Acura is preparing for the turbocharged TLX Type-S by reminding the world how good the badge really is.
Modern Acura owes a lot to the 2001 3.2CL midsize coupe. While its front-drive architecture and sedate styling might not dazzle at first blush, it was the first vehicle in the company’s US portfolio to be sold with a Type S badge, offering 260 horsepower from its VTEC-optimized V6 to go along with more grip and stiffer suspension. The Type S ethos later spread to sharper versions of the RSX coupe and TL midsize sedan, but it went dormant in 2008.
Now, after more than a decade, Acura will bring back the performance badge with the 2022 TLX Type S (stay tuned for more in the coming weeks). But to remind the world of how far it has come, the company invited me to sample those first Type S variants on the legendary Angeles Crest Highway. What’s more, I also got some seat time in one of the automaker’s true GOATs, the 2001 Integra Type R that serves as both a swan song for hardcore red-badged Acura products and as a predecessor for the polished, poised RSX that came a year later.
That’s because Acura wants to highlight what the Type S brand really means. In the US, Type R products like the vaunted Integra and modern Civic require a few comfort and usability sacrifices for their hard-edged approach to corner-carving – the Integra didn’t even have standard air conditioning, for heaven’s sake. But Acura wants Type S to be synonymous with premium performance, including a long list of standard luxury and convenience features, powerful engines, bold styling, and responsive handling. If the 2022 TLX Type S can follow in the footsteps of its forebears, that could mean wonderful things for the consumer.
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2001 Acura Integra Type R
Resplendent in Phoenix Yellow, the 2001 Acura Integra Type R sat in the parking lot waiting for me to turn the key and fire up the 1.8-liter four-cylinder, unleashing the full might of… 195 horsepower and 130 pound-feet. Admittedly, that’s not a lot of muscle for these modern times – a Toyota RAV4 has more grunt – but the featherweight Integra Type R tips the scales at a shade over 2,600 pounds for this example, which comes equipped with optional air conditioning. Stirred via a five-speed manual transmission, the single-phase VTEC engine spins to a redline of 8,500 rpm, so it’s definitely a Honda product from the 2000s.
With two decades of anticipation riding on the Type R, I was expecting to be at least a little disappointed. Could it possibly be as thrilling as I’d imagined while driving the Gran Turismo version in middle school? Luckily, the answer is yes. A nearly prone driving position, low dashboard, and narrow roof pillars impart lots of instant confidence, with easy sightlines and a low center of gravity that feels level to my seated hips. But this is a museum piece, so we’ll take it easy for at least the first few miles.
While it’s not outrageously fast, the ITR carries speed through corners better than most vehicles of any era. That's in part to the entire Integra family’s four-wheel double-wishbone suspension, which resists camber changes better than the more common MacPherson strut or multilink layouts. Stiffened for Type R duty, the suspension is definitely firmer than one might expect of a luxury-branded automobile, but it’s also not as harsh as I was expecting either. The late-1990s and early 2000s really were a golden age for Honda and Acura engineering, their vehicles delivering nimbleness and comfort in nearly equal measure.
Less refined is the frenetic zing of the 1.8-liter under the hood. It’s never harsh or rickety, but the engine nevertheless lets the driver know that it’s working hard, appropriate for a Honda performance product. And when VTEC kicks in (yo) at 5,700 rpm, the timbre changes and becomes simultaneously louder and mellower, encouraging me to hang out in the upper reaches of the tachometer more often. More than any other facet of the vehicle, the engine holds up against my rose-colored glasses very well, with instant throttle response (excellent pedal spacing helps) and Mia Toretto–approved exhaust and intake noises.
While the 2001 Integra Type R is a bit too hard-edged to fit in with other modern Acuras, its TLX Type S distant relative will take after it in at least one respect: a double-wishbone front suspension. Here’s hoping the new sedan will retain its cousin’s lovely steering and turn-in because of it.
2006 Acura RSX Type S
Immediately after returning to the staging area and switching off the Integra, Acura representatives practically forced me into the RSX. That’s because they think this vehicle will illustrate the differences between the red-badged Type R and the more genteel Type S. And they’re definitely right.
When it was new to the market, the automotive media approached the RSX with some trepidation, fearful that it wouldn’t capture the magic of its predecessor, either in GS-R or Type R form. But journalists found the RSX Type S to be as nimble and fun to drive as the Integra, while also adding a thick layer of luxury on top. The interior instantly imparts a much more premium image than the Honda-plus Integra, with better materials joining standard leather seats with more headroom and adjustability. The 2.0-liter inline-four churns out 201 hp and 140 lb-ft, both at lower revs than its predecessor, but of course, the Type S is about 200 pounds heavier.
Climbing a canyon road, the added weight is somewhat palpable, and the RSX resists turn-in a bit more than its bee-sting Integra counterpart. But that added torque is much appreciated, as is the extra cog in the slick transmission, and the RSX does indeed feel like a much more holistically designed product than the single-purpose Type R. It was comfortable and enjoyable to drive in the neighborhood, grabbing lots of attention from passersby impressed by its pristine, 15-year-old paint. And up in the canyons, it compensates for its more pedestrian strut/multilink suspension with good response in transitions and resistance to mid-corner bumps.
As one of my teenage “realistic” dream cars, the RSX very nearly holds up to my nostalgia as well as the Integra Type R does, falling short only via its smoother, less frenetic persona. But in terms of grip, speed, control, and polish, the RSX is hard to fault.
2001 Acura 3.2CL Type S
Although the RSX was more popular, the 3.2CL actually originated the Type S family in the US. Like its compact sibling, the sportiest 3.2CL got a power bump to 260 hp (up from 225), as well as some added starch in its suspenders. The first two model years could only be had with a five-speed automatic gearbox, but in 2003, Acura added an optional six-speed manual.
Built to compete with the sterling BMW E46 330i coupe, the 3.2CL offers more interior room and class-leading power, but at a lower price when new than a comparable Bavarian two-door. Like all Acuras of its vintage, it sports a four-wheel double-wishbone suspension, and it handles accordingly – stability and quick turn-in at reasonable speeds, ultimately yielding to some understeer when pushing it a bit too hard through corners.
This low-mileage example also seems to have thick buttercream in its shock absorbers, cushioning every obstacle and quickly smothering lingering body motions. There’s a fair amount of roll when introducing the 3.2CL to a corner, and of course, the front-drive Acura isn’t nearly as delightful in tight situations as its would-be BMW competition, but that’s not a huge surprise.
What is impressive is how this generation of CL effortlessly blends old-school Acura attributes – panoramic visibility, supreme mid-corner stability, and approachable ergonomics – with a world-class V6 (even by modern standards) and excellent cabin materials. Far from its somewhat tame appearance – that admittedly got sharpened up in a 2003 refresh – the original Type S is still something to enjoy on a twisty road.
2007 Acura TL Type S
This vehicle, more than any other in this grouping, represents the forthcoming TLX Type S’ immediate predecessor. A midsize sedan that’s priced like a compact, offering huge refinement and a fired-up powertrain? The 2007 TL Type S does a good job of all that, and Acura hopes the TLX will do the same.
In its transition from sedate to sporty, the TL dropped its standard 3.2-liter V6 in favor of a 3.5-liter unit borrowed from the larger RL. Power jumped from 258 hp to 286, while torque went from 233 to 256 lb-ft. A five-speed automatic transmission came standard (which is what I drove), while Acura’s masterful six-speed manual was optional. In spite of that spec sheet, though, I’ve never been extremely attracted to the third-generation Acura TL – in Type S or any other form. I hoped a test drive in a pristine example would change that.
You saw this coming. I came away with newfound respect for the TL, thanks in large part to the lusty V6 under the hood. While many bent-six engines tend to thrash more than sing, the J-Series mill found in the TL is very smooth, with plenty of induction noise and some exhaust snarl to keep enthusiast hearts beating. The five-speed auto in the example I drove does a decent job of selecting gears on its own, but Acura also included paddle shifters (their first appearance in a TL) for control freaks. They don’t shift with the sharpness of a modern automatic, but it’s still good fun to click through the gears and listen to the V6 sing.
The TL also exhibits wonderful poise in most driving situations. Like any nose-heavy front-drive car, it’ll relent to understeer when pushed to its limits, but driven with prudence, the Type S clings to corners and handles quick side-to-side transitions pretty well. Suspension technology has advanced in the intervening years since this TL appeared in showrooms, so there are some body motions appropriate to its era, but overall, it’s rather nice to drive quickly – so much so that a six-speed example is now on my potential-daily-driver list if I ever need a four-door sedan.
Pretender To The Throne
Unfortunately, a drive of the 2022 Acura TLX Type S wasn’t on the docket for the day, nor was a ride-along (check back in May for a full review), so it’s hard to say if the new sedan will live up to the standard set by its RSX, CL, and TL predecessors. Going off our reviews of the entry-level TLX, the Type S could do well to offer better turn-in and less understeer, both of which are hopefully functions of its sportier rolling stock and sharper suspension tuning. And then there’s that lusty turbocharged 3.0-liter V6 to look forward to, putting out 355 hp and 354 lb-ft as it does.
In the course of my day with its heritage lineup, Acura proved – four times over – that it can build high-performance vehicles with the best of them, and that it can also offer era-competitive luxury and comfort in conjunction with driving verve. I think the TLX Type S will continue that trend, but of course, only time will tell.