Acura, a division of Honda, has three distinct car lines to offer: the luxurious Legend, the compact Integra and the sensational NSX. As different as these three vehicles are, there are some common threads that tie them all together.
Regardless of the intended buyer or price, each Acura delivers something extra in the way of performance and handling. Each shows the benefit of thoughtful, innovative engineering and careful design. And each is built to a quality standard that has more to do with pride than price.
The Integra is a prime example of this. Now in its third generation, this small Acura has matured into a car that will serve a variety of purposes, from luxurious mini-limo to spirited playmobile. It offers, at least in its upscale form, almost every amenity a buyer could wish for as standard equipment. It also comes as close as any front-drive Japanese car ever comes to possessing the blend of flair, fun and functionality that is the hallmark of the best European sport coupes. All this for a lower price, too.
But price might be a sticky issue when you're getting down to considering the Integra. Although its $15,000-plus bottom line might not look too awful to someone comparing it - with some justification - to the BMW 3-Series coupes, that's still a lot of money for a car that also shares market space with contenders such as the Ford Probe, Mitsubishi Eclipse/ Eagle Talon and other equally popular driving machines.
Regardless of the impact of the dollar on your final decision, you're going to have a lot of fun testing the Integra - and its competitors, for that matter. To be sure, we had quite a time with our GS-R coupe, which weighed in at just a hair under $21,000.
With the exception of the NSX, Acura does not - and probably never will - have a styling superstar in its stable. But the Integra is both clean and functional from any angle, with flowing lines that rise slightly as they progress from nose to tail. This soft wedge look is fashionable, inoffensive and even quite attractive when enhanced by the add-on rear wing that came with our GS-R tester.
The four projector-beam headlights have aroused some mild controversy. Some look at them as having the characteristics of beady eyes, while others see them as a nice change from the flush-mounted aero-lamps commonly found on the noses of performance coupes. In any case they do an excellent job of lighting the road ahead. (One small footnote here: In snow-and-ice climates, some Integra owners have found that slushy stuff thrown up from the road collects in their cars' headlamp openings.)
The Integra's high rear deck is another source of disagreement, with advocates praising its aerodynamic efficiency and detractors citing its contribution to the car's slightly pudgy appearance. Again, there is a practical consideration: The hatchback coupe actually has a larger trunk than its sedan counterpart.
Model identification is kept to a minimum on the exteriors of the various sedans and coupes. A badge on the rump denotes the specific version (in ascending price order: RS, LS, GS-R), and the GS-R carries the aforementioned rear wing and handsome 15-in. alloy wheels (14-inchers are standard on other models).
Other distinctions, of course, can be found in mechanical specifications.
As with the exterior, the Integra coupe's 4-passenger cabin is a model of functionality and restrained good taste. The front seats are deeply bolstered to hold occupants in place, and each half of the rear seat has an individually folding backrest to allow for one passenger plus long loads such as skis to extend from the trunk. Like all Acura - and Honda - products, the materials used are absolutely first-class.
Leather seats are standard in Special Edition Integras, optional in the GS-R coupes and sedans.
A handsome dashboard holds both an instrument pod - which carries the four necessary dials for speed, rpm, engine temperature and fuel level - and an airbag. Controls for windows, lights and wipers also are well-placed and easy to use.
The buttons for the climate control and audio system are not so convenient, being unduly fussy at a time when interior designers have rediscovered the convenience value of rotary knobs. These are the only complaints one might make about the Integra cabin, and neither system can be faulted for quality of output.
Anyone who appreciates the sound and feel of a small, high-winding powerplant must test an Integra GS-R. From idle right up to its 8100-rpm maximum, this may well be the best 4-cylinder engine in the world. The secret is VTEC, Honda's computer-controlled system for adjusting intake valve lift and duration. The net effect is to provide two engines in one without the complications and drawbacks of turbocharging.
Thanks to VTEC, the GS-R engine operates efficiently at high and low speeds, delivering 170 hp (an amazing figure for a 1.8-liter engine) and excellent fuel economy. Unlike some of Honda's other VTEC applications - notably the one used in the larger Prelude - the GS-R's engine delivers its power seamlessly, with little indication of the point at which VTEC has changed valve timing.
A smooth-shifting 5-speed manual transmission is standard on all Integras and is mandatory with the GS-R's VTEC engine. Buyers wanting the 4-speed automatic transmission can order it in models equipped with the basic 142-hp engine.
As with the engine, the GS-R's chassis is beyond reproach, another perennial strong suit of Honda designs. Flat, stable cornering and crisp steering with ample feedback are the highlights, endowing the Integra with sports-car sharp road manners. The front tires will be the first to cry "enough!" when cornering speeds get too high, a trait that's common to most front-drive cars. At lower speeds the Integra keeps its balance admirably.
Lesser Integras will perform nearly as well, though the RS and LS are not equipped with the GS-r's larger, grippier tires. Brakes are also a plus for the Integra GS-R, being fade-free 4-wheel discs. Anti-lock braking (ABS) is denied to buyers of the base RS model - a good reason for you to pass this model by unless you are on the strictest of budgets.
Driven moderately, the Integra is quite pleasant. Wind and road noise are well-muffled, and we quickly got used to the engine turning at higher speeds during cruising that is common in many small sports coupes. We admit to some preconditioning here: Honda engines have always been music to our test team's ears.
Overall, the ride is more than acceptable (if perhaps firmer than some passengers will like), and the myriad of climate-control buttons will deliver a comfortable temperature in any weather condition.
If you like the Acura Integra, your first decision should be to exclude the RS model from consideration simply because it cannot be had with ABS, an essential component in every modern high-performance car. Then you should choose to skip the midlevel LS in favor of the top-notch GS-R. The price difference between these two coupes is not enough to justify denying yourself access to, and the visceral enjoyment of, a great sporty engine.
Despite our earlier mutterings about price, the Integra does offer a lot of satisfaction for the buck. It will treat rear-seat passengers better than most coupes do, it's quick enough not to need the V6 engine almost universally supplied in this price class, and it has a blend of driver appeal and refinement that will keep more than a few buyers happy with their choice.
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