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2003 Acura RSX
Mitch McCullough, NCTD Editor-in-Chief

Introduction
Acura RSX is a sport coupe for drivers who want performance and sophistication. That sophistication extends from the well-appointed cockpit to the superb driving dynamics.

Honda's powerful twin-cam engines, well-tuned sports suspensions, and four-wheel disc brakes make the RSX an exciting ride. Supportive, contoured seats, excellent visibility, and all the conveniences make it a comfortable ride. RSX is also practical, with a useable back seat and expandable cargo space accessible through its rear hatch.

With its powerful, high-revving engine, Type-S is a terrific car for the single, upwardly mobile driving enthusiast. The standard RSX is appointed well, but may be a bit firm for buyers who suffer a grinding daily commute.

RSX is unchanged for 2003, but a new performance kit is available for the Type-S.

Model Lineup
RSX breaks from Acura's CL, TL, RL nomenclature. The X in RSX means this is one of Acura's specialty models, like the NSX and the new TSX. RSX is only available as a two-door coupe. Though called a coupe, it is a hatchback in practical use.

Two engines are available. The base RSX ($19,975) is powered by a 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine rated at 160 horsepower. It comes with a five-speed manual transmission, or optional five-speed automatic with SportShift ($20,875). Cloth is standard. Perforated leather upholstery ($1075) is optional.

RSX Type-S ($23,270) gets a 200-horsepower version of the same 2.0-liter inline-4. Type-S comes exclusively with a six-speed close-ratio manual gearbox. Leather is standard. Also standard is a Bose AM/FM/cassette/six-disc in-dash CD changer with seven speakers, including a big woofer.

Otherwise, there aren't any options. So you only need to make two major choices: whether you want cloth or leather, and if you want leather, whether you want the more powerful engine and related sports equipment. There's no need for options because the base RSX models come standard with all of the convenience features of the more powerful Type-S: automatic climate control, cruise control, power windows and locks, power moonroof, antilock brakes, and 16-inch alloy wheels. RSX also comes standard with a premium six-speaker AM/FM/CD stereo.

Acura is offering a performance package for RSX Type-S, which is installed at dealerships ($4,800 plus installation). The package includes high-performance, track-tuned shocks and springs, slotted brake rotors and performance brake pads, lightweight 17x7.5-inch alloy wheels, high-performance tires (225/45VR17), a factory rear wing, underbody spoiler kit, and special interior trim. This is the first time Acura has offered a comprehensive high-performance kit to be installed by dealers and covered under a factory warranty.

Walkaround
Sleek, clean, almost elegant, Acura RSX is designed to exude performance. Its lines are understated. It doesn't look boy-racer, though it is less conservatively styled than most Acuras. It looks contemporary and aggressive, with short front and rear overhangs and a cabin-forward silhouette.

It almost looks as if it were carved out of a solid block. The expansive rear glass sweeps fastback-style toward a high rear deck. A smoothly integrated liftgate raises easily to reveal a spacious cargo hold. Acura design cues can be seen in the grille, in the cutouts under the cylindrical tail lamps, and in the headlamp design. The front end looks bland to our eyes, however, resembling some kind of Honda Civic when seen in the rear-view mirror.

Acura's attention to detail can be seen in the precise exterior fit and finish. Not visible, but just as important is the extensive sound insulation, including melt sheets added to the floor to reduce interior noise.

Interior
Acura RSX features a driver-oriented cockpit. Visibility is excellent out front, while large mirrors provide good visibility rearward. Seats are deeply sculpted with side bolstering, and supportive when cornering hard, with thigh, lumbar, and shoulder adjustments on the driver's side. Optional perforated leather upholstery is nice, though unremarkable.

A wide instrument pod covered in a perforated material surrounds the driver. Large analog gauges with metallic faces are easy to read. The thick, leather-wrapped, small-diameter steering wheel with three spokes feels like it came from a race car. The shifter feels good, also; a leather-wrapped gearshift knob comes standard, while the Type S gets a special perforated leather knob.

The rear seats are surprisingly comfortable for a sport coupe. But this isn't a sedan; space for rear passengers' heads is under the rear window. The rear seats fold flat for cargo. An acoustically transparent cargo cover snaps into and out of place to hide valuables. A Bose subwoofer goes inside the temporary spare, a clever use of space, and it can be moved around for tailgate parties.

Acura's luxury features, standard on every RSX, include the automatic climate control system with micron air filtration, illuminated power window switches, and lighting in the glove box. But this car is clearly designed as a sport coupe rather than a luxury sedan. The perforated material around the instrument panel and center console, the roof liner, the white-gold plastic trim, the vents, and the radio controls lack the high-quality, upscale look and feel of a premium brand.

A clever combination tray and cup holder offers a good place to stash a wallet, as it provides a semi-secret compartment. The dual cup holders work well as long as the container isn't much taller than a grande Frappuccino. A small fold-out above the rear seat on the driver's side works okay for hanging a couple of shirts, but not a full load of dry cleaning.

Driving Impressions
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.

Summary
Acura's RSX offers more sophistication than other sporty coupes. It delivers luxury-channel levels of refinement and quality. It looks nice, it's comfortable, and it features all the conveniences of an entry-level luxury car. Handling is excellent, making it easy and fun to drive. Driven hard, this car will do just about anything you ask it to do within the basic laws of physics.

And it's quick, especially when equipped with the high-revving Type-S engine.

Most drivers, however, will opt for the standard 160-horsepower engine. They will be making an excellent choice. Smooth and powerful, this engine is designed to deliver responsive performance around town and crisp acceleration when needed to merge onto busy freeways during morning rush hour.

Model as tested
Acura RSX Type-S ($23,270)
Basic Warranty
4 years/50,000 miles
Assembled in
Sayama, Japan
Destination charge
500
Gas guzzler tax
N/A
Base Price
19975
Price as tested
23770
Options as tested
none

Model Line Overview
Model lineup
RSX 5-speed ($19,975); automatic ($20,875); Type-S ($23,270)
Safety equipment (standard)
ABS, front airbags, side-impact airbags
Safety equipment (optional)
N/A
Engines
2.0-liter dohc 16-valve inline-4
Transmissions
6-speed manual

Specifications as Tested
automatic climate control with micron air-filtration system, steering wheel-mounted cruise control, tilt steering wheel, intermittent wipers, power moonroof, power windows with driver automatic up/down window and auto-reverse, overhead map lights, driver's and passenger's visor vanity mirrors, two 12-volt power outlets, leather-wrapped steering wheel, power mirrors, driver's adjustable lumbar support, 50/50 split fold-down rear seats; Type-S adds leather interior, Bose AM/FM/cassette/six-disc in-dash CD changer 7-speaker system with Bose Rich bass woofer

Engine & Transmission
Engine
2.0-liter dohc 16-valve inline-4
Drivetrain type
front-wheel drive
Horsepower (hp @ rpm)
200 @ 7400
Transmission
EPA fuel economy, city/hwy
24/31
Torque (lb.-ft. @ rpm)
N/A

Suspension
Brakes, front/rear
ventilated disc/solid disc, with ABS
Suspension, front
independent
Tires
P205/55R16
Suspension, rear
independent

Accomodations
Seating capacity
4
Head/hip/leg room, middle
N/A
Head/hip/leg room, front
37.8/51.1/43.1
Head/hip/leg room, rear
30.1/46.7/29.2

Measurements
Fuel capacity
N/A
Trunk volume
17.8
Wheelbase
101.2
Length/width/height
172.2/67.9/54.7
Turning circle
38.1
Payload
N/A
Towing capacity
N/A
Track, front/rear
58.4/58.4
Ground clearance
5.9
Curb weight
2778


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