2002 Acura RSX Review

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John Pearley Huffman John Pearley Huffman Editor
June 25, 2001
You review the '02 RSX 

When Honda launched Acura in 1986 it offered two lines of cars: the big Legend and small Integra. The Legend name died in 1996 when it was replaced with the antiseptic and personality-free RL, and now the Integra name has skedaddled into obscurity with the introduction of the 2002 RSX. Thank God that in a Procter & Gamble-ized age that fetishizes brand equity, that there’s still one company that will piss it away.

Esta la nombre Integra es muerto aqui (Oops sorry, back to English. And, by the way, the name lives on in Japan) is a shame, because the RSX is by far the best Integra yet. Based on the Honda’s new compact architecture (from which the latest Civic arises) its chassis is more supple and responsive, the engine is more eager and composed, the accommodations are more contemporary and comfortable, and the exterior is more stylish and aggressive. If you want more details read on. Otherwise, thanks for stopping by our site, we hope you had a good time and please patronize the advertisers.

Your choice: coupe or coupe

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2002 Acura RSX

2002 Acura RSX

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While the Integra could be had as a three-door coupe or four-door sedan, the RSX will come only as a coupe powered by a new 2.0-liter DOHC four. But considering that Acura splits its midsize car line into CL coupe and TL sedan (and that the current CL arrived first), there’s good reason to expect that a small sedan is on its way from Acura to soon complement the RSX. Forget the RS, LS, ES, GS, GS-R and Type-R trim levels which at one time or another adorned Integras, too. The RSX is either a base 160-horsepower RSX or a sporty but hardly hard-edged 200-horsepower Type S.

2002 Acura RSX

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Beyond traditional competition like the Mitsubishi Eclipse and Toyota Celica, Acura hopes buyers will cross-shop the RSX against the new Mercedes C-Class hatchback coupe and the pending revival of BMW’s 3-Series hatch. Prices, which were yet to be finalized at press time, should remain closer to Toyota/Mitsu levels according to Acura’s ruggedly handsome P.R. professionals. Expect the RSX to start at about $19,500 and for the Type S to hit the MSRP glide slope at about $23,500.

Hardcore Integraholics have already yelped mightily about the adoption of a MacPherson strut front suspension on the RSX (and the 2001 Civic before it), but their whiny and ignorant bleatings are lamely pathetic. The struts sacrifice some engineering individuality, but they don’t compromise performance in any apparent way and work exceedingly well with the double-wishbone rear suspension and impressively stiff unibody structure. Honda calls their modified strut “Control-Link” because of what appears to be an almost conventional lower A-arm beneath the strut that varies toe change throughout the suspension’s travel. Combine that with a compact double-wishbone independent rear suspension (which, as on the Civic, allows a flat floor throughout the cockpit) and this is an intrinsically well-balanced front-drive chassis, that’s further improved by excellent high-mounted rack-and-pinion steering.

A turn for the clockwise

Tossing aside Honda’s quixotic tradition of counterclockwise rotating engines, the all-new 2.0-liter four in the RSX rotates in the same direction as engines from every other manufacturer. Why? Because Honda will be sharing engines with other car makers (such as GM) and from here on out, all their newly designed engines will be rotating – new word ahead -- clockwisedly. If this upsets your sense of Honda heritage, get out more often. You might meet some girls.

Whatever direction it’s rotating, this latest engine is a triumph – and not an MG (Thank you ladies and germs, I’m here all week). In specification and appearance the engine is straightforward and conventional. The block and heads are all-aluminum, the twin cams are chain-driven and bore and stroke dimensions are both 86mm. Because of the rotational difference, though, the engine still sits transversely in its bay, it’s the reverse of how the engine sits in the Civic indicating the flexibility that Honda built into the platform. Both versions of the new four get Honda’s latest i-VTEC electronic valve control scheme (the “i” is for “intelligent”), but they’re not  exactly the same systems.

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2002 Acura RSX

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The plain RSX’s VTEC works only on the intake valves and is further simplified by utilizing only two roller arms per pair of intake valves. The Type S uses a three rocker arm system that plays games with both the lift and duration of both the intake and exhaust valves. Add to that Variable Timing Control (VTC) and Programmed Fuel Injection (PGM-FI) and the result is nearly a full alphabet of electronic engine controls. (We still await the EI-EI-O continuously variable farm animal appreciation package.)

Beyond the electronics, the major difference between the plain RSX and Type S engines is compression ratio. The regular engine gets a modest 9.8:1 squeeze and the Type S a robust 11.0:1. And where the regular RSX motor cries uncle at 6800 rpm, the Type S will dizzy itself to 7900 rpm before asking the driver to show mercy. The result is that the plain engine makes it’s peak 141 lb-ft of torque at a relatively modest 4000 rpm while the Type S has to scream to 6000 rpm to max out at just one pound-foot more. The big Type S advantage comes in horsepower where it peaks out at 200 at a screaming 7400 rpm, in contrast to the RSX’s 160 horses at 6500 rpm.

Matched to these two versions of the same engine are new transmissions. The regular RSX can be had with either a five-speed manual or sequentially shiftable five-speed automatic. If you want a Type S you get either a six-speed manual or you buy a different car. Frankly the idea of combing the Type S’ crystal meth torque curve with an automatic transmission isn’t a pretty one (take a drive in an automatic-equipped Celica GT-S to understand the mismatch) and the new trannies are all well mannered and, in traditional Honda fashion, shift with wonderful fluidity. Second, third and fourth gears in the Type S trans are more closely spaced than in the regular RSX, while the first gears are shared and fourth and fifth in the regular RSX manual trans are the same as fifth and sixth in the Type S.

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2002 Acura RSX

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As good as the Type S transmission is, the gearbox could use another sixteen or seventeen closely spaced ratios to get the absolute most from the engine. The 2.0-liter is less peaky than the 1.6- and 1.8-liter VTEC fours in past Integras and around town it’s vastly more livable (and much, much smoother), but it’s still tough to stay in the sweet spot above 5900 rpm (where the VTEC seems to kick in) on a road course. And none of the transaxles are equipped with limited slip differentials. The Type S is good on a race track, but ultimately it’s more mini-tourer than hard-boiled Touring Car – a Type-R (or whatever it’s called) will narrow the performance focus eventually.

More stylish, maybe even better

2002 Acura RSX

2002 Acura RSX

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Ultimately both RSXs are compelling, athletic mechanical packages, but the wrapper around them is more controversial. The trapezoidal grille is almost oversize and bracketed within trendy compound headlights that give way to a deeply sloping hood that’s both aggressive and more fashionable than typical Honda conservative styling. But the roof and greenhouse area are as much Olds Alero as previous Integra and the rear end is less than inspired. In a market that’s increasingly style-conscious and where other competitors like the Celica are more daring, the bold-for-Acura-but-still-pretty-conservative RSX will have its work cut out for it.

The external distinctions between the base and Type S RSX is limited to badging and, if one looks hard enough, the Type S gets 11.8-inch front disc brakes  rather than the 10.3-inchers on the base car. Both cars ride on the same five-spoke 16x6.5-inch wheels wrapped in P205/55R16 Michelin MXM4 all-season performance tires. Since the Type S gets no spoilers, no valance plastic or anything else to distinguish it from it’s cheaper brother, that may be distressing to buyers. According to Acura the original intent was for there to be distinct wheels and tires for the trim levels, but when the package intended for the RSX didn’t seem right, they adopted the Type S’ units across the range.

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2002 Acura RSX

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If the outside is open to debate, the inside is an unambiguous success. The instrumentation is again more stylish than is usual for Honda and uses more varied textures and materials and yet is assembled with the expected precision. The three-dimensional metallic-face gauges get red backlighting and are flanked by oversize rotary ventilation controls. The seats are densely bolstered and finished in “suede-like” material with cloth center inserts on the RSX and perforated leather on the Type S. A small diameter three-spoke leather-wrapped steering wheel makes the final sporty-ish statement. Why, however, there’s one-touch operation on the driver’s side power window and not the passenger side is baffling. Can the switch be that much more expensive? Come on.

On the accoutrement side, the RSX comes with automatic climate control, a solid six-speaker stereo with CD and a power moonroof standard. The Type S adds a seventh bass speaker in the spare tire well and an in-dash six-disc CD changer, but isn’t available with power operation for either front seat. And while the front seats are supportive and comfortable, the 101.2-inch wheelbase doesn’t leave much room for rear seat accommodation and the 17.8-cubic feet of cargo space is modest (though it does open up when the rear seat is folded forward). Of course there’s a full complement of front and side air bags and belt pre-tensioners aboard should the driver decide to test the crumple zones.

Class of the class, and other clichés

The Type S is the clear leader in driving enjoyment in its class. The engine’s responsiveness is exhilarating and the shifter is more fun to stir than a pitcher of margaritas. With a strut tower brace across the engine bay and a larger front stabilizer bar, the Type S is a shockingly neutral corner carver. The front roll stiffness combined with the otherwise supple rear end and excellent four-wheel disc brakes with ABS mean that the rear of the car can be made to rotate through the corners and that’s virtually unheard of in other front-drivers not prepared for showroom stock racing. This car is quick not just in acceleration but in its response to driver input.

Off the track the Type S is a good everyday companion except that the structure can transmit a disconcerting amount of noise on some road surfaces. Wind noise is almost non-existent, but for an engine with such a zingy character that the exhaust note isn’t more mellifluous is somewhat disappointing. But if this RSX is anything like the Integra, about two dozen companies should have aftermarket exhaust systems ready for this car by the time it goes on sale in July.

As the Integra did before it, the RSX plays Camaro to the Civic’s Nova in the Honda universe and it’s yet another solid machine from them. Because though Acura threw away the Integra name, it didn’t dispose of the car’s character.

2002 Acura RSX Type-S
Price: $19,500 base, $23,500 (est.) as tested
Engine: 2.0-liter in-line four, 200 hp
Transmission:  Six-speed manual
Wheelbase: 101.2 in
Length: 172.2 in
Width: 67.9 in
Height: 55.1 in
Curb Weight: 2767 lb
EPA (city/hwy): NA
Safety equipment: Dual front airbags, front-seat side airbags, anti-lock brakes
Major standard features: Air conditioning, cruise control, power windows, locks, and mirrors, keyless entry with alarm, power moonroof
Warranty: Four years/50,000 miles

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