It's a time capsule Inside Line could drive and test. A perfectly preserved 1998 Acura Integra Type R with just 5,400 miles showing on its odometer and new car smell still wafting through its interior. Recently disinterred from somewhere deep in the climate-controlled bowels of American Honda's Torrance, California, headquarters, it's undamaged, unmodified, unmolested and almost flawless. And it's quite likely the nicest Integra Type R left on Earth.
We beat the snot out of it.
By now, virtually all its brother Type Rs have been ruined with stupid modifications, stolen, salvaged and ruined again. But this one is hermetically sealed-in-a-mayonnaise-jar-underneath-Funk-&-Wagnalls-front-porch awesome. Except for the fresh oil in the Type R crankcase, it's pure 1998.
It was an Acura service-training vehicle and, until Acura decided to sell it earlier this year, it was never titled. When it was made available to American Honda employees for purchase, more than 100 of them signed up for the privilege of buying it. Gary Robinson, an old friend and the new head of Acura Public Relations, won the lottery. And then he made the mistake of mentioning his purchase to us over lunch.
Heck, we'd have settled for a whip around the block. But he let us test it and put a couple hundred miles on its barely used odo. And for some contemporary context, we also borrowed a 2010 Honda Civic Si coupe equipped with Honda's "FP" Factory Performance parts.
This isn't a comparison test in the traditional sense simply because comparing a new car to one that's more than a decade old is just plain stupid, but comparisons are inevitable.
All of us who drove an Integra Type R back then (it made it to America in the 1997 model year) still remember it as the best-handling front-drive car ever built. But memories are fuzzy, fungible things created in the crucible of their moments.
The questions are: Has the Type R's moment passed? And just how far has Honda small car performance come since Bill Clinton was smoking cigars in the Oval Office?
We decided to find out.
One Change, Just One
For safety's sake, Inside Line ordered up a new set of tires for the Type R before testing. The car's spooky preservation meant the original Bridgestone Potenza RE010 were still wrapped around the white wheels. That's fine for museum display, but 12-year-old tires dry out and one of our goals was to survive the test.
Unfortunately, Bridgestone doesn't offer the RE010 in the Type R's dinky 195/55R15 size anymore, so Tire Rack recommended the Dunlop Direzza Sport Z1 Star Spec as the closest substitute. Like the RE010, Tire Rack classifies the Z1 Star Spec as an "Extreme Performance Summer" tire and it's both the highest rated tire of its type by Tire Rack customers and the best seller in its category. We asked Tire Rack to shave 3/32nds of tread off the new Dunlops to simulate the break-in miles that we couldn't put on them.
That Tire Rack was able to not only shave the tires but get them to us in just two days is dang near a miracle of logistics.
Old School Done Right
By 21st-century standards, the Integra Type R is hopelessly archaic. Forget the dinky, body-color wheels. Look at how thin those A-pillars are — no airbags in there. That cowl barely comes up to your knees, the steering wheel has dorky horn buttons on its spokes, the radio head unit is pure Pep Boys and the slider-based ventilation controls would look at home in a '48 Ford.
But there are plenty of elements to the Integra design that made us nostalgic. The instrumentation is all in one single, easily scanned pod directly in front of the driver, the front seats mold well to any body, the shifter is perfectly positioned and feels directly connected to the five-speed transmission, and that low cowl means lots of greenhouse glass for better visibility. Yeah, the tall deck spoiler knocks out a bunch of rearward vision, but the Integra otherwise remains a paragon of ergonomic virtue.
And with the Civic Si parked next to it, the Integra looks absolutely tiny. The Integra's 172.4-inch overall length, 101.3-inch wheelbase and 51.9-inch height are all 3.1 inches shorter than the Civic coupe's dimensions. At 66.7 inches wide, it's 2.2 inches slimmer than the Honda. On Inside Line's scales, the Type R weighed in at a svelte 2,598 pounds — 270 pounds less than the Civic Si.
So the Civic Si is a full NFL defensive end — say, Jared Allen of the Vikings — heavier than the Integra.
It had been almost nine years since anyone at Inside Line had driven a stock Integra Type R, but once inside it was love again at first sit. There never have been many cars as closely tailored as the Integra Type R and there are fewer of them now than there were then. Compared to today's thickly insulated tubs, getting into an old Integra is almost like swinging your leg over a motorcycle or mounting a horse. You feel somehow exposed, as if the doors weren't there at all.
Turn the key — and it's a real bare key — and the Type R's hand-massaged 1.8-liter B18C5 engine rocks to life. Sound deadening had been stripped from the Type R to cut weight, and sometimes the engine sounds like it's revving in your lap. Rated at 195 horsepower, it's down a mere two ponies from the 2.0-liter K-series power plant in the Civic Si. And it makes that 195 hp at a wailing 8,000 rpm — 400 rpm short of its redline. This car is unquiet in the best possible way.
Getting to that 8,400 means tipping into the accelerator pedal, and that means reliving the sensation of a real mechanical throttle cable. This isn't a pedal hooked up to a rheostat that's sending a signal to some computer, but rather a thick steel cord that works against a spring on a throttle body. It's an honest difference you feel in your big toe. And it's a sensation we all miss.
More Hard-Core Hardware
There's never been a better front-drive shifter than the Integra Type R's and it's just as good as we had remembered it. The gates are distinct, the effort is light and the shifter movement is instinctive. You mold your hand to the shifter so you can feel all the mechanical bits whirring away in the engine bay through it.
This thing might have a license plate on it, but it has the personality of racecar. And its direct mechanical connection with the driver is made even more special by the abundance of electronically disconnected machines sold today.
The Type R's engine produces virtually no low-end torque. And even at its 7,500 rpm torque peak, it's only making 130 pound-feet of twist. It wasn't built to go drag racing. It was made for the driver who knows how to keep an engine boiling while squirting from corner to corner.
By any measure, the Civic Si's bigger, 197-hp engine is more civilized and better composed than the Type R's. Its idle is less raucous, it builds engine speed with less vibration and it's much quieter at its 8,000-rpm redline than the Type R is at its redline. What they have in common is that distinct moment when the VTEC variable valve timing system kicks in and engine speed gets frantic. Despite the Si's great exhaust note, its engine simply doesn't invite the involvement the Type R's does.
The Type R's steering is taut and the front tires feel sutured to the pavement. Some of this is due to the double-wishbone front suspension that was once every Honda's most distinctive engineering feature. More of it is due to the lightweight wheels and tires and mechanical power steering.
The Civic Si's steering ratio, at 13.62:1, is actually quicker than the Type R's 16.1:1 rack-and-pinion, but it's numbed by the electric power steering system to which it's attached and the heavy 18-inch wheels this car was wearing. It's nonetheless very good. It just pales in comparison to the old Type R.
In fact, on the slalom course the Civic Si bit into the pavement with better initial turn-in than the Type R. That's likely a function of its slightly wider (215/40ZR18) Dunlop SP Sport tires and quicker steering. Both cars have a helical limited-slip differential working for them through the corners. But the Type R's chassis offers more feedback and much better manners.
The Civic Si is fast through the slalom at 69.7 mph with the stability control turned off. The old Integra Type R, however, is absolutely scalding. With no stability control to turn off, it blasted through the slalom at a stunning 71.8 mph. That's just a little bit better than the last Porsche Boxster S we tested and it's more than 3 mph faster than a 2010 Camaro SS. Some exotics and the Corvette ZR1 will beat it through the slalom, but not much else.
More Hard-Core Driving
Throw in 0.92g of stick on the skid pad (the Civic Si only managed 0.88g) and the Type R rises to the very top rank of performance cars. This is the best-handling front-drive car Inside Line has ever tested — it just happens to be 12 years old.
The Integra also outstopped the Civic, despite its tiny 15-inch wheels and tires and much smaller 9.5-inch-diameter front brake rotors (the Civic's measure 11.8 inches). The Type R stopped in an astonishingly short 110 feet from 60 mph; that's 14 feet shorter than the Honda could manage.
The Type R kicked its ass at the drag strip, too. The Integra's 6.8-second 0-60-mph clocking and 14.9 seconds at 95.2 mph quarter-mile performance also handily beat the Civic Si's 7.5-second 0-60 time and 15.4 seconds at 92.5 mph bests. That's almost all due to the extra weight the Civic is lugging around.
Yes, the Integra Type R will buzz annoyingly on the freeway. Naturally the suspension is balanced more for performance than comfort. Of course the Civic Si is an easier car to live with every day in virtually every way. But the Type R is still the performance standard against which all other small cars must be judged.
The Acura of Acuras
There's simply nothing in the current Acura lineup that comes close to being as mechanically engaging as the Integra Type R (or the late, great NSX, for that matter). All-wheel drive, silken V6 engines and computer controls are still poor substitutes for a perfectly tuned chassis, a spellbinding engine and a direct connection between driver and car. When the Integra Type R was new, it was the embodiment of everything we all hoped Acura would be.
If Acura ever decides to go searching for its soul, it's downstairs in Gary Robinson's parking spot.