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The 2012 Acura TL sport sedan. Clever design mods to the front and rear—although comparatively small in scale and scope—provide big differences visually.

The TL on the left is the 2012 model. The TL on the right is the 2011 model. Note how the change in the grille design for the new car almost makes it appear as though there is a new hood on it. And clearly, the controversial chevron is greatly reduced in size.

Although the changes to the rear of the car (the 2012 is on the left, the 2011 on the right) aren’t as immediately striking as those to the front, the designers have been able to provide differentiation that’s executed without excessive investment.

At the Acura Stand: Refining the TL

In 2010, 34,049 Acura TLs—produced in Marysville, OH—were sold, making it Acura’s best-selling sport sedan. For the 2012 model year (and the 2011 sales year) they’ve made the car even better, primarily through a series of well-executed . . . tweaks. Here’s how.

So you’re at the 2011 North American International Auto Show in Detroit’s Cobo Center. Standing with the head of advanced design for one of the car makers. It is the end of a long day, one that had started with the unveiling of the Porsche 918 RSR, which the designer in question is dismissive of, thinking that it doesn’t push Porsche design far enough. As the mutual de-brief continues, he glances over at the vehicles in the nearby stand.

And he comments: “Those are really good-looking cars.” A slight pause. “Except for the first six inches.”

He’s talking about Acura. He’s talking about the front end of the vehicles. The shield. Chevron. Crest. Or, most unkindly, beak.


Here it is. The 25th anniversary of Acura. A company with a list of firsts as long as an NBA player’s arm.

Perhaps the most notable among its firsts: It was the first Japanese luxury brand. That’s right. Not Lexus. Not Infiniti. Acura.

And then there are things ranging from the first drive-by-wire throttle system to the first four-channel ABS system. The first production titanium connecting rods. The first in-dash navigation system.

The first import luxury brand to design, engineer and assemble vehicles in the U.S.

And so on.

While Acura’s position in the market is steadily improving, some people haven’t gotten beyond those first six inches—an exaggeration, for certain, but a point nonetheless, especially as it is a look shared across the lineup of cars and utilities.

According to Steve Hansen, large project leader (think “chief engineer”) for the 2012 TL sport sedan, the research they conducted in preparation for that vehicle, research that sought to find out what buyers thought about the 2009 to 2011 model, the numbers looked good on various elements: top numbers were achieved for “Fun to Drive,” “Power & Pickup,” “Well-Made Vehicle” (it is one of the U.S.-produced models: it is manufactured in Marysville, OH), and “Safety.” Coming in just behind those are “Technical Innovations” and “Interior Styling.”

But, Hansen acknowledges, it wasn’t all good. There were “opportunities for improvement.” Yes, “Exterior Styling.” (And also “Quietness” and “Fuel Economy.”)

And so the staff at the Acura Design Studio in Torrance, CA, including Damon Schell, senior designer, went to work on the car, making modifications to the fourth-generation TL that make the ’12 model more refined, particularly as regards the front grille. As the ’09 model had been designed in Torrance, the designers had an intimate understanding of what they were working with.

“Emotion unleashed” is the name of the theme the designers pursued. The front end, of course, and the rear are where the focus of attention was placed, at least as regards the exterior.

Essentially, the front is sleeker. The front fascia is fully modified. Yes, as a quick glance shows, the crest is retained, but it is significantly reduced in size, and the entire execution of the grille is changed, with an upper surround added (the brushed chrome crest doesn’t run up to the hood opening), as well as a reduction in the size of the frame around the grille. There are horizontal bars below the crest, with mesh behind them; the previous model is without the bars.

One effect of this is that the front end appears significantly lower. Even though this is primarily a fascia change, it seems as though there is an entirely new hood (“How can it be the same hood?” people who are standing next to both the new and the previous models insist. Pulling that feat off is no small accomplishment, and the finance guys really ought to give it up to the designers for this: consider the savings realized by not having to get new dies for a new hood.)

In addition to which, there are a new turn signal and a new fog light, as well as a chrome accent in that bumper-area opening (for the top-of-the-line SH-AWD that’s actually a functional brake-duct cooling opening, not merely a faux vent). The headlights are updated such that the design is the same, but as the color of the materials used on the inside is now dark, the appearance is radically different.

Overall, the redesigned front end results in a 1-in. length reduction of the body ahead of the front wheels, not the six that our advanced designer friend talks about. (Remember: advanced designers are prone to a bit of . . . exaggeration.)

The rear is also shorter—by ½ in. The work on the rear fascia design included repositioning the license plate opening higher up toward the trunk opening, smaller rear reflectors, a smaller satin finisher below the trunk lid, thinner trunk edge trim, and a new lower rear diffuser. Overall, the rear looks wider. (No, the decklid isn’t different, even though that, too, seems to have been changed along with the hood.)

The other opportunities. Quietness and Fuel Economy.

The Quietness comes from many small things. Like a unibody design that places the frame rails inside the floor pan instead of underneath it, thereby boosting structural rigidity and providing a nearly flat underside, which translate into reduced interior noise. (There is extensive use of high-strength steel—47.6—so the strength doesn’t come with extra weight. The vehicle deploys hot-stamped steel as well as 980 grade—both ultra-high strength materials.) The body pillars and the front unit-body bulkhead are filled with closed-cell expansion foam (the foam expands when the vehicle is put in the oven after coating). There is additional use of noise-insulating foam, such as in the roof separators. There is an acoustic windshield that consists of two layers of 2-mm thick safety glass with a transparent elastic acoustic membrane in between. The side glass and the backlight are 5-mm thick. A new body-sealing compound and improved weather stripping are also used. In all, high-frequency noise in the cabin is reduced by 3 dB.

The Fuel Economy improvements for the 2012 TL, compared with the 2011 TL, are largely predicated on the use of a six-speed automatic transmission for both the cars equipped with either the 3.5-liter or the 3.7-liter V6. The 3.5-liter delivers 20/29 mpg, up from the 18/26 mpg for the ’11 model. The TL SH-AWD with the 3.7-liter engine goes from 17/25 mpg to 18/26 mpg. (A six-speed manual is also available for the SH-AWD model.)

Other improvement factors for the 280-hp 3.5-liter engine include a lightweight magnesium-alloy intake manifold with dual-stage induction, updated cold-air intake, and friction-reduction measures such as plateau honing of the cylinders, molybdenum-coated piston skirts, and ion-plated piston rings.

And so you figure: It’s 2012. And you’re standing with the head of advanced design for one of the car makers during the North American International Auto Show. And when he glances over at the Acura stand . . .