When people kept telling me that my life would change after becoming a father, I had no idea that this is what they meant. But after driving Edmunds' Long-Term VW Beetle and this Super Sonic Blue GS-R on back to back occasions, what do you think were the strongest impressions I came away with? Which vehicle handled better or benefitted from superior ergonomics? How much attention the Beetle garnered or how much I liked the high-revving VTEC effect Acura designed into its sporty coupe? Nope. Despite the fact that each of these cars has a very unique personality, my first thoughts after 24 hours of quality drive time was which vehicle was most conducive to installing and removing a child safety seat!
This from a certified car nut who used to boast about quoting skidpad and 0-60 numbers for anything sold in America. Oh, how the mighty have fallen. Thankfully, I had access to the GS-R for more than 24 hours and a good deal of that time was spent without the company of wife or said child. It was during these solo sprints that I made full use of the Integra's capabilities as more than just a people mover.
While imminently comfortable for two and even liveable for four full-sized adults, the Integra GS-R is first and foremost a driver's car. Think of it as a Japanese BMW 3-series and you won't be far off. Sure it's got fewer cylinders and the wrong set of wheels pulling it around, but if you can't afford the price of entry (or maintenance or insurance) for anything from Bavaria, the GS-R makes an adequate substitute. With a four-wheel double wishbone suspension, front and rear stabilizer bars, and a thick steering wheel that gives excellent feedback about what's going on down below, the Integra is one of the best-handling front-drivers you can buy.
If competent handling was all the GS-R had to offer, it would still be worth considering, even in today's competitive sport compact market. Fortunately, Acura didn't stop there. They went ahead and threw in a bit of NSX just to keep things interesting. This piece of exotica comes in the form of a 1.8-liter inline four that boasts 170 horsepower and 128 foot-pounds of torque. With an 8,000 rpm redline and a second wind that comes on around 6,500 rpm, thanks to VTEC technology, this engine is a credit to Honda's engineering might. I can try to describe it on paper but it really must be experienced first hand to fully appreciate. Zero-to-sixty times run in the low 7s, which means the Integra beats Mercury's new Cougar but trails the turbocharged Eclipse.
Climbing inside the GS-R is a painful reminder of how much most American interiors suck. Why can't GM just take a look at an Integra (or Civic, or 240SX, or Eclipse) gauge cluster and get a clue? It's really not that much of a mystery. The key words are clear, concise, easy to read. No disco lights, no digital crap, just white-on-black gauges with big red needles. 'Nuff said.
Seating, headroom, and overall ergonomics are also typical Honda: straightforward and functional. The shifter is one of the best in the industry with a shape that fits the hand perfectly and a relatively short throw between gears. Speed shifting is a breeze, if you're into that sort of thing (this is based on hearsay, of course, since I'm a responsible automotive journalist who doesn't participate in such behavior).
So what, if any, weaknesses does the GS-R have? Well, since the car has remained almost identical for five years, you can assume that Acura got it almost perfect during the model's last major redesign in '94. Ultimately, however, time and the automotive world wait for no ar and the Integra's appearance is showing its age. Some staffers never liked the current body style to begin with so for them a redesign, or at least an "exterior refinishing," is long overdue. With cars like the new Mercury Cougar clawing into the Integra's potential market, Acura needs to prepare the Integra for life in the 21st century. Unfortunately, we've already been told that no changes are due for the '99 model year, at least none from the factory.
For those interested in updating either the looks or performance of Acura's smallest coupe, the automotive aftermarket is bursting with available parts. Everything from full body kits to bolt-on superchargers can be had through a number of different suppliers. There's even a company in Glendora, California, that will install a complete (and much cooler looking) Japanese front-end on your American GS-R. The name is Speed Trends and you can call them at 626/335-7254. You can also try any search engine on the Web and use the words "Integra" and "performance" to get a list of companies willing to hop-up these cars.
If you're looking for the Ultimate Integra, Acura does make a limited production model called the Type R. It doesn't have the Japanese model's sleek front end, but it does come with an additional 25 horsepower (for a total of 195), a lowered stance, and a more pronounced rear spoiler. Type Rs can be difficult to locate (even for testing purposes) since only a few hundred have been produced over the past two years. But if you want to experience true F1 racing technology in a street car, these road rockets are a steal at less than $24,000.
In the meantime, we'll keep enjoying the GS-R's excellent driving manners in the used '96 model we recently purchased for long-term testing. If you're in the market for a sporty coupe and care little about cutting edge looks but demand a capable, cost-conscious road car, the GS-R is tough to beat.
Oh, and for anyone who cares, it's easier to get a baby seat into the back of a new Beetle because of how the Volkswagen's front seats slide and tilt forward. However, once the baby seat is strapped down, the Integra's front passenger seat can slide further back without contacting the baby seat, allowing the Integra's front passenger more legroom than in the Beetle. (It is sooo depressing that I know this.)