It's been quite awhile since we drove Acura's little sport coupe, the RSX. Although it seems like just yesterday that the RSX replaced the aging Integra, it was actually more than a few years ago. The new-for-2002 RSX presented a pretty impressive package of performance, handling and comfort. So impressive that it won our 2001-2002 Sport Coupe Comparison Test, whipping some solid competition that included the VW Golf GTI, Toyota Celica GT-S and even the RSX's cousin, the Honda Prelude SH.
That moment of glory was three years ago, eons in the fast-moving automotive industry. Of the six sport coupes that competed in that comparo, three are either gone (Honda Prelude, Mercury Cougar) or soon to be (Toyota Celica). But others have jumped into the segment. Now in its fourth model year, the RSX must contend with fresh competition in the form of the Mini Cooper S, Scion tC, Saturn Ion Red Line and the upcoming BMW 1 Series and Audi A3. Even though the two Germans are going to be four-door hatchbacks, their sporty leanings made them stated targets by the folks at Acura.
To give the RSX a more sophisticated and leaner look, Acura's designers made a number of minor changes. They ditched the trendy scalloped head- and taillight treatments in favor of cleaner units, beefed up the front and rear fascias, tweaked the side sills and added a low-profile rear spoiler to the Type-S. The changes won't make you say, "Wow, what a difference," but they do make the car look less pudgy than the '04 version.
The interior designers put in their two cents as well by plumping up the seat bolsters and sprinkling some more titanium accents around the cockpit (on the dash vents, within the headrests and around the gearshift boot).
More important than the gingerbread are the hardware changes for this year. Both base and Type-S cars received suspension revisions that include a 7mm-lower ride height, firmer stabilizer bars and revised shock and spring rates. The Type-S now has bigger wheels — 17-inchers versus last year's 16s. The steering and braking systems were tweaked as well — the steering is blessed with a quicker ratio and the brakes benefit from a larger master cylinder and reduced pedal stroke. To minimize NVH (Noise, Vibration and Harshness) levels, body rigidity was increased via reinforcements at key areas and sound insulation was added to the doors and roof to quiet the cabin at cruising speeds.
In the engine room, the Type-S model's 2.0-liter four picks up 10 horsepower (now at 210 ponies) thanks to intake and exhaust mods, including slightly more aggressive cams and a larger diameter exhaust system. And no, the increase in horsepower didn't come at the expense of torque output, which actually goes up a single pound-foot, for a total of 143 lb-ft.
In addition to the typical ride and drive portion of this press event, Acura was kind enough to provide a half day of track time at Waterford Hills Raceway in Clarkston, Mich. A smaller, technical (read "with an abundance of twists and turns") track, Waterford would serve (so the Acura reps hoped) to show off the improvements made to the 2005 model. To help with that goal, they had a couple of 2004 models at the track as well.
Upon belting into an '05 Type-S and taking some familiarization laps, the car felt secure and composed, forgiving this jockey's sometimes sloppy inputs. Once I got into a groove and had a clean line down, I took out the '04 version and immediately noticed a few things — the new car definitely felt superior in the steering and braking areas. Just to make sure my impressions were valid; I took an '04 around the track for another couple of laps. Compared to the crisp turn-in response and nearly unflappable chassis of the new car, the '04 felt a little lazy and nervous when pushed hard through quick transitions. And the difference in braking performance stood out as well; where the pedal on last year's car felt spongy and just adequate in power, the new car's felt firm and strong, yet easy to modulate. These two improvements should effectively address the RSX's two minor downfalls that we noted in that comparison test: below average performances in braking and slalom testing.
Although the seats were revamped for 2005, we didn't notice much difference. Whether we were in the '04 or '05, we tended to slide around in spite of the ample side bolsters. At the risk of receiving angry letters, we imagine this is because the wide seats were evidently designed with the U.S. market in mind, a market where most people tend to be, um, wider than average.
Driving home from the track, we noted minimal wind and road noise while running at 70-75 mph on the freeway and appreciated the absorbent yet controlled ride over the bumps on secondary roads. Someone should buy the suspension guys a round for making the '05 RSX a sharper performer when pressed without taxing the enthusiast drivers (and their passengers) with a bone-jarring ride the other 90 percent of the time.
As far as the increase in power, honestly, it was hard to tell the difference, probably because the power peak on the '05 occurs at 7,800 rpm versus 7,400 rpm on the '04. Certainly the previous Type-S was no slouch in acceleration, posting a quick 6.7-second time for the 0-60 dash and blazing down the quarter in just 15.2 seconds. So even if the 2005 Type-S "only" duplicates these numbers, you won't see us complaining.
One thing we will complain about, however, is the pricing. Granted, both the standard RSX (at around $21,000) and the higher-performance Type-S (at around $23,500) come with many high-end features, such as automatic climate control, a power moonroof, a CD player, cruise control, keyless entry, ABS and side-impact airbags. And the Type-S, in addition to the more powerful engine, adds a Bose audio system (with both cassette deck and six-disc CD changer), perforated leather seating and a six-speed manual gearbox (the only transmission available on the Type-S). In this price range, however, there are more than a few other tantalizing choices, such as the Mini Cooper S and more notably, the Scion tC, that undercut the RSX's sticker by more than a few grand.
Should you buy an RSX, you can rest easy knowing you've made a good decision. You'll enjoy sprightly performance, composed handling and a comfortable ride, and should have trouble-free motoring for many miles. But with Scion's athletic and well-equipped tC starting at under $17,000 with a moonroof, sport suspension with 17-inch wheels and similar luxury features to the RSX, the Acura salesmen are going to have their work cut out if someone comes into the showroom cross-shopping those two cars.