Buyer Guide: 2002-2006 Acura RSX

Photograph courtesy Acura

In the heady tuner-culture days of the late 1990s, the car to have was the Acura Integra. This little coupe—and, rarely, sedan—was light, had double-wishbone suspension at both ends, and sported a sweetheart of a free-revving B-series engine coupled with a slick-shifting five-speed transmission. 

It wasn’t fast in a straight line—although later Type R Integras could click off sub-7-second zero-to-60 times—but it was quick and engaging to drive in a way that cars hadn’t been for many years. In several magazines’ tests, the Integra stood out as the best-handling front-wheel-drive car ever made. An entire industry grew up supplying parts mainly for the Integra and its less sexy platform mate, the Honda Civic. 

Initially inspired by Japanese-market specials and homegrown engine modifications, tuners quickly turned to the great American pastime of drag racing. Top racers extracted power from the B-series engine out of all proportion to its displacement, and made front-wheel-drive cars that could accelerate faster than anything on either side of the Pacific Ocean. Pretty soon the copycats appeared, and for a while it seemed like every Integra sprouted ridiculous wings, mismatched tires and a loud exhaust—no matter what engine was under the hood.

Against this current, Acura was still trying to be Honda’s luxury brand in the United States. The Integra, with its hyperactive performance and minimalist comforts, didn’t really help that brand positioning. While the car could become quite loaded with its available options, it was still no 3 Series-fighter, and it couldn’t touch the refinement of even its Japanese rivals. By 2000, the name itself was an issue: Honda had started giving other models trendy alphanumeric names like RL and CL, and “Integra” was falling flat.

Enter the 2001 Acura RSX. Ostensibly an Integra replacement, the new car shared the Integra’s standard two-door coupe shape, although it was not available in a sedan body style like the outgoing car. Its overall dimensions weren’t much larger than the Integra’s, but it was several inches taller and much heavier. The trade-off was more interior room and more horsepower in a similar envelope.

While the Acura RSX doesn’t have the most impressive racing pedigree, it does make an incredibly capable and comfortable daily driver. Plus, it’s a modern car that’s currently in the sweet spot of depreciation.

Wait for It

When the Acura RSX debuted, it didn’t exactly travel from zero to enthusiast favorite in a few seconds flat. It took some time for the community to embrace the car, mainly because it had some Integra-sized shoes to fill. 

First impressions? Gone was the much-loved B-series engine used in the Integra, replaced with a new one also found in the Civic: the 2.0-liter K-series engine. This lump was rated at 160 horsepower in base trim—an additional 20 horsepower (and a welcome 20 ft.-lbs. of torque) more than the outgoing Integra. Also missing was the Integra’s much-loved double-wishbone front suspension, replaced with MacPherson struts.

Looking for a solid street car that can handle a track event? Check out the Acura RSX. Like the old Integra, the RSX responds well to modifications. The RSX received a bit more upmarket interior, however. Photographs courtesy Acura

At the launch, reviewers weren’t sure what to make of the RSX. The bare facts were less than impressive, after all: The car was taller, heavier, and had a less sophisticated chassis. The engine was an unknown, and in place of a nameplate with a few years of history was a new, cold moniker: RSX. Throw in the new car’s generic looks, and it’s easy to see why these normally passionate writers were short on enthusiasm.

Luckily for them—and Acura buyers everywhere—when the car actually made it onto dealer lots in July 2001, it was far faster, more refined and better-handling than it seemed on paper. The new engine got big points and made all the right noises—although perhaps a little too much of them, as reviewers docked the car a bit for a high interior noise level.

Overall, though, the car was a success. Base model for base model, the RSX was faster, more refined, more comfortable and more agile than the Integra. The new, heavier chassis was also stiffer in all the important directions, meaning Honda engineers could employ softer spring rates with similar road holding. It had more interior room and an interior design that was light years ahead of its predecessor.

Supreme Tuneage

To comfort buyers saddened by the loss of the hyperactive Integra Type R, the new RSX came in a hotted-up version called the Type-S. In place of the base engine’s 160 horsepower and 9.8:1 compression ratio, a retuned version of the K20 made 200 horsepower at 7600 rpm with a stratospheric 11.0:1 compression ratio.

Thanks to Honda’s iVTEC variable valve timing, both engines were as happy tooling around town as they were winding out on a forgiving back road. The Type-S engine added VTEC to its exhaust cam as well, part of the reason for its extra power. Above around 4000 rpm, the Type-S engine really came alive, and the power came on more gradually than in the old VTEC engines.

Photography credit: David S. Wallens

Photography credit: photosbyjuha.com

Typical for Honda/Acura product planning, the RSX was available in a limited range of styles. No options were offered, but the base RSX could be ordered with a leather interior and an automatic transmission in place of the cloth upholstery and five-speed manual. The Type-S came only one way: with leather, a six-speed manual, and an improved Bose audio system.

Reviews of the Type-S were rather gushing. The only complaints centered around the looks; from behind the wheel, the comments were entirely positive. The car’s transmission deserves special mention: Never had a cable-shifted manual been so precise, so light and so easy to shift. The excellent, thicker steering wheel and faster steering compared to the Integra both got high marks, as did the dash layout and seat comfort. This was an Integra, but all grown up.

A noted absence at launch was a Type R version. Acura planners hinted at an eventual successor to the mighty ITR, but sadly none was ever sold here. What did the base and Type-S RSX lack most? A limited-slip differential and better tires for the Type-S, which wore the same 16-inch Michelins as the base car. In Japan and a few other markets, a Type R was sold, though it kept the Integra nameplate.

Checkout Time

The RSX sold well to the same kinds of customers who bought the Integra, namely young males with high disposable income. It lasted with very few changes until 2006, when the launch of an improved Honda Civic Si with similar power, less weight and a lower MSRP was expected to steal most of the RSX’s sales. The launch of the compact four-door Acura TSX in 2004, which featured a similar drivetrain, also helped to seal the RSX’s fate. Unfortunately, there was no longer room for a two-door youth vehicle in the Acura lineup.

Things to Know

The RSX was a stellar performer and an engaging driver’s car 10 years ago—and it still is today. If you’re looking for a fun car that’s also reliable and inexpensive to own, the RSX should be at the top of your list. There are very few current production cars that can touch its handling feel and overall fun-to-drive quotient, and none within $10,000 of its market price.

Depreciation has only increased its already high bang-for-the-buck factor, but—typical of Honda and Acura products—used RSXs tend to be priced strongly. The fact that the car has a loyal and enthusiastic following adds to its price. Book values for used RSX models range from $6000 or so for a base 2002 to around $12,000 for a low-mileage 2006 Type-S. In our experience, asking (and selling) prices tend to be 10 to 20 percent higher than that, particularly for Type-S models. The most important changes in the RSX were for the 2005 model year, so 2005 and 2006 cars tend to be priced highest.

If we were in the market for an RSX, we’d shop for a 2005 Type-S in mint, unmolested condition, and budget around $11,000 including buying costs. If money is tighter than that, limit your search to the 2002-’04 models to save a few thousand dollars. The performance difference between the pre- and post-2005 Type-S is minimal. The base RSX makes a great daily driver, but it’s lacking the performance that makes the Type-S such an amazing driver’s car.

Other than damage from modifications and abuse from ham-fisted drivers, the RSX has aged gracefully. These were exceptionally well-built cars typical of the Honda/Acura brand, and they have been holding up very well. 

Photograph Courtesy Acura

Engine and Drivetrain

When shopping for an RSX, particularly a Type-S, remember that these cars were—and still are—a favorite of the tuner set. That means many well-meaning owners have modified their cars—sometimes properly, but not always. We recommend limiting your search to unmodified examples, despite how few there are. Bolt-on exhausts and wheels may be okay, but look very carefully at all the exhaust and intake hardware for signs that the parts have been swapped out. “Back to stock” sales were a common occurrence on the RSX boards a few years ago.

As far as modifications go, the RSX is like the Integra before it—the sky is the limit. The car has been an aftermarket darling from the beginning. Most of the low-quality parts have been shaken out of the market, thankfully, but there is still some junk out there. Basic bolt-ons like intake and exhaust will net you a few ponies, but there isn’t a lot of free power hidden in the K20 engine installed in the RSX Type-S. Every bolt-on in the catalog put together would only free up around 10 or 15 horsepower at the wheels.

A few of the pre-2005 Type-S cars (and some of the post-2005s) had problems with the second- and third-gear synchronizers, including grinding and popping out of gear. Most of them have likely been replaced, and as long as the transmission is shifted with skill and precision, it shouldn’t be a problem. Other reported issues are leaky moonroofs and hatch seals, although both are rare and can be fixed easily.

Suspension

“There’s a lot of basic modifications that you can do to the RSX,” says Lawson Mollica of aftermarket electronics supplier AEM. “One of the challenges with the RSX suspension tuning was that it was heavier than the Integra, but these days you can find everything from an excellent street ride to a full track-tuned setup that is competitive in wheel-to-wheel racing.”

The RSX is still competitive in autocross, though, where the Type-S is classified in G Stock and the new STF class. In particular, a well-prepared Type-S should be able to reach the top of the class in any regional STF lineup with the right driver.

The suspension has some difficult-to-fix steering geometry as well as damping and spring issues when deeply lowered. The front suspension has very little travel and very short struts, while the rear suspension can’t be lowered much without binding.

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Comments
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GTwannaB
GTwannaB HalfDork
11/3/20 8:09 p.m.

All reviews at the time were great and every boy racer claims the steering is the worst ever designed. Knowing that the steering is 'unique'... If you are not 16 and only do a mild drop or no drop on a type S, are thes3 still nice to drive? Sway bars, konis, good tires = good to go for fun street car?

red_stapler
red_stapler SuperDork
11/13/20 8:31 a.m.

These are the B13 SE-R of their era.  An outstanding engine forced to live in the worst chassis.

bobzilla
bobzilla MegaDork
11/13/20 8:38 a.m.
red_stapler said:

These are the B13 SE-R of their era.  An outstanding engine forced to live in the worst chassis.

agreed. There's a reason Real Time went back to the Integra for one more year until they TSX came along. The chassis is .... a poor choice. The engine/trans are good. 

RaabTheSaab
RaabTheSaab New Reader
11/13/20 9:06 a.m.

I DD an EM2 civic which is basically the same chassis. Forums (not this one) love to deride the d17 as not being a "real" D-series, but the chassis is way more offensive. And, yes, I've driven Hondas for years. No, I don't think double wishbones are the second coming. Yes, these are a very bad version of a MacStrut.  

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