I don't think there's an uglier front-end treatment in the industry than Acura's new corporate grille design. From the Civic-derived CSX to the MDX SUV, Acura models have a massive slab of angular chrome in the front of the car where the grille should be.
When I recently asked a Honda Canada executive if sales were down because of it, he mumbled something about a depressed economy, poor sales throughout the segment, and how about those Maple Leafs.
The worst offender, as far as I'm concerned, is the top-of-the-range TL sedan, which - aside from the addition of a six-speed manual transmission and different paint - is carried over from 2009. The TL looks like a chunk of sheet metal origami, all angles and sharp edges, topped by a grinning front end that looks like it was designed by robots. I'm usually a fan of Honda/Acura products, but, to quote my granny, Acura's design team has come a cropper on this one.
Kind of a shame, because the TL is, in other respects, an interesting piece of work. For starters, you can get it with Honda's Super Handling All-Wheel-Drive (SH-AWD), which gives it a leg up on much of the competition when it comes to handling and road-holding ability, and secondly, it has that marvellous i-Vtec V-6 engine that, in this configuration, displaces 3.7 litres, and is on the receiving end of an extra 200 cc and an additional 25 horsepower over the base TL.
The front-drive, non-SH-AWD version retains a 3.5-litre V-6 that is essentially carried over from last year. Either way, this is a lovely engine; refined, powerful, quiet and reasonably efficient. Acura's strongest point seems to be its drivetrains these days, because stylistically, this company has lost its mojo.
The other thing that makes the TL stand out is the fact that you can get it with a manual six-speed transmission, which came with my tester. The other choice is a five-speed automatic, but the manual gives the car an added dimension of performance.
That said, it honestly felt kind of odd rowing through the gears in an otherwise luxury sedan, and, truth be told, if I was in the market for this car, I think I'd stick with the autobox. It may not have the seat of the pants appeal of a stick shift, but it does come with steering-wheel-mounted shift paddles and is arguably more in keeping with this vehicle's overall character.
Still, the availability of a manual does show that Acura is paying attention, and it doesn't cost any more than the automatic. It's also about as good as manual gearboxes get - well-spaced gearing, smooth linkage, linear clutch action. One of my own little tests that I sometimes conduct with manual transmissions is to go through the gears without the clutch and see how things work out. Virtually without exception, Honda products slip in and out of gear without drama.
Indeed, the whole driving experience of the TL - SH-AWD or otherwise - is effortless. It's much smoother in operation than, oh, BMW's 5-Series or the Audi A6, and its closest rival is probably the Cadillac CTS when it comes to overall flavour and driveability.
It's still not what I'd call a really tossable car, but it's arguably the most performance-oriented TL Acura has ever put forward. I didn't get the opportunity to put the SH-AWD system through its paces, but you don't have to buy the TL with this feature.
Being the flagship of Acura's model lineup, the SH-AWD Technology TL has all the goodies and there are no options. Standard kit includes heated front seats, leather interior, XM satellite radio, Bluetooth, power trunk release, navi system, back-up camera, headlight washers and 18-inch alloy wheels and tires - the base model comes with 17-inchers.
What it may lack in visual beauty, the TL more than compensates for with interior amenities and modcons, even if things are a little busy inside. Unofficially, Acura claims it is trying to do something about the overly complicated and cluttered centre stack that it has on many of its models - this is a common complaint, and it needs to simplify things here.
Lots of safety stuff though; as well as four-wheel discs with ABS and the usual roster of front, side and side curtain airbags, it also has a hill start assist feature, tire-pressure monitoring system and traction control and vehicle stability systems.
As far as the U.S. Insurance Institute for Highway Safety is concerned, it's a "top safety pick" for mid-size cars. It also gets five stars from the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
But not from me. I just can't get my head around its awkward styling, and it doesn't move me the way some of the other models in this segment do. It's also worth noting that the TL requires premium gasoline, which, the last time I looked, was more than $1.25 a litre.
2010 ACURA TL SH-AWD TECHNOLOGY
Type: Mid-size luxury sedan
Base Price: $48,490; as tested: $48,490
Engine: 3.7-litre V-6
Horsepower/Torque: 305 hp/273 lb-ft
Transmission: Six-speed manual
Fuel Economy (litres/100 km): 11.9 city/8.0 highway; premium gas