We get plenty of letters chastising us for endlessly raving about various German automobiles with a blue and white roundel on the hood. It seems some of our readers are convinced that we're blatantly biased toward these Bayerische Motoren Werke vehicles.
We won't deny our affinity for Bavarian products, but saying we're biased because we like BMWs is like saying a symphony conductor is biased for appreciating John Williams or a fashion designer is biased for studying Armani. Within the realms of automobiles, music and clothing, there are simply certain icons by which all others are measured.
Rather than dispute this undeniable fact of automotive reality, Acura has embraced it by creating a sport coupe that effectively captures German passion in an American-built, Japanese-engineered vehicle. The 2003 Acura CL Type-S, which goes on sale in March 2002, puts the finishing touches on a car that has edged ever closer to luxury sport coupe nirvana since it was introduced two years ago. While a 2001 CL took fourth place in our last Luxury Coupe Comparison Test, it was only 3 percentage points off the second and third place finishers, a Mercedes CLK 430 and Volvo C70. Only the venerable 3 Series ran away from the competition in that test, and for 2003, the CL has received numerous upgrades that will bring it within striking distance of the Bimmer.
The most obvious, and appreciated, new feature is a close-ratio six-speed manual transmission that finally lets enthusiast drivers take full advantage of the CL's exceptional engine. With 260 horsepower on tap and streaming through this highly engaging short-throw gearbox, there's great fun to be had for those who truly like to drive. Multi-cone synchronizers ensure a crisp feel with each shift, while a dual mass flywheel and self-adjusting clutch maintain typical Acura refinement throughout the drivetrain.
Reeling in all that power is a helical limited-slip differential that is essentially the latest version of Honda's Automatic Torque Transfer System, or ATTS, that was first seen on the 1997 Prelude Type SH. Although ATTS was never the sales and marketing hit Honda had hoped for (as seen by the low sales numbers and eventual termination of the Prelude model), anyone who experienced this subtle technology on a twisty road, or under racetrack conditions, quickly came to appreciate Honda's high-tech efforts. It works by sensing and reducing wheel slip of the inside tire while simultaneously sending additional torque to the outside tire during cornering maneuvers. This allows the driver to accelerate sooner when exiting a turn, and the "pulling" effect of applying additional torque to the outside front tire can almost make you forget which wheels are propelling the CL Type-S. In other words, the car feels strangely similar to a certain rear-wheel-drive sport coupe known for its "driving passion."
Passion also finds the CL driver through the coupe's thickly padded leather-wrapped steering wheel. Ideal weighting and a quick ratio make hustling the Type-S through a set of switchbacks a rewarding proposition. Road feel is superb, thanks in part to the new six-spoke 17x7-inch alloy wheels wearing 215/50R17 Michelins MXM4s. Additional performance features, like a hand-operated emergency brake and a Vehicle Stability Assist (VSA) system, further elevate the car's sporty nature. VSA incorporates stability control, traction control and antilock braking to provide enhanced driver control under adverse conditions, but it is available only on Type-S models equipped with the five-speed SportShift automatic. Of course, SportShift models don't get the helical limited-slip differential, so while each transmission type has its advantages, you'll have to identify your priorities before selecting a gearbox.
Like any modern performance coupe interested in asserting its street smarts, all 2003 CLs incorporate specific styling cues to set them apart from the previous model. These include a revised grille and headlight design, a larger air intake in the lower front bumper, clear upper taillight lenses and a unique exhaust pipe treatment. Inside, the Type-S drivers will note metallic gauge faces and a stylish "Type-S" emblem, complete with shift pattern, on the center console near the manual shifter. And, if you order your Type-S with the ebony interior, titanium-look trim will grace the door panels and center console.
Type-S models also get perforated leather seats that provide first-rate comfort while cruising the highway and effective side bolstering when taking the (curvy) road less traveled. Pedal placement was another pleasant surprise, proving ideal for heel-and-toe shifting and making it clear that Acura is serious about this whole sport coupe thing. The company claims that a manual-shift CL Type-S is 0.5 seconds quicker in 0-to-60 testing than an automatic version, putting it right at 6 seconds flat. Our seat-of-the-pants meter doesn't dispute the claim, though we're anxious to confirm this figure with instrumented testing.
Despite its sports car leanings, the CL hasn't abandoned its luxury heritage. Items like xenon high-intensity discharge headlights, heated outside mirrors with passenger-side mirror reverse-tilt feature, remote keyless entry with memory linked to driver seat and outside mirror position, and a Bose six-disc in-dash CD changer pay homage to Honda's premium brand. Those interested in additional gadgetry can order the optional DVD-based navigation system that now comes with OnStar.
Acura hopes to sell 18,000 CLs a year, with 15 percent of them being six-speed Type-S versions. When one considers that only about 7 percent of all U.S. new car sales are vehicles equipped with a manual transmission, that's a rather ambitious goal. But then again, taking on BMW in the entry luxury sport coupe segment, particularly with a front-wheel-drive vehicle, was pretty ambitious, too. After driving the 2003 Type-S, we're not prepared to dispute any of the company's claims.