By Jeremy Cato
Charlie Baker, who headed up the development team for the then-new ’97 Acura CL coupe, claimed back in 1996 that his coupe was aimed at the sort of buyer who might consider a BMW 318is coupe.
Sort of. You see, the CL then and now is bigger, more powerful and better equipped than a comparably priced Bimmer. On the other hand, the 318/323/328 coupes were and are more nimble, more purely driver-oriented.
That’s not surprising. After all, the CL was and remains a greatly modified version of the Honda Accord. And back in the ’97 model year, the CL was, more specifically, a tweaked version of the then-Honda Accord coupe.
What were the differences? The Acura folks scrapped the Accord’s fold-down rear seats in favour of a solid seatback with small ski pass-through. To add stiffness, they used thicker metal in many critical areas and added other structural reinforcements.
The result: a car that feels solid in the driving and made not a peep when riding over bumpy roads or through twisty corners. Of course, part of that driving impression came courtesy of the suspension, which was a revised version of the double wishbone layout of the Accord.
It all added up to a body/chassis combination which delivers a ride more luxurious than sporty. There is good control over big bumps and the little ones you hardly notice at all. Lots of control here. And even at highway speeds, the cabin has all the noise of your local library. Go ahead, carry on a gentle conversation at 100 km/h — even in a used version today.
As for the rest of the chassis, the steering is sharp, brakes strong (four-wheel discs with standard anti-lock) and the standard low-aspect ratio tires (P205/55R16) grippy in all weather yet fuel efficient. Ah, the beauty of Michelin’s Energy MXV4 tires.
At launch in the spring of ’96, the only engine available was the same 2.2-litre four-cylinder that you could find in the Accord. It’s an excellent four-banger, with most of the roughness smoothed out by balance shafts.
Honda squeezed a lot of performance out of this engine thanks to its patented variable valve timing (VTEC) technology. Honda’s VTEC system adjusts the valve timing according to engine rpm. By playing with the breathing, Honda is able to deliver a powerplant that’s strong over a wide range of speeds. For the record, horsepower was rated at 145.
If you find a used one with the standard five-speed manual, my bet is you’ll really enjoy the drive, reaching 100 km/h in well under nine seconds. The optional four-speed automatic, with an electronic control module designed to virtually eliminate gear-hunting, might be more convenient, but it robs the car of personality and performance.
Acura added a second engine choice not long after the CL went on sale. It was a then-all-new 3.0-litre V6. Horsepower hit 190, a level that really gives the CL some legs.
On the subject of legs, the CL’s cabin has lots of room for four pairs of them, all belonging to adults. In typical Honda/Acura fashion, the CL has a roomy, airy interior, with great visibility and a smart control and instrument layout. All of it looks and feels pretty good, except for the faux wood trim. It looks and feels like…faux wood trim.
The real kicker with this package was standard equipment. Everything from compact disc player to climate control to keyless entry to power windows, door locks and side mirrors. Premium equipped CL models even had leather upholstery.
It’s only been a handful of years since the CL coupe arrived to become the first Acura created and built in North America. Back in ’96 that seemed to be a major accomplishment. Now, however, Honda has gone on to introduce new models for the North American market such as the made-in-Canada Odyssey minivan.
Still, it’s worth noting the then-new CL was a product of Honda’s large and very active North American research and development division and it was and still is built in the same plant that puts together Honda Civics, in East Liberty, Ohio.
So there’s a case to be made that the CL isn’t an import at all. If you buy that case, then add another difference between the CL and the BMW 318.
Used vehicle prices vary depending on factors such as general condition, odometer reading, usage history and options fitted. Always have a used vehicle checked by an experienced auto technician before you buy.
Jeremy Cato is an award-winning print and broadcast journalist. He is a columnist and feature writer for the Globe & Mail newspaper and his articles are syndicated to a variety of other publications.