I think something subliminal is going on here. Both the '05 Acura RSX and the '04 Mini Cooper "MC40" reviewed below are festooned with that most sinuous, sensuous and serpentine denizen of the alphabet, the letter "S." Despite the fact that the RSX Type-S is all new whereas the Mini Cooper S is a limited-edition model commemorating a 40-year anniversary, both of these cars are compact pocketfuls of funparticularly when a few S-curves are tossed into the equation.
2005 Acura RSX Type-S
The RSX is truly a child of the 21st century. Born in 2001, this sporty hatchback coupe from American Honda (aka Acura) is the worthy successor to both the Honda Prelude and the Acura Integra. For 2005, the RSX has been significantly restyled externally and massaged underhood. The result is a streamlined beaut that harbors performance credentials to tax the limits of most drivers' abilities.
At first appearances, the new RSX Type-S doesn't particularly stand out. Its sultry lines and flowing shapes are too nuanced to startle; and yet the proportions of this two-door coupe are genuinely beautiful. It's as if an elegant space probe were perched atop four wheels that, suitably enough, depict five-pointed stars.
It's important to point out that two versions of the RSX are available for 2005. The standard model, costing from $20,075 to $22,150, boasts 160 horsepower from its 2.0-liter inline-four. The headliner, on the other hand, is the RSX Type-S. Its base price is $23,570, and its output is 210 hp. Those 50 additional horses make all the difference in the world.
For one thing, the Type-S comes equipped exclusively with a six-speed manual transmission (whereas the standard RSX offers either a five-speed manual or a five-speed auto). And although both RSXs incorporate Honda's fascinating i-VTEC, "intelligent" (i.e., computerized) variable valve timing system, only the Type-S spins and spins and spins ever upward to a stratospheric redline of 8,100 rpm.
The result is a Jekyll and Hyde personality. Under, say, 5,000 rpm, the Type-S is polite, even docile; and its rather puny 143 ft.-lbs. of torque scarcely outperforms the 141 ft.-lbs. of the standard RSX. Cross that five-grand rpm threshold, and a driver had better be holding on with both hands. Where the limits of torque leave off, deep-breathing horsepower takes over; and the Type-S veritably rockets forward with a neck-snapping rush all the way to 210 maximum hp at 7,800 rpm.
It's conceivable that some Type-S drivers may never even discover the powerful beast that lurks beyond the instrument panel. By the same token, an experienced aficionado will find a perfect compatibility between six short-shifting gears and thrilling high-rpm acceleration. It's best to drive the Type-S by the earsthat is, by constantly shifting into the fat part of the powerband where the exhaust note trumpets most richly. Then, while pushing the race-derived suspension to its flat-cornering limits, every bend, corner and curve is transformed into a fanfare of delight.
2004 MINI Cooper S "Monte Carlo 40"
I didn't just smile when I first laid eyes upon the Mini Cooper S tarted up in its MC40 livery; I laughed out loud. What a cheeky monkey, after all, to be tweaking the noses of rivals even after 40 years' time.
Back in 1964, a version of the original Mini showed up for the fabled Monte Carlo Rally and dared to muscle into the ranks of Mercedes-Benzes, Citröens, Saabs, Volvos and Fords chasing after glory through the Maritime Alps. A garrulous Ulsterman, Paddy Hopkirk, was bent behind the wheel while colleague Henry Liddon cribbed navigation notes at his side.
Some people call the victory of tiny No. 37 the automotive equivalent of David felling Goliath. I rather prefer envisioning Monty Python blowing a raspberry at all the condescending fops who underestimated the '64 Mini's exorbitant potential. And now, here's this born-again, two-toned Mini garlanded with fog lamps, Monte Carlo Rally decals, 17-in. cross-spoker wheelseven a commemorative plaque bearing Paddy Hopkirk's very signaturemaking a visual pest of itself in the same spirit of mischievous fun.
Whether the MC40 option package is worth its $7,000 price is beside the point. There is, arguably, no other car on the road today that is as much fun to drivepsychologically as much as physicallyas a Mini Cooper.
To be precise, the commemorative MC40 model is based on the Mini Cooper S, which is a supercharged, 168-hp version of the standard-model Mini Cooper making 115 hp. For a base price of $19,899, the Cooper S is some $3,500 more expensive than a mere Cooper, which is still plenty of fun in its own right.
But 53 extra horsepower in a 2,700-lb. coupe is nothing to sneeze at. The very nature of supercharging, which forcibly crams gobs of air and fuel under pressure into the manifold, means that a Cooper S sprints away from a stop. Its 162 ft.-lbs. of torque bests the RSX Type-S by 13 percent, so that instead of uninterrupted high-rpm sweeps through corners with an RSX, the Cooper S tackles the twisties with a distinctive "point-and-squirt" method of picking off each corner one at a time.
A jaunty, sport-tuned suspension combines with a 97-in. wheelbase to give the Mini a swivel-hips handling tendency that is as thrilling on backroads as it is convenient for curbside parking. Moreover, as a city car, the Mini's cargo capacity is almost magical: the paltry 5.3-cu. ft. trunk expands to 24 cubes when the 50/50-split rear seatbacks are flattened.
There's no sense trying to make a case for the Mini MC40's sober practicality, however. This car's a flaunt and a flirt to its very core; so if you can't take a joke, you're at the wrong party.