Back in the 1980s, when Acura was just a babe in the woods, Honda's upscale brand sold its cars with the simple tagline "Precision crafted performance." But the ad campaign wasn't merely playing up the epistemological attraction of an invented name (Acura brings to mind accurate, which inspires pleasant thoughts of technological sophistication, superlative fit and finish, and bulletproof reliability). Acuras really were well-honed tools for the driving enthusiast-Honda greatness turned up to eleven, if you will. And although Madison Avenue is a fickle place, and "Precision crafted performance" long since has gone the way of "Fahrvergngen" and "This is not your father's Oldsmobile," the engineers at Honda are anything but fickle. Acura automobiles-from the most exotic offering, the aging NSX, to the most affordable, the RSX Type-S on these pages-are still paragons of mechanical precision and fine craftsmanship.
Introduced in the summer of 2001, the RSX is the successor to Acura's beloved Integra. It was met with some wariness (by us, at least), mostly because it eschewed a model name that had been around just long enough to achieve historic resonance. But at least the new car remained true to the mission of the original 1986 Integra: Provide a thoroughly engaging driving experience in a frugal-albeit premium-package.
The Integra's three generations saw, variously, two-door and four-door hatchback body styles as well as a traditional three-box sedan, but the RSX showed up as a hatchback coupe only (although Acura since has revisited the premium four-cylinder sedan market by way of the TSX). The base RSX rolls with a 160-horsepower, 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine and a five-speed manual gearbox or a five-speed manu-matic, but we chose the hotted-up Type-S model for our Four Seasons test. Following in the tracks of the screaming Integra Type-R, the Type-S packs a 2.0-liter four that uses Honda's i-VTEC variable valve timing to produce 200 horsepower at 7400 rpm and 142 pound-feet of torque at 6000 rpm. It is paired only with a six-speed manual transmission.
From the outset, we knew we'd made the right choice. Tipping the scales at a trim 2740 pounds, our test car clocked a 6.5-second sprint to 60 mph and ran the quarter-mile in 15.3 seconds at 94 mph. (That's about as quick as a V-8-engined Ford Mustang GT, but, very much unlike the GT, the Type-S will return an exemplary 24 mpg in town and 31 mpg on the highway.) During performance testing, technical editor Don Sherman noted, "Hints of torque steer are evident, but that's inevitable with so much energy going through the front tires."
Without exception, the six-speed gearbox was loved by everyone who used it. Although the engine's torque is modest, a 7900-rpm redline means the driver isn't constantly stirring the shifter to get things moving. Throws are slightly longer than those of Honda's similarly high-strung S2000 roadster, but they are accomplished with stupefying ease. So delicate were gearchanges that Sherman-perhaps a bit too accustomed to punching Corvettes and Vipers into gear-forecast an ugly future for our tester's first- and second-gear synchros. And yet after twelve months and 31,309 miles, his dire prediction failed to transpire. The RSX's gearbox was as light and tight on its last day as it was on its first. Associate editor Joe DeMatio summed it up in one word, "lovely," and road test coordinator Tony Quiroga asked, "Could this be the best shifter in a front-wheel-drive car?" Yes, we found, it could be. And it is.
The torque-sensing, variable-assist rack-and-pinion steering was appreciated, by and large, for its BMW-like heft and quick ratio (quicker than the last Integra's) but nonetheless inspired some grousing for its questionable feel. Sherman: "Nervous on center; requires small but constant corrections to maintain a straight path." Executive editor Mark Gillies, who initially anointed the RSX "the heir to the Honda CRX," later tempered his praise by writing: "As a steering fetishist, my biggest letdown with the RSX is the steering's poor on-center feel and nasty dead spot." Senior editor Eddie Alterman, never one to mince words, noted: "I'd like to point out that this car's steering sucks. Oh, it feels good when you've got it pointed straight, but it's completely artificial in quick evasive maneuvers."
Still, the RSX's approach to life's twisty moments was exalted more often than it was maligned. The MacPherson strut-type front suspension and double control-arm rear provided a thoroughly enjoyable balance of alertness and compliance, although some found that during truly spirited cornering, the inside front wheel would lighten up and spin a bit too quickly. During an outing at Michigan's Waterford Hills Raceway, the car's ease of use and amazing rev range made it an instant favorite. Wrote DeMatio, after consecutive stints in a Volkswagen New Beetle Turbo S, a Honda Civic Si, and our RSX: "This is the best front-wheel-drive car I've had on the track today; there is understeer, but it's quite manageable. Steering is great, brakes are great, chassis is great."
Noise, particularly from the wheel wells, was ever present, and we compounded the problem early in the year by changing out the stock Michelin Pilot HX MXM4 all-season tires for a set of high-performance Yokohama AVS Sports that proved as boomy as they were grippy. It wasn't long before we swapped back, happy to trade some adhesion for a bit of peace and quiet. The activity under the hood, similarly, was anything but Accord quiet. Several of the logbook entries expressed gratitude for the tall sixth gear, which at least let the over-caffeinated engine chill out a bit on the highway. Generally, however, there was no doubting that the Type-S, despite its hoity-toity brand name, placed performance above pleasantry, a notion summed up by the logbook entry that stated: "This is the best car stereo I never heard."
The exterior styling was, by and large, the only truly controversial aspect of the RSX. Production editor Jennifer Misaros called it "a complete bore," and one detractor labeled the Acura "a modern Toyota Paseo." DeMatio noted that from the side, the RSX "looked kinda small and lumpy." Others were less critical, even adulatory, calling our little two-plus-two "cute," "appealing," "exceedingly handsome," and even "BEAUTIFUL!!!"
There was no such hullabaloo regarding the interior. The cockpit was often praised as driver-centric and aesthetically pleasing, with marvelous seats, a fat-rimmed wheel, and a hypermod assortment of textures and finishes accented by branding-iron-red lighting. We found the ergonomics and the driving position to be, true to Honda/Acura form, above reproach. Wrote one: "Unlike the Toyota Celica, the RSX doesn't feel at all cocoonlike. It manages to combine airy comfort with racy intimacy."
Similarly, the high-grade materials and tight construction would do many a more expensive car proud; in our $23,670 RSX, they were an absolute revelation. Moreover, that price (up a mere $100 for the 2003 model year) included such niceties as perforated-leather seats, a power moonroof, and a Bose audio system with a six-disc in-dash CD changer. In fact, the Type-S comes fully loaded. A buyer's only decision is color. For '03, Acura has introduced a $4800 Factory Performance package for the Type-S that includes a stiffened suspension, slotted brake rotors with performance pads, and lightweight wheels with wider rubber, along with an array of aerodynamic add-ons.
On the dependability front, no news is good news, and our RSX was, for 365 days, completely news-free. Nothing broke. Ever. At the 30,000-mile mark, senior editor Joe Lorio commented, "This car does a lot to reinforce Honda's reputation for quality." During our Four Seasons car's last week at 120 East Liberty, Acura sent us a 2003 RSX Type-S with little more than delivery mileage on the odometer. Our hard-driven test car was utterly indistinguishable from the pristine loaner, with the minor exception of an extra gloss on its driver's seat leather, buffed as it had been by a thousand rear ends. Marveling at its agelessness, one writer remarked of our Type-S: "It's the Dick Clark of cars!"
As every Acura has done before it, the RSX Type-S demonstrated that finesse does not necessarily equal frailty, that refinement is not a sign of weakness, and that there is, after all, a replacement for displacement. The ballet dancer is every bit the athlete the power lifter is. Acura's littlest offering endures in a segment that has seen countless casualties during the last twenty years-Volkswagen's Scirocco and Corrado, Nissan's Pulsar and NX2000, Isuzu's Impulse, Renault's Fuego, Ford's Probe and Mercury Cougar, and BMW's 318ti, to name a few. In this truck-mad age, it would seem that the sport coupe's time in the sun has passed. And yet, when hustled down a lonely back road, its four cylinders singing past seven grand, the RSX Type-S feels anything but out of date.