by Eric Peters

Acura used to be the place to go if you wanted a quicker and slicker Honda. But since Honda brought out its formidable S2000 roadster last year, the waters have been muddied somewhat.

Now the Integra — formerly the apex predator of the Acura line — has been replaced by a new model called the RSX. It's a zippy little thing, especially when armed with the new six-speed manual transmission and optional 200-hp engine, but it's still outclassed (and outgunned) by both the 240-hp S2000 and its own stablemate, the 260-hp CL Type-S coupe.

Previously, the Integra was not only the hottest Acura, especially in Type R form, it was also the one to be coveted. The new RSX Type-S, while on paper packing more heat than the old Type R (200 hp vs. 195 for the old car) is not at the top of Acura's lineup, and really is more of a commuter with some punch than a knife-edged runner like the old Integra was.

Like Elvis in the '70s, the '02 RSX Type-S is a little more glitzy, a tad less spontaneous and unpredictably explosive than the original. It's also offered only as a hatchback coupe — a decision that may come back to haunt Acura.

Haunting decisions

One of the neat things about the old Integra was that you could get the hot car in a four-door sedan body style, making it practical as a dual-purpose fun/family vehicle. The new RSX Type-S, in contrast, is only realistic as a single person's car or as a second car for a person with family and kids to cart around. This may limit the RSX's appeal to many would-be buyers — particularly since there are many other similar coupes out there to choose from, such as Toyota's $21-455-$22,155 Celica GTS, and the Mitsubishi Eclipse (which incidentally offers a 200-hp V-6 for less money at $21,147 for the GT hatchback).

By offering four doors, the old Integra had an advantage over those would-be competitors that all the horsepower and performance in the world could not efface. That's been thrown to the winds by Acura. We'll see how smart a move it was.

Functionally and engineering-wise, the RSX, like its Integra predecessor, is based on a front-wheel-drive platform. It comes in two performance levels — the base 160-hp model at $19,950, and the 200-hp Type-S version, at $23,650. (This last figure represents a small price cut over the $24,930 price of last year's Integra Type-R.)

Both versions of the RSX use the same basic 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine, which is larger than the 1.8-liter engine used in the now-defunct Integra. Either car can be had with manual or automatic transmissions, but the Type-S is the only model available with a short-throw six-speed that feels very much like the unit used in the Honda S2000. It feels just fine, by the way. The tight action and high-rpm characteristics of the 2.0-liter engine work superlatively together.

Be advised, though, that getting action out of an RSX requires a different driving technique than many drivers may be used to. This engine (most especially the Type-S version of it) needs to be spun to considerably higher engine speeds than may feel comfortable at first. But don't fret — you won't break anything. This is how it's supposed to be. Peak output does not occur until the tach hits 6500 rpm for the base RSX, an Indy car-like 7400 rpm for the performance-tuned Type-S. If you upshift in either car below 4000 rpm, you won't get much response. The other thing is that both engines, including the standard 160-hp version, require premium fuel. Ka-ching!

Borderline anonymous

On the styling front, Acura's trademark subtle, borderline anonymous styling prevails. This car, despite its intended role as a performance machine, will not grab much attention. Of course, that may be a good thing for those who like to move quickly but discreetly. If you want to get noticed, though, you may want another car. Other than the nicely done front end with the trademark Acura airflow opening (not really a grille, because there isn't one), the rest of the car is pretty much Honda generic. By no means ugly — just easy to lose in a crowd.

Inside, however, is where the RSX clearly beats the old Integra, with almost race-car-like, extra-deep bucket seats that are wonderfully snug and supportive. To feel any more strapped-in, you'd need a harness. Not only that, but there is decent room inside, too. I'm a pretty tall guy at six foot three, and the RSX was comfortable to be in where the Integra was always borderline. This is almost certainly due to the increase in both front legroom (43.1 inches vs. 42.7) and shoulder room (52.6 inches vs. 51.7), even though the RSX has about one inch less headroom up front than the Integra did (38.6 inches vs. 37.8). The racy instrument cluster and metallic facings of the RSX are nice, too, and represent an improvement over the Integra's functional but rather nondescript cluster.

Then there’s the name. It’s going to engender some confusion, and Acura may find that dropping the sedan body style too was a mistake, but overall the 2002 RSX comes off pretty well. It's basically a lower-cost version of the CL Coupe, similar in style and content but at a more affordable price. Both RSXs, the Type-S as well as the standard car, come for example with an electric sunroof, climate control, power windows and locks, alloy rims and performance-type tires, cruise and a six-speaker audio system with CD player in the dash. That's pretty posh. The Type-S, in addition to the hotter engine, also comes with leather trim and an even better audio system.

Footnote: While less refined, powerful and prestigious than the RSX, potential buyers of this coupe might want to give some thought to both the Hyundai Tiburon (seriously!) and the new and very fun Mazda Protege5 wagon. These machines are great runabouts with ample sporting character — and with prices for each at $14,499 and $16,335 respectively, outstanding bargains, too.


2002 Acura RSX Type-S

Base price range: $23,170
Engine: 2.0-liter four-cylinder, 200 hp
Transmission: Six-speed manual, front-wheel-drive
Wheelbase: 101.2 in
Length: 172.2 in
Width: 67.9 in
Height: 55.1 in
Curb Weight: 2766 lb
EPA (cty/hwy): 24/31 mpg (six-speed manual)
Safety equipment: Dual front airbags, side airbags, ABS
Major standard features: 200-hp engine with variable valve timing, six-speed manual transmission, leather sport buckets with lumbar support, brushed aluminum accents, climate control, premium Bose audio w/seven speakers and six-disc CD autochanger, power windows, locks, cruise and rear wiper
Warranty: Four years/50,000 miles

Copyright © 2001 by the Car Connection

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