Acura boldly asserts that, by the end of the 2001 model year, its all-new 3.2 CL will be the best selling import-brand coupe in the luxury car market. That prediction sounds brazen when you consider the competition: The Volvo C70, Mercedes-Benz CLK320 and BMW 328Ci aren't exactly lightweights. The 328Ci in particular has long been a favorite among enthusiast drivers, and at this writing remains the best-selling car in the class. Undeterred, the engineers at Acura claim their new CL is as smooth and quiet as cars costing $10,000 more.
We can tell you that, based on published figures, the CL has more horsepower than the competition. After driving the CL on the best roads central Texas has to offer, we can also tell you that the 3.2 CL is built like a fine watch and is more than pleasant to drive. Finally, we can tell you that, similarly equipped, the CL costs several thousand dollars less than the least expensive car among the competitors named above.
Maybe the folks at Acura aren't just blowing smoke.
A coupe is supposed to look sexy, or at least a bit racy compared to the typical sedan. The CL may not be avant-garde in its styling, but it's clean and attractive. Sexy? Let the buyer decide.
The CL shares mechanical components with Acura's mid-sized TL near-luxury sedan, but none of the TL's body panels. The coupe is lower, with a longer hood and shorter rear deck than the sedan.
Structural enhancements inside the CL's body shell are designed to reduce noise, vibration and harshness. There's a fiberglass liner under the hood, asphalt sheeting in strategic areas around the cabin and electrically controlled hydraulic engine mounts that vary dampening rates at different engine speeds. Acura's engineers claim the 3.2 CL is quieter than the C70, CLK or 328Ci. Measured by finish quality, the 3.2 CL is a gem. Panels and seams on our test car matched flawlessly, and the paint had a deep luster.
The CL follows Acura's proven chassis layout: front-wheel drive with wishbone-type fully independent strut suspension and disc brakes at all four wheels. Its 3.2-liter V6 is free-revving with dual-overhead cams and multi-valves. The standard CL makes 225 horsepower, which is a lot of power for this class. The Type S, thanks a number of subtle engine tweaks, makes an even more impressive 260 horsepower. Those tweaks include a higher volume intake system, less restrictive exhaust pipes, higher compression (10.5:1 vs. 9.8:1) and a higher redline (6900 rpm vs. 6300 rpm).
Type S gets larger 17-inch aluminum wheels with Michelin all-season tires. Its springs and shock absorbers are stiffer than the standard CL's. Acura's Vehicle Stability Assist system, exclusive to the Type S, automatically applies the brake at one corner to tighten the trajectory of either the front or rear end in skid-inducing driving conditions.
Both CLs feature a five-speed automatic transmission with a sequential shift slot that allows a driver to manually click through the gears. Neither offers a work-the-clutch, fully manual transmission.
Every CL comes with features that aren't always expected below the $40,000 barrier. Both front seats feature seat-position memory; the mirrors are linked to this system as well. All CLs have heated front seats, a sunroof, Xenon headlamps and a six-disc, no-magazine in-dash CD changer.
By design, coupes put an emphasis on front passengers. The CL's front seats are comfortable and supportive in all circumstances, with fore-aft, height and recline power adjustment for the driver, fore-aft and recline for the passenger. There's enough side-bolster to keep people of small physical stature firmly ensconced during a spirited drive, and enough space to accommodate those of larger stature.
The CL's instrument panel is identical to the TL sedan's. It is clean in appearance and efficient in design, with high-grade switches that work with a soft, satisfying click. The no-magazine CD changer is handy: simply load up to six discs, one at a time, into the slot.
Standard safety features include dual-stage front airbags that deploy at different rates depending on the severity of a crash, and a position-detection system for the passenger side airbag, borrowed from Acura's big RL sedan. Six sensors determine the stature and position of whoever is sitting in the passenger seat; so the airbag won't fire if a child happens to be leaning against the door.
While the focus in the CL falls toward the front of the cabin, there's a surprising amount of space in back. All interior dimensions are larger than those in Acura's 2000 3.0 CL (and among the largest in the class), for an overall increase of 4.6 cubic feet in cabin space. The two-place back seat leaves enough room for medium-sized adults, and it's easy to climb into. The electric sliding mechanism on the front passenger seat works more quickly than any we've encountered, yet the seat stops sliding back with any hint of obstruction for improved safety.
The CL's trunk is impressively roomy, too; with 13.9 cubic feet of space it's one of the largest among similarly sized coupes (the C70 has 13.1 cubic feet, the CLK 11.0, and the 328Ci 9.0). Acura's engineers claim the CL's trunk will hold four golf bags. We can't vouch for that, but we can tell you that the CL will handle more suitcases than two people will need for a one-week trip, with room left for most of a professional photographer's shooting gear.
Okay. The tank is full, the sky is clear and those golf bags are secure in the trunk. In the CL, you'll be hoping the links are across town and a ways into the country down a couple of winding river roads.
This coupe is smooth and tight, with a single-billet feel to the unibody. The ride is firm, and well-suited to a driving enthusiast's tastes. The CL delivers better brake pedal response than most Acuras we've tested, and it stops in short order, without jitters or swagger in full-on, panic-type braking.
At least in the Type S, there's minimal understeer (a front-end push that puts an element of safety into a car's handling, but can become excessive with the typical front-drive layout). Driven aggressively, the Type S bears up well, and its tail tucks in nicely when the driver lifts from the throttle.
There's plenty of acceleration-producing grunt in the engine, although it is biased toward higher rpm. You might never know how quick the Type S actually is if you don't keep your foot on the gas pedal. The sequential shifter works well, even if it's more conservatively programmed than some from other manufacturers. It won't allow the driver to repeatedly bump the rev limiter in low gears without shifting up on its own.
In general, the 3.2 CL feels lighter and more nimble than many of its competitors. Yet one competitor might matter a bit more than the others. For years, BMW's 328Ci has been the best selling import-brand coupe in the United States, and favorite among those who rank driving as a pleasurable pastime. How does the CL stack up?
The new CL's steering is just as precise as the 328Ci's, though the BMW's might be purer in the sensations it feeds back to the driver's hands. There are tiny hints of torque effect in the CL's steering wheel while accelerating hard through a curve because the power is pulsing through the front axles. The 328Ci scores points with enthusiasts because of their predilection toward rear-wheel-drive: You can turn the BMW with the gas pedal. BMW's inline six-cylinder engine seems to torque up faster than Honda's free-revving V6, but in the absence of an instrument test, we'd venture that the CL Type S is quicker, compared to 328Ci automatic.
Most drivers aren't likely to notice many of the distinctions, and many are a matter of taste. In objective terms, there isn't much to separate the 328Ci from the CL. Factor in the CL's price advantage - as much as $8,000 - and the Acura looks like a sweet deal.
The 2001 3.2 CL is an impressive piece of work. It has more interior space than many competitors. Its solid body structure should mean years of smooth, rattle-free use, and its overall fit and finish are first rate. The equipment list includes everything but the microwave, and it has a big price advantage over key competitors. Throw in excellent performance, and Acura's prediction of a best-seller sounds a lot less like bragging.
A manual transmission might increase the CL's appeal further. But most coupe buyers prefer an automatic, and those buyers should not buy a coupe before test driving the new Acura 3.2 CL.
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