The steady and inventive rebirthing of Acura continues.
In recent months there has been a new luxury flagship, the 3.5RL, which retires the Legend with its place in motoring lore as Japan's first luxury car. Acura--the softer side of Honda--has joined the town, country and piney woods set with a bull-shouldered sport utility branded SLX. There are the TL twins, a pair of mid-size sedans helping us forget the lamented yet listless Vigor they replaced.
And Acura, as you may have noticed, has switched from easily memorized vehicle names to alphanumerics that are quite capable of fusing brain cells into amnesia.
(The presumption must be that if they work for Mercedes, BMW and Lockheed, such designations might bring a touch of aerospace drama to any perceived stuffiness of Acura. On the other hand, should the habit spread, we simply wouldn't want to predict the commercial appeal of, say, a Rolls-Royce XL450.)
Asides aside . . . to all of Acura's corporate calculations aimed at stabilizing fluttering sales, add the 1997 2.2CL luxury coupe that in looks, performance and size is very much like a Honda Accord.
The CL's four-cylinder, 145-horsepower engine, with variable valve timing (VTEC) for easier breathing, greater fuel efficiency and heftier low-end pull-away power is from the Accord EX.
Transmission, wheelbase, track and height are identical. Grille and the headlight cluster are look-alikes. Same gas consumption, both built to transport five adults at a squeeze, and in the category that really matters, the Accord EX and Acura 2.2CL are priced only a few hundred dollars apart.
And when the peppier 3.0CL is birthed later this year, it will be no stretch to presume its engine will be a freshly fed version of the 170-horsepower V-6 already packed beneath the front lid of an Accord LX.
So what's going on here?
If one doesn't mind being seen in polyester pants, why not buy a Honda Accord and pay less for much the same car?
Well, for one thing, Acura is thinking of Acura customers, not Honda buyers. Acura is an established luxury marque with prices starting just about where Honda's leave off. Acura comes with an aura that is quite acceptable to valet parkers, potential in-laws and the guy processing your home equity loan.
And the all-hallowed marketeers, says Acura, believe there's a growing clump of buyers--most driving Toyota Camrys or BMW 318s--ready to thumb out $23,000 for a distinctive, well-performing sport-luxury coupe with a heavy portfolio of standard features and Nordstrom quality.
Heads, a sales winner. Tails, a loser. Whichever way the coin drops, there's no doubt that the CL is a beautifully engineered, comfortably riding player with the cleanliness of line that is Acura's heritage.
Designed, engineered and manufactured entirely in the United States--with assembly apart from Accord and on its own line at East Liberty, Ohio--the CL has a front end and most of its forward silhouette clearly influenced by Honda.
But the back end is a breakaway. The trunk edge is sharp, and the flow from rear window to semi-buxom fascia almost terraced.
We do not know what to make of the rear lights. Nor will Ray Bradbury. Could be the eyes of Satan or the ears of a Siamese cat. Or eyes and ears we've all cut into Halloween pumpkins.
This touch will be hailed. It will cause others to reach for the Beefeaters. Before casting your vote, remember that rear lights on the Honda Prelude were modeled on Mr. Spock's ears and headlights on the Mercedes-Benz E-Class are Lucite Oreos--and be satisfied there remain styling chiefs willing to sign off on things that make us chuckle.
Base price of the 2.2CL with a five-speed manual is a pleasing $22,100. And the standard offerings are nifty enough: faux but acceptable wood trim, air bags and anti-lock brakes, keyless entry, CD with nine-disc storage, power windows and locks, automatic climate control, power moon roof and six-way power seat for the driver. In fact, the only options are leather seating and automatic transmission.
It's a warm, comfortable interior fulfilling the first purpose of any luxury car. Which is to surround with downy leathers, all gathered and puffy, colors approaching the pastel, and equipment that whispers; leaving occupants with very little to do but steer and look elegant.
And the finish is superb.
We weren't as enthralled by offerings from the engine compartment. Being Honda-based, the powertrain is of course a benchmark of smoothness and response. The CL with manual transmission winds from rest to 60 mph under nine seconds, which is what one expects from a car of this price, at this weight and in this first-cabin category.
But there's no great surplus of power. Somewhere between fourth and fifth gear we'd like to know the car is poised to snarl, not sigh. It is almost as though performance has been dumbed down because this is, after all, a cushy car with limited appeal for enthusiasts with hairy knuckles.