Car reviews - Honda - Integra - Type R 3-dr hatch
Scintillating engine, cosy interior, sharp handling
Room for improvement
Still-choppy ride, air-conditioning optional only
28 Nov 2001
By TIM BRITTEN
IN a sense, the new Type R Integra takes Honda back to its automotive roots.
If there was any one factor that separated the company from other Japanese car-makers at the time it introduced its first proper four-wheeled vehicle in the 1960s - the Healey Sprite-challenging S600 sports car - it was the ability to wring more power out of a small engine than anyone else.
Although it sported only 0.6 of a litre capacity, the S600's engine was technologically way ahead of anything else in the price range, with twin overhead camshafts, roller bearing crankshaft and a specific power output that its pushrod competitors could only dream about.
That technical edge has been eroded somewhat over the years, but every now and then Honda wheels out a model that demonstrates it still has plenty of kilowatt-producing capacity.
The Type R Integra fits neatly into that category by squeezing no less than 147kW from its 2.0-litre powerplant - or exactly the 100 horsepower per litre that was the aim of a well-tuned, normally aspirated racing engine in the past.
The Type R is a sort of user-friendly interpretation of the same power-producing methods that created the 1965 S600's spiritual successor - the 176kW, 2.0-litre S2000 sports car.
The Type R's all-alloy powerplant is the first of a new generation of Honda engines to arrive here using the latest version of the VTEC system, now called i-VTEC.
This system adds variable valve timing to the technically adventurous Honda system that combines two specific valve profiles to deliver strong torque at the lower end of the rpm range and impressive horsepower at the top end. The intent of VTEC can be seen in the fact that the Type R produces its 147kW at no less than 7400rpm.
The new engine has been turned around 180 degrees in the engine bay, placing the catalytic converter closer to the combustion processes for quicker "light-up" time. The bore-stoke dimensions are exactly square and it uses twin overhead camshafts, four valves per cylinder and a variable intake manifold to better manage the incoming gases for strong torque production at low rpm as well as maximum power at high engine speeds.
It has always been possible to create prodigious power outputs via free-breathing, high-revving engine design, but until VTEC it was not possible to combine that with low-speed tractability. VTEC achieves both aims.
Honda in fact has a couple of different versions of VTEC - the more pedestrian arrangement, used in the base Integra, using dual camshaft profiles on the inlet side only, and the full-bore system that works on both inlet and exhaust camshafts. This latter system is seen on the S2000, the exotic NSX coupe - and the new Integra Type R.
To make the absolute best out of the 147kW (6kW more than the previous Type R), the latest hot Integra uses a new, close-ratio six-speed manual gearbox that minimises the effects of what appears to a relatively narrow power band.
The maximum torque of 192Nm is produced at 6000rpm, which doesn't leave a lot of revs to play with before the 7400rpm kilowatt peak. Of course it comes as no surprise that the Type R doesn't feel torque-deprived at all, thanks to VTEC, but we'll discuss that a little later.
A new engine and gearbox aren't the only things of note either. The Integra also gets an all-new body, with some cues pointing to the previous model - particularly the slightly high and narrow stance that makes it an altogether different animal to Honda's other sports coupe, the Prelude.
The tallish dimensions mean a quite accommodating interior, with more room to move than previous model. The highish roof assists headroom, while Honda also claims a cab-forward configuration that adds to legroom as well as improving rear luggage space.
The new body is also claimed to be a lot stronger than before, improving passive safety while providing a more stable platform for the new front and rear suspensions.
Here, Honda has concentrated on compactness and wheel location. The former helps such things as front foot room and rear luggage space, as well as allowing a flat rear floor, while the latter gives the driver improved, more precise handling.
Honda says the new "control-link" MacPherson strut front suspension provides performance on par with a double-wishbone system via the addition of a long control link that varies toe change throughout the suspension's travel.
At the back, Honda has continued with a double-wishbone design, building in extra compliance for extra smoothness and stability and saving space through the elimination of the trailing arm normally seen in double wishbone systems (this allowed the elimination of the floor tunnel that normally locates part of the exhaust system). The system is also more rigid than before to give better control of wheel movement.
All this adds up to a more refined Integra, even more so in the case of the Type R because it was developed from the beginning as a part of the range.
Both new Integras look sporty enough, but the Type R makes a blatant statement with its prominent rear wing and extra body kit on the front and sides as well as a set of special 16-inch alloy wheels. If that's not enough, there's the pair of Recaro front seats, a Momo steering wheel and aluminium floor pedals to remind driver and passengers that this is the extrovert's Integra.
In fact the Type R is a much more harmonious car inside than before, with the Recaros blending nicely into the subtly sporty dash and control layout, as well as the selection of trim materials.
The driver is confronted by an array of needles on a metallic background by day, and a luminescent display of numerals and gauges on a black background after dark. All needles point to the six o'clock position when at rest.
Driver and passengers may also note that the Type R lacks the climate-control air-conditioning that is standard in the cheaper base Integra, which can be explained away by two things. One, the Type R is not ridiculously more expense at first glance than the base car and, two, it is quoted at exactly the same kerb weight despite the body kit. Add climate control and weight and price both go up.
And how does this new Honda shape up on the road? Is it a no-compromise, bolted-down, basic sporting coupe like the previous model?
Well, it certainly continues to make compromises (no air-conditioning for one), but at the same time it would be a disappointment if it were not more refined and this proves to be the case, although the ride quality is not going to please everybody.
For a start, the initial comfort factor is very high, helped along by the Recaro front seats and a much classier presentation of controls and convenience items. There is no problem in the front with headroom or leg space although naturally the back seat is not what you would call a long-distance proposition.
The alloy-topped gearshift, with matching pseudo-alloy plastic on door handles and electric window switch surrounds, all convey the right sort of messages to the largely-male audience Honda expects with this car - as do the alloy floor pedals.
The boot is pretty big, too, made flexible by the 50-50 split-fold rear seat - although its usability is hampered by a high loading lip. The cover is attached to the hatch itself and is not as easy to remove as a regular clip-in, hinged cover.
But it's on the road that the Type R version stamps its particular presence on the driver. The six-speed shifter moves crisply through its ratios, as pleasant to use as the more direct-acting system in the S2000, and the engine has a free-breathing, anxious edge to it right from the beginning.
Running below 6000rpm, it feels responsive, quite vocal (the exhaust is freer-breathing than the base Integra) and certainly quick to slot into traffic. The Type R could be driven in this way permanently and the driver would be content that the performance is brisk and sharp enough to justify the bodywork.
But plant the accelerator, reach past 6000rpm where the second stage of the VTEC system comes in and a complete character transformation takes place. In a manner similar to the S2000, the Integra bellows with manic enthusiasm, surging forward as if it's broken free of some sort of restraining leash.
The tachometer needle needs to be watched closely (the redline is at 7900rpm), and the short-throw, six-speed shifter suddenly becomes a vital part of extracting the most out of all the high-revving, frantic VTEC activity.
The no-compromise aspect becomes noticeable here because the engine is certainly not silent (fair enough) but also begins to feel a little harsh (a surprise because Honda says it has invested in improving the NVH).
Because the maximum torque comes in at relatively high rpm (although as mentioned there's plenty of response below this too), the tendency to torque-steer doesn't usually come in until the car is beginning to move fairly rapidly.
There's very little of the massive mid-range tug that afflicts most turbocharged front-drive cars. A torque-sensing limited-slip differential is part of the standard deal too and adds to the Integra's grip without doing anything untoward as far as wheel-fight is concerned.
But the ride is still firm - not the sort of thing most people would want to live with on a long-term basis unless they drove around constantly on freshly-laid hot mix. And the Type R's turn-in, the immediate response to steering wheel inputs, is not quite as sharp as first impressions indicate.
The Type R is not a roller skate on steroids like some of the European hot hatches - like the Renault Clio Sport, for example. The Type R driver will find that even though the ratio is quite fast at 2.5 turns lock-to-lock, a little more steering lock than anticipated needs to be applied when hounding along a winding country road.
The brakes are appropriately strong, with ABS standard. The Type R gets larger front rotors to deal with the extra performance, although the back discs are the same as the base car.
The bottom line though is that the Type R is a very quick, responsive car, equal to just about anything else in its price range from point to point, maybe even challenging a Subaru WRX given the right road conditions and a skilled driver.
It certainly proves the point that there are still not many car-makers out there, in the volume market at least, who are willing or able to do the sort of things Honda can do with modest engine capacity.
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