Look no further than the hot-rodder for proof that evolution is dominated by mankind's determination never to leave well enough alone. As evidence of the fact, this week's two subject cars comprise Exhibits A and B. When Acura originally devised the RSX sports coupe and Mazda its Mazda6 sports sedan, both were tolerably appealing. But no-o-o-o: tolerating such appeal is tantamount, for the hot-rodder, to total sellout.
And so Acura's and Mazda's hands were forced. To appease a vocal minority of uncompromising aficionados, the RSX Type-S and the Mazdaspeed6 were born. In one sense, these two sporties are classes and prices apart-the Type-S is a $23,000 two-door coupe, the Mazdaspeed6 is a $33,000 four-door sedan. In reality, however, they together represent a logical one-two progression that separates the hot-rodder from the chaff. To wit: when your little car eventually maxes-out, find a bigger car and max it out next, whereupon this latter stage repeats itself indefinitely. Thus does the wheel of performance enslavement roll inexorably ad infinitum.
For its as-tested price of $23,845, the Acura RSX Type-S is hard to beat in three important categories: fun, affordability and finesse. Boasting 201 horsepower, the 2.0-liter four-banger in the Type-S outperforms its base-model sibling by 46 remarkable hp. And it's all done with mechanical magic called iVTEC, Honda's proprietary system for computer-controlling all-important valve timing. The RSX is all about motor, and it's an aficionado's delight for this reason.
For the same reason, however, the Type-S is an acquired taste for the masses. Peak power finally shows up for work at 7,800 rpm. That's nosebleed territory for the common commuter who might very well toodle around town for years cursing the car's pitiful torque production under, say, 5,500 rpm. Such a driver, should he accidentally mash the accelerator until the Type-S launches for the stratosphere at about six-grand, might never recover from the fright. "There's a wild thing under the hood," he'd complain as he pleaded with his dealer to take back the car.
You can tell a Type-S partisan by the whiteness of his knuckles. The car is light, nimble (with race-inspired double-wishbone independent suspension) and possessed of one of the best manual transmissions in the automotive world. The RSX is a front-driver, yes; but one of the hidden benefits of high-revs is that you'll rarely chirp the front tires when you don't expect to.
Everything about the RSX is configured to make the driver feel at home. Seating is snug; instrumentation is wrap-around and informative at a glance. Pedals are ideally placed for heeling-and-toeing; and that buttery smooth six speed-well, it oughta just sport a label that reads "Shake that thing."
It follows, oddly enough, that the RSX Type-S is kind of an ego car that leaves little room for companion egos. It's a four-seater, but who'd do such a thing to one's friends as extruding them through tight front doorways into the cramped pod-like pair of rear seats. Most curiously of all, the driver-orientation of the RSX seems to have overwhelmed even its curb appeal: the exterior styling is one yawn shy of a dud. But if you're behind the wheel, whassamatter wi' dat?
Owning an RSX Type-S and understanding how to exploit its best attributes entitles one to membership in an esoteric secret society of auto boffins. People will look at you and fail to understand what you're on about. But you've always been good at playing with yourself, right? So who cares.
By the time you're ready to play with others, you'll be ready for a Mazdaspeed6. Mazda's cumbersome nomenclature-hell bent, I suppose, to create an automotive persona equivalent to Madonna, or Cher, or Tish-is at least accurate about the "speed" denotation. The Mspeed6 is a turbocharged lightning bolt, and it takes every bit of its all-wheel-drive traction-control system to keep this beast pinned to the ground.
But the car is also a well-appointed, five-passenger sedan that makes everybody feel at home. It's a worthy (and charitable) compromise for the one-time-bachelor-turned-daddy who doesn't think baby seats in the back disqualify him from an occasional four-wheel drift. (Although it would probably behoove one to make sure there are no tummies full of Enfamil on board while barnstorming back roads.)
Mazda's strategy for making 274 horsepower and 280 foot-pounds of torque from merely 2.3 liters of inline-four is turbocharging. That and a precision fuel metering technique called direct-injection. The results are superb. Power rolls out like thunder. Turbocharging's inherent "lag" remains, but when the bulge in the powerband finally hits, the Mspeed6 feels like it's lifting off terra firma.
Thankfully, of course, its not. An "intelligent" all-wheel-drive system computer-apportions traction in real-time to preserve driver control. The system migrates continuously from 100 percent front-wheel drive to a 50-50 front-rear split as conditions require; and the driver is never the wiser for it.
A six-speed manual transmission is an integral part of the fun-factor, and a combination of lowered and tightened suspension with 18-inch wheels creates very sprightly handling for a four-door sedan. The car, moreover, looks great. Its Mazda6 silhouette is subtly enhanced with almost invisible wheel flares, rear-deck lip spoiler and vaned wheels. It's not a preening poser, but it does suggest to the unwary that there's a stinger hidden in there somewhere.
The Mazdapeed6 is no particular bargain at $33,325 as tested; nor is it meant to be. It's a hot-rod sports sedan for that small cadre of obsessives who are also prone to drool over BMW M cars, Audi S cars, Mitsubishi Evos and Subaru WRXs. It is, in other words, a car for someone who ought to grow up, but for now at least doesn't have to.
5-pass., 4-door; AWD, 2.3-liter DOHC turbocharged inline-4 w/ direct injection, 6-sp. manual; 274 hp/280 ft.-lbs.; 19 mpg/city, 25 mpg/hwy., w/ premium; trunk: 12.4 cu. ft.; as-tested, incl. 4-wheel ind. suspension & ABS disc brakes, 18-in. wheels, HVAC, AM/FM/6CD, front/front-side/front-rear curtain airbags: $33,325
4-pass., 2-door; FWD, 2.0-liter DOHC inline-4 w/ iVtec, 6-sp. manual; 201 hp/140 ft.-lbs.; 23 mpg/city, 31 mpg/hwy., w/ premium; trunk: 16 cu. ft.; as-tested, incl. 4-wheel ind. suspension & ABS disc brakes, 17-in. wheels, HVAC, AM/FM/6CD/XM Satellite, front/front-side airbags: $23,845