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1997 Acura lineup

RANCHO MIRAGE, Calif.—Acura was the first and, by volume of sales anyway, has been the most successful of the upscale Japanese car brands. It has sold more than 1.3 million Hondas with attitude in 10 years in the United States, and nine in Canada.

You might think that with this success, they'd keep doing what they've been doing, stay the course, don't fix what ain't broke, dance with what brung them.

Ah, no.

Integra and Legend owners love their cars to death. But if you ask what kind of car they own, they'll say, "Integra", or "Legend", not "Acura". On the other hand, if you ask BMW 325 owners what kind of car they own, they'll say "BMW," rather than "325."

Acura is convinced brand loyalty is more important than model loyalty. They feel the low priced Integra, which represents about 60 per cent of its U.S. volume and more than 80 per cent in Canada, somehow brings down the image of the range topping Legend.

So they are dumping the model names that current and future customers recognize and respect, and are starting all over with meaningless Euro-style alphanumeric designations for all new models.

Hence, TL replaced Vigor last year. And the next two in the line are coming this month: the RL, replacing the Legend, and the CL coupe, which is searching for a new niche make that a crevice between the Integra (whose new label will have to wait a couple of years) and the TL (formerly Vigor).

Confused yet? Don't worry, you will be.

Later this fall, another new Acura, a dipped in gold Civic sedan, will replace the Integra sedan, in Canada only. Currently code named EA, that name won't survive production startup. (How about ML, for Maple Leaf? Maybe FL in Quebec, for fleur de lys? Just suggestions.)

Actually, this is a pretty remarkable story, that a small market like Canada could convince the Japanese head office to let them build a unique to Canada car at the Alliston factory, which currently produces Civics.

This car, and the fact that the CL coupe was designed, engineered and will be built exclusively in the United States, and sold only in North America, are further proof that Honda is the most domestic of all imported carmakers. It recently announced that by its reckoning, the Accord has a higher domestic content than Ford's new Taurus.

For preliminary reports on Honda's latest efforts to appeal to North American tastes, read on.

RL SEDAN:

Conservatism isn't only a political movement. It is a product design philosophy, which seems to have afflicted everybody in the car business.

The most poignant moment at the press introduction of the RL, Acura's new flagship sedan, came when a journalistic colleague asked Acura's engineers, "Why is this car so boring? Are you frightened of change? Or do you think your customers are frightened of change?"

(Mr. Kobayashi, the Large Project leader for the RL, was seen looking for a sword to fall on.)

The RL may be unadventurous, but it is attractive. Several civilians commented favorably on its styling when we stopped for photographs. But it doesn't have the presence on the road of even the Legend. It looks like a Lexus LS 400, a BMW 7series, a

Mercedes Benz, in short, like everything else.

Acura didn't quote exact numbers, but the RL is the stiffest sedan they have ever designed. The objectives are quietness, ride comfort, stable handling and durability. Extensive use of galvanized steel improves corrosion resistance. Honeycomb floor

panels, a la Lexus, and foam-filled roof pillars are both aimed at reduced cabin noise.

Interior space is significantly increased over the Legend, and most of the expected amenities are on call: specially treated leather upholstery, designed to retain its suppleness longer and reduce the fogging effect caused by oils evaporating from the

skins and depositing themselves on the inside of the windows; power front seats (eight-way for driver, four-way for passenger) with a two-setting memory for the driver that includes the side view mirrors and power tilt and telescope steering wheel; automatic air conditioning that Acura claims sets new standards for cooling efficiency.

Sadly, we didn't get a chance to test this during the uncharacteristically cool California desert weather during the preview.

Nice touches like carpet on the undersides of the front seats, to keep rear seat riders' shoes unscuffed, add to the feeling of luxury. Canadians will only get RLs with the so-called premium package, which is optional in the States: Bose sound system, six-disc CD changer, traction control, heated front seats and additional real wood trim.

Like all Acuras apart from the NSX sports car, the RL is front-wheel drive. The 3.5 litre four-cam shaft 24-valve 90-degree V6 engine, based on Legend's 3.2 litre but virtually

all-new, is mounted longitudinally and sends 210 horsepower (at 5200 r.p.m.) and a lusty 224 pound feet of torque (at a low 2800 r.p.m.) through a four-speed electronic automatic transmission.

Honda's Grade Logic shift control program reduces hunting between third and fourth gears when driving in hilly country.

Double wishbone suspension front and rear is already considered the best alternative for good ride handling compromise. Acura specifically worked on noise reduction measures, with low friction ball joints and liquid-filled bushings for the rear trailing arms.

A rotary valve torque-sensing power steering system with a road speed sensor automatically adjusts boost level as required: less on dirt roads than on pavement; more while parking than on the highway.

Honda's own antilock brake system supervises the four-wheel discs.

I have to get out the damning with faint praise thesaurus to describe the RL. While it is a thoroughly pleasant car to drive, it isn't really exceptional in any way.

It is reasonably quick off the mark, untypical for multi-valve engines. Honda claims V8 performance with V6 fuel economy, and even in the mountains west of Palm Springs, the RL didn't feel under-gunned. But the car will have to deal with an image deficiency backlash, since the North American customer equates luxury with V8, regardless of actual capability.

On my test car, upshifts were not always silky smooth: one full throttle first to second change was particularly harsh.

Ride quality is good; smooth just bordering on floaty. The car is pleasantly quiet. Some gale force sidewinds during our test put the noise reduction measures to the test; the car responded well.

The car handles confidently, understeering benignly when pushed hard in the corners but with well controlled body lean.

The steering has better feel certainly than the Legend, but lacks the communication with the pavement of a BMW or a Mercedes Benz E class.

The vibration reducing seats are very comfortable, and interior fit and finish beyond reproach.

In feature content, the RL seems a half step behind the pack.

Yes, it has a microscopic particle interior air filter, but BMW and Saab have had that for years, as does the much cheaper Ford Contour. The horn is worked by buttons, instead of the full steering wheel hub pad. The CD changer is trunk-mounted; several new cars have it inside the cabin (ever try to change the trunk-mounted discs on a freezing rain morning?)

Buick has brought dual-zone air conditioning (separate temperature controls for right and left passengers) to the mid-price market. On the westward legs of our route on a cool but bright sunny day, co-driver Marc Lachapelle and I sorely wished for this feature in the RL.

Four-speed automatic and three-channel ABS are both one count short of state of the art. Side air bags, the hot ticket in today's safety sweepstakes, are not even in the plan for the RL.

Coming from a company whose founder, Sochiro Honda, always exhorted his minions to stay on the leading edge, this playing catchup position is a disappointment.

The RL will try to make it up with pricing. The premium package RL lists for US$44,000 in the United States. That translates into almost CDN$61,000 at current exchange rates.

Yet Honda Canada will offer the car for just $52,300, the same price as last year's Legend. Both the company and its dealers will absorb part of this huge hit.

Thus, the Acura RL will undercut a 2.8 litre six-cylinder BMW 5series by an as yet undisclosed amount, a Benz E class by $12,000 and a Lexus LS400 by a stunning $27,700.

If, as Acura hopes, luxury-oriented customers don't find the RL lacking in head to head comparisons with these worthy competitors, many will no doubt be tempted by the extremely attractive price.

CL COUPE:

If it has two doors, it's dead in the water. That's the conventional take on today's coupe market.

Yet Acura feels there's an unexplored vein of interest in a car with the luxury of a Lincoln Mark VIII or Cadillac Eldorado but without the price tag; with the performance attributes of an Eagle Talon but with more features; with the prestige of a Lexus ES300 in a more personal package.

Hence, the CL coupe.

It's easy to dismiss this American-designed, American-engineered, American-built car as a re-bodied Accord two-door.

But a prettier, bigger tired, better handling Accord coupe?

What's so wrong with that?

The CL is indeed Accord derived. The 145 horsepower 2.2 litre four-cylinder dual balance shaft VTEC engine, base five speed manual and optional four-speed electronic automatic transmissions, steering effort sensitive power steering and four-wheel disc ABS brakes are Accord pieces. The double wishbone suspension hardware is similar to Accord, but with unique springs, bars, and shock calibrations. Accord's platform is reinforced for greater structural rigidity.

The body is new, and quite similar to the CLX show car from last year's Detroit auto show. It shows a return to planar surfaces and angularity, a welcome relief from the

worn bar of soap designs that have dominated this decade. I think it looks great.

If you squint just right, you can spot some Accordness in the proportions; if you're really imaginative, you might even see some Pontiac Grand Am coupe, although I'm sure Honda's stylists would cringe at the thought.

The interior is reworked, with excellent new seats, co-developed by Honda's U.S.-based supplier. The rear seat is hardly commodious, but it's better than Camaro or Talon, and

roughly equivalent to BMW 3series coupe.

The dashboard has some unfortunate wood grain trim, and the worst set of pushbutton controls any air conditioner system has ever suffered. Logic eventually beat back digital dashboards and talking cars; those of us who believe in functionality and ergonomic intelligence must unite against this push button scourge before it kills again.

The rest of the controls are straight Honda parts bin stuff, and that's mostly okay by me.

Consistent with the youthful, upscale target audience, the CL features automatic air, six-way power driver's seat, power sunroof, remote keyless entry and a single-shot CD player, all standard equipment (a cassette player is an option for us dads; no mention was made of eight track capability.)

Driving the CL coupe is a treat. One of my test cars, all of them prototypes, had a slight rattle in the driver's door, and considerable wind noise around the middle roof pillar.

Otherwise, the rigid structure manifests itself in solid road feel and excellent ride and handling.

The big 16-inch Michelin tires, developed specifically for the CL, provide outstanding levels of grip; even when pushed pretty hard, they remain silent, and were well within their ultimate limits.

The VTEC engine is, as always, crisp and eager to rev. Sporty car fans may prefer the smooth five-speed manual gearbox, but even a blast up the Palms to Pines Highway in an

Automatic equipped CL proved an entertaining exercise.

The four-cylinder CL will start arriving in Acura showrooms later this month. With cloth interior and five-speed gearbox, it'll list at $27,800, a couple grand below the nearest obvious competitor, the less well-equipped BMW 318is. Add a grand for the auto box, $1,200 for leather and, well, that's about it, option wise.

An all-new, 190-plus horsepower 3.0 litre four-cam 60degree V6 will join the fleet this October, with a four-speed automatic transmission only. We were restricted to essentially

an around the block spin in an early 3.0 CL prototype, and as far as I could tell under these limitations, it felt fine; crisp throttle response, nice exhaust note, decent low and midrange power. But apart from a minimal deficit in straight line acceleration and a different if not unpleasant exhaust note, there's not a lot wrong with the four it's one of the very best on the market.

The V6 will be exclusive to CL for the moment. But when Honda's first real minivan arrives in a year or two, and the redone Accord later still, you'll find this motor under the

hood.

If Acura's marketers can reverse the longstanding decline in the coupe market, they'll qualify for some sort of medal. In the CL, they may have the car to do it.

In cloth five-speed trim, the CL might find happy owners who like their luxury with a dash of, well, dash. In leather auto mode, it should appeal to ladies who lunch, who've seen the price of their fave, the Lexus ES300, skyrocket in recent years.

If they would only do something about those push buttons . . .



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