Still racy after all these years.
by Mitch McCullough
Base Price $19,300
As Tested $22,655
Sport coupes don't come much better than the Acura Integra GS-R. This car makes any driver feel like a hero. It seems to sense what the driver wants and responds accordingly. It's fun to drive and it fills the senses. Open the throttle and the twin-cam growls with authority and revs like there's no tomorrow. The taut suspension helps it slice through corners with precision.
Topping $22,200, the GS-R isn't cheap. But it offers performance and refinement for that price. Arguably, no other coupe combines these two qualities so well. Cars that offer more performance for a similar price do not offer the refinement of the Acura.
Most people don't need the performance of the GS-R, however, and they can save $3,000 by buying the LS Coupe. Integra sedans offer more practicality than the coupes for a similar price and some drivers prefer the handling balance of the sedans.
The lineup includes coupes and sedans in LS, GS and GS-R models.
Three-door coupes include the LS ($19,300), GS ($20,950) and the high-performance GS-R ($22,200). There's also a limited-production club racer coupe called the Type R ($24,350). The base RS model is no longer available.
Four-door sedans include the LS ($20,100), GS ($21,500), and GS-R ($22,500).
LS comes fully loaded. GS just adds leather trim. LS, and GS trim levels share a 1.8-liter dual overhead-cam 16-valve four-cylinder engine rated at 140 horsepower. It comes with a choice of five-speed manual or four-speed automatic ($800) transmission.
GS-R models get 170-horsepower VTEC versions of the same engine. The GS-R is available only with a special close-ratio five-speed manual gearbox that optimizes the narrower powerband.
Stripped down and near race ready, the Type R comes with a modified engine tuned to rev to 8,000 rpm for 195 horsepower, along with big brakes, a special close-ratio gearbox and a helical limited-slip differential.
Controversial when it was introduced, the Integra is now a familiar sight. Its design has aged well. Those four small projector beams and that graceful roofline still look quite contemporary.
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 2 inches of wheelbase, offer more than 4 inches more rear legroom; that's 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 is not comfortable or practical.
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.
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.
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. Antilock brakes are standard on all models.
The Integra steers crisply and always feels connected to the road. 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 wonderful VTEC engine. That's why we chose a GS-R for this evaluation.
The GS-R claws to 60 mph in a little more than 8 seconds, emitting a determined, high-tech snarl in the process. The 5-speed gearbox shifts precisely. The foot pedal layout encourages heel-and-toe downshifting and the variable assist power steering provided just the right blend of effort and road feel.
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.
Handling response is quick and precise. Yet the ride quality is comforable. 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.
On a race track the Integra tends toward understeer, but this is easily managed by lifting off the throttle or trail-braking into tight corners to transfer grip to the front tires and rotate the rear. Body roll limits cornering potential to just below that of the Honda Prelude. The payoff for this concession is superb ride quality. The suspension feels firm, but never jarring. The steering strikes an ideal balance between power assist and sufficient road feel. 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.
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.
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. Don't expect to see a lot of coverage in the enthusiast magazines about the Integra because there's little news here and a new design is around the corner. But rest assured, the Acura Integra GS-R is still one great sports coupe.
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