A Coupe de Grace? Acura Hopes a Sportier CL can Outpace its Euro Rivals
John Clor, Contributor
Just when we are all beginning to think that trucks are taking over the automotive world, trend-savvy marketers are telling us there's a quiet resurgence going on in none other than the luxury/performance coupe segment. That's right: High-end coupes are on the comeback trail, led by such heralded benchmarks as the BMW 328Ci, Mercedes-Benz CLK 320 and Volvo C70.
But those decidedly upmarket Europeans will now have to share the sales sandbox with a new offering from Honda's upscale division, because Acura has launched a revamped CL coupe that is larger, more powerful and more uplevel than its predecessor. Much is at stake here, as the first-generation CL --introduced in 1996 -- made up nearly one-fourth of Acura's yearly sales total. While that car's overall competency was appreciated, it didn't have the kind of high style or performance needed to draw serious enthusiasts.
Enter the 2001 Acura 3.2CL, an all-new coupe with revamped powertrains designed to stir the driver's soul. The luxury/performance coupe segment is a place where styling has long been the key to evoking buyers' passions. So, in an effort to turn some heads with its new CL, Acura attempted to blend the lines of classic European Gran Turismo coupes of the 1950s and '60s with some of its own brand lineage --namely the exotic NSX and the original Legend coupe.
The result is typically Honda/Acura conservative. We don't see much Ferrari in this design, let alone NSX. Sure, it has the long-hood, short-deck configuration of a traditional GT, and we'll admit it has a Legend-like greenhouse. It touts a sharper, high beltline and crisper lines than the previous CL --but no new ground is broken here. Slightly rakish with angular front and rear styling cues, the design is, well --pleasant.
We'd say the new CL looks different from a TL sedan in much the same way that Toyota's Solara coupe looks different from a Camry sedan. Based on Honda's new global midsize platform, the CL shares its architecture with Honda's Accord and Acura's own 3.2TL. But that's not to say the new CL is merely a two-door version of the TL.
For one thing, Acura went to great lengths to improve torsional rigidity (by six percent) and bending rigidity (23 percent stronger) for a CL body that is not only stiffer and quieter, but also much more capable of absorbing an impact during a crash. Plus, nearly three-quarters of the unibody structure itself is exclusive to the CL -- meaning it's a true coupe from the ground up. The new CL is two inches longer (at 192 inches) and a half-inch wider (70.6 inches) than the car it replaces, with a wider track (61 inches) and a wheelbase of just under 107 inches.
The move to the global midsize platform also pays dividends inside, where interior volume has been increased to 90 cubic feet -- a 5.3-cubic-foot boost over last year's model. Though rear-passenger seating space is traditionally at a premium in most coupes, the new CL has enough hip- and headroom to accommodate adult rear passengers, assuming the front seats are not in their most rearward position. When that is the case, rear-seat knee- and legroom disappear in a hurry, as you might expect.
The new cockpit incorporates a driver-oriented environment, with the instruments, comfort and convenience switches-as well as steering and shifter controls-angled toward the driver. And all occupants ride in leather-lined, wood-trimmed luxury in a real 2+2 layout with four individual bucket seats. The heated, lumbar-support design front seats feature eight-way power adjustments for the driver and four-way for the passenger.
The dash sports easy-to-read analog instrumentation, although we wished the tachometer didn't blend in so well with the speedometer. All CLs come with an automatic climate control/air conditioning system, complete with passenger compartment micron air-filtration. And a six-speaker Acura/Bose Music System is standard equipment, which includes an AM/FM stereo, cassette deck and six-disc, in-dash CD changer that allows for multi-disc music convenience without a separate trunk-mounted unit or cartridges.
Want to put something in the trunk? Don't bother looking for the keyhole. For the sake of greater security and cleaner rear styling, the CL's 13.6-cubic-foot trunk has no key cylinder. Instead, you can open the trunk lid by using the keyless remote, a button on the driver's door panel, or by a backup manual release accessible through the lockable flip-down pass-through in the rear seatback.
There are a myriad of other standard features and notable engineering advances in Acura's new CL coupe, but more on those later. The big news for enthusiasts is that all CLs are now V6-powered 3.2CLs -- in other words, no more 2.3CL four-cylinder versions. Underhood is a 225-horsepower 3.2-liter 24-valve VTEC V6, similar to the all-aluminum powerplant found in CL's sibling, the 3.2TL performance luxury sedan. We get a 12.5-percent increase from the last-generation 3.0CL coupe (which had 200 hp).
Desire a little more oomph? Then opt for the high performance 3.2CL Type S model. A host of engine enhancements -- including a high-capacity, dual-stage induction system and free-flowing exhaust-help the Type S develop 260 horsepower and 232 foot-pounds of torque. Making 30 percent more horsepower than the previous 3.0CL, the Type S lays claim to being the most powerful six-cylinder coupe in its class -- 20 more ponies than even BMW's tuner-derived M3.
We had the chance to sample both the 3.2CL and the Type S along some rather challenging roads in the mountains outside Santa Barbara, Calif., and must tell you that these cars are very willing -- and very smooth. Power is made quickly and seamlessly, reaching its peak at a rev-happy 5600 rpm (6100 in the Type S). Acceleration is both silky and quiet in the 3.2CL, but we prefer the more urgent pull -- and more sporting exhaust note and handling capability -- of the Type S.
Thanks to Acura's VTEC technology (a loose acronym for Variable Valve Timing and Lift Electronic Control), both the 3.2CL and Type S models are blessed with a pleasingly flat torque curve, which helps responsiveness at all engine speeds. For example, the Type S makes its maximum torque between 3500 (just about the time its intake plenum valve opens for the full fuel-air charge) and 5500 rpm - that's a range of a full 2000 revs!
Make no mistake, these are no run-of-the-mill powerplants. Acura's 3.2-liter all-aluminum V6 features a forged crankshaft and dome-shaped alloy pistons, with a 9.8:1 compression ratio in the 3.2CL and 10.5:1 in the Type S. A single camshaft in each cylinder head is driven by the crank via a glass-fiber-reinforced toothed belt, and roller followers actuate the four valves per cylinder. Both versions have computer-controlled programmed fuel injection, a direct ignition system and 100,000-mile tune-up intervals.
The EPA rates the 3.2CL's fuel economy at 19/29 mpg (city/highway). All CLs meet new LEV (Low Emission Vehicle) standards, and the 3.2CL California models meet ULEV (Ultra-Low Emission Vehicle) standards.
Both the 3.2CL and the Type S send power to the pavement via a new five-speed automatic transmission with a Formula One race car-inspired Sequential SportShift system similar to the one Acura introduced in the NSX. The CL's SportShift transmission allows the driver to select the forward gears just like a manual transmission while enjoying the convenience of an automatic.
By moving the console-mounted selector handle to the left of the "Drive" position into a special SportShift gate, upshifts and downshifts can be ordered with a quick fore or aft motion. Gear selection is indicated by an LED display located in the tachometer face.
To foster the "immediate" feel of a manual, the SportShift system is engineered to deliver firmer shifts that are approximately 10 percent quicker than in automatic mode. Additionally, the computer controls will not allow a downshift that would cause the engine to over-rev in a driver-selected lower gear. And by monitoring throttle position, vehicle speed and acceleration/deceleration, an internal Grade Logic Control System "knows" when the car is on a hill, so shifts are adjusted automatically to hold the transmission in a lower gear for better climbing power.
Acura drivers should immediately notice a marked improvement in shift quality compared to the four-speed automatic transmission found in the 1999 CL. This new five-speed is far smoother, downshifts more quickly (with less shift shock), and is geared more aggressively to take advantage of the new, more powerful engine.
But getting power to the ground is of little consequence if a car's chassis can't keep it planted over twisty sections of pavement. Here, too, Acura has gone to an enthusiast-oriented strategy, this one of controlled compliance - or high-performance road dynamics coupled with grand touring refinement.
Similar to the underpinnings of the sporty 3.2TL sedan, the new CL chassis employs double-wishbone front and rear independent suspensions to optimize tire contact with the road surface. New geometry and tuning refinements have significantly improved the CL's handling and response to steering input. And the Type S adds a larger-diameter rear stabilizer bar, stiffer front and rear springs, and more compression and rebound damping.
New is an upgraded three-channel ABS disc brake system (four-channel on Type S) with larger front (11.8-inch diameter) and rear discs (11.1-inch) and more rigid front and rear calipers. A Traction Control System (TCS) is standard, while Acura's Vehicle Stability Assist (VSA) system is added on the Type S model.
VSA orchestrates the throttle, fuel injection and brakes to integrate traction control, antilock braking and stability enhancement to help the driver maintain control during cornering, acceleration and sudden collision-avoidance maneuvers. Autocrossers will be pleased to know that a cockpit switch is provided to disable the VSA and TCS while leaving ABS fully functional.
Naturally, the new emphasis on the CL's road-holding capability required an increase in tire and wheel sizes. So the 3.2CL comes with 205/60R-16 Michelin MXV4 all-season tires on 6.5 x 16-inch seven-spoke aluminum wheels. The Type S runs on 7 x 17-inch five-spoke aluminum alloys mounted with 215/50R-17 V-rated, all-season, high-performance Michelin Pilot MXM4 tires.
We found that the performance engineering elements of the new CL combine to create a high performance luxury coupe that steers, corners, brakes and drives more aggressively and predictably than the car it replaces. What's more, the enthusiast driver is rewarded with more power and more neutral handling characteristics, as well as less NVH (noise, vibration and harshness) - thanks to the new CL's more rigid unibody, isolated front and rear subframes and vacuum-controlled front and rear hydraulic engine mounts.
Of course, safety and security also play a part in any vehicle purchase, so Acura made the CL to meet or exceed the new 2002 federal head-impact safety regulations. Advanced safety-cage construction, side-impact door beams and strategic structural reinforcements work together to help protect occupants during side- and offset-impact crashes. New dual-stage front airbags, front seatbelt pretensioners and a seat-mounted side-airbag system for front occupants are also standard. For better visibility, Xenon High Intensity Discharge (HID) headlights provide 40 percent more lighting coverage than conventional halogen headlamps.
When it comes to security, the CL is equipped with a standard keyless-remote entry and passive vehicle security system, as well as reinforced door key cylinders and latches to make a break-in more difficult. When an attempt is made to enter or start a locked vehicle without the remote fob or door key, the horn sounds, the flashers are activated and the starter system is disabled. A transponder-equipped immobilizer system cuts fuel flow to the engine and sounds an alarm in the event of ignition tampering.
Though the most noticeable difference between the new CL and the previous-generation car is its newfound bias toward performance, there's no overlooking the effort made to add nearly every comfort and convenience feature available. On top of those already mentioned, the CL carries a full roster of amenities, including such niceties as: automatic day/night rearview and reverse-tilt passenger-side mirrors; illuminated center console with power port, dual cupholders and hidden storage area; padded adjustable center armrest; sliding sun visor extensions; illuminated power window switches; speed-synchronized intermittent wipers; and dual cupholders for rear-seat passengers.
With even a power glass moonroof as standard, the only factory-installed option available on the new CL is the latest version of the Acura Navigation System. Similar to the units in the 3.5RL and the 3.2TL, the CL's navigation system employs Global Positioning System (GPS) data received from orbiting space satellites. Together with its own inertial guidance system and a new Digital Versatile Disc (DVD) database, it pinpoints locations and guides the driver to destinations on an LCD screen, located high on the center stack.
The development of the new CL combined Acura's resources in Japan with those of the company's design, engineering and manufacturing facilities in the United States. The majority of the CL's components and parts are U.S.-made or sourced. All CLs are now being built at the Honda of America assembly plant in Marysville, Ohio, on the same line as the Acura 3.2TL sedan and the Honda Accord.
As you might expect from Acura, the new 3.2CL is a solid, competent coupe with surprising power and outstanding refinement. Fit and finish of the pre-production versions we drove were up to Acura's high standards, and the litany of standard equipment makes a strong value statement. The MSRP starts $27,980 for the 3.2CL, and $30,330 for the 3.2CL Type S. That's anywhere from $5,000 to $14,000 less than comparable European entries.
Though the CL has been moved further upmarket (and further out of financial reach of some customers), Acura expects to sell even more units than last year - as many as 30,000 in a segment that some forecasters say will grow by more than 150 percent by the end of 2000.
Despite its powerful engine and top-notch handling, the CL has two strikes against it when swinging for the pure enthusiast: Old-fashioned performance freaks tend to favor rear-wheel drive and manual transmissions. Neither is available in an Acura 3.2CL Type S (while the BMW M3 offers both). But if your driving enthusiasm happens to revolve around luxo-coupes with front-drive and automatic transmissions, this Acura is for you.
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