 2007 TL maintains a 258-horsepower 3.2-liter V6 and an all-new five-speed automatic with a host of other improvements. The big news is that the range-topping TL Type-S returns after a three-year hiatus, with more than just tire and suspension upgrades.
To the power of RL
What's the best way to motivate a TL Type-S back to the top of the charts? Power, baby; and the high-revving 300-hp 3.5-liter V6 doing its best to propel the too-heavy, two- wheels-too-many-driven RL would seem like a good choice, and it is. Tuned to 286 horses, the happily unencumbered engine now breathes and revs freely in the svelte nose of the TL Type-S. It can be paired with either the purist's choice six-speed manual or newly upgraded five-speed automatic with paddle shifters and matched-rev downshifts.
In the TL the engine feels bright and responsive throughout the rev-range and gets only slightly more intense at the 4950-rpm VTEC changeover point where the high-lift and long-duration cam lobes come on. Then there's that wonderful Honda engine note made all the better with the Type-S's cold-air induction, dual-stage intake manifold and high-flow exhaust system. It's one of the best-sounding Honda/Acura products since the dearly departed NSX. Truth be told, it could stand to be a little louder, however.
The six-speed manual is of the type we've all admired from Honda. In the tradition of the S2000, but more like that found in the recent Civic Si, the light shifter finds its home with a reassuring clickity-thump. The gear ratios are well considered and take full advantage of the Type-S's enthusiastic new engine. The extensive mechanical science applied to quiet gear whine and smooth gearchanges is evident.
Putting the power down
You might suspect a front-driver with 256 lb-ft of twisting torque to be a tarmac-nibbling handful and it would have been had it not also included a helical-gear-type limited-slip differential (LSD) in the six-speed manual transmission. This long-standing torque-steer-reduction scheme works by dividing the driving force more equally between the two front wheels.
In the case of the TL Type-S, it works very well. The only time we noticed the steering affected by the throttle was at the very top of both 1st and 2nd gear under full throttle. Otherwise, the car's cornering was tack-sharp both off and on the gas. The LSD also does an admirable job of diminishing understeer.
Both the TL and TL Type-S receive suspension revisions for 2007. Collectively, the effect is a crisper and more controlled car without the harshness usually associated with sport tuning. We've driven all its competitors and the TL is definitely the smoothest operator on all types of pavement. The Type-S is just slightly edgier but still within the acceptable range. We'd even go out on a limb and say the Type-S settings could've been successfully incorporated into the standard TL, and Acura could've been more aggressive with the Type-S with some room to spare. The Type-S rides on grippy Bridgestone Potenza RE030 tires (235/45R17 93W) at all four corners.
Utilizing a classic high-mount upper and lower A-arm front suspension with rear multilink and stabilizer bars, the TL Type-S suspension is tuned to near perfection. Damping rates and body control are outstanding while the suspension's ability to acknowledge road imperfections without changing direction is excellent.
A heavily revised variable-assist rack-and-pinion steering system is incalculably precise and thankfully old school. In other words, Acura hasn't resorted to an electromechanical system with all its nifty variable-ratio and numbing-isolation tricks and compromises. The ratio is fixed to a tidy 15.4:1 ratio and only the steering effort changes with speed. Additionally, the power steering fluid flows through a new aluminum cooler and is kept in check through one-way kick-back damper valve to minimize the possibility of road irregularities making their way to your hands. This is as good as front-wheel drive gets.
Along with all the significant hardware upgrades, both the TL and TL Type-S feature subtle exterior and interior cosmetic changes only the most encyclopedic will detect. The Type-S is differentiated most distinctly by quad exhaust tips and "black-chrome" exterior trim — and the badge, of course.
Inside, the Type-S further receives more highly bolstered and "Type-S"-embossed front seating and active noise-cancellation through the otherwise standard XM satellite Acura-ELS premium six-disc CD/DVD-audio sound system. Navigation is optional to either.
Prices have yet to be announced, but we were shown a range from $34,000 to $39,000 for the entire line. Going from Acura's '06 pricing, expect a 2007 TL Type-S's base price to be at $37,000 without sat-nav and top out at $39,000.
The bad news
All this is great news, and the TL Type-S would have been big news before the release of the 306-hp '06 IS 350 and '07 G35. Furthermore, we suspect the 2007 BMW 3 Series Sedan will receive the 335i Coupe's 300-hp twin-turbo inline-6 engine.
Where does this leave the TL Type-S? On paper, it's still a distant-but-better front-wheel-driven 4th. It'll never convert die-hard rear-drive fans. It'll never be able to precisely manage more than 300 hp through its front tires. Even with its impressive list of year-to-year enhancements, the guys at BMW, Infiniti and Lexus will no doubt continue the evolution of the sport sedan species at an even more accelerated pace — and they're already one step ahead.
As competent as they are, the 2007 TL and TL Type-S are serving as placeholders until Acura takes seriously the entry-lux sport sedan category as it recently proved it can in the sport-utility segment with its astonishingly good 2007 Acura MDX and RDX.
All this outstanding competence is undeniable. There is no question that the TL Type-S is the best TL ever, and it's more car than most entry-lux buyers would ever need or expect. It delivers an astonishing amount of performance and equipment, some of which is unavailable in the competitors, for a price that'll at least rattle the cages of the rear-drive faithful.