2000 Acura CL Review

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AUSTIN, Tex. — Honda would probably just as soon I not call the Acura 3.2 CL coupe a 3.2 TL sedan with two fewer doors. But, (a), that's what it is, and (b), that's not at all a Bad Thing.

The 3.2TL sedan took the near-luxury market by storm last year, with a combination of performance, features and price that no one else could, or would, match. The CL does the same thing except it's playing in an even less crowded marketplace.

Everyone expects this niche to grow. The theory is that as boomers age, they'll start looking for a vehicle with more creature comforts than the minivans and SUVs that have dominated their family-rearing years. The new BMW 3-Series was a huge hit in this segment last year, Volvo and Mercedes have strong entries, and Acura hopes to get their fair share with this new car.

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The previous CL was a thinly-disguised Accord coupe, with a choice of four-cylinder or V-6 power. The new car is V-6 only, and comes in two versions, base and Type S, the latter getting increased power, revised suspension and unique trim.

Outside, the X factor

Styling is obviously a prime determinant in the success of any coupe — why suffer the deprivations of a two-door car if it doesn't make some visual impact?

Acura's Erik Berkman, the car's "Large Project Leader," says the underlying concept was "Stylish Performance Coupe." The stylists at the U.S. studio where the car was drawn were supposedly inspired by the great European GT cars of the '50s and '60s — Ferraris, Aston Martins, Bentleys.

And the car came out looking like this? It's not ugly or anything, just Japanese-generic.

They also wanted an Acura family resemblance, primarily through the pentagram front grille. Too bad Toyota and Mazda use the same shape. And forgive me if the taillights remind me of Chevy's discontinued Lumina.

2000 Acura CL

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2000 Acura 3.2 CL interior

2000 Acura 3.2 CL interior

Inside, Berkman's team chose "Executive Suite — the Corner Office" as the design theme, a personal space as well as an expression of sophistication and power. So the car gets four deeply bolstered leather bucket seats. Both front seats have power adjustment, both have a power-forward mode for rear-seat access, and the driver gets two-position memory which can also be programmed into two separate remote keyless entry fobs, so each driver automatically gets the car set to his/her preferences when it's unlocked. There's even decent room in the back, provided you're agile enough to get in there. The trunk is big enough to carry four sets of golf clubs, the litmus test for North American luxury car buyers.

The frontal air bags are a second generation dual-power design, deploying only as forcefully as necessary. Smart sensors determine if the front passenger seat is occupied by someone heavy enough to benefit from deployment of the side bag – it won't fire if the seat is unoccupied or if a child is sitting there.

The dash is basically carry-over TL sedan. Type S buyers get metallic instrument faces, perforated leather seat inserts and, when black leather is chosen, black wood trim accents.

The Bose sound system incorporates a six-CD changer built right into the dash – no separate magazine. The CDs can be loaded or unloaded in any order. Wicked.

It's a Honda, so of course the sunroof switch is mal-positioned on the dash to the left of the steering column instead of on the ceiling where it belongs. And the automatic transmission shift lever slides all the way back into D4 (in this case, it's a five-speed) instead of stopping in D5. That's where 90 percent of your driving is done, so surely that's where the lever should naturally position itself. Yes, I whine about these things in every Honda I drive. I'll keep doing so until they get it right, or come up with a logical explanation for why they continue to do it wrong.

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Platform shoes

Honda's "Global Mid-Size Platform" is used by several international variants of Accord and the TL sedan, but over 76 percent of the "body in white" — the external and internal sheet metal — is exclusive to the CL, including all exterior body panels. The structure is stiffer by 23 percent in bending and by 6 percent in torsion over the already-good previous-generation CL.

It’s front-wheel drive, of course, with the TL sedan's multi-link suspension front and rear. The new base car is significantly firmer than the old CL coupe; the Type S additionally gets marginally stiffer springs, considerably stiffer shocks, and a thicker rear stabilizer bar. The steering has a quick 15.8:1 ratio, and variable assist levels to provide easy parking lot maneuvers and stable high-speed response. Larger four-wheel disc brakes have standard ABS, of course. Tires are 205/60R16s on the base car, 215/50R17s on Type S.

Considerable effort has gone into reducing noise, vibration and harshness (NVH) in the CL; Honda claims class-leading levels here. Oddly, the firmer Type S is actually quieter than the base car, thanks to a new tire designed specifically for reduced "patter," especially on rough road surfaces.

The Type S also gets a two-channel stability control system that compares yaw, or how much the car is actually turning, to the degree of steering wheel rotation, which indicates how much the driver actually wants the car to turn. If the car is oversteering i.e., beginning to fishtail, the system momentarily applies brake pressure to the outside front wheel. In an understeer (i.e. plowing or pushing) mode) the inside front tire is braked and engine power reduced, all in the name of bringing the car back in line.

The 3.2-liter VTEC four-valve V-6 engine, producing 225 horsepower at 5600 rpm and 216 lb-ft of torque at 4700 rpm, is lifted more or less intact from the TL sedan. It's a nice motor — free-revving, smooth, fast and quiet.

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The Type S gets a two-stage intake manifold, with a valve that stays closed below 3800 rpm to set up a resonance effect to increase low-end torque, and opens above that point to offer more intake air to the hungry cylinders. This bumps power to 260 horses at 6100 rpm, and both boosts and flattens the torque curve to a plateau of 232 lb-ft between 3500 and 5500 rpm. A five-speed automatic transmission with SportShift manual shift capability is the only transmission offered.

Drivin’, not cryin’

The Austin area offers a tremendous variety of road surfaces and topography to evaluate a car (not to mention great live music after hours). It should come as no surprise that the CL rides and handles like the 3.2 TL sedan. It's quick, composed, confident. I don't normally play much with these manual-automatic things – I figure the modern automatic transmission is a bunch smarter than most drivers. But the Acura system is one of the best of its kind, with rapid up or downshifts at the flick of a wrist. The five gears help spread the power out as well.

The Type S is subjectively faster, as you'd expect, and the wider tires and firmer underpinnings give it a more planted feel on the road. However, both test cars had a slight glitch in the steering, a wee bit of vagueness coming away from the on-center position. It was less noticeable in the Type S and, to be fair, barely noticeable at all. But driving a BMW 3-Series and Mercedes-Benz CLK back-to-back suggested that maybe for ultimate road feel and handling, rear-wheel drive is still the optimum configuration, even if companies like Acura and Audi are taking front-drive to ever-greater heights.

Still, I suspect the majority of buyers who'll be attracted to the CL will come from a front-drive culture. If they are Honda people, they probably started with Civic, and worked their way up

through various Accords. Front-drive may be all they know, and what they want. Certainly the CL won't offer even a hint of disappointment to them at all.

And if the CL encourages a single person to get out of an SUV, well, it gets a thumbs-up from me.

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2000 Acura 3.2 CL Base Price: $27,980
Engine: 3.2-liter V-6, 225 hp
Transmission: five-speed automatic with Sequential Sportshift
Wheelbase: 106.9 in
Length: 192.0 in
Width: 70.6 in
Height: 55.5 in
Weight: 3470 lb
Fuel economy: 19 city/ 29 hwy
Major standard equipment:
Traction control system
Anti-lock brakes
Dual front and side airbags
Xenon high intensity discharge headlights
Leather seats
Eight-way power driver seat
Four-way power passenger seat
Heated front seats,
Automatic climate control
Bose audio system with AM/FM/cassette
In-dash six-disc CD changer
Cruise control
Tilt wheel
Power moonroof
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