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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.
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.