For over three decades, the name Acura has represented some of the best luxury and performance Honda has offered to customers in America. From the NSX to the Integra Type S, the automaker has churned out cars worthy of admiration and of bedroom posters of young gearheads. Even the automaker’s work on more normal cars is worth noting. Back in the late 1990s and into the early 2000s, you could drive home from an Acura dealership with the CL, Acura’s first car designed and engineered entirely in the United States. You could get it in spicy Type S variant, too. For just a single year, 2003, you were able to combine the 260 HP V6 power of the Type S with a manual transmission, making the CL Type S a low-key fun machine.
Last time on Holy Grails, we took a peek at one of the rarest Minis in America. For a brief moment, and I mean so brief that Mini didn’t even bother updating its website, you could buy the 2013 Mini Clubvan, a Clubman with blanked-out windows and a cargo tray. It was supposed to be a flashy vehicle for small businesses, but thanks to the infamous Chicken Tax, the car was more expensive than larger small cargo vans. Only 50 examples were sold before Mini pulled the plug.
Today, we’re moving away from obscure delivery vehicles. Instead, we’re headed right back into the 2000s, that wonderful time for car enthusiasts. I’ve now said this plenty of times before and it’ll be the second time I’ve brought it up this week, but the 2000s really did have something for everyone.
If you wanted a front-wheel-drive sporty coupe in the early 2000s, automakers were happy to deliver. Honda wanted you behind the seat of a Civic, Toyota had the Celica, Mazda sold its Mazda3, and Audi had its standard TT coupes. Don’t forget, during this time you could also buy a Mitsubishi Eclipse and even General Motors was getting in on the fun with cars like the Chevy Cobalt SS. Acura was a purveyor of sporty coupes like these. In the 2000s, you could buy an Integra then later, the RSX (sold elsewhere as the Integra). Then there was this, the mid-size 3.2CL Type S.
Honda’s Answer To The Germans
The history of Japan’s American luxury brands is fascinating. For context, let’s go back to the 1980s, when the car industry was changing in the aftermath of fuel shortages and emissions regulations. Small, fuel-efficient cars were in vogue, which was great for the Japanese automakers exporting small cars to America.
Honda notes that its successes with the CVCC engine in the 1970s were a result of having the right product at the right time to capture American buyers. The company began flying high on good sales numbers, and it released more models, the Accord and Prelude; those only further helped build Honda as a household name. Honda notes that it has a philosophy of building its vehicles where they are sold, so in 1980, the marque broke ground on its first American plant in Marysville, Ohio.
As the plant was being constructed, Honda noticed winds of change in car buying habits. As the economy began to recover, sales of luxury models began rising. German marques in particular were seeing success in slimmer, athletic designs that weren’t weighed down by the chrome of American luxury cars. These cars, with their luxury and performance, picked away at America’s luxury sales leaderboard.
This became a problem for Honda as it did not have a luxury car to sell. The young professionals who bought Hondas were now selling their rides to buy an Audi, BMW, or Mercedes-Benz.
Meanwhile, Japanese marques already had to contend with voluntary export restraints. As the Bureau of Labor Statistics notes, in the 1980s, 17 to 22 percent of the American auto market consisted of vehicles imported from Japan. Cars from Japan gained a reputation for reliability for a low price and as the BLS notes, they got 5 mpg better than the American competition, too. Domestic brands just couldn’t keep up and as a result, there were calls for the American government to do something about it. In 1981, the U.S. government got the Japanese government to agree to a voluntary limitation on exports. Trucks were already limited by the Chicken Tax. At first, this was just 1.68 million vehicles a year. Of course, the cap didn’t apply to Japanese vehicles built in America.
When Honda decided to give Americans a luxury car, it hit another problem. Since 1981, Honda had a car larger than the Accord in the works. This car would feature Honda’s first V6. Remember how I said Japanese brands were known for economy cars? The automaker had to find a way around this. From Honda:
While the buying public had accepted Japanese nameplates for their reliability and economy, luxury was another matter. Conventional wisdom said that an economy car manufacturer trying to take on the best from Europe was folly. However, Honda, more than any other car company, had found success by defying conventional wisdom.
At the time that Honda was planning its move upmarket, there was little in its product lineup that foreshadowed success. With just three cars – the Civic, Accord and Prelude – it wasn’t even a full line manufacturer. While popular with both the public and media, all of its cars were still clearly intended for the budget conscious. Prices were affordable, and even the most expensive Accord sold for well below $20,000. Basic luxury features, such as power windows and leather upholstery, were in short supply in Honda products. While nobody disputed that Honda built excellent vehicles, few thought it had the luxury credentials to compete with the likes of Europe’s luxury brands.
The car in development was known as the HX, internally, but you and I would know it as the Legend. Honda was developing the Legend to have a fuel-injected V6 engine, independent suspension, four-wheel disc brakes, ABS, air-conditioning, sharp handling, and a luxurious interior. The Legend targeted a price of nearly $20,000, or about twice the cost of a base Accord back then. Now, picture buying this car at a Honda dealership, from Honda:
The problem of selling such an expensive car through Honda dealerships was obvious. Not only would it overextend the already busy dealers (which sold on average 600 cars a year), customers would likely balk at the idea of such an expensive car wearing a Honda badge. Ultimately, Honda executives decided that the HX was simply too large and expensive to be sold alongside Civics.
To get around this, Honda became the first Japanese automaker to create a separate luxury division. Instead of going to a Honda dealership, you went to an Acura dealership where you received a luxury sales and service experience. This turned out to be a genius idea and one the automotive world would later see repeated with other brands.
The Acura CL Series
Despite Acura being an American luxury division of Honda, it would take a while before Acura actually sold something designed and engineered entirely in America, specifically with American buyers in mind. This would change in 1996 when Honda announced the Acura CL Series. This car was a big deal for Honda and Acura both. Instead of adapting Japanese designs for Americans, the Acura CL Series was built specifically for Americans.
When Honda announced the Acura CL Series, the Acura Legend coupe was gone and the brand had taken on an alphanumeric naming scheme, meaning the Legend sedan was now the RL. The CL is not really a successor for the Legend coupe. Honda says the original CL was created to appeal to car buyers looking for a stylish and personalized sport coupe slotted right into the mid-luxury segment. The CL was also designed to bridge the gap between the Integra and the TL.
The first CLs were available in 2.3CL and 3.0CL. The lower 2.3CL was a four-cylinder available with 150 horsepower and 154 lb-ft of torque while the 3.0CL was a V6 with 200 horsepower and 195 lb-ft of torque. Sold from 1996 to 1999, first-generation CL Series cars got power seats, automatic climate control, power moonroof, remote entry, leather and heated seats, and more. Honda says it was targeting the BMW 318is, BMW 328is and the Lexus SC300 as competition.
Launched in 2000, the second generation of the CL Series was launched with the 3.2CL. Acura boasted a car with 30 percent more power, a larger body, and lines meant to harken back to Gran Turismo coupes of decades past while giving a nod to Acura’s own history. Acura wanted you to pay attention specifically to the sculpted hood, short rear deck, pentagram grille, and triangular grille.
This time, the CL would be exclusively V6, and that engine would be a 3.2-liter with VTEC. In its base tune, you got 225 horsepower and 216 lb-ft torque. The platform sounds pretty advanced, too, with isolated subframes, double-wishbone suspension, and vacuum-controlled hydraulic mounts. The new CL also boasted six percent stronger torsional rigidity and 23 percent stronger bending rigidity.
Backing up the refined chassis is stability control, ABS, and traction control. Buyers got to enjoy even more luxury in the form of satellite navigation, HID headlights, a Bose sound system, HomeLink, and leather power seats with a walk-in feature and memory. Once again, Honda made it clear that its targets this time where coupes, specifically those sold by Mercedes-Benz and BMW.
This car alone is not the grail. Last week, I found myself staring at an Acura NSX that I wish I could own when I stumbled on a rare version of a seemingly forgotten CL variant. Alongside the 3.2CL, Acura also sold the 3.2CL Type S. Acura claimed the Type S was the most powerful six-cylinder coupe in its class. With the Type S, you got a 3.2 V6, but making 260 horsepower and 232 lb-ft of torque.
Amazingly, when the 3.2CL Type S was launched alongside the 3.2CL, the sole transmission choice was a five-speed automatic. Sure, the car still laid down 60 mph acceleration times of 6.8 seconds and the transmission shifted fine, but as Car and Driver noted in its review, the car was screaming for a manual transmission.
For one year and one year only, 2003, Acura relented and gave 3.2CL Type S drivers a six-speed manual transmission. This was the final year for the CL itself and thus, you could say that the car went out with a bang. In 2000, Car and Driver said the Type S with an automatic was “nearly perfect.” Adding the manual transmission and a limited-slip differential made it only better, from Car and Driver:
There is nothing remotely dissatisfying about the action of Acura’s new six-speed manual. Although it employs cable linkage, they’re heavy-gauge cables, worthy of a suspension bridge, judging by the decisive feel of the engagements. The shift throws are short, the gear ratios close, and if it isn’t quite NSX-precise, it’s at least as good as anything in this price class. And exceptional for a front-drive car.
Wheelspin is bad juju. It reduces cornering speed, magnifies understeer, and emasculates corner exit speeds. It adds endless seconds to racetrack lap times, and undue drama to back-road recreation. The CL’s new limited slip cures this affliction like a mechanical miracle drug. During a day of preview driving in the mountains that form the west wall of California’s Silicon Valley, we were thoroughly impressed with the way the CL dealt with abrupt transitions, decreasing-radius turns, and all the other little surprises that make high-country back roads so entertaining.
There were some who returned from strafing the hinterlands with complaints about torque steer, but we’re inclined to classify such carping as—let’s be kind—nonsense. What one feels, thanks to the CL’s scalpel-sharp rack-and-pinion power steering, is the limited slip doing its job. It bites into corners like a bulldog, and the little hints of something going on down there are simply reminders of the diff adjusting to cornering loads, steering angle, and what the driver is doing with his right foot. Honda R&D really did its homework here. This device closes the front-drive versus rear-drive gap by a bunch.
Giving the 3.2CL Type S a manual transmission also improved on the car’s performance. At 5.9 seconds to 60 mph, it’s almost a second to 60 mph faster than the automatic. The manual version is also 60 pounds lighter and it dispatches the quarter mile in 14.6 seconds at 98 mph compared to 15.2 seconds at 93 mph. In other words, the 3.2CL Type S is no supercar, but getting it with a manual transmission made a tangible difference.
Oh, and base price? $31,050 ($52,238 today), a bargain compared to the competition. I’ll let MotorWeek’s John Davis take the wheel for a moment:
As for rarity? It’s not nearly impossible to find like the 2013 Clubvan, but estimates place production numbers for the six-speed 3.2CL Type S at just 3,479 units worldwide. They don’t appear to be too difficult to find, either. A quick 30-second search revealed three of these for sale, one on the West Coast, one in the South, and one in the East Coast. The lowest-priced one is $9,000 while the most expensive is $12,000. I bet a deeper search would reveal more for sale.
In this era where crossovers are slowly taking over the marketplace, it’s fun to look back on what you could buy not too long ago. The 2003 Acura 3.2CL Type S is just another example of how even somewhat regular cars could be pretty cool. Maybe, as the automotive landscape continues to evolve, automakers and buyers may look back at the past and bring back some fun coupes again.
Do you know of or own a car, bus, motorcycle, or something else worthy of being called a ‘holy grail’? Send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org or drop it down in the comments!
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