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Souped-up Hondas belong in Southern California, the land of illusion, delusion and marijuana clinics.

And I'm not referring to a 10-year-old Accord with blinding after-market wheels and a coffee-can exhaust, bouncing noisily down the Ventura Freeway.

Rather, I speak of the shimmery, ephemeral Acura, which for years has looked and felt like a Honda with a $50 haircut and a new Beachcomber shirt – the brand that has never quite been able to join Lexus, Infiniti, BMW and Audi at the country club.

Honda's luxury division assembled decent sedans and coupes packed with more refinement and performance than a Honda. But all were based on Honda vehicles, and if you scratched them deeply, you often found the soul of a Civic.

You won't sense a hint of that in the 2010 Acura TL SH-AWD, a good-size near-luxury sedan that will never be mistaken for the big-city cousin to the Accord that it is.

Suffice it to say that Acura has truly cut its visual ties to Honda. But in the new TL, it now mines the "strange sophisticate" segment – distinctively different, for better or worse.

Can a grille be fitted with a codpiece? Beats me. But the resolutely odd front end on the TL I had recently looked alternately like some piece of body armor or the evil smile of a drugged-up Joker.

In fact, I can imagine a flat-black TL cop car sitting on a silent post-apocalypse highway somewhere, waiting to nail Mad Max with a monster ticket from a city that no longer exists.

Beneath the TL's jarring grille is a flat, thick bumper of sorts that resembles a battering ram – just in case, I guess, you need to retrieve your life savings from some flim-flam bank that closed overnight.

On either side of the grille are fierce-looking headlamps that flow hard into clumsy front fenders with those ungainly Camry/Mazda6 shoulder-flares over the wheelwells.

After that, the TL flattens out into decent-looking, slabbish sides with huge back doors. Mine was equipped with aggressive 245/45 tires on five-spoke, 18-inch wheels that hint of the car's true personality.

A rich interior


As you probably know, the 3,800-pound TL competes with some serious middleweights in the near-luxury sedan segment – mainly the godlike 3-series BMW, the interesting Lexus IS 350, hot Infiniti G37 and solid Audi A4.

Through March nationally, Acura trailed BMW and Lexus substantially in sales and was slightly ahead of Infiniti and Audi – maintaining its low-profile midpack status.

It feels better than that inside. For the most part, the TL's interior looks like something you would find in a fairly expensive car – in this case, one with a $43,195 window sticker.

Mine featured fine black leather seats stitched in white and wearing perforated centers. As I mentioned earlier, the backseat area is expansive, with 36.2 inches of legroom – compared with 34.7 inches in the also-large Infiniti G37, according to Edmunds.com.

Up front, the nicely grained black plastic on the dashboard was as smooth as one of President Greenjeans' presentations on our new eco-economy – odd but intriguing.

The hood over the instrument panel has an interesting pattern in the center of it that kind of resembles a subtle cleft chin. The dash swoops dramatically down into a busy center stack filled with roughly a zillion buttons and knobs and probably capable of dialing up astronauts on the space station.

As a middle-aged hick from Denton, I'm happy just to be able to get the stereo tuned to a decent station – always a challenge in Dallas – and fresh air moving through the car. I accomplished both easily in the Acura.

The dash was trimmed in an aluminum band that curved down the sides of the console and ran along the padded, stitched door panels. Interior fit was excellent, as was the quality of the materials.

While all of that is pleasant to inhabit, the TL's real charms are out of sight – beneath the hood and below the car.

Mine was equipped with an impressive 3.7-liter V-6 with 305 horsepower that felt even stronger, despite Acura's slightly outdated five-speed automatic.

Moaning slightly under throttle, the V-6 delivers a silky punch down low and pulls hard to its 6,500 rpm red line, feeling really lively throughout the range. Although Car and Driver says the TL will run to 60 in a little less than six seconds, it seems faster than that.

Confident cornering

But what gives this Acura much of its personality is a sophisticated all-wheel-drive system that disperses torque seamlessly to the tires with the most traction. (The alphabet soup sloshing around the TL's name stands for Super Handling All-Wheel-Drive.)

Consequently, the TL drives kind of like a grown-up Subaru WRX-STI, ripping around corners with enormous confidence – its considerable mass held in check by the formidable grip.

While not light on its feet like a 3-series BMW or Infiniti G37, the TL hangs on in corners like some old stiff in Congress in need of one more year to qualify for his lavish federal pension.

I wish the TL's steering were up to the challenges that its double-wishbone front suspension and multilink rear can handle. Although quick enough to zip easily through those drunken, swerving curves on the north end of the Dallas North Crawlway, the steering is thick and doesn't really tell you much about what is going on with those meaty tires.

Nonetheless, you will be treated to a ride that is richly firm – flexible and compliant, yet able to zip comfortably around those curves and turns you don't see until you look up from the text message you are sending on your cellphone. Whoops.

With fuel consumption of 17 miles per gallon city and 25 highway, the TL is about average in economy for its segment. But with the SH-AWD system and a lusty engine, the TL provides all-wheel security with two-wheel-drive economy.

As for the styling, maybe the TL is like your flamboyant engineer-uncle from Anaheim – the one who always wears his tasseled loafers without socks, sports an overly large diamond earring and carries a purple cellphone on his belt.

Let's ride, dude.
 
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