Past the "Best if Used By" Date, But Still (Quite) Good
Brent Romans, Senior Automotive Editor
A completely redesigned Integra is scheduled to arrive in 2002. Rumor has it that the new car will have more horsepower than the current car, but it will also move upscale in both image and price. Even the "Integra" name is supposed to be dropped and replaced with some sort of alpha-numeric code that will match Acura's other vehicle names like RL, TL, MDX and NSX. This poses an interesting question: What will happen to the Integra Type R?
Available in limited production runs since 1997 (with the exception of 1999, when none were imported), the Type R is a high-performance version of the Integra GS-R. With special performance parts and factory-backed tuning, it is meant to be the supreme front-drive sport coupe. But just like the recent delayed introductions of the BMW M3 and the Audi S4, it is rare for an automaker to introduce a high-performance version of a new car until a couple of years have passed (doing so is a good way of maintaining public interest). Honda itself demonstrated this tactic by not offering a Civic Si version of the new 2001 Civic. Based on those assumptions, we're going to predict that a Type R version of the 2002 Integra won't show until perhaps 2003 or 2004.
Since we had never evaluated an Integra Type R before, getting one for a full road test seemed prudent. We were also interested in seeing how well the overall Integra platform is holding up. After all, the current car was introduced in 1994 and is, frankly, getting a tad bit moldy. An entire generation of Honda Civics (the '96-'00 sixth-generation platform) has come and gone during the Integra's lifespan. In automotive terms, the Integra is the crotchety old man sitting on his porch, yelling at the young whippersnappers to get out of his yard, and recalling stories about the glory days to anybody who will listen.
At least with the Type R modifications, the old man gets to hold a semi-automatic M-16. The 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine is equipped with variable valve timing (Honda's VTEC system) and produces 195 horsepower at 8,000 rpm and 130 foot-pounds of torque at 7,500 rpm. This is 55 more horsepower than the 1.8-liter engine used in the Integra LS and 25 more than the Integra GS-R. To achieve the extra power, Acura equips the Type R engine with a larger diameter exhaust system, a freer-flowing air intake, an extensively modified cylinder head with hand-polished intake and exhaust ports, and special pistons and connecting rods. An aluminum oil cooler is added to maximize heat dissipation and thermal efficiency.
The Type R's extra power is routed through a special five-speed transmission with shorter gear ratios and a limited-slip differential. It arrives at unique 15-inch wheels shod with exclusive Bridgestone Potenza 195/55VR15 RE010 performance tires. The Type R's suspension is a four-wheel double-wishbone design like other Integras, but it does feature stiffer springs, shocks and bushings, as well as a larger diameter rear antiroll bar and additional body stiffening pieces. Both the front and rear brakes feature larger diameter rotors and bigger calipers. A refined ABS system is used, and it weighs 12.3 pounds lighter than the one used in the GS-R.
Sounds pretty impressive, doesn't it? Yes, it does. But given a choice to either stay at home in a comfy chair reading the Type R's press kit or drive the Type R around in Los Angeles rush-hour traffic, most of our staff would choose the couch potato route. The engine's VTEC activation point happens at 5,700 rpm (versus the GS-R's 4,400 rpm), meaning that the tachometer's needle needs to be pointing north to achieve any serious forward thrust in city traffic. Keep the engine revs high, and people stare at you with faces that read, "What are you, a moron? You're gonna blow up your engine doin' that."
The stiff suspension adds further damaging testimony to the Type R's lack of urban versatility. It makes little effort to soak up bumps, potholes and other pavement gremlins. In addition, Acura has removed all of the sound-deadening material (for reduced weight) from a car that wasn't very quiet to begin with. As such, this is a rather boisterous little car. On the freeway going 75 mph, the engine bleats out a monotonous "baaaaaaaaaaaaaa" as it spins at 4,100 rpm. There isn't even cruise control, a casualty of the weight loss program. If you like pain, take a Type R on a three-week highway tour of Nebraska, Oklahoma and Kansas searching for the world's biggest ear of corn.
Based on these first impressions, it would be fairly easy to drive the Type R around town for a couple days, dismiss it as generally unpleasant, and be on your way. The Type R's unique rear wing, chin spoiler and wheels do little to improve the Integra's dated exterior looks. The rear wing is actually a constant annoyance because it bisects the driver's view out the rearview mirror. Inside, there's carbon fiber trim, sport seats, special floormats and a metal shift knob, but they can't hide the fact that the somber interior lacks flair (something that the Toyota Celica has) and smart design (something that the Ford Focus ZX3 has).
But taken to deserted canyon roads and let loose, the Integra Type R's personality suddenly changes. Like a shy geek who unexpectedly opens up because he gets to talk about computers, all of the Type R's performance parts stand up and speak clearly about their real purpose. Strafing through corners, the suspension keeps the car's body motions completely under control. The effect of pavement undulations, road camber and weight transfer are communicated directly to the driver through the chassis. You can feel the suspension working, the wheels and tires moving up and down to maximize grip. This car rarely seems like it is front-drive, the limited-slip differential and spot-on suspension tuning working to provide neutral handling in almost all situations.
Drive the Type R like you hate it. Rev the engine to the wee of its life. The exhaust note blooms with hard-edged fury that like the S2000's sonorous wail is about as close to a sport bike's as you'll find in a production car. The Type R wants you, no, practically begs you, to run up to the 8,400 rpm redline. Obey it, and the close-ratio gearing keeps the engine in VTEC mode and allows access to all 195 horses. Keep driving like a madman, working the shifter like the action on a rifle bolt, and the Type R gobbles up curvy pavement like The Flash late for a doctor's appointment. Remember those sport seats you didn't like in the city because they didn't adjust for height or tilt? Now they pay unexpected dividends, gripping your body and keeping you clamped down. The brakes bleed speed effortlessly and are easy to manipulate at the limit of traction. Only the steering lets the Type R down, its precision hampered by heaviness in the wheel and a lack of overall feel.
Whereas other front-drive sport coupes seem peppy and sporty on the street but quickly become a wet noodle dynamically when they are pushed to their limits, the Type R is almost the opposite. It becomes better the harder you drive it. Proof comes from real racing. In SCCA Pro Racing's Speedvision World Challenge race series, race-modified Type R's have won the Touring Car championship every single year since the car's '97 debut. They dominated the 1998 and 1999 race seasons, taking the first, second and third slots in the final standings.
Eventually, though, the curvy pavement ends, and it's back to the real world. This isn't to say that the Type R can't be used as a street machine. It certainly can, as all of the previous-year Type R owners can attest to. But the car that it's based off, the regular Integra, is simply getting old. The Celica GT-S and Prelude Type SH, in particular, make better all-around daily drivers that must do everything not just chew bubblegum and occasionally play on two-lane blacktop.
Consider this, though: Even after the debut of the Celica GT-S, the Mitsubishi Eclipse GT, the Mercury Cougar V6 and the GTI GLX, the Integra Type R is still the fastest and most capable front-drive sport coupe you can buy. That's something special, and we think it will continue to be something special 20 years from now. No matter what happens with the new Integra (or whatever Acura will call it), the '97-'01 Integra Type R will be a classic.
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