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 BMW 3-Series.

But since then, TL sales have fallen while the sector has grown vicious 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 aura of the gold-standard 3-Series.

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.

But Acura designers deserve credit for 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.

But vestiges of the Type-S show up on the '09 TL, namely a boost in performance. The base TL comes 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 launches only with a 5-speed automatic; a 6-speed manual returns for the '10 model year.

After talking to owners of 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 in Connecticut, 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.

However, the base TL is 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.

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

Buyers choosing SH-AWD get unique seats, with beefier shoulder and side bolsters, and 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 build 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.

Acura Certain of Attaining Tier-1 Status

[+] PROS/CONS [-]
AWD boosts stability But adds weight, too
Distinctive exterior Polarizing looks
Top-notch interior Faux metal

Acura TL SH-AWD w/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 × stroke (mm): 90 × 96

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)

Curb weight: 3,986 lbs. (1,808 kg)

Base price range: $34,000-$42,000

EPA fuel economy city/highway (mpg, est.): 17/25 (13.8-9.4 L/100 km)

Market competition: Lexus IS, Mercedes C-Class, Infiniti G, BMW 3-Series, Audi A4