2003 Acura RSX Review
Sports performance, upscale sophistication.
Driving the Acura RSX is a lot of fun. The Type-S boasts quick acceleration, crisp, predictable handling, and excellent brakes. Steering is very sharp, with no play at center, no slop. This car feels controlled and very stable at high speeds.
RSX and RSX Type-S differ in several key areas. Type-S gets a more powerful engine, firmer suspension damping front and rear, stiffer rear springs, and larger front brakes. But otherwise, the two models are nearly identical, including their 17-inch alloy wheels with high-performance Michelin tires.
Ride quality is firm on both models. It feels great on smooth roads, but can feel jouncy on bumpy roads. The base RSX felt a little too firm when we drove it in Richmond, Virginia. We could hear expansion joints on the highway, possibly due to the high-performance Michelin MXM4 all-season tires, and we could feel the uneven pavement on old city streets.
Handling is fun, predictable and precise. While turning laps in a Type-S at Georgia's Roebling Road, we found the RSX is an easy car to control at the limit. You can really drive this front-wheel-drive coupe: A lift of the throttle before turning into a corner reduces understeer and helps rotate the car into the turn. It's also easy to control when braking and turning at the same time, a driving faux pas that can cause a spin many other cars. The Michelin tires offer excellent grip and predictable handling.
Brakes are excellent, four-wheel discs, ventilated in front. The first time we used them they were cold and we found they demanded a bit of foot pressure, like they needed a little more power assist. That's typical of high-performance brake pads, which require a little more pedal pressure and work best once they have a little heat in them. We quickly adjusted to them on the street, and they felt perfect out on the race track, resisting the tendency to fade under hard use.
Both RSX models come with sophisticated 2.0-liter four-cylinder engines. These all-aluminum 16-valve engines use Honda's i-VTEC system, with variable-phase camshaft timing (VTC for variable timing control) along with the proven Variable Valve Timing and Lift Electronic Control (VTEC). The result is impressive horsepower and high torque with outstanding fuel economy and low exhaust emissions. The engine is mounted transversely, but opposite the normal direction, bringing the exhaust manifold closer to the catalyst for improved light-off and reduced emissions at startup.
The engine that comes in the base RSX delivers adequate acceleration performance, but lacks the sporty response of the Type-S. The base engine develops 160 horsepower at 6500 rpm and 141 pounds-feet of torque at 4000 rpm. That's the same amount of torque developed by the Type-S engine except at much lower rpm, making the base RSX feel quite responsive around town. One benefit of the 160-hp engine: the RSX earns an EPA City/Highway rating of 27/33 mpg (24/33 with the automatic), while the Type-S gets 24/31 mpg. Also, the 200-hp Type-S engine needs 91 octane, while the 160-hp RSX engine can get by with 87 octane, though Acura recommends premium for optimum performance.
The standard transmission in the base RSX is a five-speed manual, and it's the best match for the base 160-hp engine.
The five-speed automatic transmission features Acura's Sequential SportShift system that allows the driver to shift gears semi-manually, without the need for a clutch pedal. In SportShift mode the driver has full control; unlike other semi-manual transmissions, the RSX transmission will not shift up or down unless directed to do so by the driver. It gives the driver more control than leaving it in Drive. Or you can simply put it in Drive and let it do its thing. Do that and you'll benefit from its Grade Logic Control, which reduces the tendency for it to hunt between gears when driving on steep hills. The serpentine shift gate makes going from Park to Drive and back again a bit clunky.
The Type-S engine is much more fun, however. It revs to 7900 rpm and it needs to be wound up to extract all of its performance: it ultimately develops 200 horsepower at 7400 rpm and 142 pounds-feet of torque at a heady 6000 rpm. The engine is smooth. It hums. Acceleration is linear, without the surge of the old 1.8-liter VTEC engine in the Integra Type R. Compared with old Integra Type R, the RSX Type-S engine boasts a wider torque band. It's also lighter and more compact. The Type-S engine is fitted with a fixed intake manifold in place of the 160-hp RSX's dual-stage intake manifold, which boosts horsepower at high rpm. Acura says 0-60 mph in about 6.7 seconds for the Type-S. That's quick.
RSX Type-S comes exclusively with a new short-throw six-speed manual transmission with close ratios. It's been engineered to provide the lightning-quick shift action of a race car transmission. It shifts smoothly, a benefit of triple-cone synchronizers on first and second gears, and double-cone synchros on third through sixth.
The RSX is based on Honda's new Civic platform, which has its advantages and disadvantages. Gone is the trademark Honda/Acura double-wishbone front suspension, replaced by conventional, cheaper-to-build MacPherson struts. That's not a fatal flaw in a car with the RSX's sporting intent, because even with the struts, proper suspension tuning can still deliver impressive handling and steering response. And suspension tuning on the RSX is different from that on the Civic.
Remarkably, both RSX engines meet stringent Low Emissions Vehicle-II (LEV-2) standards and are designed to run for 110,000 miles before the first scheduled tune-up.
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