Much More Than a Fancy Integra
Driving the Acura CL immediately after spending a week in an Integra provided a great opportunity to compare these two coupes from Honda's A-division. With less than $5,000 separating these models on the showroom floor, it would be easy to dismiss the CL as an overpriced Integra with heated seats. That view, however, would be like calling a Ferrari 355 "a fancy Fiat."
The CL's real appeal comes not from its attractive shape or long list of standard options (the majority of which can be ordered on the less expensive Honda Accord Coupe), but rather from the effective marriage of luxury and performance that Acura has blended into the CL. If any aspect of the long successful Integra has been retained in the CL, it's the smaller coupe's trademark road manners, which border on magic. The CL will never threaten a Porsche in absolute handling, but it may surprise drivers who think that automatic climate control and canyon carving are mutually exclusive. We've heard that the four-cylinder engine, found in the CL 2.2, is lighter and thus offers a more responsive turn-in, but we felt completely satisfied with the 3.0's point-and-shoot potential; at least as far as personal luxury coupes are concerned. Highway manners are also excellent, with a comfortable ride that provides plenty of feedback. The steering is neither too light nor too heavy, which means you can sense what's going on beneath the front wheels without being distracted by it.
Balancing out the coupe's responsive road feel is a powerful drivetrain capped by a smooth, torquey 3.0-liter V6. Unlike the smaller Integra's raucous 1.8-liter inline four, with a VTEC valvetrain that tends to wake the neighbors when started on early mornings, the CL fires quietly and stays smooth right up to its 6,300 rpm redline where only a hint of engine roar can be heard or felt from within the well-insulated cabin. The CL's standard 2.2-liter inline four would no doubt offer less power and more vibration, pulling the stately coupe closer to the aforementioned "over-priced Integra" classification. The extra investment required to purchase the V6 is more than made up for in performance and refinement dividends.
Refinement isn't found only under the CL's hood. Spend some quality time behind the wheel and you'll quickly discover why Honda decided to use the Acura nameplate on its highline models. This is the same company that makes Civics? Maybe, but if the Acura symbol and wood-trimmed interior helps you forget that little fact, Honda won't mind.
Seating for two is excellent. Supple leather, support in all the right places and an almost infinite number of power adjustments should satisfy even the most demanding luxury buyers. Rear seating, at least for smaller adults or children, is passable. The official word from my 5-foot-4-inch wife, after a four-hour drive, was "These rear seats are very comfortable. Legroom is, well, adequate." Of course, she was sitting behind my 6-foot frame with the front seat adjusted for maximum comfort. By the way, the front passenger seat was available, but she wanted to sit close to our six-week-old son who was also riding in back.
Speaking of babies, we were able to load all of the baby paraphernalia that new parents typically bring with them when leaving home for more than 20 minutes (200 diapers, 15 outfits, baby carriage, collapsible crib, etc.) into the CL's sizable trunk.
During our extended highway jaunt under a hot August sun the CL kept things cool with an effective climate control system. We also enjoyed the sounds coming from the Bose stereo system with in-dash CD player and much-appreciated steering wheel controls. A multi-disc changer mounted in the trunk would have been nice but might have compromised crib storage. Additional niceties included heated seats and mirrors and a memory system that electrically slides the driver's seat back into position after rear-passenger entry/egress.
Exterior styling drew universal praise from friends and relatives. The CL is more attractive than its fraternal twin, the two-door Accord ... but not by much. On looks alone the price difference between these two coupes would not be justified. Our test unit was painted an interesting shade of Cardiff Blue-Green that contributed to its regal appearance. However, of all the CL's unique styling cues, it's the rounded rear-end and angled taillights that I find most intriguing. They look cool going down the road while still offering plenty of warning to drivers approaching from behind.
While we've come to expect nothing short of perfect build quality from Acura, this particular CL did surprise us with a strange rattle from just behind the steering wheel immediately after it was picked up. It was impossible for me to confirm exactly where the high pitched creaking was coming from, but it seemed like the steering column/gauge cluster area was the likely culprit. Sure enough, within two days of picking up our CL, a strange "clink" sound from behind the gauge cluster managed to drop a small Phillips screw out from behind the dash and onto my left foot. Once the screw came out, the initial creaking stopped and no other problems or noise occurred for the remainder of our CL test period. In defense of Acura, I happen to know that this particular car had received airbag service just before we took possession. Is it possible that somebody missed a screw during the reassembly process?
As the first Acura designed, engineered, and manufactured almost entirely in the U.S., the car definitely "feels" quite American. From its high-end accouterments to its sporty road manners, the CL takes personal luxury to a level not commonly found on vehicles in this price range. It's also the only Acura, other than the NSX, to be offered solely as a two-door model. In the coming months it will face additional competition from Toyota's new Solara and, eventually, the Thunderbird when it returns sometime after the year 2000.
A glorified Integra? No way! A fancy Accord Coupe? Well, maybe, but those rear taillights are pretty cool.