Acura's Integra line has matured into one of the best selections of small sporty coupes and sedans in the business. Throw price/value calculations into the equation and it stands alone.
Acura's Integra lineup features some modest front and rear cosmetic freshening for 1998, but otherwise remains unchanged.
Our test subject was the GS-R Coupe.
Controversial when it was introduced, the styling of the Integra has aged well. It's now a thoroughly familiar design, yet still manages to maintain a contemporary look, thanks largely to those four little projector beam headlamps and that graceful roofline.
The shape echoes the fourth-generation Honda Prelude (1992-1996), which is ironic, because that particular Prelude didn't do very well in the sales derby and the Integra just keeps going and going.
Like previous Integras, the current one shares some hardware with the Honda Civic family, though far less than the first generation. The lineup includes five coupes and three sedans.
The five coupes are: the $16,620 RS, the $19,620 LS, the $21,270 GS, the high-performance $21,720 GS-R, and the limited-edition $25,000 Type R, a 195-horsepower rocket ready for the race track.
The three sedans are : $20,420 LS, $21,820 GS, and $22,020 GS-R.
RS, LS, and GS versions share a 1.8-liter dual overhead cam 16-valve 4-cylinder engine, driving the front wheels through either a five-speed manual or four-speed automatic.
The same basic engine powers GS-R models, but with Honda's VTEC valvetrain and other tweaks it generates 170 horsepower at 7600 rpm, versus 140 horsepower at 6300 rpm for the milder version. The ratios in the GS-R's manual transmission are also a bit closer to optimize the narrower powerband.
With only 2,600 pounds of car to propel, the standard engine delivers decent performance. But we love the urgency--and high-tech sound--of the VTEC version. That's why we chose a GS-R coupe for this evaluation.
Like all Acura and Honda automobiles, the Integras employ Honda's control arm suspension system, with common spring and shock absorber damping rates right across the board. GS and GS-R models get a heavier front antiroll bar, along with more aggressive tires on 15-inch aluminum-alloy wheels.
Like most 2+2 sport coupes, the Integra has plenty of legroom up front, and hardly any in the rear. Sedan versions, with their extra two inches of wheelbase, offer more than 4 inches more rear legroom, which adds up to just enough for a couple of adults--provided they have a little cooperation from the folks up front. Cramming five people into an Integra sedan, however, means that one of them is a miniature to start with or has spent a half hour in a trash compactor prior to embarkation.
Like all Honda cars, the seats are slightly firm, above average in lateral support, nicely adjustable, and well above average in terms of long distance comfort.
Instrumentation is clean, simple, and uncluttered. All controls are well marked and easy to locate without taking your eyes off the road: just reach out to adjust something and it always seems to be right where it should be.
The dashboard is another piece of trademark Honda design. Unlike most dashboards, the top portion falls away from the driver and passenger, which does wonders for forward sightlines. Seeing is the first step in active safety, and Honda ranks with the best for giving drivers a good look at what's going on.
Antilock brakes are standard on all but the basic RS models.
As for passive safety, the Integra inventory is only average: dual airbags up front, with good crash protection built into the unitbody. We expect to see side airbags in the next generation.
Standard comfort/convenience features range from good in the basic RS models, to posh in the GS and GS-R versions. No bare-bones strippers, no loss-leaders here.
Integras are nice to look at and come well equipped, but driving them is where the fun really starts. Nowhere is this more true than with the powerful GS-R.
Our GS-R coupe tester clawed to 60 mph in a little more than 8 seconds, emitting a determined, high-tech snarl in the process. The shifting of the 5-speed gearbox was precise, the foot pedal layout encouraged a process of simultaneous braking and downshifting known to racers as "heel-and-toe," and the variable assist power steering provided just the right blend of effort and road feel.
Handling response was gratifyingly quick and precise, without sacrificing ride quality. That may be one of the reasons for the Integra's ongoing popularity: it is sporty, without being harsh. The suspension compliance that goes with a relatively smooth ride, by sporty car standards, shows up as body roll in really hard cornering, and we know from driving at the limit on various race tracks that the Integra GS-R isn't quite as agile as a Honda Prelude.
But comfort takes precedence here, and it's a choice that's hard to argue with. Your daily rounds probably include a lot more commuting than autocross maneuvers, and feeling every pothole and tar strip isn't really that much fun.
Yet when it's time to let the tachometer wind up on a sinuous country road, the GS-R gives a great account of itself with performance that is superior to what most sport coupes in this size class offer. That it's able to do so without making the owner suffer in everyday driving is a tribute to the suspension engineers.
If you dislike these compromises, there's always the Integra Type R. Add 25 hp to the GS-R package, take away most of the comfort compromises, and you have an almost-race-ready white-on-white screamer that's just born to be wild. Integra Type R's torque peak comes on at 7500 rpm--that's torque, not horsepower--while horsepower, all 195, tops out at a dizzying 8000 rpm. That's a high-revving motor. That output works out to more than 108 horsepower per liter, a power-to-weight ratio no other normally aspirated car can match.
The slightly outrageous Type R is just about the hottest thing going in this class, but it's not for everyone and Acura plans to import only 500 this year. But it is a portent of things to come. Acura is rumored to be planning an R version of every car in its lineup, part of the division's goal of retuning its image from pure luxury to sport-luxury.
In a class of cars that places a premium on fresh styling, the appearance of the current Integra--though still distinctive--has become a bit familiar.
On the other hand, the essential strengths of this line have made it a favorite with a new breed of young, enthusiastic hot-rodders who are modifying compact performance cars--instead of the time-honored approach involving small block Chevy V8s.
This is a remarkable trend, one that has launched magazines and a major aftermarket industry that supplies all sorts of go-fast and appearance goodies.
While hot-rodding may not be your goal, this new phenomenon does say something positive about the Integra. The new custom car types like it as a starting point because the basic styling will look contemporary for a long time. The performance types like it because the basic hardware is exceptionally durable and holds up well to horsepower enhancements. Honda powertrain components don't break very often.
What does this have to do with you? Maybe nothing. But it does suggest that Honda has created something special here.
And with or without the endorsement of the new breed of hot rodders, we still think this is a great buy in a small sporty car. Whether you choose the coupe or the sedan, you're buying value and you're going to have fun.
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