Car reviews - Honda - Integra - 3-dr hatch
Massive technical improvements, styling inside and out, strikes a nice balance between sportster and cruiser
Room for improvement
Rough road ride, engine power not as broad as we would like, cave-like interior, which seats only four
14 Feb 2002
By BRUCE NEWTON
THINK of Honda's Integra and what springs to mind? Mile-high revs, limpet-like grip and surfboard wings and spoilers. Right?
That's the Integra Type R of course, the raw and focussed sports car that turned the Honda coupe's image from mild to wild child when introduced late in the lifecycle of the previous generation.
Of course, nowadays there's a debate about whether the new generation "R" introduced in August 2001 is as wild as it was or could be. Hardcore fans point to the more aggressive set-up of the Japanese spec car, with more power and bigger brakes and wheels.
While that debate rages on, the base model Integra - now just called Integra and dropping the GSi moniker - has quietly benefited from the shift in generation.
And that seems to have been recognised by the buying public. Up until the model changeover, the "R" accounted for 55 per cent of Integra sales. Nowadays the pendulum has well and truly swung. Nearly 60 per cent of Integras heading out of the showroom door these days are the base model.
A lot of that has got to be because the Integra has undoubtedly benefited in the transition to the new generation while not everyone draws the same conclusion about the R.
Vital mechanical changes included boosted engine capacity from 1834cc to 1998cc, which also brings with it a substantial jump in engine power from 101kW to 118kW and torque from 172Nm to 191Nm.
While the fundamental engine design and layout stays the same - inline four-cylinder with double overhead camshafts sitting transversely and driving the front wheels - the new engine features the i-VTEC system, which combines Honda's famous two-stage valve timing technology with VTC - Variable Timing Control - that continually adjust camshaft phasing to provide more linear engine performance throughout the rev range.
Not only does it boost performance, but Honda also claims an improvement in fuel consumption over the old car - now set at 8.0l/100km on the city cycle and 5.0l/100 on the highway. That's when equipped with the new five-speed manual gearbox, while the only change if you've chosen the sequential five-speed auto is an extra 0.2l/100km on the highway cycle.
The other key bit of technology is LEV (Low Emission Vehicle), which means the Integra is as green as it is keen. That's achieved by positioning the catalytic converter closer to the engine and a new e-shaped dual exhaust manifold.
The new engine is surrounded by a body that Honda claims is no less than 116 per cent more torsionally rigid and 35 per cent improved in terms of bending rigidity. That's achieved despite only a 14kg increase in kerb weight over its eight-year old predecessor and a slight increase in length, width and height.
Honda has also eschewed its traditional double wishbone front suspension, replacing it with MacPherson struts - dubbed "Control-Link" because it includes an additional link to control toe angle. A compact double wishbone rear suspension is retained at the rear.
Get your head out of the specs chart and have a look at the new Integra and you will find a car that is very attractive from certain angles - perhaps better than the R as it does without the huge rear wing, which seems quite a crude addition.
The shape is classic delta or wedge and can seem quite tall and slabby from certain perspectives. But there is a purpose with styling themes like the head and tail-light cut-outs giving it character.
Inside, it's even more impressive with a neat and attractive execution of the driver's cockpit. A grippy little steering wheel, body-snuggling sports seats, deeply podded instruments with silver backgrounds, red needles and numerals, and a silver and dark rubber theme that extends from the doors across the instrument pod to the dash and probably looks better than it sounds.
Another lovely piece of design is the circular air vents. There are four spread across the dash that can be rotated and pushed in any direction. And they look great too.
Interior criticisms? Well, it's all pretty dark apart from the imitation plastic and the two rear passengers - this is strictly a four-seater - sit pretty far down in a dark hole. That's no good for kids, who will struggle to see out. Access to the luggage area is also restricted thanks to very high lip and pronounced wheelarch intrusions.
Then there's the standard equipment list. For around $40,000 you get the normal power operations, dual airbags, anti-lock brakes, three-point seatbelts all-round, climate control air-con, single-slot CD audio, remote central locking, security alarm and alloy wheels (16-inch as opposed to 15s on the old car).
But there's no reach adjust on the steering, no cruise control and no trip computer. There's also no sign of driver aids like traction control, EBD or DSC - to name a few.
Which is no real surprise, because out on the open road while the Integra unsurprisingly lacks the ultimate sharpness of the R, it is still an enjoyable and malleable drive as a sports car.
While hardly a rocket down low, the engine shows real strength at high revs like 6000rpm and above - peak power kicks in at 6500rpm. It also combines sweetly with the auto we sampled, which would have to be one of the best units of its type going around. That's handy considering you're often manually changing down to hunt for more revs and more urge.
The steering is light, entertaining and fairly neutral with good feel and there's no doubting the effectiveness of the brakes while the ABS system copes okay rather than well with Australia's dirt roads. It's also noticeable just how chuckable and predictable on dirt this car is - a sign of a well tuned chassis.
But once the going gets rough - as it so often does on Aussie tar - the Integra loses some of its composure. There are big crashes over big bumps that make you wince and worry whether everything is going to stay in one piece.
The other concern is tyre noise, which is quite intrusive and more than a little disappointing.
Of course, drop the speeds back to town and city driving mode and the Integra becomes a very pleasant cruise, which sells a sporty image well.
Which sums up the Integra well. It's a semi-serious sportster rather than sharp-focussed, certainly better at the bendy stuff than the old car but not capable of matching the Type R. The imagery of the styling is strong enough to sell the message and make it a contender for those looking at the cheaper end of the coupe market.
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