What's In A Name Change? A Classier Acura

Ten years ago, the pundits at Honda figured out that Americans were so taken with Japanese cars that they would pay more--not less--for them. Consequently, a $20,000 luxury sedan was designed, a network of dealers assembled, and a legend was born. The 1986 Acura Legend, that is.

As the Legend reeled in all the quality awards, Americans flocked to the car, and sales soared. But Toyota and Nissan took heed, and in 1989 followed with even more upscale brands, Lexus and Infiniti. All the new competition, coupled with a strong yen that sent U.S. prices soaring, had a disastrous effect. Acura sales have been falling since 1991, prompting Honda to quietly revamp its Acura division. The most visible signal: Acuras are losing their names and getting those forgettable alphanumeric designations that all the other imported luxury cars carry. Last year it launched the near-luxury 2.5TL and 3.2TL sedans and the SLX, a sport utility vehicle. Now it's introducing a new American-built coupe, the 2.2CL, and the all-new 3.5RL sedan.

BIGGER ENGINE. Yup, 3.5RL is the name of the new Acura flagship that replaces the Legend. It's a better car than its predecessor, roomier, with a bigger V-6 engine and a notably quieter interior. At $41,000, (or $44,000 for a premium version), the 1996 3.5RL costs $3,000 more than the base 1995 Legend. Still, that's less than the Mercedes-Benz E-Class and BMW 5-Series cars that it was designed to compete against, and it undercuts the big Japanese luxury V-8s--the Lexus LS 400 and Infiniti Q45--by more than $10,000.

The 3.5RL's new engine actually does a pretty good imitation of a V-8. That's because Honda engineers put their effort into developing peak torque at an unusually low 2800 rpm, which gives drivers the most thrust at engine speeds normally used in day-to-day driving. The car is quick out of the starting blocks, and the electronically controlled automatic transmission seamlessly shifts up to freeway speeds. As with most Japanese luxury sedans, the steering is light and the suspension is tailored more for ride than handling.

Inside the cabin, the new Acura flagship has all the usual luxury amenities, and then some. The moon roof is a standard feature, as are leather seats. Especially nifty is an adjustable armrest that pops up from a storage compartment designed to hold either a cellular phone or--a particularly nice touch--a six-disk CD changer. The $3,000 premium package includes heated front seats and heated outside mirrors, real burled-walnut trim instead of simulated wood, and an upgraded Bose cassette/CD audio system. The rear compartment can easily accommodate three adults and has added headroom plus over two inches more legroom than the Legend.

A few minor gripes, however: The front seats are designed more for freeway cruising than winding roads and could use additional lateral support. And Acura could have been more generous with the wood trim, especially on the console, which now features a vast expanse of plastic that houses climate and audio controls.

Exterior stylists took absolutely no risks with the 3.5RL. It's pretty much a generic Japanese car, with the now-familiar Acura front end and a Mercedes-like profile and stance.

That's not the case, however, with Acura's new coupes, the 2.2CL and 3.0CL. The 2.2CL, which hits showrooms this month, will have shoppers either loving or hating the unusual rear end: It curves down to the bumper in a modified V-shape and features a distinctive center crease and a remote control "keyless entry" system for the trunk (there's also the usual manual release next to the driver's seat).

The CL coupes are unusual in another aspect as well. They were both designed and built in the U.S., a first for Japanese luxury cars. With 91% U.S. content, Acura has been able to keep the price more reasonable than a comparable import: The four-cylinder 2.2CL will start at an estimated $22,000, while the six-cylinder 3.0CL, which won't be available until October, should top out around $27,000. A short test drive in preproduction models found the 2.2CL a little sluggish in the passing lane; the bigger engine is well worth the wait.

With the arrival of the new coupes and sedan, Acura will have revamped its entire lineup of four different luxury and near-luxury models in an astonishingly short 12 months. And it has gone a long way toward getting the Acura price-value equation, decimated by the strong yen of the past few years, back on track again. If Acura can stay the course, it might just have another legend in the making.

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