Brent Romans, Senior Automotive Editor
I wonder if Honda organizes press introductions for its non-automotive products, such as lawnmowers or marine engines. What if I went to a press introduction for a new riding lawn mower? Would I get to mow a lawn? And whose lawn would I mow? Maybe Honda would invite me over to mow and trim the lawn at Koichi Amemiya's house, the president and CEO of American Honda. And after I was done mowing, Koichi could offer me a cool glass of lemonade. Wouldn't that be clever?
Erm, well, maybe not. I think I'll stick to attending Honda's and Acura's vehicle press introductions. For instance, Acura recently debuted its new RSX sport coupe to American journalists. Amemiya-san wasn't there, nor did I get any lemonade. But I did drive what should be one of the best sport coupes on the market for 2002.
If you're not familiar with the RSX name, don't fret. RSX is the new name for the redesigned Acura Integra. The name change is a result of the company's desire to polish its luxury vehicle manufacturer image. Since Audi, BMW, Lexus and Mercedes-Benz use alphanumeric names for their cars, Acura marketing wonks think they should, as well. And with that poof! Integra becomes RSX and the last remnant of old Acura names has been swept away. Integra and Legend, we salute you.
Acura admits there's some danger in the name change. The Integra debuted with the birth of the Acura nameplate, and it has plenty of consumer equity and awareness built in. But the name change also allows Acura to start anew. If my math is correct, the Integra was last redesigned about the same time as Senator Jesse Helms' birth (not really). The final-generation Integra was introduced in 1994 and received a minor freshening in 1998. But in the fickle sport coupe market, where young consumers seem to have the attention span of gnats, selling an 8-year-old car is as hard as selling peace plans to the Israelis and Palestinians.
Dimensionally, the RSX is similar to the Integra coupe. Wheelbase and overall length are virtually identical. The biggest change is overall height; the RSX is 2.5 inches taller. Underneath, the RSX takes seed from Honda's Global Compact Platform, the same body structure used for the newly updated Civic. Acura says the RSX exhibits 35 percent higher bending rigidity and stiffness and a 116 percent improvement in torsional rigidity compared with the Integra.
The increase in rigidity, among other things, helps to improve handling response and ride quality. Like in the Civic, the Global Compact Platform dictates an all-new suspension design for the RSX. Up front is a new Control-Link MacPherson strut design. Also part of this package is a high-mounted steering gearbox with long tie-rods. The tie-rods serve as a control link for the front suspension to vary toe change precisely throughout the suspension's travel.
Integra enthusiasts will likely notice that this is a change from the previous double-wishbone front suspension. From a purely performance standpoint, the move to MacPherson struts is a move backwards on the genealogy tree, and this is something for which Honda took criticism when the 2001 Civic debuted. But when all factors are considered, such as overall vehicle packaging and cost, Acura says the struts are the best option. Acura also says RSX engineers spent considerable effort refining the suspension geometry, damping curves and spring rates to help increase the front tires' contact with the road.
The independent rear suspension has also been updated with a compact double-wishbone design. Geometry has been improved with payoffs in stability, handling and ride quality. At the same time, the compact design uses less space than a conventional double-wishbone because there is no trailing arm alongside the fuel tank. Freeing up space in this manner allowed the engineers to move the exhaust pre-chamber and create a wider trunk and a flat floor in the interior.
Suspension tuning differs somewhat depending on the trim level. For 2002, there is just one model and two trims the RSX and the sportier RSX Type-S. A four-door model will not be offered, and the race-bred Type R version has been put on hiatus (expect a return in '03 or '04). The RSX effectively takes the place of the Integra LS and GS, while the Type-S (a trim level also found on the Acura CL and TL) fills in for the Integra GS-R.
Back when the Integra GS-R debuted in 1993, a major selling point of the car was its Variable Timing and Lift Electronic Control, or VTEC. Derived from the exotic NSX sports car, this innovative system helped the car produce both abundant low-rpm torque and excellent high-rpm power. For the '02 RSX and Type-S, an updated version of VTEC, called i-VTEC, has been fitted.
i-VTEC might sound like Steve Job's latest laptop creation, but it's actually VTEC with a new feature: variable timing control. Now, you might be asking yourself, Doesn't VTEC already vary camshaft timing? Well, it does, but only in a very limited fashion. As engine rpm builds on the RSX, a camshaft timing actuator controlled by an engine-control unit that monitors cam position, ignition timing, exhaust emissions and throttle position advances or retards the intake cam throughout a 50-degree range, optimizing engine output and reducing emissions. This allows RSX models to meet LEV-II emission standards.
Both the RSX and RSX Type-S feature new 2.0-liter four-cylinder engines with four valves per cylinder and dual overhead camshafts. Like most Honda and Acura engines, they are amazingly smooth and high-revving. The RSX puts out 160 horsepower at 6,500 rpm and 141 pound-feet of torque at 4,000 rpm. This is 20 hp and 17 lb-ft of torque more than the Integra LS. For the Type-S, Acura equips the engine with a more aggressive type of i-VTEC, a single-stage performance intake manifold and a modified exhaust system. These changes bring horsepower up to 200 (at 7,400 rpm) and torque to 142 lb-ft (at 6,000 rpm). Redline is 7,900 rpm. With 200 horsepower, the Type-S is one of the most powerful sport coupes on the market. However, it is heavier than the Integra GS-R by almost 200 pounds (a Type-S weighs 2,767 lbs) and its power-to-weight ratio is virtually identical to the 180-hp Toyota Celica GT-S.
The RSX comes equipped with either a five-speed manual or an optional five-speed automatic transmission. According to Acura, compared with the four-speed automatic in the Integra, the all-new five-speed offers greatly reduced shift shock and improved shift smoothness. It also features Acura's Sequential SportShift, a special mode that allows the driver to select individual gears quickly by moving the transmission lever into a special gate. Upshifts and downshifts can be commanded with a quick fore or aft motion. In SportShift mode, Acura says the transmission responds more quickly. It will also not automatically upshift when redline is reached, a nice touch to make the automatic seem more like a manual.
For the real deal, however, there's the Type-S and its exclusive six-speed manual. This short-throw close-ratio transmission features multiple synchronizers (triple cones on gears one and two; double cones on gears three through six) for reduced shifting effort. Despite the extra cog, the six-speed is more compact and weighs the same as the Integra GS-R's five-speed. The six-speed also features a short-stroke clutch pedal and enhanced mechanisms to reduce gear rattle.
Drivers wanting to relax after strafing twisty roads should enjoy the RSX's interior. It's an improvement over the Integra's stale design, with a driver-oriented cockpit, contemporary materials, easy-to-use controls and large metallic-faced gauges. Interior measurements for front and rear passengers are generally longer than the Integra coupe's, though there is a very significant 4.9-inch reduction in rear headroom.
One thing that is more abundant on the new car is standard feature content. Items like automatic climate control, sculpted sport seats, a power moonroof, a leather-wrapped steering wheel and an in-glass radio antenna are all gratis. RSX Type-S cars get leather seating materials and a premium Bose audio system with a six-disc in-dash CD changer and seven speakers (including a trick subwoofer mounted in the spare tire well). As of this writing, there are no options available from the factory. But maybe there should be. If you want upscale items like traction control, 17-inch wheels, stability control, heated seats, a trip computer or even a navigation system, you'll need to step up to the CL or go with a competitor's car.
To keep front occupants safe in case of an accident, there are dual-stage front airbags, seatbelt pre-tensioners and side airbags mounted in the seats. The front passenger seat is equipped with a side airbag cutoff system designed to disable side airbag deployment and prevent injury to a child if he leans into the side airbag deployment path. Though no government crash tests have been performed, Acura expects the RSX will receive a five-star New Car Assessment Program (NCAP) front-impact rating, a four-star NCAP side-impact rating and a "good" front offset crash rating from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Based on the Civic's high scores, Acura's claims should be well-founded. Incidentally, the IIHS ranked the Acura Integra as the worst passenger vehicle for theft from 1998 to 2000. Hopefully, the RSX will be better; it features a standard keyless entry system and an engine immobilizer system, as well as other changes to make it harder for the car to be stolen.
During the press introduction, journalists weren't given the opportunity to test these security systems (which is just as well; we're too stupid). But we did get to test out the RSX Type-S on both the racetrack and the street briefly. In short, the Type-S is considerably better than the Integra GS-R, though one would hope so, given the eight years of development time between the two. It's faster, of course, but the Type-S needs to be revved hard in order to get maximum benefit. The six-speed is a big bonus, as its short and close ratios make it easier to keep the tachometer past 5,000 rpm. Shifter feel, as with previous Integras, is excellent.
More surprising is the handling. Fears about the MacPherson strut suspension were washed away after just a few laps around the track. The RSX handles predictably through high-speed corners and adopts a very neutral attitude during transient maneuvers. Steering response is much sharper and more direct than the GS-R's thanks to a revised quick-ratio steering system.
The RSX isn't a speed maven like the RSX Type-S, but 160 hp isn't anything to be ashamed of. The power delivery from its engine is also more useable thanks to peak torque occurring lower in the rpm range. On the street, both cars provide a comfortable ride. During our time with the Type-S, road and tire noise were higher than we expected, especially since a reduction of noise, vibration and harshness (NVH) was one of Acura's design goals. We'll wait until we can conduct a full road test before passing judgment about road noise, however.
The cars should be available in dealerships in early July and have a price of approximately $19,500 to $23,500. Acura hopes that the RSX will attract people who would otherwise buy an Audi TT, BMW 325Ci or Mercedes C230 Sport Coupe. This might happen, but the RSX's limited feature content and lack of heritage put it at a disadvantage.
But, fear not, Integra fans, your fast, nimble and affordable sport coupe is back, better than ever and ready to fight off the Celica, Eclipse and GTI. Even if it does have a new name.
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