If books shouldn’t be judged by their covers, certainly the Acura CL shouldn’t be judged by its looks. Even in racy Type S trim, the CL’s shape can only be described as smoothly sculpted, inoffensive, and unfortunately, similar to a lot of other coupes. Walking past it from the front, a somewhat car-savvy neighbor mistook it for a Toyota Solara, until he noticed the Acura emblem.
But honestly, the CL, and particularly the high-performance Type S we recently drove, is much more edgy and fun than its looks imply.
Top-notch powertrain VTEC
The engine in the Type S incorporates a number of power-gaining enhancements. It has the same all-aluminum 3.2-liter VTEC V-6 as the CL, but with a more aggressive camshaft, revised intake valves and cylinder heads, and a larger fuel injection throttle body, plus additional strengthening ribs for the engine block. A higher volume induction system and a dual-outlet exhaust allow the engine enough heavy breathing to take advantage of the goodies. The modifications together add up to 260 horsepower at 6100 rpm and 232 lb-ft of torque at 3500 rpm: That’s 35 more horsepower and 16 more lb-ft of torque than the base CL. Despite the performance hardware, the Type S can go 105,000 miles before its first scheduled tune-up.
The VTEC (Variable valve Timing and lift Electronic Control) system on the Type S’s V-6 uses two different sets of cam lobes: one for low and mid revs, and another more aggressive one for high revs above 4800 rpm. The transition isn’t quite as pronounced as with some of Honda’s high-revving VTEC four cylinder engines, but the V-6 does undergo a personality change in terms of the way it sounds. At the 4800-rpm transition, the exhaust note suddenly becomes deeper and more urgent.
The five-speed automatic transmission features a manumatic-type control that Acura terms Sequential SportShift. A second shift gate closer to the driver enables the manual function. Tip the shifter forward to go up a gear, back to go down a gear. A red-tinted digital display near the tachometer shows you which of the five gears you’re currently in.
2002 Acura CL
Acura says that shifts are achieved about ten percent faster in manual mode and the shift is completed about 0.9 seconds after the lever is moved. Downshifts are quick, but upshifts in SportShift mode took too long sometimes. We found the transmission to be quite enjoyable in regular “D5” for most driving; it did well in following our right-foot desires. The gears are widely spaced, but the engine has no problem with it.
While the base CL has a cushy (but still well controlled) luxury car ride, the Type S has firmer shocks and struts and a larger rear stabilizer bar for better body control and handling near the limit. The Type S has truly excellent brakes (larger diameter discs) to match the beefed-up underpinnings. Pedal feel is firm and progressive, the large discs scrub off speed quickly and controllably. The Type S’s excellent body control helps this, with nearly none of the frightening nosedive of some other so-called performance luxury coupes.
Good ride and handling, but no NSX
The tighter suspension takes only a small toll on ride quality. The Type S’s ride feels quite stiffly sprung but well damped—jittery on coarse pavement but with enough wheel travel to soak up potholes and expansion joints. Road noise is not an issue despite the stiff body and firm ride. Despite the heavy handling feel, it doesn’t carry itself over the road with the same steadfastness as German rear-wheel-drive competitors, with the steering thrown off sometimes by uneven rural-road pavement surfaces.
The Type S has excellent handling for ordinary driving, but close to the limit it feels heavy and uncommunicative, possibly a factor of the weight. At 3525 pounds, the Type S weighs more than the BMW 330Ci or Mercedes-Benz CLK320, and also several hundred pounds more than its Honda cousins the (now discontinued) Prelude and Accord V-6 coupe. Consider the foot operated parking brake, and you know Acura didn’t have hot laps in mind.
2002 Acura CL
Big 17-inch alloy wheels and V-rated Michelin 215/50R17 MXM4 performance tires replace the standard CL’s 16-inchers. Our test car came with some scratches and scuffs on the attractive five-spoke wheels, and on closer observation it was obvious why. The wheels bulge out past the tires, making them particularly vulnerable to curbs while parallel parking.
A stability control system, called Vehicle Stability Assist (VSA), keeps everything under control. The system is much like the systems widely offered in other luxury cars, bringing together sensors for lateral acceleration, yaw, wheel speed, and steering wheel angle, and interfacing with the anti-lock braking system.
Acura’s in-dash navigation system was installed on our test car. Curiously, the navigation system is not thought of as an option, but instead calls for its own trim level and separate list price. It adds up as a $2000 option, and it’s the only factory option available on the car. The rest of the luxury-car goodie bag is standard, like power heated perforated leather seats, a power moonroof, steering wheel mounted controls, and a six-disc in dash CD changer.
Nav system keeps you en route
Aesthetically, the Type S adds “ebony” trim to the dash and console, the bespoke five-spoke alloy wheels, special leather trim, and the swoopy “Type S” logo on the shift knob and floor mats.
The CL’s seating position is definitely more American luxury coupe than German driver’s car. The seats are supportive but offer what many drivers will find to be an awkward seating position. For instance, when the lower cushion is tilted up and back to support long legs, the seatback will not recline forward enough, necessitating an unusually reclined, back-from-the-wheel driving position. Perhaps the reason the seatback does not go far enough forward is that there’s barely enough headroom. Those 6’2” and taller might find the headroom a bit limited by the sunroof mechanism.
2002 Acura CL
As you’ve probably surmised by the fact that it’s a sporty coupe, the CL’s back seat is small and cramped. If you need to, you can fit two passengers but headroom and knee room are seriously limited. Otherwise, the seats themselves feel supportive and they look to be a comfortable place for children.
Interior lacks refinement, charm
The Type S’s interior is a mixed bag. The perceived quality and appearance of interior surfaces was excellent, with the texture of door plastic matching the plastic of dash surfaces (sometimes with other automakers they don’t because they’re outsourced to different suppliers), and all the controls and bins had a good tactile feel. Unfortunately, the CL’s firm ride brought out some persistent panel rattles and a creaky interior overall, indicating that this CL wasn’t as tightly put together and detailed as other Acura vehicles we’ve been in.
While the CL’s cabin isn’t so roomy, the cargo area is vast for a sporty coupe. It opens wide, and it’s more than spacious enough to accommodate a long weekend worth of luggage for two.
The Type S’s high-output engine is not nearly as miserly on fuel as engines in the Honda stable, but then that’s probably not a priority for Type S buyers. Despite going light on the throttle and only rocketing into the second VTEC stage a few times, fuel consumption barely met the EPA city rating of 19 mpg.
Where does the Type S fit in? It’s unusual in today’s automotive world—an upscale front-drive competitor to the M-B CLK320 and BMW330Ci for thousands less. Like most of the larger Acura vehicles, the CL is a good choice but not a standout, class-leading one. Though it has the grunt, the Type S is a little too heavy handed to be a serious sports car and too hard to be a posh luxury coupe. Acura continues to lack focus on its mid-size and larger cars—is the competition Buick or BMW?
More sensible than seductive
The bottom line is that Acura has made the CL a better driving, more performance-focused car while forgetting that edgy styling is often what gets coupe buyers into the showroom. It’s more of a driver’s car, but it’s a secret and it tends to blend in with other less flamboyant luxury coupes. A drive of the Type S is enough to convince that it’s something special, that is, if buyers can see beyond the staid image.
But wait. Aren’t sporty touring coupes supposed to be all about shunning a little practicality for some of the rebellion and bold seduction of real sports cars? Call me impressed—but not seduced—by the Type S.
2002 Acura 3.2CL Type S
Price: $30,380 base, $32,860 as tested
Engine: 3.2-liter V-6, 260 hp
Transmission: Five-speed automatic, front-wheel drive
Wheelbase: 106.9 in
Length: 192.0 in
Width: 70.6 in
Height: 53.3 in
Curb Weight: 3525 lb
EPA (city/hwy): 19/29 mpg
Safety equipment: Dual front and side airbags, stability control system, anti-lock brakes
Major standard features: Automatic climate control, xenon headlamps, power heated leather seats, power moonroof, Bose six-disc in-dash CD changer
Warranty: Four years/50,000 miles
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