AUSTIN, TX - It's about time those baby boomers got the kids out of the house! It's time to trade in those old sport/utility vehicles (SUVs), ideal for chauffeuring a family but not exactly driving excitement, and get back to driving. Reallydriving.

The perfect vehicle to exchange for that Explorer: a luxury coupe.

Or at least that's the hope of Honda Motor Co. Ltd.'s Acura Div. Acura put its CL model through a total redesign (all that remains from the last model is the interior clothing hook, one engineer says), coming up with two performance-oriented, luxury editions. Acura forecasts a 166% near-term rise of luxury coupe sales, a growth based primarily on that baby-boomer set that craves a return to the joy of driving.

The resulting Acura CL and more powerful CL-S represent a shift up-market for the model, which claims as its competitors high-falutin' stuff like the Mercedes-Benz CLK320, Volvo C70 and BMW 328. Acura is confident its new 2+2 CL will pull to the lead in the performance luxury market, projecting first-year sales of 30,000 units, some 25% over the last CL. Pricing is not announced, but Acura says the CL will base between $28,000 and $32,000 - comfortably less than its competitors.

But can it compete? Acura's CL proves it indeed can hold its own, quite effortlessly, against the big boys. When it came down to the nuts and bolts, Acura engineers were all about horsepower, going as far as re-engineering a valve seal that allows the powerplant to eke out an extra 3 hp.

Variations on Acura's 3.2L 24-valve VTEC V-6 engine power both models. The "regular" CL engine delivers 225 hp at 5,600 rpm, a 12.5% increase over the previous model 3L CL, and 216 lb-ft. (293 Nm) of torque at 4,700 rpm.

The Type S (a moniker Acura subtly employs as a design theme in the coupe's performance version) leads the class in power, a highly appreciable 30% more than the last CL incarnation. The performance version manages to wring 35 more horses out of the powerplant - 260 hp at 6,100 rpm with 232 lb.-ft. (315 Nm) of torque between 3,500 rpm and 5,500 rpm - thanks to a new, high-flow capacity, dual-stage air induction system and free-flowing exhaust.

Unfortunately, Acura does not provide the option of a manual transmission, even in the performance-centered Type S - a disappointment even to the vehicle's chief engineer, who says he has lost that battle only for now. But both vehicles do have a new, 5-speed automatic transmission with Acura's Sequential SportShift system, which allows the driver to shift up when he or she desires (the previous CL made do with four forward gears).

The new CL will be built at Honda's Marysville, OH, plant on the global midsize platform that generates the Accord. But Acura is quick to point out that 70% of body content is exclusive to the CL model. The challenge of chassis, also designed from the ground up, involved resolving what seems to be a dichotomy: how to create a vehicle that handles like a performance machine but rides like a luxury dreamboat.

Chassis enhancements, similar to those of the 3.2TL, include isolated front and rear subframes and vacuum-controlled hydraulic front and rear engine mounts. Acura further refines its double-wishbone front suspension and 5-link double-wishbone in the rear. The Type S suspension is more performance-oriented, with larger-diameter rear stabilizer bars and stiffer front and rear springs. It also gets to ride on a set of new 17-in. tires. The handling of the Type S instills confidence in the driver - even on the twisting, deer-carcass-riddled roads of Texas Hill Country.

The chassis-tweaking also runs to fitment of Acura's vehicle stability assist (VSA) system, first employed in the 2000 3.5RL flagship, which comes standard in the Type S.

Though a fabulous drive, Acura did not quite hit the mark on exterior styling. With its long nose and blunt tail, Acura says the redesign is meant to invoke the classic coupe as well as its own NSX and Legend Coupe. The vehicle may be completely redesigned, but its looks fail to embody just what a thrill it is to drive.

The Acura CL and CL Type S arrived in showrooms March 1. ?

Vehicle type: Front-engine, front drive, 4-passenger, 2-door coupe

Engine: 3.2L, SOHC VTEC V-6; aluminum block/aluminum heads

Power (SAE net): 225 hp @ 5,600 rpm

Torque: 216 lb.-ft. (293Nm) @ 4,700 rpm

Compression ratio: 9.8:1

Bore x Stroke (mm): 89 x 86

Transmission: 5-speed sequential automatic

Wheelbase: 106.9 ins. (272 cm)

Overall length: 192.0 ins. (488 cm)

Overall width: 70.6 ins. (179 cm)

Overall height: 55.5 ins. (141 cm)

Curb weight: 3,470 lbs. (1,562 kg)

Market competition: BMW 328ic, Volvo C-70, Mercedes CLK320