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Acura Integra GS-R: America, Meet VTEC

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author photo by Aaron Gold November 2016

Variable valve timing is now so common that we take it for granted, just like 4-valve-per-cylinder heads and additions to the "Land Before Time" franchise. Even my 20-year-old Accord wagon has variable valve timing. But there was a time not too long ago when this was exotic technology, and many American car buffs got their first exposure to Honda's VTEC system through the Acura Integra GS-R.

The idea is simple. In a perfect world, the intake valves would snap open at the top of the intake stroke and snap closed when the piston hits bottom. Unfortunately, the technology isn't quite there yet, so we're still stuck with camshafts with rounded lobes. For decades, automakers fitted camshafts that prioritized a smooth idle, and gearheads would swap them out for cams that yielded better high-rpm power, with the resulting lumpy idle that is the mark of a classic muscle car.

Honda was among the first automakers to develop some way of altering the cam timing. Actually, Honda's VTEC system does more than that. It switches to a different cam profile, altering the duration and lift of the valve event. (Later versions of the system rotate the camshaft slightly to vary the timing as well.) By the way, VTEC supposedly stands for Variable Valve Timing and Lift Electronic Control -- which of course it doesn't, but VVTLEC is a terrible acronym. Valve Timing Electronic Control sounds pretty succinct to me, but what do I know about marketing?

Anyway, Japan and Europe got their first VTEC-equipped cars in 1989, but Honda didn't send the system to the U.S. until they introduced the 1991 NSX -- not exactly a mass-market vehicle. VTEC for the masses arrived in the form of the 1992 Acura Integra GS-R.

The GS-R was powered by Honda's B17A1 engine, a 1.7-liter 4-cylinder that developed 160 horsepower. Its specific output of 95 hp per liter was, at the time, the highest of any naturally aspirated engine. The 8,000-rpm redline was certainly worthy of note, but what most people remembered about the car was the way it felt when the VTEC switched to its high-lift profile.

Access was easy: Get the car rolling any way you pleased, then mat the accelerator, and wait for the tachometer to hit 5,500 rpm. But what happened then was (and still is) magic -- the engine note grows deeper and more growly, and the car just takes off. It's a bit like the rush of a turbo building boost, but then again, it's not. While a turbo raises the torque smoothly and gradually, VTEC feels as if you're flipping a switch (which, in the mechanical sense, is pretty much what you're actually doing). The tach races for its 8,000-rpm redline, and if you upshift just before the car hits the limiter, the 5-speed gearbox will return the engine to a point just below the cam changeover, so you can do it all over again.

My first exposure to VTEC was in Britain. The magazine I worked for had a long-term Civic ESi (EX here in the U.S.) with the 125-hp D16Z6 engine. Oddly enough, while the Civic hatch was the college kid's car of choice in the States, it had a reputation in the U.K. as an old lady's car. We used to get readers' opinions on the cars we tested, and I once threw off the results of one such test when a reader opined that our little red Civic was boring. "I'm not supposed to say anything," I said, "but shift at the redline." He did, and his eyes went like saucers. I remember his comment: "I thought this was Grandma's car. Grandma could have a lot of fun in this." (No one could understand why this one guy rated the Civic tops, and I kept my mouth shut.) I came home and started dating a woman who drove a black Civic EX with a manual transmission. My own ride was an automatic Omni, and I was nearly as smitten with the car as I was with her. (Jean, if you're reading this, thanks for always letting me drive.)

I later found myself with two friends who had Integra GS-Rs, both third-generation cars ('94 or '95, if memory serves), both manuals. Both let me drive and encouraged me to do so enthusiastically, and each and every cam changeover was a thrill.

Honda's modus operandi is to wow us with new technology before putting it to work, and it wasn't long before VTEC got down to business. The F22B1 in my '96 Honda Accord is a great example. Its VTEC-E system is designed to economize rather than to thrill, using the same technology to switch between a miserly low-rpm cam profile (one that, as I understand it, barely cracks open one of the two intake valves) and something a bit more normal for higher-load operation. The Accord isn't what I'd call a thrilling ride -- but yes, if you floor the throttle and really tune in your senses, you can feel the changeover.

But Honda wasn't done thrilling us: The '99-'00 Civic Si featured a 160-hp B16A2 engine with mild-and-wild cam profiles even more aggressive than those of the GS-R. It's a move Honda must have regretted, because it took years for them to come out with another Civic Si that anyone thought was even close to being as enjoyable. (In my humble opinion, the 8th- and 9th-generation cars, 2006-2015, are pretty darn good.) Those Civic Sis are still out there, and they're good bargains -- especially compared to the GS-Rs, which demand a pretty penny.

As I said in my opener, variable valve timing and even variable valve lift are common today, but it was the Integra GS-R that gave many their first taste. And oh, how sweet it was. Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to take my Accord for a spin. Any VTEC in a storm, you know.

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