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Imagine your typical honors course in high school, full of the best and brightest, on the verge of ruling the world. You've got Barry BMW, brilliant and fabulously well read, but a bit of a punk sometimes and prone to wear expensive outfits. You've got Annie Audi, complex, chic and sharp as a whip, despite her lack of a decent caboose. And Martin Mercedes, who can get by on pure genealogy alone.
Then there's good ol' Andy Acura. No, he's not the sharpest knife in the drawer. But he always gets his homework in on time, is never tardy, and you know that if you ask him to take a note to the principal's office, he won't dawdle or take the long route. Nope, Mrs. Van Allan will have the note in her gnarled, liver-spotted hands just as soon as Andy's little legs can carry it to her.
So what happens if you inject a bit of hip, a dash of verve and a pinch of attitude into Andy? Does he become an object of affection? Desire? Or is the result a classic interpretation of a hipster doofus?
Acura is hoping that Andy, er, the new 3.2 CL Type S will be the kind of car that you dream about. Lust after. And all those other phrases that incorrectly end with a preposition.
On paper, the Acura should excel. Amongst its formidable competition, it's got the most powerful engine. It's got the most standard features. It's got the lowest price tag. Yet it still lacks that certain magic glimmer that distinguishes the segment-leading 3 Series.
Perhaps it's in its accessibility. The Type S is tailor-made to appeal to the mass-audience consumer who likes a luxury nameplate and the goodies that come with it, as well as the ability go fast, but doesn't want to expend that little bit of extra effort that yields ultimate driving pleasure.
Let's start with the front-wheel-drive layout. Really, no true performance car can be termed thusly if power is delivered to the front paws rather than the hind legs. Yes, it'll handle better in the wet or snow, but on dry pavement, no front-wheel-drive car can whup one with a rear-wheel configuration when it comes to sheer driving dynamics. Accordingly, guiding the Acura felt a tad sludgy as compared to the keen polish of a BMW. However, as the CL is based on Honda's global midsize platform, and all Hondas are FWD save for the brilliant exception of the S2000, we can't expect that they'd eschew their proven formula to create a RWD performance vehicle. Can we?
And, from our "Rockford Files" fan, a tongue-in-cheek comment from executive editor Karl Brauer - "The emergency brake is not operated by hand. You have to push a pedal on the far left side of the footwell. This is lame for a car that's supposed to compete with a 3 Series. With front-wheel drive, the only way to get the car sideways is to use the e-brake, but you can't do that with this setup." That Brauer - always up to his impish tricks. "Seriously, though," he contends, "no serious performance car that's deserving of the title lacks a hand-brake - it reduces its potential maneuverability."
On to the tranny. The SportShift design on the Acura is like that of BMW's - that is, the manual shift gate is correctly located on the left side of the box, near the driver, and moves up for upshifts and down for downshifts. Very intuitive, very easy to use. However, like most automanual transmissions, the gearshifts weren't as crisp or quick as a true manual; there was little difference between leaving it in the automatic mode and rowing your own gears in the middle range. At highway speeds, however, the auto managed to get confused, becoming hesitant when going from 60 mph to 80; we really had to work for a downshift. Car manufacturers have yet to develop an automanual that works like a true manual tranny, and for a performance-oriented vehicle, we'd expect the option of a manual.
Furthermore, steering could use a bit more feel. Although agile, quick and linear, the numb steering wheel transmitted little feedback from the road -- not the best trait in a performance vehicle.
We've got these gripes against the CL. But what the Acura lacks in flash, it more than makes up for in solid, dependable, and at times, excellent performance and a more-than-generous list of feature content, helping to create bonafide value.
Shod with 17-inch, machined finish alloys, the wheels of the CL Type S are awfully flashy, too much so, perhaps. It's like Andy wearing Gucci loafers when he'd look perfectly presentable in Florsheims. The awesome Michelin Pilot 215/50R17 V-Rated all season rubber stuck to the road like a limpet does sea-soaked rocks, didn't plow much in tight turns, and protested very little even when pushed hard.
The ultra-refined motor is exemplary of Japan's best. The 3.2-liter VTEC V6 powerplant makes copious power; 260 horses, to be exact. That's 35 more than the new inline-six of the BMW 330i. In the upper reaches of the rev range, near 6,100 rpm when the peak power is reached, it emanated a wicked little growl. Up to that point, however, it was the model of finesse. Thanks to vacuum-controlled front and rear hydraulic mounts, it emitted little to no sound, rumble or vibration; nor did it bestow any excitement. Again, accessibility is key: Peak torque of 232 foot-pounds is delivered between 3,500-5,500 rpm where most drivers would most need it. Our road test editor was able to derive a 0 to 60 time of 6.7 seconds, slightly slower but comparable to the 330Ci's acceleration numbers. You will have little trouble keeping up with that Bimmer, but the driver of the BMW will be having more fun than you are, thanks to greater communication between man and machine.
Braking performance from the four-wheel ABS system was excellent, requiring 131 feet for the 60 to 0 deceleration run, with smooth, predictable results every time. The ABS kicked in with a proper amount of pulse, and straight-line stability was near perfect and reassuringly consistent.
The double wishbone front suspension and multilink rear suspension jostled the commuter while traversing broken pavement around city streets, unable to dampen many of the bumps, but did an admirable job of managing canyon roads around Malibu with a modicum of body roll. The CL easily maintained its equilibrium, while composing itself quickly before gobbling up the next curve. Improved torsional rigidity over the previous CL was evident here, and inspired both respect for Acura engineers and confidence in the driver to push the car.
Not that we'd get into too much trouble. All CLs come standard with a traction control system (TCS), but the Type S is replete with Vehicle Stability Assist (VSA) that combines TCS and ABS to manipulate the throttle, fuel injection system and apply brake force to the right or left front wheel to better maintain control in an emergency maneuvering situation. Upon speedily entering a sharp corner and braking a hair too late for a turn, the VSA light on the dash blinked several times during our test driving, indicating that technology saved our collective butts. However, with VSA shut off, we took note of a light tail at the limit, resulting in a spin at the track.
The safety of their consumers was at the forefront of Acura engineers' minds, as evidenced by the dual-threshold front airbags, standard side airbags, xenon headlamps to aid visibility, the aforementioned VSA, and the fact that the first 50 pages of the owner's manual is devoted to listing the safety features and giving you safe driving tips.
Acura is so thoughtful. So considerate. The CL is stuffed with comfort and convenience features. In fact, the only option available on the CL is the excellent DVD-based navigation system. Operated from a well-placed "smudgeless" touch screen above the stereo (oh, by the way, the smudgeless screen is not so smudgeless when you've got a 7-year old with idle hands on board), most editors found the system simple to use, and all were impressed by its capacity - a map of the continental U.S. exists on a single disc, so you don't have to bother asking Toothless Jebediah the way to the nearest Olive Garden. Handy steering wheel controls can also be used to operate the nav system.
When turned on but not programmed, the screen blanks to a canopy of stars. At night, you can pretend you're aboard the Battleship Galactica, spiraling into the vast beyond, but during the day it looks like dust particles have invaded your cabin. The screen is canted at a nice angle, and doesn't wash out in bright sunlight.
The screen also inexplicably controls some of the air conditioning functions. But only some, like the fan speed and the vents from which the air is blown. Items like the temperature control and auto-climate control button are below the screen. It's not overly complicated, but what happens if you damage the touch screen? You'd have to rely on Auto mode to cool or heat your cabin.
The stereo, at least, is a stand-alone unit. And what a cool stereo - few cars in this class can boast an in-dash Bose six-disc CD changer as standard equipment. Before you pshaw at this generosity, consider this fact: with a BMW you've gotta shell out $200 bucks to get a single CD player. Meanies, ain't they? The changer, and a knob-controlled radio tuner and adjustor, kept us humming. Outstanding reception ensured that we wouldn't miss a moment of "Hairspray Replay" 80s weekend, courtesy of the local station.
Fit-and-finish of the cabin were up to Acura's exacting standards; none of our editors were able to find much to nitpick. Criticism was limited to the sterile look of the interior, and opinions were divided. While some preferred the warmth of the wood-grain trim and gathered leather insets on the door panels, others maintained that the bourgeois fake wood and dull-toned leather lacked the punch or drama of austere-yet-chic European competitors.
The seats lent themselves to a high degree of comfort, including 8-way power adjustment memory (you can reset to your perfect position before entering the car by a mere click of the remote key fob), effective side bolstering, and a taut, perforated leather covering. Standard seat heaters warm your tush on chilly days. The dual-tier center console is spacious, and slides fore and aft on tracks to optimize comfort for drivers of all sizes; one driver noted that it also had the effect of sliding out of the way as to not rub her forearm while utilizing SportShift. Two power sockets, with one in the center console, provided enough outlets for all our electronic gewgaws.
Everything has that gentle Acura touch to it, from the soft deployment of the cupholders to the easy-open sunglasses holder. Thoughtful to the extreme, Acura provided a sun visor extender and plenty of storage spaces, with coin boxes, sizable door bins and seatback pockets to hold doodads.
Even rear seat passengers, who usually get gypped in a coupe, will ride in comfort - there was plenty of knee and toe room, although space between the head and roof was at a premium. The seats are nicely bolstered with adjustable headrests, and they also get a floor-mounted console that separates the two seats and flips up to reveal a good amount of space, as well as an armrest that folds down (revealing a ski pass-through) to a comfortable height to rest weary elbows.
The 13.6-cubic-foot trunk is roomy, with a shopping bag hook, storage tray and a cargo net to please Hold Everything catalogue fanatics. But if Acura installed hydraulic struts for the hood, why couldn't they use some for the trunk? The luggage-crushing manual hinges are outdated and eat up storage space.
Acura forewent an angular rear in favor of a more rotund derriere. Creases were reserved for the front - all the lines of the front fascia come together in a bird-beak point in the middle; aside from these styling modifications the CL looks little more distinguished than an Accord coupe that recently returned from a fancy Swiss boarding school.
By now, you may have noticed the superfluousness of the word "standard" in this review. It's no mistake. The CL's numerous features, which may be ruinous for your bank account in a similarly equipped German car, come standard with the Acura. Yup, even with a base CL you get leather, heated seats, a six-disc CD changer, Homelink universal transmitter, power moonroof, xenon headlights with auto-off feature, traction control, four-wheel disc ABS, side airbags, and heated, electrochromic mirrors. The CL Type S adds SportShift, 17-inch wheels, VSA, sport-tuned suspension, and, of course, the 260-horsepower engine. It was almost beyond us how Acura was able to pack this many features into the CL without charging an exorbitant price.
The riddle is partly solved by a cabin that gives intimations of luxury, but never quite fully immerses the driver in it. The leather, while acceptable and copious, lacked the suppleness of touch and luminosity of tone that marks the true luxury vehicle. Although there is an instrument panel brightness control, the cabin was too dark while driving at night for our tastes. For instance, neither the steering wheel-mounted radio controls nor the cruise control (the activator and the set buttons are, unfortunately, in two separate places) were lit; finding them after twilight is a haphazard exercise of fumbling around the wheel and dash while driving. Plasticky plood doesn't do much to enhance the cabin, at least for this writer who prefers monotone plastic to faux wood grain. Dual climate control is not an option.
Ultimately, Acura can't match its primary performance-oriented entry-level luxury competitor, the BMW 3 Series, in terms of driving dynamics and handling. It earnestly reaches to be a star in both the luxury coupe as well as the sport coupe class. While it solidly places, it's not a stellar contender in either. But despite obvious cost cutting, it provides terrific value for the money. This Acura is for those who like to go fast comfortably but don't especially like to work at it. You get most of the performance available in its Teutonic counterpart, and for its surprisingly low price, you get all the features that you could ever wish for and, best of all, they come standard.
No, the Acura CL Type S doesn't inspire much passion or excitement, but it does everything exceedingly well. If it were a student, it would pretty much garner a 3.8-average, but would lack the A-pluses and advanced-placement class credit that would bump it over and above the other excellent pupils in the honors courses. Students like Andy (or cars like the Acura CL Type S) make your life easier, ensure the rhythms of the day and assure you that all's right with the world. But it's the Barrys and Annies you really remember when flipping through the faded annals of yearbooks past.
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