What I'm Driving At: Acura Assertions

I did a double-take when Acura's new 3.0CL coupe arrived for an evaluation. You have to look twice, you see, at a car that seems every inch a Honda but then--wait a minute!--turns out to be Acura's fetching new luxo-coupe. Of course, the car is built on a Honda Accord platform; and it is powered by Honda's masterpiece V6, replete with techno-sexy VTEC variable valve timing. But you better think twice if you're expecting yet another rendition of Honda's proletarian stock-in-trade. The 3.0CL, wearing its nomenclature like an academic degree, clearly stands apart in its aim to attract a different class of buyer. Honda, you may recall, first led the charge of the luxury brigade by devising Acura as an upscale meta-brand. Nobody was actually fooled by the division's self-promotion as "American Honda"; the "A" in Acura clearly stands for "affluence," pure and simple. Impressed with Honda's concept, Toyota and Nissan immediately launched their Lexus and Infiniti brands, respectively. And in the image wars that followed (and continue to rage), the latter two brands undeniably became the more conspicuous favorites among fat cats. Which leaves Acura where, exactly? One answer seems to be, "between a rock and a hard place." Acura cars are showcases of the same sound engineering that you can buy less expensively when a Honda badge is affixed to the hood. This means that Acuras seem overpriced for one segment of the auto body politic. But another segment, swayed by the effects of "Chivas Regal syndrome" (which posits a dubious correlation between high price and prestige), doesn't perceive the luxury inherent in Acura cars simply because these vehicles don't wear the requisite high-price tags.Wading into the midst of this image frustration is the new 3.0CL coupe. It displays a style, a price, and a personality that mean not only to redress misperceptions about Acura's charter and product line, but also to carve an exclusive niche for itself amidst an abundance of alternatives.It's usually the exterior style of Acura's luxury sports coupe that elicits a double-take when people encounter this car for the first time. For me, the most satisfying design element is the subtle crease across the rear deck. This faint seam over and down the trunk lid suggests a slight boat-tail on the one hand, but on the other it creates an optical effect that both widens and lowers the car's stance at the rear. As the smooth curves of the roofline and fenders sweep toward the front, the 3.0CL seems to gather strength in its haunches in preparation for a great leap forward.With a front-wheel-drive powertrain, any suggestion of surging haunches is pure illusion, of course. But the 3-liter V6 nevertheless displays a prowess all its own, thanks to 200 horsepower in a car weighing just 3,200 pounds. More relevant to day-to-day driving is the generous torque figure of 195 foot-pounds. Torque is the source of what is technically known as "oomph"--the git-up-'n'-go factor necessary for keeping time with the stop-and-start rhythms of city traffic. And VTEC is what delivers this motor's torque in such abundance over such a broad range of engine (and road) speeds. (Technoids may appreciate the VTEC's uncanny twin peaks of torque output due to variable valve timing, but it certainly doesn't take a motorhead to feel the "instant pickup" of acceleration when you "mash it.")A four-speed electronic auto is the only transmission available. Although it features much sophistication in its own right, it is the coupe's potential Achilles Heel. The transmission's Grade Logic Control system is intended to minimize "hunting" for gear, particularly on roads with a lot of elevation changes. But the logic is occasionally fuzzy: When driven aggressively, this coupe sometimes offends its sporting nature with less-than-crisp shifts upon entering or exiting a corner. Conversely, during commutes in town or while cruising the 'burbs, first gear sometimes snaps into second in a decidedly unsubtle manner. Occasional mis-shifts aside, however, it is the 3.0CL's personality that really engages. Driving feel is incredibly light and precise, due mostly to sophisticated double-wishbone independent suspension at all four corners and to the car's overall low weight. Inside, athletic performance is complemented by tasteful leather seating and amenities that make it a pleasure to spend time in this car. It's a full menu, no options: climate control; power windows, moonroof, and seats; six-speaker, 100-watt Bose CD stereo--the works. Thoughtfully, both front seats glide swiftly forward to allow an easy walk-in for rear passengers, who will be pleasantly surprised with the leg- and headroom in back. The Acura 3.0CL stickers out only $900 more than Honda's ultra-sporty Prelude SH coupe, and yet it's a world apart. Where the Honda is pure sports, the Acura is sport de luxe. In its layout, poise, and deportment, the Acura presumes to rival the likes of Lexus' SC300 and BMW's 3-series coupes; but at thousands of dollars less, the 3.0CL holds an almost unfair advantage. This is the aspect of Acura's new luxury coupe that most seriously rates a double-take. Its robust persona is challenging buyers to consider an alternative definition of style and prestige in which the checkbook plays only a supporting role.

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