To some drivers, a true sporty performance car has to have a manual transmission.
Just ask the folks at Acura, who added a six-speed manual to their 2003 3.2CL Type-S model.
The previous Type-S only had a five-speed automatic -- albeit with a shift-for-yourself SportShift transmission.
"For performance enthusiasts, the addition of a manual transmission makes driving this powerful and responsive sport coupe even more rewarding," said Dick Colliver, executive vice president of sales at Acura Automobile Division of American Honda Motor Co. Inc.
Also new on all CLs is refreshed front and rear styling, mainly from revised headlights and taillights, as well as new wheel designs.
And the CL Type-S with manual transmission adds a limited slip differential to help manage power delivery to the wheels and eliminate wheel spin.
The CL already was one of the easiest cars to buy for anyone in the market for a compact coupe who hates sorting through lengthy lists of options and equipment packages.
With the CL, you basically pick how much performance you want: The base 3.2CL has a 3.2-liter V6 with 225 horsepower and the 3.2CL Type-S has a 260-horsepower version of the same engine. You also decide which transmission you want and whether to add an on-board navigation system.
A host of power and luxury features, including leather seats, power sunroof, Acura Bose sound system, Xenon headlights and even heated front seats, are standard on all CLs. The starting manufacturer's suggested retail price, including destination charge, is $28,700 for a well-equipped base 2003 3.2CL.
Compare this with the 2002 BMW 325Ci, which starts at $29,745, but offers leather, moonroof, heated seats and Xenon headlamps as options.
The 2003 Mercedes C230, with supercharged four-cylinder engine, starts at $25,615, but xenon headlamps, leather interior, heated front seats and moonroof are add-ons.
The test 3.2CL Type-S had the new six-speed manual, and it was immediately clear the impact it has.
I shifted into first, lifted on the clutch pedal and felt as if I rocketed out of the garage. There's no waiting for the power delivery, and my head knocked back against the head restraints.
The short-throw gear-shifter had a satisfying, if somewhat notchy, feel. The close gear ratios of this transmission meant I never had to search to find the right gear for the road conditions.
In fact, I was pleased at how well-positioned the gear-shifter was, even for someone my size -- 5 feet 4 -- who had the driver seat pulled forward on its track. In many sporty cars, this often leaves me straining to get comfortable with a gear-shifter positioned almost next to my hip. But that wasn't the case in the CL, where I reached forward for the shifter.
This Acura seemed adept at keeping its momentum on challenging, up-and-down stretches of hilly interstate where I had to slow for other cars, then accelerate quickly to pass.
There's only one engine in the CL -- a 3.2-liter, single overhead cam, 60-degree V6.
But in the uplevel Type-S, it's stroked for the improved horsepower as well as torque of 232 foot-pounds between 3,500 and 5,500 rpm by a low-restriction dual exhaust, increased compression ratio and high-volume, dual-stage intake.
This compares with 184 horses and 175 foot-pounds of torque at 3,500 rpm in the 2.5-liter, six-cylinder-powered 325Ci and 225 horses and 214 foot-pounds of torque at 3,500 rpm in the uplevel BMW 330Ci with 3-liter six-cylinder.
The Mercedes-Benz C230 coupe has a 2.3-liter supercharged engine with peak horsepower of 192 and maximum torque of 200 between 2,500 and 4,800 rpm.
Despite the CL Type-S performance, fuel economy isn't lagging. Using the fifth and sixth gears to maximize fuel economy helped me go more than 345 miles in city and highway driving in the test car without a sweat about refueling.
In fact, compared with the CL with automatic transmission, there's just a difference of 1 mpg less in highway driving with the six-speed manual.
Alas, for maximum performance, premium unleaded gasoline is the recommended fuel.
Note that the CL's 17.2-gallon tank is bigger than that provided in the BMW 3-Series coupes and the Mercedes-Benz C-Class coupe.
The ride in the CL Type-S is on the firm side. This is appreciated on mountain curves and during abrupt lane change maneuvers.
But in traffic on city streets, it meant I could feel my body jiggling over pavement bumps.
Note that the CL is a front-drive car, while the BMW 3-Series and Mercedes C-Class are rear drivers.
This is a key reason Acura added the helical limited slip differential in the new Type-S with manual transmission.
Front wheels are used for both steering and power delivery here, which could result in torque steer -- that uncomfortable pulling of the car from one side or the other upon acceleration.
But the limited slip does its job well and mechanically, using a set of gears to direct the right amount of torque to right and left wheels by detecting possible wheel spin.
There's not a lot of noise inside the CL. I heard the engine on acceleration, but wind and road noise weren't obvious.
The interior seats only four, with the back seat split into defined bucket seat areas for two. Rear windows don't open, and riders' heads are below the large rear window glass.
But headroom of 36.7 inches in back is more than the 36.2 inches in the BMW 3-Series coupes and the 36.3 inches in the C230.
The CL has more rear shoulder room, too.
At 192 inches long, overall, the CL is longer than the BMW 3-Series coupes and the C230 by at least 15.7 inches.
This helps contribute to impressive front-seat legroom of 42.4 inches -- better than the BMW and Mercedes competitors -- and a sizable, 13.6-cubic-foot trunk.
The 3-Series coupes have 9.5 cubic feet in their trunks, and the C230 has 10.2 cubic feet, which can expand to 38.1 cubic feet if the back seats are folded down.
The CL is a true coupe, so the back seats don't fold. But there is a pass-through area from the trunk through the middle of the back seats for skis and other long items.
I liked how the CL trunk was well-illuminated so I could see from the opening all the way to the back, where the trunk joined the rear seatbacks.
But with the sunroof open, I had to fumble to change the brightness setting of the navigation system as sunshine glare made the screen hard to read.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration doesn't have crash test results on the CL -- for any model year.
Recent model year CLs haven't had a safety recall. The 1998 CL had three, however. One involved electrical contacts in the ignition that could degrade and cause sudden engine stalling.
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