1997 Acura 1.6EL
Choosing a car at dealership. Thoughtful grey hair man in formalwear leaning at the car and looking away
The 1997 Acura 1.6EL is a fully dressed Civic sedan, a Civic
Rather than being defensive about it, Honda Canada seems
rather proud of the car's heritage.
And why not?
First, the Civic sedan is a nice piece. Second, there's lots
of good hardware in the Civic parts bin that our current lineup
isn't using. The new Acura lets Canadians share some of it.
The 1.6EL, which replaces the four-door Integra in Canada, is
also a testament to the development skills of Honda's North
American research and development operation.
And it's a real feather in the cap of the award-winning
Alliston, Ont., plant, which has been entrusted with building a
car bearing Honda's most prestigious nameplate.
The 1.6EL begins with a Civic sedan platform and underbody
structure. The roof, doors and glass are all shared.
The hood and front fender stampings are cleverly designed to
be slightly different at their leading edges, where they combine
to form a new front-end appearance. Yet about 90 per cent of the
panels is identical to Civic, which reduced development and
Honda uses words like "European-oriented", "sporty" and
"sophisticated" to describe the grille and bumper. How can a
bumper be sporty? Or sophisticated do they deliver these parts
to the assembly line wearing a tuxedo?
As for European-oriented, well, I guess their designers
haven't been to Europe lately.
Compared to the fantastic small cars currently on offer from
Renault and Fiat (mostly designed, ironically, by Americans),
the 1.6EL is bland and boring.
And probably just right for our market, which says more about
our tastes than the ability of Honda's stylists.
Even the Civic's huge, funky headlamps have been dropped in
favor of more conventional units.
At the rear, a new trunklid skin allows a distinct shape for
the inner half of the lamp cluster. The fender-mounted part of
the taillights are the same shape as Civic's, but with its own
Fifteen-inch wheels (alloys on all but the base 1.6EL) give
the Acura a bit more presence on the road than its Civic cousin.
Honda would clearly have loved to offer even more visual
distinction between the 1.6EL and the Civic and surely could
have, if the Americans had bought into the program.
But it has probably achieved the maximum possible
differentiation with the minimum possible budget.
Inside, the expensive bits — dashboard cap, door and window
hardware, steering column and stalks, seat frames and heating,
ventilation and air conditioning — remain Civic.
As with the Civic, you'll be constantly reminded that the car
has a passenger-side air bag: its cover is the most obvious in
Upholstery and trim materials have been upgraded wherever
possible. The steering wheel is Civic; the horn pad is Acura.
The centre stack differs from the entry-level Honda. It's an
integrated one-piece design with the cassette player where it
belongs — in the radio, rather than down near the floor.
The Acura gains upgraded incar entertainment systems, ranging
up to a Panasonic compact disc-equipped system with acoustic
feedback control. With this last unit, a tiny microphone in the
rear speakers analyzes speaker output and automatically adjusts
the radio signal if distortion is noted.
Other luxotouches include air conditioning (again on all but
the base model), cruise, power heated mirrors, windows and
A security system tied to a multifunction remote keyless
entry system issues a confirming beep on the ear-piercing horn
when you unlock the car, and two beeps when you lock it, a
feature your neighbors will really appreciate when you come home
late at night.
Mechanically, the 1.6EL gets the Civic's best engine, a (aw,
you guessed) 1.6 litre, four-cylinder, single-camshaft,
This powerplant features variable electronic valve timing
control (Honda calls it VTEC) lifted straight from the Civic Si
coupe, but not available on other Civic body styles.
The engine produces 127 horsepower, sensational for just 1.6
litres. The torque peak of 107 poundfeet is much more modest
and occurs at a dizzy ing 5000 r.p.m.
You'll really have to stir the gears in the five-speed manual
gearbox to maintain brisk headway. The shifter is okay, light in
action and reasonably precise, apart from the fifth-to-fourth
change, which hangs up regularly on the gate.
It's just too bad they couldn't fit (afford?) the shift
mechanism from the grinaminute Integra GSR, the best
front-drive shift linkage on the planet.
If you choose the four-speed electronic automatic, you'll be
more interested in comfort than speed. This box shifts smoothly,
but does dull the performance edge a little.
Civic already has the best smallcar chassis in the business,
with very expensive double wishbones front and rear that so far
have avoided the cost-cutter's machete.
On the Acura 1.6EL, a new drag link connects the front sway
bar to the lower wishbone, for reduced vibration transmission.
The front bar is thicker than on the Civic, a rear bar is added
and the shocks and springs are retuned for a plusher ride.
It's the old Colin Chapman Lotus philosophy: get the handling
with geometry and proper shock control, leave the springs soft
for good ride. The Acura does an excellent job on both counts.
Brakes are disc front, drum rear, with anti-lock control
standard on all but the base car.
Added sound insulation in the firewall and floor pan means
considerably less I mean considerably less noise than in a
comparable Civic sedan.
The Acura 1.6EL is being offered in three trim levels.
The base car starts at $17,800. The Sport model, with upgraded
trim, air, anti-lock brakes, single-shot CD and alloy wheels,
seems a giant bargain for just $2,200 more.
The Premium version is basically a Sport with leather
upholstery. Personally, I wouldn't walk across the street, let
alone pay another two grand, for it. But lots of Canadian luxury
car shoppers have an emotional attachment to dead cow skin on
Incidentally, add $1,000 to all of the above for automatic
Can Acura dealers sell 7,000 of these little luxoboats?
But there really isn't anything else at this price point that
offers a comparable level of luxury or refinement.
The Saturn SL2 is too rough; the VW Jetta is roadworthy but
Of course, you might stretch to a BMW 318, but you're looking
at close to $30,000.
From this chair, there appears to be sufficient difference
between the Civic and Acura executions of this car to justify
what is, in reality, a pretty small price differential.
So while "cheap luxury car" may sound oxymoronic, Acura may be
on to something here.
But that name: if not the 1.6ML, for Maple Leaf, why not the
Acura 1.6EH? It's Canadian, after all.
Freelance journalist Jim Kenzie prepared this report based on
driving experiences with a vehicle provided by the automaker.