Why is Charlie Baker special?

You've heard of global sourcing of components, and the concept of global manufacturing is old hat. But As the relatively weak dollar and trade pressures lure German and Japanese automakers to boost their investments in the U.S., and American automakers increasingly expand overseas in search of new markets and better economies of scale, these megatrends are changing the lives of not just the workers

You've heard of global sourcing of components, and the concept of global manufacturing is old hat. But As the relatively weak dollar and trade pressures lure German and Japanese automakers to boost their investments in the U.S., and American automakers increasingly expand overseas in search of new markets and better economies of scale, these megatrends are changing the lives of not just the workers in the factories, but the people who design and engineer vehicles as well. From finding new opportunities, and discovering the World Wide Web, to being forced out of work or into an unwanted overseas transfer the globalization of the auto industry is starting to have a profound effect on the lives of automotive engineers. In this month's Ward's Auto World, we examine the positives and the negatives.

Fast Liberty, OH.--Charles R. Baker is the kind of guy you are supposed to see in a Saturn ad.

You know the type. The earnest young engineer whose life's mission is to redesign crankshafts so all those happy customers get a quieter ride and drive away even happier. After work he rounds up some friends to go rock climbing or ride motorcycles.

Well, Charlie's been there and done that--four years as a Saturn powertrain engineer in the 1980s. Now he's on to a different kind of car company, Honda Motor Co. Ltd. And he's doing a whole lot more than fixing crankshafts. For the past three years, Mr. Baker has led the development team for the Acura CL, the first Japanese luxury car to be designed, engineered and built by Honda's U.S.-based workforce. The car goes on sale in March.

"Large project leader" was his title, with the adjective reflecting, presumably, his responsibility rather than his 6'4" height. In January Mr. Baker was promoted to Division Director-automobile Design Engineering, Honda R&D North America.

Why is he special? He's the first American to ever have such responsibility at Tokyo-based Honda, the world's eighth largest automaker.

"I do think it was meant to be a statement," says Mr. Baker of the autonomy he and Chris A. Poland, CL's engineering project leader, have been given. Mr. Poland's job is a first for an American as well. Until then, top level manufacturing responsibility for a car was handled by a Japanese executive--based in Japan.

"I think we get along better. Until now we always wrestled with the time difference between here and Japan. You weren't always awake at the same time as the rest of the team," says Mr. Baker.

Mr. Poland also would look at home in a Saturn ad, but he's spent almost his entire professional life with Honda. He's responsible for all aspects of CL manufacturing development, including liaison with Honda R&D North America, suppliers, trial production and mass-production launch.

Modest and soft-spoken, he started in 1979 in welding operations at Honda's U.S. motorcycle plant, and then rose steadily through the manufacturing ranks, spending several years in Japan learning Honda's manufacturing philosophy first hand, and eventually moving into car production. He's loyal to his Honda mentors, but also grateful to be trusted with a greater degree of authority.

"It has helped us set our priorities," says Mr. Poland. "We can settle issues quickly that take a lot more time when you're trying to work out every detail between here and Japan."

Not long ago, ambitious American managers eventually ran into a glass ceiling if they worked for a Japanese automaker. It was okay to learn the system, spend a year or two in Japan and recruit other U.S. engineers.; just don't expect too much control. The orders came from Tokyo or Toyota City or Hiroshima.

That is changing. While the strengthening dollar makes the U.S. not quite the bargain-basement manufacturing locale it was a year ago, a huge market with low costs compared to Germany and Japan.--that coupled with trade pressures--is luring major new investments by foreign automakers. The growing trend of not only building where, you're selling products, but engineering where you're selling is beginning to have a major impact on automotive engineers the world over--both good and bad. In Charlie Baker's and Chris Poland's case, it has been good.

After building cars in Ohio for 14 years, Honda has invested $250 million in a North American research and development network. Staffed by 650 engineers and boasting test tracks in Ohio and California, Honda now has a deep and experienced talent pool. It built 660,000 cars in the U.S. and Canada in 1995 and plans to produce more than 700,000 annually by 1999. Its total presence in the U.S. now tops $4 billion and it employs well over I 1,000.

And, for the first time at Honda, U.S.-based, American designers and engineers are sweating every last detail on just about every part except the powertrain, from molding clay models to working shoulder to shoulder with the supplier that makes a special sensor for the electric seat motors on the new CL coupe, due in Acura showrooms this month.

It's a huge difference from the way things used to be, and it shows in the faces of every "associate" who works on the car, many of whom come from places like Lansing, MI, where saying you work for Honda--instead of General Motors Corp.--still evokes an uncomfortable silence at family gatherings.

In its East Liberty, OH, assembly plant, which stands in the shadow of Honda's older, larger plant in nearby Marysville--where Accords are built--Honda of America Manufacturing Inc. (HAM) has one of the most flexible arsenals of automation in the industry. On the surface it looks like a plant that former GM Chairman Roger B. Smith would love. It's loaded with robots. All body spot welding is automated. Automated guided vehicles (AGVs) whir down the aisleways delivering parts to the assembly line, and car carriers automatically change height to accommodate workers and specific processes.

But even more impressive than the automation is the plant's flexibility. East Liberty manages two substantially different platforms--the Civic and the Accord-based CL--on the same line, and it now has launched three new models and two platforms within six months. Cars are produced in lots of 60, and workers move from one lot to the next--CL, 4-door Civic or Civic coupe--without a pause. "Everybody builds everything, everybody has to know how to do everything," says Mr. Poland.

Opened in 1989, East Liberty was the first U.S. auto plant to use a water-borne paint system, laser-weld vehicle bodies, and the first to use AGVS for parts delivery in assembly areas. Production capacity is 220,000 units annually with two shifts on straight time.

Last year it began building a completely redesigned Honda Civic without losing a day's worth of production. In mid-february, East Liberty's 2, 1 00 associates began producing the CL, a platform based on die Honda Accord, on the same line as the much smaller Civic with virtually no inter-ruption.

Workers came in on Sundays for more than a year before the Civic changeover to make sure the welding robots functioned properly, adjusting the height of the body and sub-assemblies, and adding space between cars if a particular task took a few seconds longer on the CL than on the Civic.

Talk to CL team members who for the first time developed sheet metal, an instrument panel, seats, suspension system and bumpers from scratch, and you hear a sense of ownership they have not experienced before.

"On the Accord wagon, (the first Honda vehicle to have significant U.S. design and engineering input) most of the emphasis was always on using common parts with the Accord sedan, find ways to cut costs," says Suspension Engineer Mare Ernst. "On this car, we were encouraged to do as much as we could to build in a unique feeling. I don't want people to like it because we have a good reputation for fit and finish. I want them to feel the car's personality."

And "personality" is key to the CL's future as it tries to win over aging baby boomers looking to spice up their lives without crimping their style with huge payments.

Unlike Previous Honda models, U.S. production engineers in Ohio were involved from the very beginning in the development of the CL. When designers at Honda's California studios worried about the manufacturability of the coupe's distinctive rear end, engineers based in Ohio--not Japan--were the ones that took coordinates from the clay model in California and built "soft" prototype epoxy tooling to see if the metal could be bent properly. When there were problems, U.S. engineers were the ones who literally smoothed out the wrinkles before "hard" production tooling was put in place.

Manufacturing engineers also were involved from the start in the development of the Cl:s body structure. Although it shares the same wheelbase and other dimensions with Accord, the CL team wanted improved performance and a more "Germanic" driving experience, so they increased the torsional rigidity of the CL body 20% and bending rigidity 40% compared to the Accord.

They did it by reinforcing the body-in-white (BIW) in strategic areas. A rigid strut tower bar was added in the engine compartment, along with a full rear bulkhead that ties the entire rear structure of the car into a single unit. Rear-wheel arch extensions that bolster the torsional rigidity also were added at each rear wheelhouse.

Unfortunately, while all these reinforcements improve performance and handling, they also add weight, manufacturing complexity and cost. For instance, Mr. Poland says that when manufacturing engineers first saw the original concept of the rear wheelhouse design, they thought they would have to add a new subassembly line to make the parts.

However, because the manufacturing and engineering teams were working together so early in the design phase, they were able to slightly change the reinforcement structures so an additional welding production line was not required. In the process, they cut the wheelhouse reinforcement parts count from 12 to 10 and saved more than $1 million and 4,000 sq. ft. (372 sq. m) of production space.

Another manufacturing first for East Liberty and the CL: use of a high-powered 3,000W YAG laser to robotically weld door HEM welds. Instead of securing sheet metal flanges around the outer perimeter of the doors with conventional spot welds that deform the metal and bum off the steel's protective zinc coating, the laser zaps the steel together, leaving only a thin line, like the hem of a skirt. The metal and coating remain unscathed. Honda says the new laser also cut 50% of the cost out of the door welding process.

Another impressive display of flexibility comes at what Honda calls the "multimount" station where the rear suspension, front suspension and engine are inserted into the body. The process is entirely automated. Barely 10 seconds pass between the placement of the front and rear axles. The tooling change required to convert from Civic to CL production--remember the CL's wheelbase is 3.7 ins. (95 mm) longer than the Civic's--takes less than five minutes. The goal is to switch from one model to the other without any interruption. That includes accommodating the new 6-cyl. engine for the 3.0CL due out in the fall.

The project team even worked together with Michelin to come up with a completely new tire--a 205/55R16--to more precisely match the CL's ride and handling identity. That was a big change for Honda, which is traditionally conservative about how much rubber it puts on its cars. U.S. suspension engineers wanted to put on bigger 16-in. tires because they would improve handling, but they were nervous about noise and harshness problems. So suspension engineers such as Mark Ernst worked with Michelin to develop a new 16-incher that met their objectives and allayed their concerns.

The same is true of the seat design. While HAM engineers worked closely with seat suppliers in the past, they still were mostly tweaking specifications set in Japan. On the CL, they had their first shot at developing a new seat from scratch with its own unique character. They definitely didn't want a cushy old-fashioned American-type seat. Their goal was to evoke Germanic performance and luxury, but not be as hard as a real Mercedes or BMW. Working with supplier Johnson Controls Inc. they came up with what might be described as a velvet hammer. It's very firm underneath, but a thin layer of cushioning on top takes away the hardness.

They also are adding a little Lexus-like showbiz for the showroom floor on the upmarket 6-cyl. 3.0CL. Research shows that potential buyers ooh and ahh over little luxurious touches, such as the way the driver's seat and front steering wheel move out of the way for you when you open the door on a Lexus LS400.

So Honda engineers added a feature that electronically moves the front seat forward whenever you touch the seatback lever to let someone in the rear seat, and then moves the seat back again. In addition, Cherry Corp., a maker of automotive electrical products, developed a sensor for the seat drive motor that makes it stop and move forward an inch if it touches a rear-seat seat passenger's knees.

Okay, so there is something about the car that isn't entirely Ohio-born. Honda will build both the 2.2L VTEC 4-cyl. and the 3L V-6 at its Anna, OH, engine plant about 50 miles (80 lan) southwest of East Liberty, but most of the engine development, especially on the V-6, occurred in Japan. More than 75% of its content came from North American sources, as counted by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

"The strategy at Honda is very much, 'Let's find out what consumers want in a particular region and make the car fit those wants,'" says Ronald Harbour of Harbour & Associates, the Troy-based manufacturing consulting firm. "This is just the next step in their plan."

Neither Mr. Baker nor Mr. Poland nor Richard B. Thomas, Acura executive vice president, will say how much Honda is saving by building the car in the U.S. To some extent, that equation is still shifting. The U.S. dollar is continuing to recover from its precipitous slide against the yen.

Still, the dollar's plunge to a low of 80[yen]/ $1 last year has fundamentally changed the economics of importing luxury cars to the U.S.

Consider this: when Toyota's Lexus Div. introduced its LS400 flagship sedan six years ago it carried a sticker of $37,000. Mercedes-Benz's E-class was in the mid-$50,000 range.

Today, the LS400 is in the mid-fifties; the new E-class can be had for $43,500.

By building the CL in Ohio, Acura jerks that trend into reverse. Ranging between $22,000 and $27,000, its sticker will be at least $13,000 below a Lexus SC300.

But the Acura CL is about more than currency rates. It's about quality and productivity from its American work force that equals or exceeds Honda's Japanese operations.

"Once Mercedes and BMW came to the U.S. it basically said you can build any type of vehicle in this country and be competitive," says Marc Santucci, president of Elm International Inc., a Lansing, MI, firm that sells market research to automotive suppliers. "Now that Honda has all these American engineers, it only makes sense to use them."

Toyota Motor Corp. and Nissan Motor Corp. surely must be studying the prospect of building luxury cars in the U.S. Their biggest dilemma: additional truck and sport/utility production may present a stronger business case.

Honda is not so conflicted. The CR-V mini-sport-ute headed for the U.S. will be imported. For its other SUV needs it will rely on Isuzu, which builds the Honda Passport SUV in the U.S.

Will another Acura be built in Ohio? Honda officials are not saying, but Wesley Brown of AutoPacific Group Inc. in West Bloomfield, MI, predicts the next generation of the TL sedan, due in the '99 model year, likely will come to Marysville or East Liberty.

Meanwhile, Honda's Alliston, Ont., plant is gearing up for a low-volume small luxury car that the company says is for Canada only. Setting aside the Canada-only qualifier, that sounds suspiciously like an Integra replacement.

Acura is taking a gamble by banking its Ohio debut on a luxury coupe, the very type of car aging baby-boomers are forsaking in favor of high-riding SUVs. But Mr. Baker and his product planners seem to know their limits. Honda's design theme is still a bit conservative.

CL's exterior is far more conservative than the stunningly sharp-angled CL-X concept displayed at the 1995 North American International Auto Show in Detroit.

There are two theories going around. One holds that Acura had settled on the more conservative look well before the 1995 show circuit, but developed the CL-X as an artsy impulse project to generate more excitement. The second theory is that the two designs evolved simultaneously, but market research cautioned against the edgier look.

"The second theory is closer to what happened," says David W. Marek, principal designer at Honda's Los Angeles design center. "Initially this car was aimed toward a predominantly female market, but then we decided to offer the 3L engine, which we knew would appeal more to men. But we feel we did preserve the neoclassic theme that was the whole idea behind the car."

The most vivid visual impression comes from the CL's rear, marked by one-piece trapezoidal taillights and a swooping rear decklid unblemished by a trunk key cylinder. The driver must open the trunk from a key fob or from a release lever by the driver's seat.

CL should benefit from the absence of a coupe version of Acura's new top-end RL. The Legend coupe has no other replacement.

With a sales target of 20,000 for 1996 and 30,000 next year, Acura is clearly betting on pent-up demand from folks who are either fed up with their minivans, unswayed by the sport/utility craze or tired of bland family sedans.

Says Mr. Baker, the former Saturnite, "If we ring the emotional chimes of those kinds of people when they're coming out of the family vehicle mode, we think we have a pretty good chance."

If this car succeeds, dozens of other American associates surely will take on more responsibility. Honda's roots as the original Japanese transplant will push deeper into the central Ohio soil.

To data, Honda Motor Co. Ltd's practice has been been to create U.S.-built models produced initially -- though often concurrently, as is the case with the new Civic -- in Japan. Never before has any Honda car, much less an Acura, been exlusively designed and built here.

The strain of Honda's first foray into this new territory is assuaged by the CL line's extensive use of proven technology and mechanicals.

Both Cl models -- 4-cyl. and 6-cyl. -- have the same wheelbase, track and overall width dimensions as the Accord. That's always nice. What's more, the CL chassis, based front and rear on Honda's laudable double-wishbone arrangement, is carried over with just a few deftly engineered enhancements.

Among them: a liquid-filled bushing at the pivot point of the rear trailing link to isolate the passenger cabin from road noise. Also a rigid rear hub bearing provides high toe stiffness. improving stability at high speed.

To make automatic-equipped versions idle ultra-smooth, Honda engineers developed electronically controlled hydraulic engine mounts in place of conventional rubeer versions. The high-tech mounts feature an exterior valve and two chambers filled with fluid. The chambers share the same hydraulic fluid by means of two sets of orifices -- one large and one small. At idle, the large set of orifices is used, allowing fluid to flow smoothly between the chambers. Above idle speeds, a signal is sent to the valve, which then engages the smaller set of orifices. Changing the orifices alters the resonant frequency of the engine mount and damps excessive vibrations.

Until the all-new, all-aluminum 3L V-6 comes on line in the fall, the sole CL engine choice is the 145-hp, 2.2L SOHC 4-cyl. aluminum inliner, again appropriated from the Accord. The 2.2L enjoys the Honda VTEC variable valve-timing setup; lift and duration of each cylinder's dual intake valves is variably determined according to engine rpm and load.

An intriguing new addition to the 2.2L VTEC is the so-called "torque boost resonator." The torque system pumps up mid-range torque by throwing the intake air into a resonating cavity, where that most reliable of forces -- accoustic waves -- smash the incoming change air against itself to "amplify" the intake air at predetermined frequencies. The whole concoction relies on an obscure (at least to the automotive crowd) postulate known as the Helmholtz principle. Guitar players know ol'Helmholtz as the reason the resonation of the strings cn be heard by the crowd; musical instrument maker and sometimes-automotive-dabbler Yamaha has employed the idea for years to "tune" its peppery two-stroke engines.

The 3L SOHC V-6 also is VTEC-enhanced, and Honda claims it to be more compact and about 33 lbs. (15 kg) lighter than similarly sized DOHC engines from rivals Nissan Motor Co. Ltd. and Toyota Motor Corp. The cagey Honda engineers are still tweaking final horsepower and torque figures, but they are crowing about 190-plus hp and similarly class-leading fuel economy. They're obviously quite aware of the superior V-6 efforts available from the two aforementioned competitors, but the new 3L should be particularly sweet when extended, the most engaging idiosyncrasy of all Honda engines.

Honda engineers also say that the new engine is designed to burn regular gas, unlike most competitors, who recommended premium. Another feature will be 100,000-mile (160,000-km) tuneup intervals.

The 2.2CL comes with a choice of Honda-designed 5-speed manual or 4-speed automatic transmissions; the 3L models are fitted only with the automatic. Pity that Honda, historically one of the most dogged marketers of manual transmissions, is playing sage with an automatic-only position for the V-6.

All CLs make use -- finally! -- of generously sized wheels and tires. Only because Honda's wont for under-tiring even its most sporting cars has become such a tradition is every CL's standard 205-55-16 rubber worthy of particular note.

Taken as a whole, then, the CL fords no deep technical waters. But given the lukewarm coupe market and the CL's reasonably competitive price position -- the last V-6 Camry roupe I drove was more than $27,000 -- these equipment-laden Acuras face off against remarkably few actual competitiors.

The Cl team is keenly aware of this. "We believe aging boomers have not gone to coupes in any significant numbers because there has been no product offerings that really comnined everything we're trying to combine: price point, concept of car, sport luxury dynamics, practical package, high feature content, and interesting styling," says Charles R. Baker, the man most responsible for conceiving the car and bringing it to market.

Imported V-6 coupes like the Camry lack the panachy badge. The BMW AG 318ti (priced in the low $20,000 range) is a hatchback, and more sporty than luxurious; toting the same 138-hp 4-cyl., BMW's more expensive 318is Coupe (about $27,000) lacks the power -- and torque -- to be fully competitive with the CL, especially when shackled to an automatic transmission. Honda's own Prelude is much more sporty and has rear seats that aren't really functional; ditto for anything of the Prelude/Ford Probe ilk. Lexus SCs are too expensive, and domestivs such as the Ford Thunderbird are long of tooth and short of quality.

The Acura Legend coupe might be a competitor, even though it's gotten heavy and expensive with age. But Acura has phased out the Legend and its coupe derivative. If you want an Acura coupe, guess what your only choice is?

The CL's only real competitor may actually be a domestiv. Remember the Buick Riviera? It's luxurious, has a roomy back seat and a base engine with 205 hp. And based on General Motors Corp.'s stiff, highly competent G-body platform, which it shares with the much-praised Oldsmobile Aurora, it's a darn good car. But at $29,000 the Riv starts at more than a totally loaded V-6 CL -- and it's doubtful an import-oriented Acura buyer would ever even consider visiting a Buick store.

To understand Charlie Baker's relationship with Honda, imagine a private detective falling in love with the woman he is hired to follow.

As part of General Motors Corp.'s newly organized Saturn powertrain team, it was Mr. Baker's job in the mid-1980's to come up with the best 4-cyl. engine ever to power a small American car. It was about that time that Honda, with its Accord and Civic, were rewriting the rules for the small-car performance in the U.S.

"I began studying Honda really intensely in 1985, and I was fascinated by their whole approach to engines," says Mr. Baker. "I became the Honda proponent at Saturn."

So fascinated that in 1987 he wrote a letter to Shoichiro Irimajiri, then president of Honda of America Mfg. Inc. (HAM), in which he rhapsodized about the attention to detail in Honda's powertrains. "May I be so bold as to come and visit yoy?" the young Saturnite asked.

Sure, Mr. Irimajiri responded. I'd be glad to meet with you.

"It was a mind-blowing conversation for me. He poured out this whole philosophy," Mr. Baker remembers of the 1987 meeting. "I still have the notes I took. It was the single most important event in my engineering career."

Although he left no resume, and Mr. Irimajiri was to leave HAM two years later, the experience had created a lasting impression.

In 1990, Saturn began selling its first cars, but there were -- at that point -- no plans for another new engine or a larger model for original Saturn owners to move into. Charlie Baker was growing restless.

He knew he would not leave Saturn without another job. He learned that lesson in 1985 when he left GM, largely because of his disenchantment with the bungled reorganization into the Buick-Oldsmobile Cadillac and Chevrolet-Pontiac-GM of Canada groups. He wound up taking a job with Gantron Inc., a suburban Detroit robotics firm that went belly-up in less than a year.

Then in late 1990 his phone rang. It was a head-hunting firm. Someone out there was looking for a product-development person Charlie's credentials seemed to match.

But he was blunt. He would not leave Saturn for any other car company except Honda. After a pause, the head hunter responded, "I think we need to set up a meeting."

"I think I clinhed the job when I came into the interview carrying a notebook full of every speech Mr. Irimajiri had ever given," Mr. Baker remembers. "I started as an assistant project leader for the '93 Civic coupe."

Leo C. Hilke, the former Saturn powertrain and chassis engineer who had hired Mr. Baker, tried to talk him out of leaving.

"I told him Saturn will keep growing and a person of his ability would have a good career," says Mr. Hike, who is now director of engineering for GM's Delphi Chassis division. "But we had just launched a car we worked on for five or six years. It was a natural time to look around and ask, what's next?"

Asked to compare cultures at Honda and Saturn, Mr. Baker is quite open.

"They are hugely differenet environments," he says. "Saturn, at least at the start, was very unstructured. Some people took to that very well and others struggled with it. It showed up in the car.

"The transmission is just brilliant, but the development process sort of tried to create everything at once, and that could be very stressful."

And Honda? You learn very soon here that you don't swing for the bleachers the first time out,? he says. "Responsibility is more well defined. It's an obsession of development. Every step is always improved, always examined."

Drew Winter: We at Ward's Auto World get to drive a lot of nice cars, but seldom does someone just hand us the keys and say "Hey, drive as fast as you want."

During January, that's exactly what a couple of senior engineers at Honda R&D North America did for Senior Editor Greg Gardner and myself at Honda's Transportation Research Center in East Liberty, OH.

Within seconds I was following Greg's Acura 2.2CL along the 7.5-mile (12-km) banked oval track, effortlessly cruising past 120 mph, (193 km/h) making quiet conversation with Honda engineer John Dirrig. Wind and engine noise in the prototype 3.0CL, which goes on sale in the fall, was less than you'd find in many cars at half the speed -- despite some vicious cross winds.

But stomp on it and get rpms past the 3,500 mark and you know this car is no Lexus: the silent engine suddenly comes to life and lets out a howl like a muffled F1 race car. It's a special effect engineers worked hard on, and it shows. Despite my heavy foot, -- and the 3.0's estimated 45-hp advantage over the 2.2CL -- Greg had no trouble staying ahead of me.

Greg says he was indeed marveling at how effortlessly the 145-hp, 4-cyl. engine was propelling the car. I was amazed, too, when we switched. With a base price of about $23,000, I find it a more luxurious and dignified alternative to the top-of-the-line Acura Integra, with its screaming 8,500-rpm redline; more benefitting a man of my advancing years.

Nevertheless, I must admit to being disappointed by the lack of road fell in both cars. While Honda engineers say they intensively studied the BMW 3-Series and expect the 318is and 318ti coupes to be key competitors, they lack the solid, locked-to-the-pavement feel of the BMWs. Then again, they also lack the Beemers' wimpy 1.9L engine, which no doubt will be considered a better-than-even trade by many potential buyers. Despite their lack of Teutonic road feel, both car still handle well at all speeds.

Greg and I also disagree on the cars' looks. He's indifferent about their rear-end styling; I think it's dramatically clean and beautiful. My wife often complains that cars such as the Chrysler LHS have "big fat butts." Well, in my opinion, the Acura CL has a very nice butt.

Greg Gardner: Maybe I'm not quite as obsessed with holding this car to the BMW standard.

I know from a marketing standpoint, Acura is offering the 3LV-6 to make it more attractive to men. But this aging baby boomer can testify: the 2.2L is macho enough for me.

Not only did it crank up to 120 mph (193 km/h) effortlessly, but it also felt just as substantial as the beefier V-6 once it reached that speed.

If this is meant as an emotional car, something Acura could use to perk up its image of staid competence, a 5-speed certainly provides a more visceral driving experience.

The Acura Cl will not trigger a renaissance of an already difficult luxury car market, but it certainly caused me to reassess the notion that Japanese luxury marques are pricing themselves out of the picture. For those who can be satisfied with a coupe, the 2.2 CL can be had for less than a fully loaded Accord.

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