Trouble starting Acura RSX, intermittent check engine light

I have a problem that’s driving me nuts! I’ve been noticing that in the past three weeks, my car has had trouble getting started. You can hear the engine working, and sometimes it just takes a little longer to get started. Other times, it starts cranking and it sounds like it’s going to die before it catches on and starts. On top of this, my engine light will turn on occasionally - it will stay on for about a day before it turns off. I’ve checked the gas cap, battery, all the fluids - I took it into a mechanic who thought that there was an air leak but couldn’t find the source of the air leak and recommended that I take it to the dealer. And so I did, but of course when I take it to the dealer it works better than normal and the engine light refuses to turn on. Yesterday (Sunday), the engine light turned on and I rushed it over to the dearler, to have the engine light turn off as soon as I got there. Please help!! I wish there was a way that I could keep the engine light on so that the dealer could see that I’m not being totally ridiculous and making this stuff up.

If the check engine light goes on, a trouble code is stored in the computer for reference regardless of whether the light goes out or not. You will need to pay for a computer diagnosis though to have the code read to see what problem the computer was seeing.

Most codes are saved even after the engine light is off.  Some auto part stores (try Autozone or Advanced Auto Parts) will read the codes for you for free.  Have that done, and I suggest you NOT have it done by the DEALER who is going to charge you far more than any other source. 

Get the actural code (format P0123) and post it back here.  

BTW what year is that Acura?

An independent shop can handle your car as well as a dealer, and do it cheaper, and you even get to talk to a mechanic!
If you haven’t been keeping up with the routine maintenance (changing air and fuel filters, spark plugs, etc.), these are the first things a mechanic will do because they affect engine performance (and mis-performance) so much.

Thanks for everyone’s help! This is really helping and most of all, giving me hope. I will look into getting the code read. So I actually took it to an independent shop before going to the dealer, who knew that there was a problem but was unable to fix it. He thought that it needed more of a specialist to see it. What are the chances, if I take it to another independent shop, that this shop will diagnose my problem if the first person couldn’t? I just ended up losing $100 for the first guy with no problem fixed. He ruled out the obvious problems - battery (which is new), gas cap, etc. The thing is, my car has been having an easier time starting in the past week or so, so when I take it to the dealer, it’s not symptomatic (i.e. the car starts well), but it still doesn’t erase the fact that my engine light turns on and off sporadically, and occasionally at least once a day my car will have trouble starting. I feel pretty safe driving it around town, but am afraid to take it long distances as I travel to a city which is about 100 miles away about once a week. (I’ve been taking my friend’s car lately to do that.)

I will post the code after I get it read.

My Acura RSX is a 2002. I got it in 2001, and it has 95,000 miles on it. I just had the 90,000 mile checkup done less than a month ago, and have been doing my routine maintenance regularly (although my 90,000 one was a few thousand miles late). That was the odd thing was that I had just had this huge maintenance done, and about two weeks later, I’m having problems starting my car and the engine light keeps turning on.

UPDATE: I just called Autozone who said California doesn’t allow them to read codes anymore for check engine lights.

An auto parts store may not be permitted, by law, to scan a car for you; but, that doesn’t mean they can’t lend, or rent, a (scan) tool to you …even instruct you how to use the tool! Politician split even smaller hairs than this all the time.

Buying, and using a scan tool, to get codes, is easy. They’re not expensive, and you just plug it in under the dash. Some Walmarts have them. Think of a scan tool as providing diagnostic information about your car, as EKGs and EEGs (etc) provides information about your body.

I’m not as anti-dealer as some here and think for the type of intermittant problem you are talking about, a dealer may be much more able to resolve it. You did have the timing belt changed didn’t you so maybe have them check that but someone is going to need to determine if the stalling is fuel or spark related. Any chance it is happening when hot outside so that it could be the fuel relay? I just don’t think you are in a position to buy a scan tool and start diagnosing it yourself and I don’t think the guys at Auto zone would be much help.

I just called Autozone who said California doesn’t allow them to read codes anymore for check engine lights.

And this law was passed by elected officials??? Maybe time to elect someone else.

He/she did take it to the dealer; and, the dealer flubbed. Maybe some dealers are better…

Thanks all! This is really enlightening. Ok some more clues: this will probably help. (I guess this is a more complicated problem than I thought, which admittedly, I know nothing about cars.)
So after I first started having the problem, about two weeks after my 90,000 mile maintenance, I noticed that my car was having problems starting. There were no other problems though, but it got progressively worse over the next week or so and I got alarmed when the engine light turned on. So I took it into the independent mechanic that also did my 90,000 mile maintenance. He looked it over, and according to the computer code, saw that there was an air leak (??) (this is a foreign language for me, so bear with me) and he saw that the engine was running lean. Something about it’s adding more gas into the engine because it’s sensing an air leak, and it’s using about 4 times more gas than it should be and compensating for the leak somehow. He thinks this is what’s causing the engine light to turn on and my problems getting it started. But he just wasn’t able to find the source of the leak and fix it. He advised that I take it to the dealer and not mention the air leak, just in case there’s another problem with it, something that he missed, and to have them start from ground zero to pinpoint the source of the problem.

So $100 later, I take it to the dealer, when of course it runs perfectly. My thinking is that the dealer is afraid that there’s nothing wrong with the car and refuses to take it. I can’t convince him otherwise that there is a problem, because it starts up well (again it’s intermittent) and the engine light is never on when I take it there.

What do I do? Insist that the dealer take it and check the history of the check engine light codes? Or take it to another dealer who’ll take it? Or another independent auto mechanic? Is an air leak enough to explain both problems (check engine light, and trouble starting the car)?

Troubleshooting this may be a dealer specific repair. The dealer has (required by the franchise agreement) a specialised scan tool with specialised software which, I don’t think, independent shops have.

It would help us a lot if we had the DTC (Diagnostic Trouble Code), which is the full name of the engine codes. We have our own interpretation sources for them. For example, that “leak” code may be for the EVAP System (Evaporative emissions control system). It may be for DTC P1456, or for DTC P1457 which are EVAP system problem codes. There are Acura Service Bulletins for both: 02-032 for DTC P01457. Dealer mechanics have these bulletins available for reading.

I think I found it! I just found my receipt from the auto mechanic who was unable to fix it. The engine code is P0171 - system lean. LTFT: 17 (normal is 5). STFT: 21 (normal is 5).

Does this explain all my symptoms? What is the recommended course of action - take it to the dealer and tell them what the engine code is and even though it seems to be running fine, please fix? Is there any way I can recreate trouble starting my car on command, at the dealer?