2003 Acura CL Type-S

2003 Acura CL Type-S

Hot coupe adds new edge with a cool 6-speed manual

Effectively blending high performance and personal luxury is a genuine automotive art form, one that Acura has shown an amazing talent for doing, and doing well. The arrival of its latest CL 3.2 Type-S proves that Honda's luxury division still has the magic touch. When it stormed onto the scene for 2002, the original Type-S boasted a host of meaningful powertrain and suspension upgrades in its formidable resume, including a trick SportShift sequential 5-speed automatic transmission. For '03, this understated overachiever adds several new touches to make it an even more appealing ride to the purists.

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Visually, the new Type-S gets minor tweaks to its front and rear fascias, revamped wheels and bolder looking exhaust tips. However, the real news is the arrival of the 6-speed, close-ratio, manual transmission. Opting for this do-it-yourself cog-changer also brings a new helical-gear limited-slip differential in place of the stability system and traction control found in its autoshifted counterpart.

Those with higher-profile predilections are likely to find that even with the exterior changes, the CL's remarkably understated styling remains a bit too subtle for its own good. But that tastefully drawn sheetmetal-devoid of wings, flaps, flares and all other types of paste-on appendages-makes the CL Type-S a near-perfect street-sleeper. That's a good thing, because this new 6-speed variant is even more willing than its predecessor to accommodate those with a natural inclination to regularly roam in the supra-legal speed range.

The additional gearbox exactly doubles the number of "option" choices that face a potential Type-S buyer. Like the standard CL 3.2-which is still only available with the SportShift transmission-save for a yea/nay vote on the $2,150 Navigation package (now fitted with OnStar), this coupe comes fully equipped. It commands $30,550 plus $500 in destination fees regardless of transmission.

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That tariff brings leather upholstery, automatic climate-control air conditioning, a gaggle of power assists, moonroof, Bose AM/FM/cassette stereo with 6-disc in-dash changer, power/heated seats, HomeLink programmable garage-door opener, dual 12V powerpoints, tilt steering column, steering-wheel-mounted audio/cruise controls and remote keyless for starters. Those comfort/convenience features are backed by dual front/front-side smart airbags, 3-point seatbelts with pretensioners/force limiters, 4-wheel disc brakes with ABS, HID Xenon headlamps, anti-theft/immobilizer system and rear LATCH anchors for child seats on the safety/security front.

Inside, the CL 3.2 Type-S carries on a styling motif that parallels its subtle exterior treatment. Well-formed buckets offer good combination of comfort and support, and the well-organized cockpit puts all major controls within easy reach, offsetting the monochrome leather look with tasteful titanium accent trim. About the only functionality issue that arises involves the bespoke backlit black-on-white gauges. While admittedly adding a bit of flair, their legibility suffers palpably anytime the lights are switched on when it's not completely dark outside. Despite its coupe configuration, the CL's rear quarters do a decent job of handling a pair of modestly scaled adults for shorter stints. While the back lacks a split/folding feature, it does incorporate a handy pass-through opening that leads into the 13.6 cubic-foot trunk.

Like its autoshifted opposite number, the new 6-speed Type-S packs the same potent 3.2-liter SOHC V-6 underhood. Fitted with Honda's VTEC (Variable Valve Timing and Lift Electronic Control) package to optimize performance in the upper rev ranges, this free-revving motivator churns out 260 horsepower at 6,100 rpm and 232 lb.-ft. of torque from 3,500-5,500 rpm. Those output numbers represent gains of 35 and 16 units, respectively, over a standard CL. Their real-world impact is further magnified by the fact that a manually shifted Type-S is 64 pounds lighter and enjoys a slightly improved (62/38 vs. 63/37 percent) front/rear weight bias. Collectively, they help transform an already engaging driving experience into an exhilarating one. Although its somewhat abrupt clutch engagement demands a bit of left-foot finesse on launches, the well-matched gears, short, crisp throws and overall precise feel of the new 6-speed should quickly endear it to all who prefer to shift for themselves.

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Helping put that go-power to its best use is a well-sorted chassis that combines double wishbones up front and a rear multilink setup in a formula that seriously blurs the distinction between front and rear drive with respect to overall handling prowess. These basic elements operate in consort with a coil spring and a progressively valved gas-pressure shock at each corner plus front/rear anti-roll bars, a package that minimizes body roll and helps keep the Type-S securely planted at all times.

Toss in a nicely weighted rack-and-pinion power steering unit and you've got a maximum Acura that exudes supreme confidence whether you're just cruising along or in full-attack mode on some twisty two-lane. Torque steer is virtually banished from this hot CL's personality, and the limited-slip differential does a great job of smoothly and positively transferring the formidable power that is one hand to the wheel with the best grip. When the inevitable push finally does arrive in tighter turns, a touch of trailing throttle encourages just enough tail slip to set up a quick exit with minimal drama.

Only two minor items keep the Type-S from racking up perfect 10s across the scorecards. The first is a surprisingly large 39.4-foot turning circle, which requires a bit of preplanning when you're navigating a crowded parking lot. The second is tires. Although the Type-S wears 215/50VR17 Michelin MXV4s in place of the 205/60VR16 MXV4-Plus rubber used on a standard CL, its suspension clearly has enough in reserve to handle wider-and stickier-alternatives. Even with these blatantly sensible shoes, the Type-S is stunningly good. Fitting something with a bit more bite would only elevate its road-raging potential to an even higher plateau. If Acura doesn't do it, owners will.

Those minimal nits picked, this latest version of the 3.2 CL Type-S deserves about every other accolade you can heap on it. It's fast, it's fun, it's refined, and without a doubt, it's one of the best-handling sport coupes on the market today. (www.acura.com)

2003 Acura CL coupe rear
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