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Honda Acura reemerges from shadow of competitors

By Marc K. Stengel

APRIL 17, 2000:  How to explain the image-burnishing that's going on at Acura lately? Conceived originally as a premium, up-market reiteration of Honda's ubiquitous econocars, Acura Division allowed its radiance to be eclipsed by the even more luxury-baiting pretensions of Toyota's Lexus and Nissan's Infiniti divisions. This is not to disparage the technical sophistication and manufacturing quality on which Acura's reputation justifiably rests. But whereas its rivals rendered themselves into legitimate contenders against Mercedes-Benz and BMW, Acura until lately seemed to settle for something less--for beating up on Buick, say.

But now the new 2001 Acura 3.2CL sport coupe has rolled out onto the fashion runway, and it is apparent that Acura's bosses are serious about yanking the division's image up by a quantum or two. Far from the mere makeover of a Honda Accord coupe that its predecessors turned out to be (the 3.0CL and 2.3CL, whose last appearances were for the 1999 model year), the new CL is a genuine start-over-from-scratch effort to shake up the status quo in a touring coupe category dominated by such chichi contenders as M-B's CLK320, BMW's 328Ci, and even Volvo's C70.

Right off the bat, the 3.2CL benefits from dramatic advances in automotive gene therapy. Its basic platform is derived from the new-for-'99 Acura TL sedan, whose powerful combination of performance, features, and price has more or less stunned the automotive world for the last two years. Both the four-door TL and the two-door CL are assembled in Ohio, and both are designed in and for the U.S. market. But the similarities mostly end right there. Whereas the TL sedan represents a lot of bang for the buck for the accountant and broker set, the 2001 CL is all about giving the no-compromise driving aficionado just about as much unfettered bang as he or she can handle.

The standard 3.2CL is a $28,435 stunner whose single-overhead-cam V6 makes 225 generous horsepower and 217 ft.-lbs. of torque, thanks largely to Honda's Formula 1-inspired VTEC valve train. The Type S "premium" version I tested, on the other hand, is a 260-horse/232-ft.-lb barnstormer that combines power of the brute muscle-car variety with the lithe handling finesse of a road-racing sports car. Techies will swoon over the Type S's dual-stage induction system, which exploits a particular "resonance phenomenon" known as the Heimholz principle to compress more fuel-air charge into each cylinder. The result is a sort of "virtual supercharger"--without a cumbersome compressor, mind you--that kicks you thrillingly in the pants at 3,800 rpm.

The CL's cockpit layout is efficient and thorough in a way few other cars can equal, save perhaps Saab. Adjusters for seat and mirrors; controls for windows, radio, HVAC; even the guillotine-style hatch for the cupholder/cell-phone cradle are all at near-perfect fingertip reach. Seating, moreover, is luxurious in leather, fully electro-adjustable on both sides up front, and plenty supportive for the occasional toss through the twisties. Backseat leg and shoulder room rivals that of a sedan, and self-propelled front seats move forward out of the way on both sides to ease ingress/egress for a pair of rear riders.

Acura has gracefully incorporated two much-appreciated new trends into its Bose-designed sound system: Volume/program selectors are located on the steering wheel, and a six-CD changer in the dash eliminates the frustration of a multi-disk deck stashed in the trunk. My chief complaint about switchgear concerns the sunroof controller in an obscure nook of the dash. Compared to all its sibling buttons and knobs, it is neither logically nor conveniently located.

Oh, poor me: The sunroof takes an extra thought to open. Well, you can't blame my sybaritic self for such a louche outlook. The sunroof is standard, as are enough additional knicks and knacks to transform the window sticker of this $30,785 Type S into a window scroll. The only available factory option, in fact, is Acura's DVD-based SatNav system, for $2,000. My tester was not so equipped, but I've used it in the TL and have no compunction against ranking it the most intuitive system with the best single-disk map coverage currently available.

Driving the CL is an enjoyable sort of bifocal experience: not Jekyll-and-Hyde exactly, more like Simon and Garfunkel. In a single commute, for example, you will find yourself lazing along in stop-and-go interstate traffic, with the five-speed automatic shifting seamlessly up and down into the proper gear range with nary a blip in your daydreams. As the off-ramp and back roads approach, your right hand reflexively reaches for the shifter and slaps it into SportShift mode for clutch-free gear changes sports-car-style. This Honda/Acura shift feature is precise in both up- and downshifts. My only complaint is that, with so much torque at the front wheels when accelerating from a stop, SportShift wrests the 1-2 shift from your control--you can't shift manually fast enough to beat it, but by the same token, you obviously have to wait for the automatic 2nd before you can manually select 3rd.

There is a buff, taut look to the new CL's exterior that clearly distinguishes this car from the crowd. I personally miss the unique boat-tail crease in the trunk lid of the former CL; the new version wears, let's say, a bulge-tail design. Trick 17-inch wheels on the Type S and a hungry, feline stance give just the right hint of muted aggression. But the one thing that doesn't show is perhaps the CL's most powerful and disarming trait: a sticker price that's easily $10,000 less than its most serious rivals.

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