2002 Acura NSX by Dan Carney (6/10/2002)
There aren’t many cars more ordinary looking than the Acura 3.2 CL. It’s cleanly styled in that bland generic way all current Hondas seem to be styled. Throw your eyes out of focus and rub some Vaseline on the lenses of your Ray-Bans and it could be just another Accord coupe. But even though it’s related to and built on the same line as the Honda Accord coupe it’s much more than that. In fact, with the new six-speed manual transmission version, it’s the best driving mid-size front-drive coupe ever built. The best.
The familiar stuff
Most of what makes up the CL are components straight from the Acura/Honda parts bin. The unibody chassis is derived from the Accord’s and features unequal length A-arms in front and a five-link system in the rear for suspension. The engine is a 3.2-liter version of the SOHC 24-valve V-6 that’s used as a 3.0-liter in the Accord and as a 3.5-liter in the Honda Odyssey minivan and Honda Pilot and Acura MDX SUVs. Mechanically (at least up until now) anything that distinguished the CL from other Hondas and Acuras it shared with the TL sedan.
While it’s possible to get a “regular” CL with an engine that makes only 225 horsepower, the majority of CLs are of the “S-Type” (oops, sorry, “Type-S”) variety with their higher-compression V-6 tuned to make 260 horses. Type-S models also get slightly slower and heavier rack-and-pinion steering, and bigger P215/50VR17 Michelin MXM4 tires on appropriate alloy wheels. On five-speed automatic equipped Type-S models there’s also “Vehicle Stability Assist” (VSA) which modifies throttle and braking to aid stability and an integrated traction control system. But both VSA and traction control are dispensed with on the latest six-speed manual version of the car. They aren’t missed at all.
2003 Acura CL
The new stuff
While the transmission change is the most obvious difference between the manual and automatic CL Type-S, the more significant change is the adoption of a helical gear limited slip differential in the manual car. Limited-slip diffs aren’t anything new or novel, but they’re still far more effective traction enhancers than the dozens of electronic gizmos and goofball schemes manufacturers have foisted upon the buying public over the last decade or so. Limited slips are relatively rare on front-drivers in particular and driving the CL Type-S six-speed indicates just how desperately every other vehicle needs one.
Honda’s transmissions have been among the slickest for decades and the all-new six-speed box in the CL is no exception to the established tradition. The throws are relatively short, the precision surgical and the weighting near perfect. Compared to Honda transmissions, other front-drivers feel like stirring a swizzle stick in the abdomen of a parakeet.
Both fifth and sixth gear in the CL are overdrives; fifth a slight one and sixth a much deeper cruising gear. So the real joy comes in taking the car through those first four cogs, which are spaced rather closely. It’s in those gears that a thorough appreciation for the glories of the Type-S engine leaps forth.
The 260-horsepower number is impressive, but that comes at a relatively high 6100 rpm. The engines heart is down between 3500 and 6500 rpm where it delivers at least 232 lb-ft of torque, thanks to the Honda’s VTEC variable valve timing system. With a slight induction growl but not much of an exhaust note, the Type-S V-6 has a true, compelling personality that meshes perfectly with the slick trans and engaging differential. This is an engine that pulls for redline with the sort of confidence once solely the province of BMW straight sixes; in particular the brawny 315-horsepower, 3.6-liter six found in the M5 sedan and M6 coupe. That engine had more total horsepower than the Type-S motor, but in character and deportment they’re almost indistinguishable. The 3.0-liter straight six in BMW’s current 330Ci is nearly as sweet as the CL’s V-6, but is rated at just 225 horsepower.
2003 Acura CL
Just how good?
For a front-driver, the CL’s steering feels great and the brakes work wonderfully, but the car is still limited by the fact that it’s a front-driver. It’s the best front-driver around (only Acura’s own Integra Type-R has ever been better feeling on a twisty road) but it still can’t match the best rear-drive cars for dynamic sensations. Pushed hard enough, the front tires will go into understeer early and there’s really no way to counteract it with throttle. More aggressive tires would push those limits higher, but ultimately the front wheels just have to work too hard.
Having said that, most of us live in a real world where the opportunities to reach for the cornering limits on any car are rare. In this real-life existence, the CL shines with its friendly torque curve compensating for most shifting blunders and a quiet, composed ride. Throw in a roomy and comfortable (and also slightly bland) interior and it’s about as good a commuting device that exists out there with a manual transmission.
All the components the CL Type-S six-speed has in common with the Accord and TL keep the price of the CL down to a relatively svelte $31,030 base which is about $4,000 cheaper than the least expensive 330Ci — and the CL carries much more standard equipment. Option both cars up and the difference in price becomes cavernous while the difference in performance remains small. And frankly, except for the BMW 3-Series, there are no other coupes worthy of mention in the same breath with the CL Type-S.
This is the first Acura dynamically good enough that it can be considered a solid alternative to a BMW without consideration of price. Throw price into the picture and Acura’s achievement is that much more impressive.
2003 Acura 3.2 CL Type-S
Base price: $31,030
Engine: 3.2-liter SOHC V-6, 260 hp
Drivetrain: Six-speed manual transmission, front-wheel drive
Length x width x height: 192.0 x 69.2 x 53.3 in
Wheelbase: 106.9 in
Curb weight: 3481 lb
EPA City/Hwy: 19/28 mpg
Safety equipment: Dual front and side impact airbags, four-wheel anti-lock brakes
Major standard equipment: Power windows, cruise control, CD player, leather trim, keyless entry
Warranty: Four years/50,000 miles