Alongside the B-series, the Honda K-series is one of the most well-known engine series to come out of Japan. The K-series is a continuation of Honda’s 4-cylinder, low displacement, high revving, DOHC, VTEC formula established with the B-series. Through learned development, the K-Series boasts significant advantages over the B-series, including larger displacement and higher-flow cylinder heads. At this point, the K-series has been in production for over 20 years, which stands as a testament to its timeless design.
The crowned jewels of the K-series lineup are the K20A, found in the JDM Civic Type-R and Integra Type-R, and the K20A2 most commonly found in the USDM Acura RSX Type-S. However, the demand for those K20 variants has also made them more expensive and harder to find. That’s where the K20A3 comes into play. While it might not be the most powerful or feature the best internal components, the K20A3 is still a solid foundation for your Honda build.
In this guide, we’ll cover the K20A3, including its specifications, performance capabilities, common modifications, and reliability. At the end of the day, the K20A3 is still a K-series engine. While it might not be the number one choice for those in the tuning community, it is still a strong engine with tons of potential.
Honda K20A3 Engine Specifications
|Engine||Honda K20A3 Engine|
|Displacement||1,996 cc (121.8 cu in)|
|Bore x Stroke||86.0mm x 86mm|
|Weight||Long Block ≈ 275lbs|
|Torque (lb-ft)||142 lb-ft|
As you can see from the above figures, the K20A3 has decent N/A power and torque figures for a 2.0L 4-cylinder engine. Its 80hp/L output goes to show that it is a very efficient engine, making a workable amount of power with very little. The A3 features all-aluminum construction similar to the rest of the K-series lineup. In fact, the K20A3 is similar in design to most of the other engines in the K20 family.
Since the K20A3 and K20A2 have very similar engine architecture, many of the parts from the higher-performance A2 can be swapped into the A3. We’ll go into this further in the following sections.
Honda K20A3 vs K20A2 Differences
While the K20A3 and K20A2 have a lot more similarities than differences, they differ in a few key ways. The primary differences between the two are their pistons, camshafts, crankshafts, and valve springs. It is unquestionably possible to build a K20A3 to produce comparable horsepower to a tuned K20A2, it’s just a bit harder.
Since the K20A2 has higher compression pistons, the true “performance” version of iVTEC, a balanced crankshaft, and dual valve springs, it can withstand much higher rpm than the K20A3. Since a lot of Honda fans prefer the high-revving aspect of the K-series, the K20A3’s lower redline turns some people off. Despite having a lower redline, the A3 maintains the same amount of torque and has arguably better torque characteristics than the A2.
K20A3 vs K20A2 Compression
One of the differences between the K20A3 vs K20A2 that makes the biggest performance difference is the A3’s lower compression ratio. The A2 features higher compression pistons, which bumps compression to 11.0:1 over the A3’s compression ratio of 9.8:1. Among other factors, the A2’s higher compression ratio gives it a higher specific output than the A3 at 100hp/L.
With that being said, there are some benefits to the K20A3’s lower compression. In terms of naturally aspirated applications, higher compression is generally preferred. Higher compression allows for an engine to extract more energy from the combustion process due to better thermal efficiency. However, lower compression is generally preferred for forced induction.
Since the K20A3 has a significantly lower compression ratio than the A2, members of the Honda community often say that it is better and safer to boost.
K20A3 vs K20A2 VTEC Differences
The K20A3 also features a different iVTEC system than the K20A2 which is designed for efficiency, not performance. The K20A3’s iVTEC-E system only has VTEC on the intake side of the valvetrain. In fact, the K20A3’s VTEC-E system lacks high-RPM cam profiles entirely. Instead, the VTEC-E system effectively forces the K20A3 to act as a 12-valve engine, not allowing one of the intake valves to open entirely until a set RPM is reached.
In comparison, the K20A2 uses an i-VTEC system that closely resembles earlier DOHC VTEC systems found on B-series engines. The K20A2 features three intake cam lobes. Two outer lobes are the K20A2’s low-RPM profiles which optimize low-RPM performance and fuel efficiency. A central lobe is the high-RPM race cam profile which initiates at 5,800 RPM and optimizes high-RPM power and performance. Additionally, the K20A2 utilizes a VTC mechanism which is a gear on the end of the intake cam that adjusts intake and exhaust timing overlap automatically.
The result of the difference in VTEC systems between the two engines is felt in high-RPM driving. The K20A2 will deliver the classic VTEC “pinned to your seat” boost of power at high RPMs. While you’ll feel a difference in performance at 5,000 rpm in the K20A3, it won’t be as noticeable.
Stock Honda K20A3 Engine Performance
Out of the box, the K20A3 is a modest engine that maximizes reliability and fuel economy. With that being said, it’s efficiency was unparalleled at the time in terms of its raw output per liter. For comparison, the EJ254 2.5L 4-cylinder that powered the third generation Subaru Legacy only produced 5 more horsepower despite having 0.5L more displacement.
In addition to being efficient, the K20A3 is also light. In practical terms, that helped in terms of the power to weight ratios of the vehicle equipped with the K20A3. For example, the 2002 Honda Civic which utilized the A3 has a weight-to-power ratio of 15.0lbs/hp. That beats the 17.4lbs/hp weight to power ratio of the notoriously light Nissan 240SX.
An important aspect of the stock K20A3 is where it makes peak torque. Since the A3 doesn’t have the ability to rev as high as the A2, torque comes on at a lower rpm than with the A2. The K20A3 produces peak torque (142 lb-ft) at 4,000 rpm, which is 2,000 rpm lower than the K20A3’s peak torque production (142 lb-ft) at 6,000 rpm. So, while the K20A3 won’t provide the same iVTEC kick-in-the-head sensation as the A2, the earlier onset of torque is a plus.
Honda K20A3 Engine Upgrades
All of the engines in the Honda K-series are known for their unparalleled reliability. In fact, if you are shooting for a “mild” horsepower figure from your K20A3 (250-300whp), most K-series enthusiasts will tell you that you won’t have to crack open the engine at all.
The most common high-horsepower modification for the K20A3 is a turbocharger kit. In stock form, the K20A3 is the perfect candidate for forced induction. With that being said, higher boost loads will require internal upgrades. Since the K20A3 has a comparably low compression ratio, it requires less modification than a K20A2 to make reliable boost.
In general, most people consider the K20A3’s stock internal hardware pretty solid. While the A3’s internal components are strong, figures beyond 300whp will require some internal work. In addition, since the K20A2 and A3 share a very similar base construction, it is very common in the Honda community to swap higher-performance parts from the A2 into an A3 block.
While there is far more information floating around about high horsepower KA20A3 turbo builds, there is also a good number of people who aim for high KA20A3 horsepower while remaining naturally aspirated. With that being said, forced induction is far more cost-effective when aiming for high power figures.
K20A3 Head Swap
One of the most common ways to get a bit more power out of a K20A3 is by swapping a K20A2 head onto an A3 block. The A2 head is a direct fit on the A3 block. The addition of a K20A2 head solves most of the primary pitfalls of the K20A3. The most significant change is the addition of the performance version of iVTEC thanks to the K20A2’s valvetrain. The swap will also allow your A3 to rev as high as an A2 with a proper tune.
Some of the most common auxiliary parts for the swap include an OBX or Private Label race header, any 2.5″ ID exhaust, RSX Type S CAI (any brand), a Maxbore throttle body, RBC or RRC intake manifold, and a Z3 intake cam and Z1 exhaust cam (if you want to stay OEM).
Additionally, upgrading to a KPro engine management system is highly recommended. This will allow you to bump the rev-limiter so that you don’t fall out of iVTEC between shifts.
Honda K20A3 Engine Turbo
Forced induction is a very popular modification on the Honda K-series and the K20A3 in particular. A lot of Civic and RSX owners opt to turbocharge their cars with a prepackaged turbo kit that comes with all of the necessary components. As we stated earlier, the K20A3 is an extremely resilient engine that can handle over 100+ more horsepower than stock with no significant internal upgrades.
Despite its overall strength, many experienced K20A3 turbo enthusiasts still advocate for reinforcing the K20A3’s bottom end, upgrading the fueling system, replacing the timing chain assembly, refreshing the valve springs, and upgrading the factory head gasket. These precautions further bolster a 300-350 turbocharged K20A3 against high internal forces introduced by forced induction.
Once you reach the 350-400 horsepower, more extensive modifications are required. At this point, it is a good idea to have a machine shop resurface the cylinder head, the block, and bore 0.25mm over. This is also the point where you’ll need to upgrade to forged internals. A new crankshaft, forged rods, and OEM rod & main bearings should all be considered at that point.
The 400-horsepower threshold is also when you should consider sleeving your K20A3’s block. This will reduce the amount of internal wear that your K20A3 experiences and act as an additional level of reinforcement.
An upgraded fueling system is also necessary for high horsepower K20A3 builds. The primary components that should be upgraded include the factory fuel pump, injectors, fuel lines, and fuel rail. For 400+ horsepower, you’ll need a AEM 340lph fuel pump (minimum), 1000cc injectors, -8AN supply fuel lines, -6AN return fuel lines, and a high flow fuel rail.
Honda K20A3 Engine Turbo Supporting Modifications
An upgraded engine management system is a requirement for turboing a K20A3. Most enthusiasts in the Honda community swear by the KPro ECU. This will allow you to adjust cam angle, ignition timing, fueling, and multiple other key aspects of the engine performance.
Since all Honda’s equipped with the KA20A3 from the factory are front-wheel drive, it is important to consider how you’ll be putting the power down. Most enthusiasts with high-horsepower turbo KA20A3 Hondas will agree that it is difficult to transfer beyond 350 horsepower to the pavement. The extra power will also unquestionably cause more strain to a number of different parts that would benefit from an upgrade.
While it is generally stated that the RSX and Civic factory axles are capable of withstanding upwards of 500 hp, power levels beyond that can cause axle warp. Traction bars are a potential solution to bolster the axles against the frame while also preventing wheel hop. For K20A3 drag builds, sticky and wide tires are a necessity. Without them, you’ll spin all of your power away.
With a higher horsepower figure comes more strain on the transmission. The factory-equipped 5-speed found in the RSX and Civic is a good transmission but should be upgraded with the introduction of high boost. One of the most commonly cited transmission upgrades for the K20A3 is an upgraded clutch. At high horsepower ranges clutch slip is common.
Most Common Honda K20A3 Engine Problems
A few common problems with the Honda K20A3 engine include:
- Front Main Crankshaft Seal Oil Leak
- Exhaust Cam Lobe Galling
- Excessive Engine Vibration
Throughout the rest of this article, we will discuss the above K20A3 inline-4 engine problems. It’s important to add a few quick notes, though. These are a few of the most common issues, which doesn’t necessarily mean they’re common in the true sense of the definition. Instead, when things do go wrong these are a few of the most common issues.
The Honda K20A3 engine does deliver very good reliability overall. That is especially true for a K20A2 that hasn’t been modified. That said, the K20A3 is a 20+ year old engine. Reliability isn’t just about mileage, age and proper maintenance are important factors too. Ultimately, keep that in mind since older engines can require a bit more TLC and repairs.
1) K20A3 Front Main Seal Oil Leak
Over time, K20 front main seals go bad and begin leaking oil from the timing chain cover area. It’s typically not something that instantly turns into a drastic leak. Rather, the rubber seal develops small cracks that allow minor drips of oil to leak. Left alone the leak will gradually get worse. K20 main seal oil leaks typically manifest near the 120,000 mile mark. Some last the life of the engine while others may be less lucky and experience K20 seal leaks earlier than 100,000 miles. Age and poor oil change history may cause problems to pop up sooner.
Visible leaks are the most obvious symptom and typically the only noticeable one. Again, the K20 front main seal lies behind the timing cover so look for signs of leaks in that area. If the leak is bad enough you may notice you’re topping off on oil more often than normal. Though, you’ll likely notice drops of oil on the ground before it gets that bad.
Luckily, a K20A3 front main seal leak is relatively easy and cheap to repair, especially if you have some DIY experience. The seal itself only costs around $10-40. For the non-DIY crowd, the damage to your wallet still isn’t too bad. Of course, labor costs vary across the world and some of it depends on your year and model Honda or Acura. That said, $200-400 is a reasonable estimate for front main seal replacement at a repair shop.
2) K20A3 Exhaust Camshaft Lobe Galling / Pitting
While camshaft lobe galling is more common on the K20A3 than it is on multiple other K20 variants. Camshafts, also known as cams, sit in the cylinder head and are tasked with opening and closing the K20 intake and exhaust valves. The cam lobes are responsible for controlling intake and exhaust valve lift. Due to their frequent actuation and rotation, they tend to wear or pit over time. Cam lobe galling typically occurs after 100,000 miles, but can occur earlier due to poor engine oil maintenance or using oil that is too thin.
The symptoms are pretty minor, so it’s possible K20’s are driving around without even knowing they have an issue. Loss of power usually occurs gradually as this isn’t a problem that pops out of nowhere. Rather, power is loss occurs over time as the excess friction continues to wear down the K20’s lobes. The most noticeable symptom is likely a clicking/tapping noise from the valve cover area. You can actually hear the noises from the friction if it’s bad enough.
Galling normally requires the K20 exhaust camshaft be replaced entirely. The repair is pretty labor-intensive so it’s one of the pricier repairs out of the common K20 issues. Honda K20 exhaust cams can typically be had for a couple hundred dollars. Not too bad for the DIY crew. If you end up at a repair shop with these issues expect to pay somewhere around $800-1300. It’s on the pricey side, but fortunately, that’s about as bad as it gets for the K20.
3) Honda K20A3 Excessive Engine Vibrations
There are a few basic maintenance items that can cause K20 engine vibration and rough running. Consider the basics first like spark plugs, ignition coils, dirty throttle body, etc. If none of the basics are responsible for the vibrations then motor mounts should be one of the top items on the check list. This likely isn’t fair to consider as a problem.
Engine mounts are responsible for carrying the weight of the engine and partially absorbing bumps, corners, etc. K20 engine mounts are more of a standard maintenance item. They’re parts that wear down over time. However, engine mounts are common culprits of engine vibrations that may be over-looked.
The K20 mounts are pretty inexpensive and can usually be found under $100 for both. You’ll need the right tools for the job, but it’s a pretty basic DIY otherwise. At repair shops expect to pay somewhere in the ballpark of $200-400 for replacement.
Honda K20A3 Engine Summary
It is unquestionably that the Honda K-series is one of the most impressive 4-cylinder platforms ever made. Its high efficiency, strong construction, and high modifiability make it the engine of choice for countless tuners and enthusiasts around the world.
While the K20A3 isn’t as highly sought after as the K20A or K20A2, it is still a great platform to work with. The main limiting characteristics of the K20A3 are its use of Honda’s economy-focused version of i-VTEC and its lower overall redline. Despite those shortcomings, the K20A3 features a lower compression ratio than the A2, making it slightly better for forced induction. The A3’s torque curve also peaks sooner than the A2, giving it a bit more punch lower in the rev range.
Due to the fact that the K20A2 and K20A3 feature so many interchangeable parts, it is relatively easy and cost-effective to head swap an A3. By using a K20A2 head on a K20A3 block, you’ll get all the benefits of performance i-VTEC and a higher redline.