The cars we loved.
The sport compact coupe market has always been a brutal one. The public, always finicky and forever chasing the next big thing will embrace the latest trend as fast as they trade in the last one. For Acura, its struggle was always to distinguish itself from its parent Honda in America. Never one to take too many chances, Acura design could be summed up in two words: tastefully conservative.
Every since the 90’s Integra’s quad bug-eyed headlights, the company seems to have been willing to take a few chances in hopes of becoming the fashion statement of the moment. While Acura was getting better at separating the TSX from the Accord, it would need to do more to separate the Integra further from the Civic. Honda’s versatile Civic was not the only possible conflict for the Integra as the Prelude was much closer in concept and price. The Acura name did little to convince some that the Integra was nothing more than a Civic in sexier sheet metal.
After three generations of Integra in America, Acura decided to start over with a clean slate. The replacement, called the RSX (Rally Sportscar eXperimental) in America and still the Honda Integra elsewhere would still be based on the Honda Civic, but would clearly be more upmarket in its excucution. Honda, always governed by restraint would craft the RSX’s shape with a taunt purposeful stance. It appeared aggressive, but typically restrained – almost to the point of looking non descript. However, the Acura RSX would keep its flamboyance under the hood. Starting with the Si engine, a 2.0L all aluminum DOHC design that produced 160 hp.
In a time before turbos came to dominate smaller engines, Acura was using cutting edge technology to overcome the uneven torque curves of earlier VTEC systems. About two years after the base RSX appeared, the Type S model made its debut with a more powerful 2.0 with 200 hp. In Japan the Honda RSX was somewhat different, lighter, sometimes more powerful and with more options. All RSX or Integra would appear the same regardless of where sold. The base engine’s power rating would remain fixed while the Type-S would get a 10 hp boost to 210 in 2005.
Immediately the RSX became an automotive journalist favorite in Type-S trim. While making appearances on multiple 10 Best lists, the RSX’s appeal with tuners and everyday drivers was stronger than ever. A sizable tuner aftermarket evolved, that rivaled that of the Civic.
In the popular selling base model, it had procured a reputation as a comfortable riding small GT car with better than average reliability. Its high level of refinement was not unlike the outgoing Honda Prelude. With the Prelude gone, the RSX’s path was clearer. Its direct competition was dwindling too, with only the Toyota Celica matching its high quality and refinement at its price range.
The Celica could not match the RSX’s overall performance, but outsold it. While the RSX was never the fastest car off the line (0 to 60 at 7 seconds for the base model) its MacPherson strut and double wishbone suspension gave it race car like grip in a lightweight and tossible package. In a 2003 Car and Driver comparison test featuring the New Beetle Turbo, Tiburon GT V6, Eclipse GTS and Celica GTS, the ARS Type S beat them all in overall performance. The noisy cabin of the RSX was the only complaint.
Much like the Civic Si in its overall road manners, the RSX featured a more upmarket interior with better grade plastic, cloth and leather surfaces. The interior was also simple, giving it a kind of elegance missing in most compact sport coupes like the Eclipse or Colbalt. Three transmissions were available, a 5-speed sportshift auto or manual for the base model. The enthusiasts configuration of choice was a Type -S with a slick shifting six-speed manual. In the right hands the sprint to 60 could easily drop down to the low 6 second range.
The RSX never really seemed to fit into the Acura model mix, despite it being refined and quite capable. In a brand better suited for young executives and not tuner boys, the RSX was the odd car out, despite selling well for Acura because of its relative low price. While the RSX got younger buyers into Acura showrooms, it was not always the gateway to larger more expensive Acuras when the time came to trade up.
As the Civic inched up in refinement, content and performance it got closer to the RSX. Eventually it was close enough that in 2006, it was decided that the RSX would be discontinued. Acura would fill the entry-level void with its new ILX, ironically a sedan aimed at the RSX buyer who might have grown out of a coupe, but still wanted an entry-level drivers car.
In keeping with its upmarket image, the RSX got very few external changes. Spoliers, wheels and color options were the extent of most changes. Wheel sizes grew from 16 to 17 inch and on some models like the Type-S, a more aggressive ground effects package improved aerodynamics.
The RSX just might have been a bit ahead of its time, as near premium front wheel drive coupes are rare today. Anyone looking for an upmarket sport compact with just two doors would be hard press to find one with front wheel drive. Todays choices are likely to be back spinners like the Genisis Coupe or Mustang V6. Those cars are larger but comparing the RSX to the Scion TC or Hyundai Volster would seem just as much a mismatch.
The Civic has nearly evolved to where the RSX was from a packaging point of view. Its performance is already similar, if you don’t mind the Honda label.