Coupe d'état 

Off the floor

Off the floor

If you happen to be an enthusiast driver—someone who enjoys a sporting romp strictly for the sake of the drive itself—it’s hard not to feel a millenarian melancholy over the state of today’s automotive landscape. In scarcely more than a decade, cars for driving enjoyably and well have been pushed off the road by trucks (first minivans, then SUVs) whose intentions are overwhelmingly utilitarian and whose driving manners—what else can you say?—stink.

For enthusiasts, the coupe epitomizes driving’s inimitable joie de vivre. Even if it only has two doors, this class of car is not especially impractical, though its prime directive is certainly not to haul and to tote. Moreover, the health of the coupe class overall, as measured in sales and variety of models, is a dependable if informal indicator of driver enthusiasm in the marketplace. In many regards, that enthusiasm has all but vanished: The lemming-like departure of once popular coupes bodes ill for many traditional driving affections—not to mention for certain sport-driving skills.

Two new models, however, are mounting rear-guard actions in defense of the purist coupe; they comprise the heartening subject of this week’s review.

'98 Acura 2.3CL

Acura’s baby luxo-coupe is a curious collection of imponderables. Its stunning, jewel-like motor is newly “punched out” to 2.3 liters (from last year’s 2.2) and delivers 150 enjoyable horsepower with exceptional throttle response. Most of the reason why derives from Honda’s VTEC engine-management technology, which computer-massages valve timing and lift to extract optimum power for any given circumstance. Meantime, Acura’s supposedly upscale CL lineup (which also includes the V6-powered 3.0CL) has to make do with the older chassis platform from last year’s mass-market Honda Accord, while the new Accord coupe gets new underpinnings and much well-deserved praise.

There is also the matter of the 2.3CL’s price. My test vehicle “stickered out” at $22,845, adding only $100 for floor mats and $435 for destination charges to a $22,310 base price. Again, the less expensive Honda Accord coupe lurks behind as a potential spoiler; more significantly, however, the CL’s 3.0-liter big brother costs some $4,000 more yet fails to justify the premium. The 2.3CL is simply, and conspicuously, more fun and more affordable to drive.

Chalk up the matter to proportionality. Weighing in at a nimble 3,062 lbs., perched upon its Formula One-derived, double-wishbone, four-wheel-independent suspension, and fitted with a slick and precise five-speed manual transmission, the 2.3CL is a little mini-brute for carving up corners. Much of the larger CL’s 200 horsepower is swallowed undigested by its heavier curb weight and automatic transmission. But what sets the smaller Acura coupe apart—not only from its sibling but also from other coupes—is the deft precision of its handling-steering-suspension feel. The car feels as light as a stalking cat, and it tracks its sporting trajectories with all the controlled exuberance of a Merce Cunningham dancer.

The interior is feature-filled: The lack of options on my tester simply means that power-everything comes standard, including moonroof, thermostatic climate control, and six-speaker stereo/CD with steering-wheel buttons for volume/track/station selection. A walk-in feature at the front-passenger seat makes rear-seat access relatively painless for all involved, and the flip-down rear seats allow the 12-cubic-foot trunk to swallow much more and bulkier cargo than the sleek exterior silhouette suggests.

Indeed, it is the very sleekness of the 2.3CL that impresses me most. I love the little crease in the boat-tail “booty” where trunk-lid, rear window, and rear fenders merge effortlessly. From front and sides, the CL is calm but not innocuous in appearance. Its charm—both to look at and to drive—lies in its suggestion of various prowesses without either boasting of them or failing to deliver.

'98 Volvo C70

Although it debuted in Santa Barbara (and was covered in these pages) over a year ago, Volvo’s exotic and ambitious C70 sport coupe is scarcely months old on the market. What a bold statement it makes, in many ways. To see one of these stalwart projectiles on the road, with fenders flexing and roof line drawn taut in a streamlined sweep, is to understand Volvo’s determination to reveal a sporting capability beneath the patina of safety that we all now take for granted.

To accomplish the task—and the C70 largely does so—Volvo has stinted little. From the same 2.3-liter engine displacement it shares with Acura’s 2.3CL, Volvo has extracted a fifth inline cylinder and accomplished a whopping 236 turbocharged horsepower. This twin-cam motor with high-pressure turbo comes online like a sledge-hammer—z-u-u-u-whee-e-e-e-BAM! When you’re sporting through the scenic backroads, your instincts quickly teach you to exploit the off-power “lag” inherent to any turbo. As the engine room builds its head of steam, you’ve time to line up your corner, settle your braking, then hold on tight for the thrill of warp-shot acceleration that you thought only a Star Warrior could indulge.

Having made my first acquaintance last year with a five-speed-manual C70, I expected a good bit less from this summer’s four-speed auto-equipped model. I was pleasantly disappointed: The auto is itself eminently “shiftable” (most appropriately between third and fourth gears). Sophisticated TRACS traction control (optional for $450), big and bold four-wheel ABS disc brakes, and a clever chassis/suspension design by Tom Walkinshaw Racing give the C70 the robust raw materials for cutting quite a figure through the twisties. Lest you be tempted to bewail the power-sapping auto tranny, consider the C70’s 6.9-second zero-to-60 an ample reassurance.

This is not necessarily to consecrate the car that plays heir to the Volvo P1800 driven by ’60s TV hero The Saint. Although I would like to be annoyed that the C70 accommodates only two rear passengers—instead of the three who can fit into the rear seat of the smaller Acura coupe—it is a perverse blessing that one fewer person must endure this car’s abominable access to the rear seats. Theoretically, the front seats rack forward electronically, but they do so at the pace of a Swedish glacier and fail to heave their safety-dictated bulk fully out of the way. For an as-tested price of $41,825 that includes TRACS and Dolby ProLogic surround-sound, the C70 effectively rations its appeal to two front passengers for 21-grand apiece.

There are moments, however, when it is best to banish such cost-analyzing rationalism. When just the right CD is exploiting the five-dimensional soundscape of the world’s only factory-installed Dolby ProLogic car system; when just the right sequence of sweepers flares out over the horizon; when driver and passenger have managed to leave a city’s worth of aggravations and deadlines behind them for an afternoon, a day, or a weekend—that’s when it’s right to admit that this Volvo C70 is clearly one coupe above.

Win-win situation

Mike Mykeloff, general manager of the spanking-new Land Rover Nashville showroom in Maryland Farms, isn’t just preening when he says his dealership is currently leading its region in sales for ’98. Turns out that capture of this honor will determine what dealership earns an additional “Callaway” Range Rover HSE 4.6. Reeves Callaway, famed after-market tuner of super-high-performance Chevrolet Corvettes and other sports cars, has given his magic-fingers treatment to Range Rover’s ultra-luxe sport/utility vehicle for ’99; and Land Rover is apportioning only one of these limited-edition models per dealer nationwide. The 255-horsepower CallaRovers, with their brilliant Rutland Red paint scheme, are expected to be sold out as soon as they’re delivered. Mykeloff’s one-and-only is already sold, although he promises to showcase it at the store for a week or two before letting it go. LRN’s prospect for earning a second hot-rod SUV, therefore, represents something of a coup for status-starved SUV wannabes who want their crack at one of the fastest, rarest four-wheelers available.

Guns of August

Having salvaged the critical launch date of its new pickup from the jaws of the recent UAW strike, General Motors is firing a provocative pricing salvo across the bow of arch-rivals Ford and Dodge. According to last week’s Automotive News trade paper, the ’99 Chevy pickup will cost a mere $340 more than the 11-year-old model it replaces—despite its all-new design. The new Chevy Silverado will start at $15,995, up 2 percent over ’98. In anticipation of Chevy’s entry, Ford has already lowered the price of its entry-level F-150 pickup to $15,185. The Dodge Ram currently starts at $15,345. Of course, the Ford and Dodge prices are for ’98 models, and there’s no word yet what their ’99 prices will be. Suffice it to say, however, that Chevy aims to take no prisoners in marketing its new pickup, on which a disproportionate share of GM corporate profits depend.

Dealer news and other views are invited via e-mail to Autosuggestive@compuserve.com. Or by fax at (615) 385-2930.

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