2002 Acura RSX new car reviews

Fifteen years ago, Honda introduced its upscale Acura division, with the Integra as their sporty alternative to the European hot hatches. The car was a little pudgy at first, but has since grown into a graceful swan-and quite the athlete, too, as the latest model has become a staple in today's motorsports scene, whether you're talking about professional road racing, autocross or import drag.

The first Integra boasted a high-revving, 118-horsepower, 1.6-liter, dual-overhead-cam engine known as the D16A1. The Integra was more than just a good drivetrain, however, since its use of the Civic platform meant that the car had a competent, yet unusual, chassis. Somewhat odd for its time, this layout used torsion bars in place of coil springs in the front.

This unconventional front suspension gave the Integra-as well as the Civic and CRX-great handling, a low hood line and a favorable center of gravity. In addition to the twin-cam engine, four-wheel disc brakes further differentiated this first Integra from the third-generation Civic on which is was based.

In 1990, the second-generation Integra was introduced. The new car was rounder, more sculpted and less "eighties" than the first Integra. Like the 1988-'91 fourth-generation Civic on which it was based, this Integra had a well-engineered double-wishbone suspension at each end of the car along with a very low center of gravity. The engine, now designated the B18A1, was enlarged to 1.8 liters and boasted a healthy torque curve in addition to 130 horsepower.

In 1992, during the middle of the second-generation Integra's lifespan, Acura blessed the Integra with the innovative new technology they had developed as an alternative to turbocharging: Variable Timing and Lift Electronic Control, commonly known as VTEC. This variable cam lift technology yielded great horsepower figures while still giving excellent fuel mileage and drivability. The VTEC cylinder head was mated to a 1.7-liter short block to produce a combo that boasted 160 horsepower. These desirable B17A1-equipped cars, which received the GS-R designation, are hard to find these days, since they were produced for only a year and a half.

Eight years ago, in 1994, Acura introduced the third-generation Integra to the U.S. Its unique styling and strong performance for the dollar put the latest Integra at the center of the import enthusiast market that has been burgeoning since the mid-1990s.

Like the previous car, this Integra uses a double-wishbone suspension on all four corners plus four-wheel-disc brakes. At first, the car came with one of two 1.8-liter, dual-overhead-cam engines: The non-VTEC B18A1, which was bumped to 140 horsepower in the RS and LS models; or the 170-horsepower, VTEC-enhanced B18C1 engine in the GS-R.

In 1997, Acura further upped the ante with the introduction of the 195-horsepower B18C engine in the Integra Type R. The race-bred Type R features a hand-polished cylinder head, larger-diameter exhaust system and a torque-sensitive helical limited-slip differential. The Type R has come to dominate everything from G Stock competition at the Solo II nationals to Speedvision World Challenge races with people like Pierre Kleinubing and Hugh Plumb of RealTime Racing at the controls.

Eight years is a long time in the automotive business, and although the most recent Integra has aged well, it was time for a change. For 2002, Acura is giving the market a new benchmark for small, high-quality sport cars: the 160-horsepower RSX and the 200-horsepower RSX Type-S.

The RSX is a move upmarket, as Acura seems to have set their sights on cars like the new BMW Ti hatchback and Mercedes C-Class sports coupe. While this is an ambitious move for a car that has historically battled against the Mitsubishi Eclipse and the Toyota Celica, Acura has gone to great lengths to make the new RSX a class above other Japanese sporty cars.

The RSX Type-S will be the high-line model. In addition to 40 more horsepower, the car also offers larger brakes, stiffer springs, firmer shock absorbers and even more standard features, such as a six-speed transmission, leather seats and a full-tilt stereo complete with a sub-woofer mounted in the spare tire well. There are no factory options available for the Type-S, while there are two for the base RSX: leather seating and a five-speed automatic transmission with Sequential SportShift.

The RSX comes at a time when sales are up for the Acura division's new alphabet of cars, as the CL, TL, RL and MDX are storming out of dealerships. Acura reports that their sales are up 26 percent even though car sales are down 4 percent industry-wide.

The four-door Integra sedan, which in the past comprised only 20 percent of total Integra sales, has been dropped with the introduction of the RSX. This move was made to clarify the image of the RSX as a small, sporty car and also to avoid diluting the sales of either the TL sedan or the Honda Accord.

New Technology

Honda's VTEC technology has long been hailed as a replacement for displacement, as this horsepower-enhancing design has given Honda engines turbo-like performance with great reliability. By varying the lift of the camshaft using specialized oil-driven lifters, the Honda engineers raised the sub-2.0-liter Integra engines to nearly 195 horsepower, clearly beating the 100-horsepower-per-liter benchmark that so many manufacturers strive to attain. In addition to the Integra, this VTEC technology can be found across the Honda and Acura model lines, helping everything from the thrifty Insight to the Acura NSX and Honda S2000. For the RSX, Honda engineers pulled a new trick out of their collective sleeves: VTC, or Variable Timing Control. Not just content to vary the lift of the the camshaft, these wizards have now developed a system that varies the timing of the intake camshaft relative to the crank. VTC coupled with VTEC create what the engineers call the Intelligent VTEC or i-VTEC.

The i-VTEC system retards and advances the camshaft using a hydraulically operated timing gear based upon engine load and rpm. During normal operation, the intake camshaft is retarded for low emissions and a steady idle. As the engine speeds increase, the intake cam is advanced, opening the intake valves sooner and providing additional valve overlap.

The 160-horsepower, base model RSX uses the VTC system and VTEC on the intake camshaft, while the 200-horsepower RSX Type-S has the VTC system and VTEC on both the intake and exhaust cams.

New Suspension

The latest Integra and Civic feature MacPherson struts up front instead of traditional double wishbones, a move that has disappointed many enthusiasts. Some feel that the decision to use MacPherson struts was made by bean counters and marketing execs, not racers and engineers.

Be that as it may, the new front suspension works exceptionally well. The engineers mounted the steering rack high on the firewall and used longer tie-rods to act as toe-control links, giving excellent turn-in and roll control while still delivering superior feedback to the driver under power.

The strut design also allows for larger engine compartments (read: bigger engines and more horsepower) and larger passenger cabins. When they are properly designed, strut suspensions can work just fine, as evidenced by the RSX, Toyota Celica and BMW M3. The rear suspension has been left as a double-wishbone design. This compact design allows for lower cabin floors and more cargo space than a typical rear strut layout.

New Looks, Too

Acura has developed its latest string of cars so that there is nearly instant rear-view mirror recognition. They want consumers to be able to readily identify all of their products at a glance. You might not know which one you are looking at-RL, TL, CL, RSX or whatever-but you will know by the five-sided grill and sculpted lines that this is an Acura.

The RSX appears more grown-up and mature than the previous generation, with less styling gimmicks. The rear-quarter view is reminiscent of an Oldsmobile Alero, while the large-diameter wheels add just enough "sport" to its sporty looks.

The upscale and mature theme is also evident inside the cockpit. Well-designed gauge placement and ergonomics make driving easy, while higher quality materials exude an almost Audi-like atmosphere in the cabin. It's amazing how good plastic can actually feel when it's used in softer form, instead of the hard, brittle stuff that was used a few years ago. The height of the new car has also increased, providing more headroom. Where the old GS-R was a tight fit with a helmet on, the RSX is much more comfortable.

Driving Impressions

Acura let us play with the new RSX and RSX Type-S at Savannah's Roebling Road Raceway, which is a simple, yet challenging course with long, sweeping turns and a few straights to add to the fun. A 25-pace, six-cone slalom was added to the main straight and a tight chicane was used before Turn 1. This kept speeds at a reasonable level for a non-race-prepared car, yet also allowed us to sample the Type-S's transitional skills through the slalom and chicane.

A 2001 Integra GS-R was also there to serve as a benchmark. The Integra GS-R has long been an "almost" player in national SCCA competition, both in Solo II and road racing venues. It wasn't until Acura introduced the Type R in 1997 that the Integra started to shine in U.S. competition. While we would have liked to compare the RSX Type-S to the Integra Type R, the GS-R still made a useful comparison tool.

Compared to the Integra GS-R, the RSX Type-S exhibits remarkably less body roll and wallow in transitions; the new car felt much happier slicing back and forth through the slalom. The old Integra was more prone to extreme dive during turn-in and excess wheelspin on corner exit. The new RSX Type-S sports a set of front struts that are more than 40-percent stiffer than the base model RSX, and this stiff damping was very evident as it danced through the cones.

Michelin MXM4 205/55R16 tires on 16x6.5-inch aluminum wheels are standard issue on both RSX models. They are a noticeably grippier combination than the 195/55R15 Michelin XGT V4 tires and 15x6-inch wheels that came on the previous-generation GS-R.

The brakes on the RSX responded very well to track use, with excellent modulation prior to the ABS system intervening on the driver's behalf. There appeared to be very little fade, even after dozens of hot laps. Front-to-rear brake modulation also appeared excellent, as some trail braking or left-foot braking could be used to place the rear of the car on corner entry.

The extra 30 horsepower was also very evident, as the GS-R struggled to keep up with the RSX Type-S on the short straights of Roebling. The newer car's six-speed transmission helped keep the high-winding powerplant happy and on the go. The six-speed transmission was as smooth and easy to shift as the previous generation's five-speed, which is admirable, as many of the six-speed transmissions on the market these days are much more difficult to row through than the "lesser" five speeds. As the shift pattern size is reduced, it becomes more difficult to properly engage the desired gear.

The base-model RSX was also fun to drive, although with a slightly softer suspension, it was more suited to driving around the back roads surrounding Roebling Road than the track itself. With only a tick less torque than the RSX Type-S, and a well-spaced five-speed transmission, the RSX base model felt great on the road. The differences between the two models are only really noticeable as the speed increases.

Yes, But

It's hard to find fault with a car that can deliver a comfortable ride to work, look great, offer Honda reliability and perform admirably on track. If we had to complain about anything, it would be the lack of flexibility with options, a familiar characteristic of Honda products.

If you opt for the Type-S, you have to get a leather interior, you have to get the massive stereo and you have to get the sunroof. The days of being able to pick and choose options seem to be over, as more and more manufacturers are streamlining their assembly lines.

We also did not get to put the RSX Type-S heads-up against the Integra Type R. If we had, the earlier car's light weight, limited-slip differential and stiffer suspension probably would have helped it stay ahead of the more polished and refined RSX on the race track.

Which brings us to the obvious question: Is Acura going to release an RSX Type R? We hope so. The removal of some heavier comfort and convenience items, plus the addition of a limited slip, would turn this car from something you'd recommend to a friend into something you'd want for yourself.

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