Used Car Test Drive: 2012 Acura TL – Beakzilla vs. King Maw, Part 1

It rose from the waters.  It heard your murmurings.  Your audible complaints that once-revolutionary Acura had been slipping into bland anonymity combined violently with declining sales and market share to spawn this mutant from the deep.  Like the fearsome giant squid from whom this beak was wrested in an epic battle, this car was going to be respected. This car would show them who was boring and who was not. Except it didn’t.

Sales of the TL fell sharply that first year and never recovered. Beakzilla’s rampage seems to have done more damage to itself than the surrounding automotive metropolis, but for me–someone looking for alternatives to a new VW GTI in 2016–a lightly used TL didn’t look scary at all.  In fact, a handling-oriented FWD upscale Honda with a big V6 and only 4 years of use looked like just the ticket. So how did it do?

Now you’ve done it.  You’ve made it angry. Photo credit CNET

The TL is here because Acura needed another chance. The 2006 TSX I tried earlier was a generation older than I was really looking for and saddled with the four cylinder engine that put newer TSXs out of contention as well.  This TL checked a lot of boxes on paper. It’s roomy, quick, generally reliable, and has a long feature list. Moreover, it was the bargain option of the group, both in purchase price and long-term operating costs compared to the 328i .  This one was a 2012 front-wheel drive model with the 280 hp 3.5L V6, 50K on the clock, and it looked well taken care of.

More differentiation, please. The 2008 Accord was a low point for interior quality.

The styling is a bit polarizing.  It made a splash at debut, with a giant plastichrome “beak” that climbed up the hood and about 10 acres of angular plastic bumper on the rear. I think it was the ugliest car on the road for a good while, but a midcycle refresh toned down the beak and several other automakers have since yelled “hold my beer!” and carried the flag of vulgarity forward with a flourish that makes the TL a wallflower.  There isn’t a single angle from which I find the TL outright attractive, but I’m accustomed to it now so the exterior didn’t sink it for me.


The interior did. Nowhere is the abandonment of Acura’s tasteful and conservative styling more apparent than inside the cabin.  The dashboard is a dystopia of tech design themes layered atop the bland architecture of the 2008 Accord.  It’s a hovercar out of Bladerunner.  A cold, sterile, metallic place fit for navigating the misery and rain and grime of a 22nd century megalopolis.  Thick metallic arcs flow flamboyantly across the dash from center console to each door, grey plastic buttons of all shapes and sizes explode across a heavily contoured center stack, unconvincing and easily-scratched imitation grey wood lines the console.  The dashboard is a visually-heavy, overwrought edifice, and a dorky F1-style red starter button peers out from it like the Terminator’s eye. There is an uneven panel gap under the center air vent bezel, right in line of sight with the radio and infotainment screen. Was there no adult supervision in here?  Big Acuras used to be a mature and sophisticated choice, so this one is rubbing me the wrong way.


This looks like plastic in person and scratches easily

I just don’t know if I could warm up to this. I feel like they were trying awfully hard to make it “cool” rather than focusing on cohesion and quality.  The only factors that prevent this interior from being worse than the base 328i from last week are the immediate contact points for the driver: seats, steering wheel, and armrests.  The seats are very comfortable, very supportive, and look good clad in the black leather. The steering wheel and armrests feel plush and high quality.  All good points, and substantive ones at that. Which is more than can be said about the late-aughts Lexus ES350 that this TL sorta competed against for most of its cycle.  Lexus had some real nerve with that one, I’d take this TL if those were my only two choices.


The Acura is already working from a deficit, but the engine earns back a lot of goodwill. It starts and idles quietly and smoothly.  I rev it past 6000 rpm when entering the freeway and it is strong, linear, instantaneous, eager, refined, and aurally pleasing.   There is usable power below 3000 rpm and above that a predictable and enticing linear increase in motive force. I like it more than the turbo-fours in the 328i and GTI.  There is nothing more to ask for and every gripe I had about the TSX’s 4-cylinder has been rectified here.  The age of the modern 3.5L V6 is a beautiful one. The TL’s V6 was not equipped with the Variable Cylinder Management that led to NVH issues and a settled class action lawsuit for oil burning and plug fouling in Honda models with the 3.5, so if you needed an extra nudge to spring for the TL rather than an Accord V6 of the same year, there you go.


The revised front fascia was quite an improvement

Modest downshifts carefully move me around slower traffic and into the left lane. Plenty of power, the other cars recede behind the Acura without the engine even being audible.  Part of that might be the road noise. It’s present. So is a curious dichotomy in the car’s character. At 3800 lbs, it’s heavy and feels it when braking, yet comes off as somewhat insubstantial due to the cabin noise and impact harshness.  Not an endearing disparity when the GTI moves with lightness and yet feels substantial. The steering has an odd dead zone right off center that takes some of the fun out of routine piloting, and that matters because most drives do not involve an empty cloverleaf or sinuous two lane where this car supposedly does quite well.   Around town it feels big, quick, but a tad flinty and not very engaging.   It doesn’t grab my attention the way a few other cars have.


Base TLs have reasonable tire sidewall.  Image credit Motortrend

My example wasn’t the mightiest Beakzilla, the SH-AWD.  It reportedly corners tenaciously, has an even bigger engine, and could be equipped with a manual transmission.  Good luck finding the unicorn, though. I just did a nationwide search on Autotrader and out of 252 SH-AWDs, 8 were manuals and the closest to me was 800 miles away and carried nearly 100K miles of use.  That powertrain is unique enough that if I were the only intended driver I might be tempted to bide my time until one came up. However, an automatic is needed for household logistics and with that handicap the powertrain wouldn’t quite overcome the aesthetics and lack of zeal I have for the car.  I’d like something with a bit of character and charm around town, something that encourages that tired enthusiast trope of running out to the grocery for a gallon of milk just so you can drive. The TL doesn’t encourage this, at least not with the automatic.


Defeated, the TL drifts back to the briny deep, perhaps to rise again one day.  But what of the other mutated monster?  What of King Maw? We shall face him next time.