Motegi, Japan - Watch enough TV commercials, and you'd think the only way to have fun with an automobile is to bound up muddy hills or tear across sand dunes. What about the forgotten joys of a perfectly executed heel-and-toe downshift? The growl of a high-revving engine? A chassis that dives for the apex of a corner?
If any of this sounds like fun to you, allow us to reacquaint you with the high-performance sports coupe and, more specifically, to introduce the Acura RSX, which just may be the best of an underappreciated breed.
The name may be unfamiliar, but this is essentially the replacement for another well-known funster, the Integra. The new moniker does not reflect a personality change, merely Acura's fetish for disposing of familiar names in favor of meaningless letter combinations. The RSX, strictly speaking, replaces the two-door Integra only; there is no RSX four-door (as buyers of premium-priced, four-cylinder, subcompact sedans proved unsurprisingly scarce). For now, there are two iterations of the RSX: base and Type-S. The Type-S corresponds to the Integra GS-R, not the hardcore Integra Type-R. Acura product planners suggest that a Type-R-style version might join the party in the future.
The RSX is a clean sheet of paper, although, like its predecessor, it has some under-the-skin commonality with the Honda Civic, chiefly in its floorpan (here modified for hatchback duty) and its suspension architecture. The engine, an all- aluminum, 2.0-liter, DOHC four, is a new design and features a new, more complicated version of Honda's VTEC variable valve timing, lift, and duration control. Honda has added continuously adjustable camshaft phasing (confusingly called Variable Timing Control, or VTC). In the base engine, VTC combines with VTEC for the intake side to create i-VTEC and, more important, 160 horsepower at 6500 rpm and 141 pound-feet of torque at 4000 rpm. The high-performance version, found under the hood of the RSX Type-S, uses VTEC for the exhaust valves as well and musters 200 horsepower at a stratospheric 7400 rpm, along with 142 pound-feet of torque at 6000 rpm.
The lower-horsepower engine comes with either a five-speed manual transmission or a five-speed Sequential SportShift manu-matic. For the 200-horsepower engine, Honda has crafted a new, close-ratio, six-speed gearbox, which is the only transmission offered in the Type-S.
Blasting out of pit lane at Japan's Twin Ring Motegi road course, the Type-S engine snarls to its 7900-rpm redline. With more power and torque than even the racy Type-R version of the old Integra, the new 2.0-liter pulls strongly. (Honda engineers figure an aggressive driver could beat their quoted 6.8-second 0-to-62-mph time by about a second.) Compared with the Integra VTEC fours, the RSX engine builds speed in a more linear fashion, without the pronounced bump in power delivery when the valve timing switches from low lift/short duration to high lift/ long duration. Still, as with all Honda VTEC fours, those who play in the upper rev ranges will have the best time; north of 4000 rpm is where you want to be.
Happily, the six-speed transmission's closely spaced ratios mean you never have to let the revs drop. Its short throws aid fast shifts, and all forward gears use double- or triple-cone synchronizers for slick shift action. Well-placed pedals make anyone look like Fred Astaire during heel-and-toe downshifts.
With a stronger, smoother engine and a quicker, more positive shifter, the RSX Type-S initially comes across as an Integra GS-R turned up to eleven. That impression is fortified when you turn the RSX into its first bend. If the fatter, smaller-diameter steering wheel doesn't bring a smile to your face, the steering probably will. With the Type-S riding on the same Michelin all-season rubber as the standard RSX (size 205/55VR-16), turn-in is not as snappy as with some sport machines, but the upside is that the Type-S doesn't bite you with lift-off oversteer the way some aggressively setup front-wheel-drive cars can (the Ford SVT Contour comes to mind). Instead, the RSX is tossable, predictable, and easy to balance through a corner. Lift off the throttle, and the tail steps outside just a bit to tighten your arc, and it's happy to hang there for as long as you like. Get on the gas as you charge for the exit, and the Type-S never gets squirrelly, despite the absence of traction control or even a limited-slip differential. The most you'll need to do is nudge the steering wheel a bit to get it to return to center.
Driven back-to-back with an Integra GS-R at Motegi's road course, the RSX Type-S is more composed, more coordinated, and easier to drive fast. Its body motions are better controlled; the steering is quicker, with effort that is more progressive and more natural; and the shifter is much slicker. As you approach the end of a 100-mph straight, you'll find that the RSX's four-wheel disc brakes are more robust. (They're 11.8 inches in the front and 10.2 inches in the rear in the Type-S, with the RSX wearing slightly smaller 10.3-inch fronts.)
That the RSX surpasses the Integra in the fun-to-drive department may surprise those who read the spec panel first and noticed that the RSX has abandoned the Integra's double-wishbone front suspension for a damper strut setup. This change hasn't done the new Honda Civic any favors, but there's no arguing with the results here. Aiding the Type-S are progressive-valve, gas-pressurized dampers that are 40 percent stiffer than in the standard RSX.
Wringing out the RSX over the Motegi road course, we also enjoyed the excellent driving position, with an elevated hip point (compared with the Integra), a well-placed dead pedal, and wing-back seats that hug you in corners. The RSX dash, which curves toward the driver, is a cut above the Integra's econo-looking unit; the switches are well designed, and the gray-faced gauges that are raised up from the instrument cluster look cool. The back seat is, once again, best reserved for the perpetually stooped, but at least Acura resisted the current two-door mindset that turns up its nose at hatchbacks in favor of far less practical coupes.
When it came time to draw the outside, though, we wish Acura had been a little more fashionable. (Actually, the sketches we saw looked pretty good, but much of the style seems to have been lost during the translation to sheetmetal.) The front is pointy-faced in what's becoming the Acura way, and the rear is okay, but in the side view, the high beltline makes the RSX look frumpy, and the Olds Alero-esque rear-window treatment says "two-door sedan." Furthermore, there's nothing to distinguish the sporty Type-S visually from the standard RSX.
This is not a dowdy, boring two-door sedan, and it shouldn't look like one. The RSX Type-S is a high-performance coupe that is a flat-out ball to drive--provided, of course, you stick to the pavement.