And that's why you should buy one.
The Acura TL lasted for four generations from 1997 to 2014 before it was killed off and merged with the TSX to create the TLX. The TLX never offered a cool wagon variant like the TSX nor a sporty Type S version like the TL. Acura has teased a return of the Type S sub-brand but we highly doubt it will offer a manual transmission for purists who enjoy rowing their own gears.
Looking around the luxury sedan market in 2020, there are few sedans that offer the option of a manual transmission. The Genesis G70 offers a six-speed manual on the 2.0T trim but only around 3% of customers actually opt for it. That is why we think now is the perfect time to reflect back on the Acura TL. Both the third and fourth generation models were offered with an optional six-speed manual and in some ways, both are better than any luxury sedan offered today.
Over the course of its 17-year life span, the TL was an understated sedan with the possible exception of the sporty-looking third-generation model from 2004 to 2008. Along the way, both the second- and third-gen cars offered sporty Type S variants, which enhanced the styling, handling, and power. And while the second-gen car never came with a manual, the often-forgotten two-door CL Type S did have a row-it-yourself option.
If you are looking for a used luxury car that you can run reliably and affordably, the TL is now an excellent bargain. Its V6 engines are strong and its front-wheel-drive architecture lauded as one of the best of its era. Sportier German rear-wheel-drive models from this period exist but will attract high car maintenance costs.
For the purposes of this Smart Buy, we are going to focus on three generations of the TL: the second- and third-gen TL Type S and the third-gen TL SH-AWD. The second-gen TL Type S was sold in 2002 and 2003 and used examples can be found for less than $2,000 with very high mileage. These cars have aged quite a bit at this point, so well-kept ones with under 100,000 miles are pretty much impossible to find, but even a nicer one can be had for under $5,000, making it a great option for a first car or a winter daily driver.
The third-gen Type S starts around the $5,000 mark with well over 100,000 miles while a great condition example can fetch up to $15,000. For the fourth-generation, finding a manual example is not easy and prices range from around $12,000 to $25,000 depending on milage.
All three examples of the TL we've mentioned are powered by V6 VTEC engines. The second-gen TL Type used a 3.2-liter that was bumped up by 35 horsepower for a total of 260 hp going out to the front wheels through a five-speed automatic. These cars tended to have problems with the automatic transmission failing, which is why we recommend spending more on the third-gen car.
While a five-speed automatic was available, savvy buyers opted for the slick six-speed manual. This new variant upped the power to 270 hp while adding Brembo brakes, stiffer anti-roll bars, and a Torsen-type limited-slip differential.
Acura never offered a fourth-gen TL Type S but the SH-AWD version was equipped with a manual option and packed a 3.7-liter V6 producing 305 hp. Unlike the Type S cars, the SH-AWD could send up to 70% of its power to the rear wheels resulting in better handling and a 5.3-second 0-60 mph time. Acura also tuned the SH-AWD TL with stiffer suspension and better steering response than the standard car.
When Acura was building the TL, it was seen as a semi-luxury automaker. The TL's cabin reflects this status in all three generations with upscale but never outrageous design. The second-gen car is clearly dated but the thrid-gen model still looks relatively modern. It features sporty gauges and a simple touchscreen system during a time when infotainment was just being introduced.
The fourth-gen car took a sharp left turn with tons of buttons and a confusing knob-based infotainment system. Even this car is feeling a bit dated by 2020 standards but it does have the basics like Bluetooth, navigation, and push-button start.
As a front-wheel-drive mid-size sedan, the TL offers adequate legroom in the back seat and a decently sized trunk. You might not expect a powerful V6 sedan from the mid-2000s to be very efficient but the second-gen Type S could squeak out 29 mpg on the highway while the third-gen could hit 27 mpg. Because of the AWD system, the fourth-gen TL is actually the least efficient of the three with a rating of 26 mpg on the highway. Interestingly, all three cars averaged around 18-19 mpg in the city.
There aren't many modern luxury cars quite like the Acura TL. Acura was once fabled for its sporty Type S models and slick manual transmission but the company has lost these attributes in recent years. With prices continuing to fall, a used TL is looking like a great purchase. Well-kept manual examples are starting to become harder to find but if you can locate one, a used TL could be a great affordable daily driver.