DANBURY, CT – The Acura TL sedan helped propel American Honda Motor Co. Inc.’s 20-year-old-but-still-upstart near-luxury brand past 200,000 units in 2005.

It has been a consistent best-seller for Acura, and in 2004 and 2005 the stylishly redesigned TL managed to lock up second place in the Ward’s Lower Luxury segment, behind the class-leading BMW 3-Series.

But since then, TL sales have fallen while the sector has grown viciously competitive with arrival of refreshed entries such as the Infiniti G, Cadillac CTS, Mercedes C-Class and Lexus IS and ES sedans.

This year, an all-new fourth-generation ’09 TL arrives and promises to raise the brand’s stature, although the sport sedan still lacks the hard-to-quantify luxury aura given off by the gold-standard 3-Series.

Talking to current TL owners, Acura product planners found they liked the car but want more distinctive styling.

The new TL sports a signature “power plenum” grille that isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, judging from the debate it stirs among online forums. Still, Acura designers deserve credit for taking chances and breaking away from the 3-Series template.

The shield-style grille lends an air of individuality to the car, and the trapezoidal shape carries over to the back end.

A mid-cycle refresh two years ago of the outgoing TL added the Type-S variant, which is now gone, perhaps to resurface down the line, officials say.

But vestiges of the Type-S show up on the ’09 TL, namely a boost in performance.

The base TL comes equipped with a 3.5L SOHC V-6 that makes 280 hp and 254 lb.-ft. (344 Nm) of torque. The previous-generation TL’s 3.2L V-6 made 258 hp and 233 lb.-ft. (316 Nm) of torque, while the Type-S variant’s 3.5L V-6 achieved 286 hp and 256 lb.-ft. (347 Nm) of torque.

Stepping upmarket, the TL with Super-Handling All-Wheel-Drive offers a 3.7L SOHC V-6 capable of 305 hp and 273 lb.-ft. (370 Nm) of torque.

The TL will launch only with a 5-speed automatic; a 6-speed manual returns for the ’10 model year.

After talking to those owning competing models, Acura product planners discovered all-wheel-drive was a top priority.

So it applied its torque-vectoring SH-AWD system to the TL, in hopes of wooing BMW, Mercedes, Lexus and Infiniti intenders. All those brands offer AWD on their entry premium sedans.

But in a mid-July drive here, the extra 260 lbs. (118 kg) the TL SH-AWD carries over a base model is immediately evident, as is its lack of torque, a common complaint of Honda engines.

While the 3.7L horsepower is competitive, its torque rating is below that of BMW’s 335xi (300 lb.-ft. [407 Nm]). The Bimmer also achieves peak torque much earlier than the TL’s 3.7L, which must rev to 5,000 rpm before it tops out.

Besides weight problems, the new TL doesn’t track as well due to a switch from conventional hydraulic to electric power steering.

Fuel-sipping technology is welcome in a time of $4-a-gallon gasoline, but EPS can sap the sport right out of a car, as Ward’s noticed in a recent test of the Hyundai Genesis.

Also noticeable is too much play in the base ’09 TL’s steering wheel, reinforcing a disconnect from the road.

’09 Acura TL SH-AWD with Technology Package
Vehicle type Front-engine, all-wheel-drive, 4-door sedan
Engine 3.7L SOHC V-6; aluminum block/heads
Power (SAE net) 305 hp @ 6,200 rpm
Torque 273 lb.-ft. (370 Nm) @ 5,000 rpm
Compression ratio 11.2:1
Bore x stroke 90 x 96 mm
Transmission 5-speed automatic with Sequential SportShift
Wheelbase 109.3 ins. (276 cm)
Overall length 195.3 ins. (496 cm)
Overall width 74.0 ins. (188 cm)
Overall height 57.2 ins. (145 cm)
Curb weight 3,986 lbs. (1,808 kg)
Base price $34,000-$42,000
EPA fuel economy city/highway (mpg, est.) 17/25 (13.8-9.4 L/100 km)
Competition Lexus IS, Mercedes C-Class, Infiniti G, BMW 3-Series, Audi A4
Pros Cons
AWD enhances stability But adds weight, too
Distinctive exterior styling Polarizing looks
Top-notch technology Interior/Faux metal

However, Ward’s finds the base TL to be much more sprightly than the SH-AWD model off the line and in normal driving. Acceleration is linear, despite occasional gear hunting.

Paddle shifters are standard on the automatic-equipped TLs, replacing a gated shifter in the previous model. Their positioning and size could be improved upon, as they were difficult to reach from a standard “10 and 2” or even “9 and 3” steering wheel grip.

Key strengths of the ’09 TL are its impressive technologies and high-quality interior materials.

The TL’s navigation system approaches Nissan/Infiniti performance, with crisp and clear maps, plus arrows added to indicate the correct path when an interstate forks.

Also impressive, although perhaps of questionable need considering XM satellite radio has audio weather channels, is real-time weather mapping available with the XM NavTraffic service.

Pricing for various XM packages will range from $10 to $25, the latter for radio service and real-time weather and traffic.

Doppler-style radar maps are displayed on the car’s 8-in. (20-cm) liquid-crystal-display screen, and forecasts ranging from one to three days are available.

Euro-style stitching adds a tasteful decorative touch inside the TL, and a purported dent resistant metal PVD (physical vapor deposition) trim should wear well, although its faux-ness is evident (metal purists can find real aluminum trim on the door sills).

Buyers selecting the SH-AWD TL get unique seats, with beefier shoulder and side bolsters, as well as a contoured steering wheel.

Acura engineers made sure interior displays and controls were visible and within easy reach for drivers, while adding better lighting (energy efficient light-emitting diodes) and storage cubbies.

The new TL is exceedingly roomy, although models equipped with AWD limit rear-passenger headroom, due to component space requirements below the back seat.

The base TL is due in September, while the AWD variant arrives in November. Honda of America Mfg. Inc. continues to builds the car in Marysville, OH.

The ’09 Acura TL is a well-designed, entry premium sedan, but its performance characteristics still trail those of leading competitors, namely BMW’s 3-Series and Infiniti’s G35.

However, the new car will continue to resonate with loyalists; it has the hallmarks of Honda quality buyers have come to expect.

cschweinsberg@wardsauto.com