Acura CSX awakens the latent racer

It has been about three years since I last drove an Acura CSX Type-S. In the interim, several things have happened, the least of which is that I have inched three years closer to maturity. More noteworthy is that Honda has sadly dropped its S2000 sports car from its lineup and the global economic meltdown has caused the world’s automakers to rethink their pricing strategies. The most immediate effect of this last development is that the made-in-Ontario-for-Canada-only CSX Type-S is $3,500 less expensive than it was in 2007.

The disappearance of the S2000 last year after a 10-year run relegates the CSX Type-S (and its near-twin, the Honda Civic Si) to the status of being the most overtly sporty car in Honda’s lineup. Now, some may sadly shake their heads at this, wondering why a motorsport-and engineering-driven company such as Honda has entrusted its street cred to a car powered by a 197-horsepower, 2.0-litre four-cylinder. At face value, there might be cause for concern. Historically, however, Honda has long chosen this route, with zippy, small-displacement engines that one can rev the bejesus out of. And, given environmental concerns regarding global warming and emissions and the ever-rising price of gasoline — not to mention more and more automakers downsizing their engines — Honda’s foresight is starting to look more like clairvoyance.

Besides, the baby Acura can’t help but bring out the latent racer. Although it no longer holds the same significance it once did, the idea that the CSX Type-S’s naturally aspirated engine can bang out nearly 100 horsepower per litre of displacement is still pretty impressive — even for some of us ageing motor heads who grew up with big-bore Detroit V8s and their tons of torque available at subterranean levels. Still, it takes a modicum of adjustment to get used to an engine with an 8,000-rpm redline yet with maximum horsepower that doesn’t show up until 7,800 rpm. And don’t get me started on the wimpy 139 pound-feet of torque at 6,100 rpm.

Practically, though, there is enough oomph at lower revs to keep the engine from bogging in heavy traffic. And, when there’s some breathing room and you actually get your right foot into it, the four-banger sounds like a well-oiled sewing machine on speed, which has you grabbing the slim, lightweight shifter and snicking through the short-throw, close-ratio six-speed manual as fast as you can. From a standstill, 100 kilometres an hour comes up in 7.2 seconds, while accelerating to 120 from 80 in fourth gear is accomplished in 5.2 seconds. Those times aren’t shabby for a car that’s been on the market for several years, being only a few tenths slower than the Mazdaspeed3 and Volkswagen GTI. Fuel economy isn’t all that bad, either. I averaged 8.8 litres per 100 kilometres during my week with the tester, despite a desire to play Speed Racer with the shifter (remember what I said about inching toward maturity). My sole concession to parsimony was to shift up a gear when puttering about in order to lower the engine revs.

The Type-S is more than just about rocketing off from stoplights — it handles decently in the corners as well, despite not being the last word when it comes to compact sporty cars (see the aforementioned VW GTI for that). Standard performance/ safety backups for the car include a limited-slip differential and vehicle stability assist with traction control. The steering has a good weight to it and the Acura will hold its intended line, although there was more leaning during aggressive cornering than I liked.

All CSXs are fitted with a four-wheel independent suspension, with the Type-S getting its bits sport-tuned. This means stiffer springs, firmer damping and more tightly controlled suspension movement with up-sized stabilizer bars at both ends. The ride is definitely skewed toward firm — but not so harsh as to be unpleasant.

As the top-level model (there’s also the milder CSX i-Tech), the Type-S comes with a full larder of luxury and gadgetry. Acura’s Satellite-Linked Navigation System (with bilingual voice recognition) is standard equipment. There’s also a premium audio system that thumps out 350 watts through seven speakers, full illumination (vanity mirrors, footwells, ignition switch, trunk) and a whole lot of leather. As with the Civic on which it is based, the CSX is fitted with a two-tier instrument panel, which positions the digital speedometer, fuel gauge and temperature gauge up high in the driver’s field of vision. The lower tier houses a tachometer, multi-information digital display, odometer with trip meter and a variety of warning indicators. You either like it or you don’t — there’s no grey area. I like it.

Accommodation-wise, there’s plenty of room for six-footers up front and enough comfort for those less than six feet tall in the back. The heated, leather-clad seats are bolstered for both comfort and sport.

Despite the entire Civic/CSX lineup being in need of a thorough freshening, the silhouette doesn’t look dated — it’s still a handsome design. And as much as I would probably gravitate toward the cheaper Civic Si, which would provide identical performance bona fides, I can see why Honda badge engineers the car into the CSX. Acura is an upscale brand and the CSX fills that need for buyers who don’t want or need a larger car yet still appreciate a sporty drive while being pampered and entertained — and who don’t mind paying a bit more to get that. The Type-S fulfills the requirements.

Photograph by: Brian Harper, National Post