SO LONG, INTEGRA: LONG LIVE RSX

So a batch of automotive journalists are sitting there listening to a company spiel on the 2002 Acura RSX, the replacement for the long-lived Integra, which, incidentally, was the last Acura standing that had an actual name instead of letters.

An Acura engineer was deep in a discussion about the engine in the RSX Type-S, which is the performance version of the little coupe (no sedans in the RSX lineup). He was talking about the fact that the peak power output -- 200 horsepower, as opposed to 160 for the regular RSX -- came at a motorcyclelike 7,400 rpm. Peak horsepower for a Chevrolet Camaro Z-28, for sake of comparison, occurs at 5,200 rpm. To get the most out of the RSX Type-S, you have to zing the engine up to a level that seems cruel and unusual.

Add to that the details we were being provided by the engineer about the high-tech, fragile-sounding stuff inside the engine -- the "i-VTEC," a system of "intelligent" valve timing that allows all 16 valves to open and close at precisely the correct time, for precisely the correct duration; a compression ratio of 11:1, more like a race-car engine than a passenger car; and a fuel injection system so sophisticated that rocket scientists would be scratching their heads.

At that point, a colleague leaned over and whispered, "You know, if it was anybody but Honda, and probably Toyota, building an engine this exotic for a mainstream car like this, I'd tell customers to avoid it like the plague." Such is the reputation that Honda/Acura and Toyota/Lexus have earned for pushing the engine envelope, but maintaining their reputations for reliability and economy -- after all, mileage for the Type-S is EPA-rated at 24 mpg in the city, 31 mpg on the highway.

The Integra has long been a popular car for Acura, having helped launch the brand as Honda's upscale division 15 years ago. Then, it was only the Integra and the Legend, with the Integra in the supporting role of Acura's entry-level model.

That hasn't changed. The Integra has been in need of a makeover for several years, but since it is based on the Honda Civic platform, the company had to develop and launch the bread-and-butter Civic before attention could be turned to an Integra replacement.

Enter the 2002 Acura RSX, which seems targeted at a slightly sportier crowd than the Integra was, hence the departure of the four-door, a mainstay in the Integra lineup.

The base RSX and the swoopier RSX Type-S share a 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine, replacing the Integra's 1.8-liter four. The RSX is available with a five-speed manual or automatic transmission, while the Type-S gets only a six-speed manual. It also has a raft of performance, comfort and styling features as standard equipment -- no options are available for the Type-S, which lists for $23,650, including shipping.

Standard stuff includes firm leather-trimmed bucket seats, a stiffer suspension, an in-dash six-speaker co mpact disc player and some body trim, on top of the regular RSX's already generous list of standard equipment, such as air conditioning, a power glass moonroof, side airbags, four-wheel antilock disc brakes, a very good stereo with a single-disc CD changer, nice 16-inch tires and wheels and power windows, mirrors and locks.

Unlike the departed Integra Type-R, a nervous, high-strung version of the Integra that played exclusively to the serious performance fan, the RSX Type-S is less frantic as a daily driver, though if you are new to Honda's high-revving engines, it takes a retraining of your brain to run the car up to the RPM levels it likes.

The six-speed manual snicks into gear with pleasing precision, which is nice, because you shift the Type-S a lot. The engine does not have a great deal of torque, which is the measure of pulling power from low speeds, so if you regularly drive in stop-and-go traffic, you may prefer the automatic transmission on the regular RSX.

said, the engine is remarkably smooth, with an invigorating but not obtrusive exhaust note as you accelerate. On the road, the Type-S is sure-footed to the point where you'll seek out the most winding roads to work. You pay the penalty of a mildly jarring ride over uneven pavement, but it isn't punishing. Still, if you test-drive a Type-S, find some rough roads and see for yourself, especially if your daily commute contains plenty of potholes. Again, the regular, smoother-riding RSX may be preferable.

Inside, the RSX is snug but not cramped. If you ride in the rear seat, though, you had better be going to an audition for Munchkins in a remake of The Wizard of Oz, or you'll be traveling with your knees under you chin. Luggage space in back is adequate for a long weekend.

The small premium sports coupe is not yet a dying breed, but it is arguably on the endangered species list. Direct competition for the RSX includes the Toyota Celica, the Honda Prelude (which is about to be discontinued), and if you stretch it, maybe the Hyundai Tiburon, Mercury Cougar and Mitsubishi Eclipse. Consumers like the versatility four doors offer, and it's a bit surprising that Acura dropped the sedan.

Will that hurt RSX sales? Yes. But if you don't need easy access to the rear seat, and you value performance and reliability, the RSX is a good choice. The Type-S is just that much better.

Base price: $23,170.

Price as tested: $23,650.

EPA rating: 24 mpg city, 31mpg highway.

Details: Front-engine, front-wheel-drive coupe pow- ered by a 2.0-liter, 200-horsepower four-cylinder engine with a six-speed manual transmission.