You probably think the best Honda Civic to ever wear the Acura badge was the Integra. After all, the Civic-derived Integra GS-R and Type-R that followed it still rank today as the top front-drive sport compacts ever built. Actually, though, the most interesting Acura Civic (this may get confusing) was not the Integra at all. It was the Acura EL, which later mutated into the Acura CSX Type-S.
Now if you’re American, you’re probably saying: the Acura what?
I am here today to tell you about one of the most intriguing Canadian-only automobiles to ever come out of Japan. While it may not have been as significant as the Integra from a performance standpoint, the EL/CSX was a testament as to how different American and Canadian car-buying trends actually are.
This is a car that did so well from a sales standpoint, that Acura got green-lit to manufacture a high-performance variant, which I drove for you.
It is time, dear American friends, to learn more about the mysterious Acura you never got.
(Full disclosure: the opportunity to drive a 2008 Acura CSX Type-S came from a couple who owns two. I asked them if I could do a feature on their cars, and they gladly accepted. Acura Canada also kindly briefed me on the entire history of the EL/CSX.)
The Acura CSX was exclusive to the Canadian market, sold between 2006 and 2011. It succeeded the Acura EL, also a Canada-only car, which ran from 1997 to 2005.
Very much like the current Acura ILX sold in the U.S., the EL/CSX was a significantly overhauled Honda Civic that was sold at a premium price to fill a new niche within the luxury car market.
Typically, these cars carried over the best of what the Civic had to offer, and in some cases even featured Acura-exclusive components, like leather seats, heated mirrors, improved cabin insulation, larger sway bars and upgraded suspensions for a more refined ride.
As a matter of fact, Acura Canada claims that the very first 1.6 EL, introduced in 1997, had more than 300 alterations over a standard Civic sedan.
The first cars were powered by a naturally aspirated 1.6-liter single overhead cam VTEC engine good for a claimed 127 horsepower and 107 lb-ft of torque. When the second-generation EL was released in 2001, displacement grew to 1.7-liters, with identical horsepower but with a tad more torque.
Eventually, it leveled up to its final form: the CSX Type-S, which debuted in 2007.
Still heavily Civic-sourced, the Type-S borrowed its main mechanical components from the eighth-gen Civic SI. Things like a high-revving 2.0-liter VTEC engine (also known as the K20) good for a claimed 197 horsepower and 139 lb-ft of torque, a six-speed manual gearbox and a helical limited-slip differential all came from that car.
The non-Type-S CSX made do with a less powerful version of that same engine, essentially the same K20 that powered the standard Acura RSX sports coupe.
Unlike a Civic Si, though, the CSX came loaded with more premium features like brake assist, model-exclusive 17-inch wheels, a bilingual navigation system (pour le Québec, eh), an upgraded sound system, thicker glass for improved sound deadening, unique sports leather seats, and an optional, dealer-installed body kit package. Which my tester happened to have.
What started out in life as a marketing exercise for Acura ended up being a solid business case that endured three generations. Not only was the CSX Canada’s best-selling Acura model in its heyday, more than 94,000 EL/CSX’s were shipped during their lifespans. That’s a big number for Canada.
The EL came about at a time when Honda was still reeling from the collapse of Japan’s Bubble Economy, but thankfully it had a huge overseas market to rely on—and a manufacturing base in North America, too. That included a plant in Alliston, Ontario.
Interestingly enough, it arrived at a time when distinguished buying patterns were being observed between the U.S. and Canada. While Americans loved their midsize sedans, i.e., the Accord, the best-selling car in Canada was actually the compact Civic, which was built in Alliston.
This, by the way, was all happening way before SUVs and crossovers were a Big Deal, a time when people were still buying a hell of a lot of cars.
Honda saw opportunity in all of this. What if, instead of importing an expensive Integra sedan to Canada, which wasn’t selling too well in Canada anyway, it sold an upscale Ontario-built Civic under the Acura brand?
This would not only ensure increased profit margins for Acura’s entry-level car, but also allow Honda’s Alliston plant to export some cars to other markets. Meanwhile, the Japanese-built Integra coupe remained within Acura Canada’s portfolio up until 2001.
The cars you see here belong to Kevin and Jessica, a “Honda couple” who own two CSX Type-S-es as daily drivers. While she drives her Acura year-round, he typically drives his S2000 during the warm summer months, as one would.
Because Jessica’s car is the most stock-looking of the duo, I’ll stick to that one. Except for a rear wing taken out of the Mugen aftermarket parts catalog, an exhaust and different foglights, everything else on her CSX is stock from Acura.
Kevin’s, on the other hand, has a bit more in the way of JDM mods tacked onto it, as well as a red Honda badge, a reference to the Honda Civic Type R sedan (also known as the FD2) sold in Japan during that same era.
This is also what makes the Acura CSX a tuning favorite among eighth-gen Civic owners. Because it’s fitted with the same front and rear fascias as the Japan-only Type-R, CSX parts are becoming sought after by American tuners looking for more JDM-looking Civics.
The one and only real disappointment I have with the CSX is that even though it wears different headlights, a different grille, a different bumper, different mirrors and an entirely different rear end than a Civic, it’s still unmistakably... a Civic.
I say this because the first-generation Acura EL did a bang-up job of not looking like its Honda counterpart. It actually had a clean European look to it, resembling something between a Civic and an Accord, which made sense considering how Acura was trying to market these things.
But with the CSX, especially when looked at from the side profile, it’s really hard to call it anything else than a very fancy Honda Civic sedan.
And that’s odd because back then, Acura was dishing out seriously good-looking cars like the RSX, the TLX, the TL and even the RL flagship sedan. The fact that the CSX’s design looks so lazy is a bit disconcerting.
I also have a hard time wrapping my head around the fact that people bought these things over a Mazdaspeed3 or a Volkswagen Golf GTI, which sold for similar money.
If you’re wondering if the CSX drives like a Civic, it does! It’s the same fucking car, guys.
That said, there are substantial differences here which explain how Acura was able to pull this thing off. For starters, the CSX has a much more upscale-feeling interior than any Civic of that generation. One, because it comes with creature comforts you’d expect from an Acura, but also because interior materials are generally of better quality.
Door trims are covered in leather, and so is the center console. The entire dashboard is also wrapped in a softer, more premium-feeling material than the god-awful hard grey plastics the Civic came with.
Then there’s the subtle stuff. Neat touches like the brushed aluminum pedals, leather-wrapped steering wheel with stitching, incredibly comfortable and supportive leather seats, significantly better-sounding audio system, and signature Type-S gauge cluster all contribute to making the CSX feel substantially more upscale.
Yet, the car still retains all the endearing qualities of a Civic. It’s generally comfortable and spacious inside, both front and rear. It’s great on gas when you’re not punching it, and there’s even a decent-sized trunk. Also, that K20 Honda engine will most likely never die, so yes, the Acura CSX Type-S is a fantastic daily driver.
It’s a Civic Si! And is that a bad thing? Not at all.
If anything, the eighth-generation hot Civic was up there among the best of the entire breed, so the CSX Type-S simply inherits all of that. As a matter of fact, driving this thing quickly made me nostalgic for all the good naturally aspirated motors we’ve lost since cars like this all went turbo.
To nobody’s surprise, the most obvious standout feature here is the engine; a masterpiece of a four-cylinder that not only revs eagerly to an 8,000 RPM redline, but that also sounds absolutely magical as its most aggressive cam profile kicks in to provide more power.
Compared to a Civic, the CSX’s cabin is audibly quieter, so VTEC action isn’t as loud as what you’d typically get from a Honda of the same generation. But it’s still sweet music to listen to.
Nothing really happens under the 5,500 RPM threshold, a clear revelation of how far Honda engines have gone thanks to turbocharging. We’re now accustomed to fat torque curves down low. Back during Honda’s naturally aspirated-obsessed days, torque wasn’t exactly part of the vocabulary.
But what a charming little rascal. It’s not just the high-pitched bark from this gem of an engine–braaap–that raises the hairs on your forearms, it’s also the realization that the CSX Type-S is a frankly quick pocket rocket. Especially down a winding back road, where a taut, firm chassis, an impeccably precise steering, one of the best manual gearboxes to have ever been bolted onto an automobile, and a lightweight construction contribute to making this thing fly.
Even with the added weight from all the premium stuff, the CSX feels impressively light-footed, another indication of how big and bloated modern “small” cars have become.
Like that old Honda S600 I drove earlier this summer, there’s a direct, mechanical and solid feel when pushing the CSX to its limits, the kind of driving experience that can only be translated through a big fat grin and a desire to repeat the experience.
Because these things were sold exclusively in Canada, and because there was only one generation of the Type-S variant, I’m genuinely curious if the CSX will one day appreciate in value.
The good news is if you’re interested in its unique and quirky existence, clean examples are actually quite easy to find at affordable prices. A low mileage, unmolested CSX Type-S will hang around the $10,000 mark CAN today, which vaguely translates to $7,500 USD. Good condition ELs never really climb past $7,000.
Beware though of the fake Acura EL/CSX’s, which are Honda Civics with Acura grilles or headlights. We get a lot of those up here.
The Acura CSX Type-S will never go down in history like the NSX or even the Integra. Nor will it really be worth anything substantial on the used car market compared to a Civic Type R or a Prelude SH. It’s not even as much of a legend as the Legend.
But its impact on the automotive industry cannot be denied. Today we’re seeing an ironically popular subcompact premium sedan segment flourish, with cars like the Mercedes-Benz A-Class, Mercedes-Benz CLA, BMW 2 Series, Audi A3 and, well, the Acura ILX. Honda definitely saw a trend coming when it rebadged a Civic 22 years ago. In many ways, the EL/CSX was a pioneer.
Now imagine if Acura pulled the same stunt but with a Civic Type R today? We’d have one hell of an ILX Type-S.
William Clavey is an automotive journalist in Montreal, Canada and contributes to Jalopnik. He runs claveyscorner.com.