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2003 Acura 3.2CL

Overall rating:  Product Rating: 4.5

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Now this is more like it! Six-speed transforms CL for 2003.

by mkaresh:      Aug 9, 2002 - Updated Aug 1, 2005

Product Rating: 5.0 Recommended: Yes 

Pros: Engine power, shifter feel, well-bolstered seats
Cons: Bland styling, torque steer, rear seat doesn't fold, traction and skid control deleted with manual
The Bottom Line: With the manual, the CL-S becomes a very enjoyable car to drive. The engine, transmission, driving position, and seats are all strong points. Hard to beat at this price.

When I first drove the Acura CL Type-S a couple of years ago I was underwhelmed. The seats were wonderful, and the engine sounded great while putting out serious power, but I just didn’t feel connected to the car, and the steering had some strange voodoo going on.

For 2003, Acura has made a six-speed manual available in the car. As if this were not enough—I usually prefer even a mediocre manual to an excellent automatic—the manual CL-S has Honda’s unique limited-slip differential last seen in the Prelude. This differential transfers power to the outside wheel in turns, promising better traction and less understeer. Sadly, it takes the place of skid control and traction control, which are not available on the manual car. A final unique feature of the manual is a parking brake relocated to the center console from the footwell.

Other changes for 2003 are more subtle. The front and rear styling are revised, but as with most Honda freshenings few people will notice the difference. More welcome is the replacement of the vast amount of fake wood in the interior with metallic trim, though only with the graphite leather in the CL-S. So, are these changes enough to make me want a CL-S? First I’ll review the styling and interior, then cover my driving impressions of the 2003 CL-S with manual transmission. (For my impressions of the automatic, see my review of the 2001 CL-S.)

Acura CL Reliability

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The original CL was a more unique looking car. That car was attractive, even pretty. Its tall, airy greenhouse (window area) and artfully tapered rear end gave it a unique appearance (except from the front, which had a generic Honda look to it). But the styling of the first CL did not exude substance and luxury. Its styling connoted playfulness, lightness, and perhaps agility. Yet, despite some of the flavor of the late BMW 6-series, it didn't have the look of a serious luxury car.

Acura sought to lend the CL a more substantial presence when it was redesigned for 2001. Though roughly the same size—the largest dimensional change was a two-inch increase in length—the new car appears much larger. This was largely the result of shrinking the greenhouse and bulking up the body. These looks are not entirely deceiving. Though similar in size, the new car is about 200 lbs. heavier.

These changes came with a cost: the new styling is not as distinctive. Never on the leading edge, the CL looks fairly bland three years in (if still not as bland as the companion TL sedan). What designers refer to as the DLO (for daylight opening, the side window outline) is strikingly similar to the last Nissan 240SX, which failed to stand out against other coupes and failed in the marketplace. Where the old DLO curved up quite a bit towards the rear, the new one curves subtly down. The rear end of the car is no longer strongly tapered. It now looks much like that of many other cars. I personally lament these styling changes. But I must admit they make grant the new CL a much more substantial, more serious, considerably more luxurious appearance.

As I’ve already mentioned, the changes to the CL’s styling for 2003 are hardly noticeable. They include partially clear lenses on the tail lamps and a body color (instead of chrome) grille surround. The one noticeable change involves the wheels and it is not a good one. The old Type-S wheels, with five thick spokes, were perhaps the strongest aesthetic element of the car. For 2003, these are replaced by wheels with six pairs of thin spokes, similar to the wheels seen on some Audis, for a much frillier look.

On the inside the Type-S’s serious performance message is conveyed by perforated leather, metallic gray gauge faces, and, with the ebony interior, for 2003 “titanium-look” plastic replaces “black wood” plastic. The new trim is vastly preferable. As in the similarly dudded up Infiniti G35, the dark leather/titanium trim combo looks much richer and sharper than the light-colored leather. Especially since in the CL-S the parchment interior comes with the brown “wood” of the standard CL. Since this trim covers large portions of the door panels and center console, it makes a large difference. You want the ebony with “titanium.” If you want still more of either trim, the dealer can add a piece around the instruments.


I prefer the CL’s driving position to those in the 3-Series and A4. Because the cowl is low in the traditional Honda fashion and the cockpit is a couple of inches wider, the CL’s interior manages to feel more open than the Germans’ while still feeling driver-oriented. Even in its lowest position the seat feels a bit too high, but I prefer this to too low. The view forward is especially nice, with the steering wheel well below even a short driver’s field of vision (my 5ֵ” sister also drove the car in 2001, and couldn’t stop gushing about how well she could see the road). I’ve never warmed to the extremely high position of the wheel and instruments in BMWs. I like to see the instruments, but I mostly want to see OUT. Though the side windows are much shorter than in the original CL, the beltline is not uncomfortably high, about on par with the BMW.

The front seats not only look impressive but are very comfortable and hold you in place very well due to their large bolsters. They are slightly softer than the traditionally hard (though still comfortable) seats in the Germans.

Though the Acura is over a foot longer and a few hundred pounds heavier than the BMW and Audi, and simply feels like a significantly larger car, it is similarly tight in the rear seat. Though I’m only 5ֽ”, I barely fit in the rear seat behind a similarly sized driver. My hair brushes the rear glass. Apparently the extra length and weight went towards the flowing exterior lines rather than interior space. At least it is easy to get into the rear seats compared to other coupes. Lift the handle on the side of either seat, and it glides forward. Tilt the seat back (not quite as easy as it should be—they are heavy), and it automatically returns to its previous position. The CL does not pretend to seat five: the center of the rear seat is occupied by a storage console.

The major problem with the rear seat is that it does not fold down—there is only a pass-through behind the armrest. The Germans do offer this feature. I personally would not want a car without it unless I planned never to use it to carry moderately large objects. In both of the cars I own the rear seat folds down, and I’ve used this feature many times to carry large objects such as book cases and cribs.

On the Road

Give the CL-S gas, and the engine immediately responds. Unlike some high performance engine variants, that in the Type S is not just a high RPM wonder than offers few benefits over the standard CL engine in regular driving. This engine doesn’t only make 35 more horsepower on the high end, 500 RPM further up the tach. It also has a higher, flatter torque curve through the mid-range, so it will feel stronger even in relaxed driving. The torque peak is 16 lb.-ft. higher, and it is reached 1200 RPM sooner, at 3500 RPM. This paradox is made possible by a sophisticated two-stage manifold not found in the standard CL. As a further bonus, the Type S engine (with automatic) earns the same EPA numbers as the 225 horsepower one: 19/29. (The manual’s numbers are 19/28.) Honda certainly has a way with engines.

I drove the Infiniti G35 the next day. Though the larger engine in the G35 supposedly produces nearly 30 lb.-ft. more torque, it feels relatively weak below 3500 RPM. My sense that the Infiniti engine is peakier is further implied by the location of the torque peak at 4800 RPM. Even when both cars are fitted with automatics, I personally find the Acura engine more enjoyable, especially in normal, part throttle driving.

I should add that the Acura engine also makes nice sounds. When pushed, it does not attempt to be silent. Fortunately, the mellow growl at high RPM connotes refined power. I personally prefer the slightly more throaty, more mechanical, sportier voice of the BMW 3 liter, but this engine sounds more luxurious. Anyone interested in this type of car will rev the engine from time to time just to hear it burble.

From my review of the 2001:

I really wish a manual transmission were available in this car. That (and a hand-operating parking brake) would soldify its claim to be a serious contender among performance coupes. It would also make the car more fun to drive, at least for me.

Well, Acura delivered. And the manual is a joy to use. Not only does it make the engine more precisely controllable, but I felt much more connected to the car so equipped. It helps that the shifter is outstanding. Laterally the gears are tightly spaced, and the throws are reasonable in length. The clutch has a fairly short travel, engages fairly smoothly, and is not too high in effort. At low speeds I had some trouble making butter smooth shifts, but suspect that with familiarity, as I learned how to precisely modulate the clutch and throttle while shifting, such shifts would become second nature. Best of all, the shifter has a nice, mechanical, snick-snick feel to it. It involved just enough effort that shifting doesn’t feel like a video game (in contrast to the Altima and Camry manuals I drove last fall). The gear ratios are closely spaced, so shifts keep the engine in its powerband. At the same time, the sixth gear makes relaxed cruising possible: at 60 MPH the engine is turning only 2000 RPM.

The key challenge faced by Honda’s engineers was surely how to manage 260 horsepower through the front wheels. The key difference between this car and the BMW is that this car, due to its Accord roots, is front-wheel-drive. Generally, channeling a great deal of power through the front wheels results in torque steer: the car pulls to one side during hard acceleration. The limited-slip differential that accompanies the manual promises to help here. Strangely, I noticed far more torque steer in this car than I did in the CL and TL automatics I have driven. When floored in moderate sweepers the car pulled strongly (if fluidly) toward the curb. With the trick differential, I expected the opposite.

Aside from this torque steer with lots of throttle, handling is impressive for a front-driver, or a rear-driver for that matter. Though weight distribution is far from even, understeer in hard turns is moderate (though always present). The nicely-tuned suspension, despite tires with only a 215 mm cross-section, sticks very well. As with the 2001, I drove the 2003 hard along a curvy road, yet felt well within the limits of the car. The front-drive layout, no matter how well it is tuned, trick different or not, simply does not allow the kind of power-on oversteer that can readily be had in the BMW. Otherwise this is a fine chassis. Not quite as tossable, but very stable and enjoyable enough for most drivers. The overall feeling is simply of a larger, more luxurious car. I did feel a bit more connected to the chassis with the manual. Still, those who really like to make a car dance, and I am among these, might still want to find the additional cash for the BMW. This is admittedly a minority of buyers; most will find the Acura’s chassis more than sufficient for how they typically drive.

I had major problems with the 2001’s steering. When that car was driven in a relaxed manner, the steering felt pretty good, with a desirable amount of heft (if not exactly road feel) once the car exceeds parking lot speeds. But when the 2001 was driven in a spirited manner, steering feel jumped all over the map, going heavy, then light, then suddenly heavy again, sometimes within the span of a few seconds. While this poses no safety issues, it detracts from the feel of the road desired from the steering of a driver’s car.

I had no such problems with the 2003. I don’t know if the steering was recalibrated, or the trick differential helps even out steering feel. Whatever the reason, transitions in effort were much smoother and predictable. I’d still like more feel, but generally felt I could precisely place the car in turns.

I drove the 2003 in South Carolina, and was unable to find a Michigan-class road. As a result, I was not able to thoroughly evaluate its ride. I had this to say about the 2001:

Over most surfaces the CL Type-S rides quite well, especially considering the capabilities of its chassis. The only exception I noticed was some jitteriness over slightly imperfect surfaces. I’ve noticed this characteristic in some other cars with low-profile tires. I personally feel this is an unnecessary trade-off to make to get that final bit of steering response. The BMW 3s I’ve driven rode better, without this jitteriness, but they only had 16” tires, not the 17s of the Sport Package.

Overall, I enjoyed driving the manual 2003 much more than the automatic 2001.


The CL Type-S comes standard everything except a navigation system (even xenon headlights, heated setas, and a Bose sound system with a six-disk in-dash CD changer are standard!). The price had gone up very little in two years, so it remains quite reasonable at just over $31,000. The manual costs the same as the automatic. Although it doesn’t have skid or traction control, it does have that unique differential, and I guess Acura felt they were equivalent as far as pricing is concerned.

As before, the regular CL is $2,350 less. If you want the manual, then you have no choice. If you want the automatic, the choice is harder. I suspect the standard CL rides better. The extra power of the Type S sounds nice, 260 is a big number, but may not make such a large difference in actual driving. The same goes for the stiffer suspension and larger wheels of the Type S. Are the engine, suspension, and interior trim differences of the Type S worth the extra $2,350? I urge potential automatic buyers to drive both CLs and make this judgement for themselves.

Until this fall no other coupe offers this level of performance and refinement for such a low price. In the fall Infiniti will offer a coupe version of the rear-wheel-drive G35, and will present stiff competition for the CL-S. I suspect it will cost a couple thousand more comparably equipped, while offering the benefits of rear-wheel-drive and more distinctive, sportier styling. Until then, BMW presents the stiffest competition, and at nearly $40,000 comparably equipped it’s a lot more money.

Those with lower performance ambitions might consider the Camry Solara, which remains available with a V6/manual combination. I haven’t driven this car, so I cannot speak with certainty, but suspect that even with the manual and sport package it lacks the serious performance feel of the Acura. At $25,700 loaded, it’s at least worth a look.

Last Words

The CL-S continues to be a lot of car for the money. With the manual, it becomes a very enjoyable car to drive, closing the gap with the class-leading BMW 330Ci. The engine, transmission, driving position, and seats are all strong points. Weaknesses are limited to less “tossability” than in the BMW, torque steer with lots of throttle in turns, and non-folding rear seats. At this price, it’s hard to beat.

To learn more about my reliability research and sign up to participate in it, or to perform thorough up-to-date new car price comparisons, visit www.truedelta.com. A link to this website and alphabetized links to my other vehicle reviews can be found on my profile page.

Amount Paid (US$): 32000
Model and Options: CL-S six-speed
Product Rating: 5.0
Recommended: Yes 

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