You'll want to take the long way home in 2009 Acura TL

— -- Surely the neighborhood shortcut is a quicker way to work, but the long way has that pair of hilly, 20-mph "S" corners that let TL's performance-oriented all-wheel drive sling it fiercely through the turns.

Surely a test pair of redesigned TLs delivered the most enjoyable overall driving of any cars in a long time — the kind of deep satisfaction that has you looking for excuses to take the long, twisty way.

Not that the new TL vibrates with excitement. It can be provoked into pulse-raising antics by simply stabbing your right foot toward the carpet and dancing your fingertips on the manual-shift paddles on the steering wheel.

But your creaky relatives could motor away and feel, if not precisely at home, at least not inconvenienced.

That happy blend of sport and luxury is a result of Acura trying to exorcise what people disliked about the last TL, while expanding what they loved. Thus:

• More power. About 20 horsepower more than previous models — 280 hp in the '09 front-drive model, 305 hp in the all-wheel-drive version, called SH-AWD (for super-handling all-wheel drive).

• More stability. SH-AWD, used on the bigger RL and the MDX SUV but not available until now on TL, is unlike other systems. In a corner, it pours more power to the outside rear wheel to pivot the car around smartly. It cuts power to the inside rear only as a last resort. Rivals cut power to the inside wheel much sooner, taking control away from the driver. It can't overcome stupid drivers or the laws of physics. But short of those, it pretty much begs you to bring it on.

Perhaps the best part of SH-AWD: It's a relative bargain at $3,550 more than the FWD model and includes the more-powerful engine and sportier suspension.

It's useful in slick weather, too, of course.

• More room. The new TL is fractionally more than an inch wider inside and has a little more than an inch more knee room in the rear seat. Makes a bigger difference than you'd think. Rear-seat room was a big deal with customers and potential customers that Acura surveyed. Used to feel tight, now feels roomy.

• More agility. Electric power steering replaces conventional hydraulics, and Acura's mastered the black art of tuning electric steering. Bigger brakes with firmer-pedal feel overcome potential objections that Acura didn't broaden the use of the high-status Brembo brakes the previous TL Type S deployed up front. Well-tuned suspension provides stability in demanding turns but doesn't impose a punishing ride to get it. It's firm; no mistaking it for your great aunt's Buick. But it won't send you to your dentist or chiropractor.

Combine those upgrades with a sensible, if visually confusing, array of controls, unusually comfortable seats, an optional navigation system that's actually useful and decipherable, reading lights that don't distract the driver, and you can see why you might want a few more miles or minutes in the new TL.

No car's perfect, though. Negatives:

• The slows. Gee-whiz navi takes 12 seconds to give access to the map or stereo when you start the car. Not good for Acura's tech-oriented target buyers who think instant gratification takes too long.

Also, the rear-window defroster on both preproduction test cars took minutes, not just moments, to clear foggy glass on cool, humid mornings. If you ask it to remove ice, you might need to bring a book.

• Underachieving rear seat. Yup, it has adult-size leg and knee room now. But the middle seating slot is narrow, raised and crowded by the tall center tunnel.

• Subpar details. Automatic's a five-speed in a world of six-speeds. The loss might be mostly bragging rights, but that matters in a luxury car. And a well-tuned six-speed adds a bit in mileage and acceleration.

A wide turning circle subtracts from agility credits.

• Pricey fuel. Premium's recommended. And Acura takes a harder line than most automakers, saying prolonged use of regular could cause damage.

• What-were-they-thinking styling. The TL looks good in profile. But the front end looks like the designer longed for the cowcatchers on old-time steam locomotives. The back? Here's a theory: Acura stylists raced to finish the TL clay model so the brass could sign off. Then somebody made room for the next project by pushing the wet-clay mockup against the studio wall, flattening the back end. That's what the brass approved, right? It says so here on the work order.

Had to be something like that.

You won't much care, though. Your quality time will be inside the car, where its extraordinary integration of sport, luxe and eagerness is almost irresistible.

The 2009 Acura TL

• What? Redo of four-door, midsize sedan. Available with front-wheel drive (FWD) or all-wheel drive (AWD).

• When? FWD on sale since Sept. 24. SH-AWD (super-handling all-wheel drive) model out mid-November.

• Where? Made at Marysville, Ohio.

• Why? Losing ground to rivals with more room, power.

• How much? FWD starts at $35,755, including $760 shipping. SH-AWD: $39,265 to $43,995.

Preproduction test cars would have been priced about $39,000 (FWD) and $43,000 (SH-AWD).

• How many? 70,000 a year.

• How hot? Fresh from the oven. FWD has 3.5-liter V-6 rated 280 horsepower at 6,200 rpm, 254 pounds-feet of torque at 5,000 rpm. (Old TL had 3.2-liter, 258 hp, 233 lbs.-ft.)

SH-AWD has 3.7-liter V-6 rated 305 hp at 6,300 rpm, 275 lbs.-ft. at 5,000 rpm (up from 286 hp, 256 lbs.-ft. in previous high-performance version, called Type S).

Both engines mated to five-speed automatic transmission with manual-shift mode. Six-speed manual available on 2010 SH-AWD. SH-AWD normally sends 90% of power to fronts, can send 100% rear.

• How lavish? Navigation's extra (part of $3,750 Technology Package), about everything else is standard: Leather, sunroof, heated seats, Bluetooth link, air bags ahoy.

• How big? Similar to Infiniti M, BMW 5, Cadillac CTS. TL is 195.3 inches long, 74 in. wide, 57.2 in. tall, on 109.3-in. wheelbase. Weighs 3,708-3,986 lbs. Passenger space: 98.2 cubic feet; trunk: 13.1 cu. ft. Turning circle, 38.5 ft.

Don't tow, Acura says firmly.

• How thirsty? FWD rated 18 miles per gallon in town, 26 highway, 21 combined; AWD 17/25/20. Test-car trip computers showed 17.5 mpg (FWD) and 15.7 mpg (AWD) in suburban driving.

Premium fuel recommended. Acura says regular "may be used temporarily," but power and mpg drop, and "long-term use … can lead to engine damage."

• Overall: Sweet.