2003 Acura 3.2 CL Type-S
2003 Acura 3.2 CL Type-S. Click image to enlarge

By Chris Chase

Acura’s CL coupe was conceived in 1997 as a companion model to the TL sedan, a car that had its sights set on sports/luxury cars from its home country of Japan, and from Germany. The second-generation model was the better-executed of the two, combining lots of power with conservative good looks and a low price to draw sales away from BMW and Mercedes-Benz.

The 2001-2003 CL is an underappreciated car, despite being a spiritual descendant of the Legend coupe. That car was perhaps most interesting due to its available V6 and a 6-speed manual transmission, a rare combination back in the early 1990s, and certainly rare for a car from Japan, a country associated more with efficient compact and midsize cars than luxurious cruisers.

The first Acura to bear the CL name appeared in 1997. Basically a warmed-over Accord, it shared that car’s engine options: a 2.2-litre four-banger (in the 2.2CL) and a 3.0-litre V6 (in the 3.0 CL). Sure, it had a different name, but a lot of people saw it for the Accord it was.

Fast forward to 2001. Acura began selling the 3.2CL, a car based on the 3.2TL sedan, which was new for 1999. The new CL stood a much better chance of being successful, thanks to it being based on the TL, a well-respected car in a class dominated by BMW’s 3 Series.

2003 Acura 3.2 CL Type-S
2003 Acura 3.2 CL Type-S. Click image to enlarge

In order to make the new CL a stronger competitor in the luxo-coupe class, it dropped the four-cylinder engine option altogether, leaving a 3.2 litre-V6 from the TL as the sole source of motivation. But despite being all-new, the second-generation CL wasn’t much bigger than the original. Its wheelbase, length, width and height (2,715 mm, 4,877 mm, 1,794 mm and 1,408 mm respectively) were only incrementally increased, but the new design gave the car far more presence, an important thing in this field. The new CL did put on a few pounds, though, weighing in at about 100 kg more than a first-generation 3.0CL.

2003 Acura 3.2 CL Type-S
2003 Acura 3.2 CL Type-S. Click image to enlarge

But that weight gain was offset by a corresponding increase in “go” potential. The new CL’s 3.2-litre engine produced 225 horsepower in base form, and 260 hp in Type-S trim, Acura’s new-for-2001 designation for its sportier offerings.

Despite that new power, the 3.2CL was as efficient, if not a little more so, than the first generation 3.0CL. It asked for premium, too. No cheap date here! In the city, the CL was rated at about 12.0 L/100 km, and 7.4 L/100 km on the highway. That’s not bad mileage considering the car’s purpose as a sporty luxo-coupe. After all, this is a Honda product we’re talking about.

The 3.2CL was never crash-tested by the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, but it did come standard with common safety features like driver, passenger and side airbags, ABS and traction control. It came loaded with lots of other features too. One of the few options was a navigation system, available on both base and Type-S models.

2003 Acura 3.2 CL Type-S

2003 Acura 3.2 CL Type-S
2003 Acura 3.2 CL Type-S. Click image to enlarge

In general, the 3.2CL has proven to be a reliable car, benefiting from solid construction typical of Honda products. Only one recall was issued for the second-generation CL, but it was a doozy. It addresses faulty automatic transmissions that can suffer from chipped or broken gear teeth, possibly leading to the transmission locking up – not an attractive prospect in a car built for comfortable high-speed cruising. There are lots of reports on the Web about owners having to replace their transmissions multiple times. At best, that’s inconvenient and at worst, it’s downright expensive. It’s an unfortunate blemish on what is otherwise an excellent car overall.

The second-generation CL was offered with a six-speed in Type-S trim, but that option only became available in 2003, the car’s last year on the market, so used versions so equipped will be very hard to come by. At the time of this writing, there were 42 second-generation CLs advertised on AutoTrader.ca in all of Ontario, and only three with do-it-yourself shifting. Not good prospects, and that’s a shame, because the six-speed model represents the better used-car buy.

The silver lining here, though, is the reason behind the demise of the 3.2CL after 2003. In that last year of the Acura coupe, Honda introduced an all-new Accord, whose line-up included a coupe available with that rare V6 and six-speed manual drivetrain configuration. With 240 hp (only down 20 compared to the CL Type-S), a lower MSRP and only slightly smaller dimensions, a V6/MT Accord was a great deal compared to the Acura. Those in search of luxury badge cachet were likely disappointed by the CL’s demise, but drivers simply looking for a quick coupe were in luck. A used 2001 or 2002 CL will likely be cheaper than a 2003 or 2004 Accord coupe, but the newer Accord represents the better long-term choice of the two, given the CL’s transmission issues.

2003 Acura 3.2 CL Type-S

2003 Acura 3.2 CL Type-S
2003 Acura 3.2 CL Type-S. Click image to enlarge

The Canadian Red Book values a fully loaded 2003 3.2CL Type-S with manual transmission and navigation system at $29,625, which works out to 67 per cent of its value when new.

If the potential for transmission problems puts you off a CL, there are plenty of other options in the cushy-coupe class.

A 2003 or 2004 Accord coupe retails for between $25,550 and $30,100. A 2001 or 2002 Honda Accord EX-V6 is worth somewhere between $19,000 and $22,000. Take note, however, that 2001 and 2002 V6-powered Accords are affected by the same automatic transmission problems that plague the CL, so the newer generation is the better choice. Also, that automatic is the only transmission choice in a 2001 or 2002 Accord V6.

The other option from Japan is the Toyota Camry Solara, which retails for between about $18,000 and $31,525 for 2001 to 2004 models. In typical Toyota fashion, the Solara was blessed with the same bulletproof reliability as the Camry sedan, according to Consumer Reports and the CAA 2003 Autopinion ownership survey. The Solara was available with a V6/5-speed powertrain between 2000 and 2002.

Among the German options in the class are a 2000-2002 BMW 3 Series coupe, which can be had for a little more money than a CL (about $19,000 to $33,500). The Mercedes-Benz CLK-Class coupes are close in size, but are worth far more money. Both are generally reliable, with electrical and power accessory problems being the only worries.

Sweden may have an answer as well: a 1999-2002 Volvo C70 is worth about $16,000 to $30,000. With the Volvo, look out for electrical and power accessory problems. A 2001 or 2002 Saab 9-3 Viggen retails for between $19,000 and $26,000. Reliability is a bit spotty, though nothing stands out as a major problem area. Keep in mind, however, that while the Viggen has the horsepower to compete with the CL, it’s a much different type of car than the Acura, with more of a focus on outright sportiness than luxurious comfort.

Finally, Ford’s Mustang makes a good case for itself. According to the Red Book, you could get a 2001-2004 Mustang with V8 power for anywhere between $15,000 to $25,000. Again, this isn’t a car that’s meant to compete with the CL, but they are generally reliable and offer a high horsepower-to-dollar ratio.

The 3.2CL was dropped after 2003 due to weak sales, some of which could be attributed to the introduction of the 2003 Accord coupe, which in V6 form offered 240 hp, practically splitting the difference between the potency of the two engines available in the CL. Factor in the introduction of a Type-S model of the TL sedan, giving buyers the option of the CL’s performance with four doors, and the CL’s days were numbered.

The verdict is that if you can find one, a 3.2CL Type-S with the rare six-speed is a great buy that should, in typical Honda fashion, provide many years of low-maintenance motoring. Unfortunately, while a more common automatic-equipped model is still a good bargain at purchase time, the threat of transmission trouble down the road is too compelling to make it a recommended used-car choice.

On-line resources:

www.acurazine.com – AcuraZine is probably the most comprehensive Acura-specific website on the Internet. The site is divided into communities for each Acura model. Click on the “CL” link, and you’re led to a very busy forum with separate sections for first- and second-generation CLs. Remember the automatic transmission problem you read about in the review? This site has a very long, very detailed description of the problem with information sourced from the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. That should tell you all you need to know about the quality, and quantity of information available here.

www.acuraworld.com/forums – An Acura forum with more than 15,000 members and sections dedicated to each Acura model. The sections dedicated to the second-generation CL and its platform-mate, the TL sedan, are two of the busiest sections. A couple of neat features include an “ask the dealer” forum for members to ask questions about the Acura dealer experience, and sections for do-it-yourself projects and technical service bulletins.

www.all-acura.com/forums.html – This is a less populous forum that still has a fair bit of good information. No dedicated CL section; rather, it shares a section with the TL and RL sedans. There’s also an article section, containing Acura news items and aftermarket information.

www.vtec.net/forums/ – VTEC.net (a.k.a. the Temple of VTEC), named after Honda’s well-known variable valve timing system, is for owners of all generations of Honda and Acura models. Includes a dealer search feature, and links to information on Honda and Acura promotions. There’s lots of information available here, including a shared section for the CL and TL and links to Honda and Acura news items.

honda-acura.go.cc – A Honda/Acura forum that covers all models sold by the two makes. A limited amount of information is available about the CL, which shares a section with the TL, RL and EL sedans.

www.honda-acura.net/forums/index.phphttp://www.honda-acura.net/forums/index.php – This website isn’t related to honda-acura.go.cc, despite the similar URL. There’s more information here, though, again covering all Honda and Acura models. The CL is grouped together with the TL sedan. It contains lots of technical information and industry news.

www.acurainspired.com/forums/index.php – AcuraInspired is dedicated to Acura models, but there’s no forum dedicated to the CL. However, the busiest section is that dedicated to the TL sedan, so there could be some useful information for CL owners there.

www.honda-tech.com – HondaTech is one of the busiest automotive forums on the web, but the bulk of the information focuses on the Civic and its Acura siblings the Integra and RSX. The CL is an afterthought here, relegated to a forum shared with other Honda and Acura models, and as a result, there’s not a lot of CL information on this site.


Pricing


Recalls

Transport Canada Recall Number 2004143; Units affected: 85,184

2001-2003: Certain operating conditions can result in heat build-up between the countershaft and secondary shaft second gears in the automatic transmission, eventually leading to gear tooth chipping or, in very rare cases, gear breakage can occur. Gear failure could result in transmission lock-up. Correction: On vehicles with 24,000 km or less, the dealer will update the transmission with a simple revision to the oil cooler return line to increase lubrication to second gear. On vehicles with more than 24,000 km, the dealer will inspect the transmission to identify gears that have already experienced discoloration due to overheating. If discolouration exists, the transmission will be replaced. It discolouration is not present, the dealer will perform the revision to the oil cooler return line.

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.

For information on recalls, see Transport Canada’s web-site, www.tc.gc.ca, or the U.S. National Highway Transportation Administration (NHTSA)web-site, www.nhtsa.dot.gov.

For information on vehicle service bulletins issued by the manufacturer, visit www.nhtsa.dot.gov.

For information on consumer complaints about specific models, see www.lemonaidcars.com.

Chris Chase is an Ottawa-based automotive journalist.

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