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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

with attitude.

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

tooling costs.

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

lens.

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

the industry.

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

locks.

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,

16valver.

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

their seats.

Incidentally, add $1,000 to all of the above for automatic

transmission.

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

stodgy.

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.

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