You’ll be entirely forgiven if this car escapes your memory – it sometimes does mine, and I’m admittedly a huge Acura enthusiast. Introduced at a time when Acura was replacing memorable model names like “Legend”, “Vigor”, and “Integra” with alphanumeric nomenclature, as well as being a coupe-only model, the first-generation Acura CL was sold for less than four full calendar years. Despite a rather beautiful design and elegant interior, in its short time on sale, the 1997-1999 Acura CL did little to make a lasting impression.
Assuming Honda had huge sales expectations for the CL is naive. After all, it was exclusively a coupe model, and one competing in a premium segment at that. Nonetheless, considering Honda’s investment for a unique body, as well as the decision for North American sales only, the automaker likely had higher hopes for the CL than what it ultimately achieved.
Entering production in early-1996, the CL was the first Acura created exclusively for the North American market and the first Acura to not have a Honda-badged sibling sold overseas. The CL was also the first Acura designed and manufactured in America, respectively at Honda’s design studios in California and East Liberty plant in Ohio (second generation CLs would be assembled at the nearby Marysville, OH plant).
Although it shared its underpinnings with the Accord and TL sedan (itself based on the JDM Honda Inspire), the CL’s sheetmetal were nearly entirely unique. While the Accord coupe had a decidedly upright look to it, the CL boasted much sleeker styling, with a far more rakish profile. Even though the CL and TL shared little in terms of styling, given their mechanical relations and closeness in size, the first generation CL is commonly considered the “coupe version” of the TL.
Up until this point, Acura designs had been attractive and well-received, yet were largely conservative and similar to designs of North American Hondas. This is naturally understandable as all previous Acuras themselves were rebadged Japanese domestic market Hondas. The CL represented the first break from this practice.
Drawing inspiration from the 1995 Acura CL-X concept car, the production CL featured very sleek “wind tunneled” styling with a low hood, rakish windshield and roofline, tapering decklid, and many upswept curves throughout. At the time, the CL was distinctive, but for better or worse, it shared very little visual resemblance to any other Acura.
Among its most striking styling feature was its trunk design. Attenuating rather quickly, its slanted V-shape with sharp center line evoked the rears of iconic coupes from decades past. In a world where most other coupes and sedans sported high decks, the CL’s design stood out, even if few cared to take notice.
A similar rear end design would be used again by Acura, right down to the taillight shape, on the 2009 TL sedan. Far more people took note of this Acura, though unfortunately, to voice criticism for its very subjective front end treatment.
The CL’s interior was also unique in design, but familiar in its logical layout to other Acuras and Hondas. Characteristic of most Acuras, both then and now, all CLs came with a generous level of standard equipment. Every CL featured attractive wood tone accents, leather-wrapped steering wheel, power moonroof, premium sound system with in-dash CD player, and fully automatic climate control.
Front seats were thickly bolstered, with the driver’s seat gaining eight-way power adjustments and manual lumbar support. Initially, both models featured premium cloth as the standard upholstery. A “Premium Package”, the only major option for the CL, included leather upholstery in both models, and two-stage front seat heaters in the 3.0 CL. By 1999 however, leather was standard across the board.
Unlike the second generation Legend coupe, whose departing occurred right around the same time as the CL’s introduction, Acura marketed the CL strictly as a comfort-oriented luxury coupe with no high performance aspirations. Some sources will cite the 1996 CL as the 1995 Legend coupe’s replacement, but in many ways the CL was really more of an appropriate successor to the first generation Legend coupe, which shared the CL’s emphasis on comfort over performance, as well as closeness in size and price. By contrast, the second generation Legend coupe was up a class in size, price, and performance.
The first generation CL was available in four- and six-cylinder models throughout its run, initially in form of a 2.2L I4 and a 3.0L V6. Both shared with the Accord, the 2.2 CL made 145 horsepower and 147 pound-foot of torque, while the 3.0 CL’s V6 was rated at 200 horsepower and 197 pound-foot of torque. Beginning in 1998, a new 2.3 liter I4 replaced the 2.2, resulting the model’s name change to 2.3 CL.
Even though output was only marginally greater, at 150 horsepower and 154 pound-foot of torque, acceleration was better and with the automatic transmission, it was the first gasoline engine to qualify as an ultra-low emission vehicle (ULEV). All 2.2 CLs and 2.3 CLs came standard with a 5-speed manual, with a 4-speed automatic as optional. The 3.0 CL was available only with automatic transmission, a nod to its comfort emphasis.
Given the forces it had working against it, the CL actually sold in quite reasonable numbers, accounting for approximately 15-20% of total Acura division sales for 1996-1999. Although Honda’s sales figures are not broken down by generation, from late-1995 through 1999, total CL production at Honda’s East Liberty facility totaled 100,555 examples. During those years, the CL was usually Acura’s third-place seller, behind the Integra and TL, and ahead of the RL and NSX. It should also be noted that CL sales consistently topped those of the similarly-priced Honda Prelude coupe.
The first generation CL was by no means a failure, but it never gained the notoriety and following which other Acura coupes achieved. This can be attributed to several factors. First, the CL was positioned primarily as a comfortable luxury coupe, lacking a performance model or performance upgrades. Although the CL boasted a silky smooth appearance with a distinctive rear, its overall design didn’t make many lasting impressions, nor did it convey the power and presence of the Legend coupe.
Second, and likely more germane to the CL’s “invisibleness” was that it really didn’t have any direct competition. Priced very reasonably in the mid-$20,000s, the CL was significantly less expensive than other luxury coupes. Adding to this, coupes like the BMW 3-Series, Lexus SC, and Mercedes-Benz CLK placed a greater emphasis on performance, while American luxury coupes such as the Buick Riviera, Cadillac Eldorado, and Lincoln Mark VIII were considerably larger. With comparable CL models running only about a $2,000 premium, this car probably competed with the heavily-related Accord coupe more than any other vehicle, especially once the improved 1998 Accord coupe arrived.
Skipping the model year 2000, the CL would be redesigned for 2001, visually bringing it more in line with the second generation TL. Although this generation would see even fewer sales during its three-year run, due to its more aggressive styling and a higher-performance Type-S model, the second generation CL gained greater attention among enthusiasts and is better-remembered today.
The 1997-1999 CL was a well-rounded luxury coupe, but its well-roundedness was likely the CL’s greatest downfall, as the car didn’t prominently stand out in any particular area. Combined with its general lack of any true competitors and relatively short production span, the CL failed to gain much notoriety and was quickly forgotten. On the positive side, these factors are likely the reason that most CLs today don’t sport lowered suspensions, goofy paint jobs, enormous wing spoilers, and clumsy body kits, in the way cars like the Integra do. If you bother to look, there are actually a surprisingly high number of CLs still on the roads today, quietly roaming in their understated elegance and beauty.