by Trevor Hofmann
1997 - 2000 Acura 1.6 EL - A Premium Brand for a Paupers Sum
What would you get if you found a 1997 to 2000 model year Honda Civic 4-door sedan with leather seats and trim (optional), a wood grain dash and luxury features? You'd get a slightly used Acura 1.6 EL, in Canada at least. It's not too often that a major automotive manufacturer builds an exclusive Canadian model but this was and still is the case with Acura's lowest priced model. The Japanese premium company didn't go overboard trying to disguise its entry-level car's compact roots either, despite the brands luxury image. The addition of restyled headlamps, an Acura grille and reshaped taillights 'transformed' the look. On the positive side the fact that the price didn't increase substantially from a fully-loaded version of the lesser Honda model made getting into a premium brand easier for those less heeled.
Just because you don't have loads of money doesn't mean you can't have a little fun. The EL's 1.6-L 4-cylinder engine was left unchanged from the Civic sedan but didn't disappoint. It incorporated variable valve timing and electronic lift control (VTEC) giving it excellent response lower down in the rev range and real zip the closer you got to its 6,900 rpm redline. If driven more moderately it would produce excellent fuel economy results at 8.1 / 6.3 L/100 km city/highway, based on a 5-speed manual equipped car. A 4-speed automatic was optional.
The 1.6 EL was available in base, Sport and Premium trim levels. The base model was slightly upgraded from its Civic donor car while the Sport included air-conditioning and 3-channel ABS brakes. The Premium package added leather upholstery and a power glass sunroof for an upscale appearance.
Its exterior appearance transcended beyond its subtle restyling to a larger alloy wheel and tire package. Under the skin an upgraded suspension included a wider diameter front stabilizer bar and improved shocks to enhance its driving dynamics. In an unusual move Acura didn't upgrade the rear brakes from their rather pedestrian drums - not good enough for this class of car or the Acura image.
Model year 1998 saw minor improvements including redesigned floor mats and a low windshield washer warning light in the base model. A leather-wrapped steering wheel was added to the Sport package while the Premium got heated front seats. For 1999 the grille received chrome highlights across the line, plus a leather shift knob was added inside. The base car was designated an SE, slightly more dignified. Finally, in 2000 the base SE got a leather-wrapped steering wheel to further separate its driving experience from its humble roots.
Like its minimal changes, the usual sign of well executed initial design, the 1.6 EL was amazingly reliable. Just the same it received two recalls, the last of which affected its final three years of tenure. The initial 1997 recall was a major one concerning an incorrectly assembled front passenger airbag that might not deploy properly in an accident, increasing the likelihood of injury. In 1998 through 2000 models the EL was recalled to replace the electrical contacts in the ignition switch. The easily worn contacts caused the engine to stall without warning, another potentially dangerous situation.
That said the Acura 1.6 EL is still a good buy if you're more interested in excellent fuel economy and generally good reliability than in luxury features and limousine-like seating and storage capacity. Its high resale value, common among Honda Civics as well, will make the price of entry harder to reach than some of its competitors. Still this should pay off if and when you plan to sell.
* Used vehicle prices sourced from VMRCanada.com. Prices represent base models with automatic transmissions. Expect to pay more for Sport and Premium models. Prices in specific provinces may vary. Also, these are asking prices so discounts may be available.
** Mileage averages based on approximately 20,000 km travel per year (calculated in 2002)