HARPER’S FERRY, W.V. — “Joy of the road” can be more truth than cliché. Consider Virginia State Route 9, accessible from the Harry Byrd Highway (Virginia State Route 7) heading nearly 14 miles into West Virginia. With its frequent undulations, twists and turns, Virginia 9, popularly known as Charles Town Pike, is the perfect stretch of macadam and concrete for any car worth driving.
We had a worthy automobile, the 2012 Acura TL Advance, the last part of its name a reflection of the car’s many electronic assets, including an onboard navigation system with real-time monitoring of traffic and weather conditions.
We would have preferred the SH-AWD (Super Handling-All Wheel Drive) version of the new TL. It has a larger-displacement V-6 engine — 3.7 liters compared with 3.5 liters in the Acura TL Advance — and handling that lives up to its “super” marketing description.
But the front-wheel-drive TL Advance is no lamentable second act, as my wife Mary Anne and I discovered on a drive along Virginia 9 into this historic West Virginia town.
Some cars turn challenging roads, such as winding thoroughfares with one lane going in each direction, as is the case with some portions of Virginia 9, into worrisome chores. Those lackluster automobiles are so loose in their steering, or they are wound up so tight, that you spend your entire time with them struggling to control the steering wheel or, in the case of the tightly wound sample, fighting against it. That’s too much work, and working too hard on what is supposed to be a pleasant drive is no fun.
Other cars are so soft of suspension they feel like cruise ships instead of automobiles. Still others are obsessively wedded to the notion of “sports,” so much so that time spent in their driver’s seats should be measured in BPM (beatings per mile).
The Acura TL occupies a sweet spot among all of those extremes — precise enough in steering (rack-and-pinion type) to go exactly where you point when you point it; gifted with a well-crafted suspension (front double wishbone, rear multi-link) that turns dips, curves and bends into a smile-laden joy ride; and blessed with a new six-speed automatic transmission that can be used as a manual to turn drives on especially steep and twisty roads into pure, unadulterated fun.
There are many things to see in and around Harper’s Ferry where, on Oct. 16, 1859, abolitionist John Brown seized a federal armory in an attempt to spark an insurrection of slaves — only to die by hanging in nearby Charles Town on Dec. 2 of that year. It is brutal history turned tourist attraction.
But some of the area’s most memorable experiences can be had just driving its roads — preferably within posted speed limits, because tight local budgets are assisted greatly by revenue collected from speeding fines.
Besides, there is no need to zoom by all that Virginia 9 has to offer, especially not on a late spring day when the enveloping scenery is lush with vegetation. There are opportunities aplenty to stop for a bit and take it all in.
When it is time to move, the TL Advance with its 3.5-liter V-6 (280 horsepower, 254 foot-pounds of torque) has enough oomph to get you going. The SH-AWD version with its 3.7-liter V-6 (305 horsepower, 273 foot-pounds of torque) is a tad more exciting. But the local constabulary in these parts will be happy to give you a speeding ticket in either one.
Apparently, the people who engineered the 2012 Acura TL had lots of influence over the car’s stylists. That’s unfortunate. It’s no good to have a stunningly beautiful car with no performance guts. It is just as bad to have a beautifully engineered car that is stylistically ugly inside and out.
The 2012 Acura TL is ugly. It remains so despite notable attempts to soften its famously priapic front end and to bevel its all-too-many sharp angles. The interior, although ergonomically correct in terms of access to dials and gauges, is about as warm as a white, plastic pocket protector worn with a blue shirt — functional, but not the least bit appealing.
Memo to Honda, maker of all things Acura: Encourage the engineers to continue doing what they have done so well with Acura and other Honda-sponsored products. But, please, allow them only limited access to the design studios. Beauty does not particularly care how a thing works, or even why a particular aspect of beauty exists. As poet Ralph Waldo Emerson put it in his poem, The Rhodora:
“. . . if eyes were made for seeing,
“Then beauty is its own excuse for Being;”
If Honda and its Acura executives can understand that and apply it to the next edition of the Acura TL, they will have an unquestioned winner.