By on November 1, 2018

Today’s vehicle represents a couple of firsts for the Rare Rides series. It’s the first time a Rare Rides has featured an old car that’s still new, and it’s also the first time your author actually drove the Rare Ride in question.

An Aegean Blue luxury coupe awaits.

This still-new 3.2 CL was featured at Acura’s full-line drive event, which included the first drive of the 2019 ILX. For the occasion, Acura brought the CL out of storage, along with an Integra and an NSX — all three cars being part of their heritage collection. The CL was introduced for the 1996 model year as the not-quite replacement for the discontinued Legend coupe. That year, Legend became RL, and the smaller TL provided the chassis for the CL coupe. Still following along?

Featuring awkward styling, the first generation lasted through 1999. At that point, CL production stopped for a year as Acura readied its new model, with the second-generation CL going on sale for 2001.

All second-generation CLs were powered by the 3.2-liter J-Series VTEC V6, which sent horses to the front wheels via a five-speed automatic or six-speed manual. Said manual was only available for 2003, and only on Type-S trims.

Debuting with 2002 models, the Type-S designation was the first time Acura used a performance trim that would spread across multiple models (the Integra was the only model to wear Type-R badging). Type S meant more power: 260 horses versus the regular version’s 225.

The model provided for testing was one of the last CLs produced. 2003 was the final year for the CL, and the slow-selling coupe finished life without a replacement. Unusually, the CL experienced some cosmetic refreshing for its final  year. Door handles became body colored, and headlamps had a smoked background. Fog lamps up front went away, replaced by vent blanks. At the rear, the full red tail lamps were revised to feature a clear space for reverse and turning indicators. There was also a new 12-spoke wheel design for Type-S vehicles only. 2002’s sales of 12,072 dropped to just 6,593 in the coupe’s final year. Time to hop behind the wheel.

It felt unusual to step into a car from 2003 that still smelled new, a byproduct of the 340 miles displayed on the odometer — surely the lowest mileage example in existence. This CL was never delivered to a dealer, nor any owner; it went straight into the hands of Acura. There were new tires on the heritage models, and the fluids were changed to moisten the internals after so many years of slumber. The most noticeable thing in the CL’s cabin was the sheer simplicity of it all. Just a few buttons here and there, and a smallish navigation and climate screen with a hilarious resolution. Seats were very comfortable and supportive, feeling nicer than those in other Acuras I drove that day. Surfaces and materials felt well made and very well put together. There’s room for four adults in the interior, and all sit in ruched leather comfort.

As I looked around, the other thing I noticed was how much glass there was — visibility in all directions was substantially better than in cars of 2018.

Out on the road, putting a foot down brought the V6 to life. The pleasant burble was accompanied by a noted (but undramatic) increase in speed. Steering was slightly on the artificially heavy side for extra sporty-ness, and the brake pedal was softer than in modern cars. While the cabin was mainly quiet, some wind noise appeared from the pillars and around the window seals. I also noted a slight ticking coming from the engine under throttle, so perhaps a valve adjustment was needed. I suspect age and extended slumber was a factor in both these items. The suspension was a great balance of nice damping and enough give over bumps to retain comfort. Throwing it into a sharp bend at speed, there was just a bit of controlled body roll as six cylinders powered me out the other side. I was totally pleased at the end of the test route, and wondered if I could find a clean CL Type-S somewhere.

They don’t make em like they used to.

[Images: Corey Lewis / TTAC]

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45 Comments on “Rare Rides Review: A Brand New 2003 Acura CL Type-S...”

  • avatar

    It’s clean, but the driver’s seat appears to have far more than 340 miles of use.

  • avatar
    Middle-Aged (Ex-Miata) Man

    Highlighting the superiority of older Acura models to pitch the ILX seems… unwise.

  • avatar

    Back when Acura was still sort of a brand…

  • avatar

    The window sticker says, “CVA” for the price, but also shows a deliver-to of Mile High Acura in Denver. I wonder why that is?

    Years ago, there was a guy here at work that owned a Type-S with the six-speed manual, in the same color. It seemed like it was almost indigo (it had almost purplish tinge to the blue). The six-speed was the better choice, since the automatics in these had the same issues as other Honda/Acura transmissions at the time, most notably the Odyssey.

    • 0 avatar

      I would ditto the comments about the automatic transmission warnings concerning both the 1999-2003 TL and CL variants, except that the problem transmissions were only for V6 models – the Accords with 4 cylinders and automatic were almost trouble-free and didn’t share anywhere near the numbers of replacements that the V6 Accord, TL, and CL did. I spent 15 years working for Acura dealers, and one of the last models I took home overnight was a double white ’03 CL-S six-speed with Nav. I liked the manual trans option, but found the large Nav screen distracting while underway. I much preferred, though, the 2004 TSX with six-speed choice- it seems more like a BMW as far as driving, and I liked the smaller size vis a vis the 2003 CL.

  • avatar

    I guess the transmission can’t fail if you never drive it.

  • avatar

    If anyone needed any evidence for how far Acura has regressed in design, and just overall standing as a brand, they need to look no further than this CL (or to drive the point home, a 2nd gen Legend coupe) and compare it to the dreck they’re cranking out now. I understand that they found an awesome cash cow in the MDX and that arguably they’re in a better spot financially/line-up wise than in the era of this CL, but god do the old Acuras put the new ones to shame.

    • 0 avatar

      Yup. The last good looking, neh, great looking Acura was the TL from the mid 2000’s which seemed to borrow from the e39 and spin it with Acura’s look.

      Acura is a brand that should absolutely be paying homage to the original Legend and more recent TL for design inspiration.

    • 0 avatar

      ” but god do the old Acuras put the new ones to shame.”

      Yep. I think the same thing could be said for past and present Lexus design.

    • 0 avatar

      Enough with the rose tinted glasses. Apart from the tasteful, conservative, and therefore timeless style (shared with many cars of this era), there is little to love about these CLs and their contemporary TL. Have you ever driven one? The interior is not the least bit luxurious, maybe even less so than a loaded Accord from the same period. The drive has hints of sportiness, but nothing more. Not to mention the guaranteed to disintegrate glass transmissions. This was as much of a low point for Acura as anything they’re producing today, and is just as responsible for Acura’s existing mediocre reputation.

      As for the 2nd generation Legend, that car is overrated too. Sure, it’s an interesting looking car, but is otherwise unremarkable. The first gen Legend was more significant, as it was notably nicer inside with better driving dynamics than other Hondas and other competitors.

      The next generation TL was the high water mark for Acura. The Integra and RSX are other Acuras that have made the brand mildly interesting. The Legend gave them a winning start out of the gate, but withered to nothing. Nothing today, nor the gen 1/2 CL, TLs, or gen 2 Legend have done much for the brand.

      • 0 avatar

        A Type-S CL with the helical limited slip and the 6 speed manual would tangle with anything the Germans were making at the time short of an M5, for less money and more reliably.

        The following generation of TL was indeed a rock solid performer and I like it a lot as well, but cost-cutting that afflicted all of the Japanese carmakers was starting to set in more significantly by that point.

        • 0 avatar
          Car Ramrod

          True about the cost cutting with the 3rd gen TL.

          I picked up mine when they were first out, and there were still a lot of 2003 CLs and TLs on the lot. Although the layout and electronics on the new model were superior, the interior materials on the older cars were a bit better, especially the seat leather. Unsurprisingly, the leather on my TL wore poorly. It was a great car though.

        • 0 avatar

          I had a CL-S 6MT with comptech headers and some other bolt ons…. 3rd gear rolls and up into 4th were incredible. Just an absolute gem to wind out. It never got old. It was amazing how many cars were totally caught off guard at the pull the car had especially on the highway

      • 0 avatar

        “As for the 2nd generation Legend, that car is overrated too. Sure, it’s an interesting looking car, but is otherwise unremarkable. The first gen Legend was more significant”

        I’m not going to disagree, but the second-gen Legend had a much better automatic mated to it, while the somewhat blander RL/Legend fixed the 2nd gens headgasket issues.

        To me the Integra/NSX’s are the few Acuras that I find neat when they’re stock, though I do applaud the Vigor for being a weird 5 cylinder Accord thing with a silly name.

      • 0 avatar

        “Not to mention the guaranteed to disintegrate glass transmissions.”

        Seems to be a bit of hyperbole. I just sold a 2003 TL-S with 160K on and never had a single transmission issue

  • avatar

    …As I looked around, the other thing I noticed was how much glass there was — visibility in all directions was substantially better than in cars of 2018…

    This! Times 1000. I can enjoy the same time trip by hopping in my pristine 95 Probe GT. Vision aplenty. Nice simple controls and displays. Then I go out in my C7 with the top up and I feel like I was dropped into a cave.

    Also on that sticker,and not too cool, are the 2.5 mph bumper standards that saddle owners with unnecessarily high repair bills for minor damage.

  • avatar

    Makes me miss my 6th gen Accord with the J-series V6. Great motor, even when I got rid of it in 2013. Very smooth and very efficient.

    • 0 avatar

      I agree, the gen-6 Accord was the last of a breed.

      • 0 avatar

        Huh? The J30A1 was a total dog compared to the J30A4 in the 7gen. Not to mention that engine was not the most trouble free for a Honda – prepare to have a spare main relay in the trunk, the number to a good trans shop, and removing the intake manifold to clean out the EGR ports every 30k miles.

  • avatar

    Slight correction, the manual was only available in the 2003 model year, not ’02 and ’03.

    I was wrenching at an Acura dealer when these came out and I loved the hell out of these things, particularly the Aegean Blue Pearl. I certainly couldn’t afford them at the time, but always hoped to own this particular combination since it HAS to be a manual and the blue was by far my favorite. Sadly it seems about 96% of these were sold in black, white, or grey. They still catch my eye when I see them, particularly post-refresh which is easy to pick out with the split-spoke wheels.

  • avatar

    I’d take that interior layout and outward visibility any day of the week, and twice on Sunday. Oh, my…how far we’ve come, and not necessarily all in a good way.

  • avatar

    Cool time machine. Did they let you drive the NSX or Integra?

    To me, though, it exemplifies why Acura’s original incarnation as a maker of performance sedans failed:
    1) It was probably good to drive, and the looks are clean, but there’s nothing distinctive here.
    2) FWD
    3) Too much in common with Hondas in general and the Accord in particular, which could be had in coupe form with a slightly less powerful V-6.

    Basically, what it boils down to is a gussied-up Honda with bland looks…and that’s the story with the entire Acura line today. Not much has changed. If not for the MDX, this brand would have died right around the time this car was manufactured.

    • 0 avatar

      I think Acura’s only fault was not having enough SUVs/Crossovers earlier, something like this CL was a sporty coupe offering at a time when everyone was dropping sporty coupes as they just didn’t sell. I think the Acura brand did mean something, it was like buying a Buick to techie-white collar folks in the northeast. Less money and more reliable than a German, with performance (in a straight line anyways) on par. They’re lucky they nailed the MDX in ’01 as well as they did: a credible alternative to an RX350, with more interior room and a third row right off the bat. If Acura had released an Acura-fied CRV (RDX) in the early 2000s, they would have really been in the money.

  • avatar
    R Henry

    I just can’t muster enough interest to care about Acuras. They mean exactly nothing by missed opportunity to me. A great car for a promising politician who lost that key election.

  • avatar

    Never warmed up to this thing. Looks like a Japanese Monte Carlo with its long overhangs.

    I still shake my head to think of what Acura could have been if they had made the 2nd gen Legend RWD. Everything was in place except a driveshaft and rear diff/axles.

    • 0 avatar

      What would that have done? Sporty coupes were on their way out, whether they were FWD or RWD. Acura is lucky that they brought out the MDX when they did, right when the non-BOF crossover/SUVs were starting to take off.

  • avatar

    It’s a beautiful car, especially in this color. I’d have to find a manual or move on.

    Although I love coupes, I’d be more inclined to get a first gen TSX.

  • avatar

    Every commenter (including me) loves the color (blue) and the 6 speed manual, but when they were actually for sale virtually everyone (among the few people coming to an Acura dealer not to buy an MDX) bought their coupe in silver, white, or black with the glass automatic that sent most to early scrapping.

    • 0 avatar

      I was saddened when the V6 + 6 speed manual combo went away in the Acura sedan but the only way I was going to buy one was CPO.

    • 0 avatar
      George B

      stingray65, the weak Honda/Acura automatic transmissions usually got rebuilt at least once to avoid early scrapping, especially when Honda was offering an extended warranty and paying for the rebuild. However, rebuilding doesn’t fix fundamental design problems so the rebuilt transmission eventually fails when the car is too worn to justify the expensive repair.

      • 0 avatar

        Well put George. The glass-transmission was undeniable, but given the way the rest of the car held up (very well) and how they held value, and how Honda was willing to good-will a ton of the repairs, I still see a LOT of TLs of this generation around. But I wouldn’t buy one, the rebuild might very well be nearing the end of its life.

  • avatar

    “…with a hilarious resolution” Why is older technology always referred to as “hilarious”? I wouldn’t be overcome with uncontrollable laughter and hilarity if I saw this screen? It’s just older that’s all.

  • avatar

    I owned a 6MT Acura CL-S for many many years.
    That car was an absolute gem of engine/transmission combo.
    Headers and an intake had these cars putting down an honest 250+ whp.

    Just an absolute treat to rip through the gears over and over and over.

    J32A2 all day!!!!

  • avatar

    I’m much more interested in that neighboring NSX, due to Acuas later naming scheme I quit bothering to keep track of them “RL,TL,CL,FTL”, that and their styling got too soap-bar ish to me.

    On another note, check out Wikipedias main image for the first generation CL:–_04-11-2012_2.JPG

    “$5000 Runs and Drives no accidents, I KNOW WHAT I HAVE”

  • avatar

    “Throwing it into a sharp bend at speed, there was just a bit of controlled body roll as six cylinders powered me out the other side. I was totally pleased at the end of the test route, and wondered if I could find a clean CL Type-S somewhere.”

    You can find one, because I own one :-) 126K miles on the tach, no accidents, no rust. Aegean Blue Pearl Type-S with six speed manual.

    The car was my Dad’s, which he bought new in 2003. He sold it to me in 2010, and I drove it for many years in California. Then I sold it to a friend, and a year later, begged him to buy it back. He relented and sold it back to me, and I’ve owned it since then.

    The engine is just a jewel, and makes a wonderful mechanical symphony when winding out the revs, especially in 2nd and 3rd. The VTEC still kicks in reliably around 5,000 RPM even in this 15 year old car!

    Like many Hondas, my car did suffer from a short-circuit in the PFI main fuel relay, and I replaced the unit myself. I’ve also had the coolant, manual trans fluid, and brake/power steering fluid flushed and/or replaced. I’ve replaced the lower ball joints and front/rear shocks with KYBs (note: don’t use KYBs on this car. Use the Acura OEMs or use Bilstein). I’m going to pull the KYBs soon and put the Acura OEMs (new) back in.

    I finally gave in and had my shop replace the head unit with a bluetooth compatible one, but I didn’t have to replace the speakers, because the Bose system still sounds pretty good these many years later!

    All in all, for a daily driver, this car is really fun and engaging. It’s not breathtakingly fast at all… it’s more about the experience of winding out that JA32 and hearing the VTEC kick in while snicking through the smooth close-ratio gear box.

    It’s just a very mechanical, simple car that directly engages you as a driver and does it’s job reliably every day. I still see these cars on the road, but the Type-S manual is getting extremely rare.

  • avatar

    CL Type-S with 6-speed has been on my bucket list for the last decade.

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