New Car/Review

1998 Acura Integra Type R

By Carey Russ

acura

SEE ALSO: Acura Buyer's Guide

What is a "sports car"? The category is both obvious and vague. Once, the definition was easy. Any small, nimble, two-seat, open car would do. That worked fine in the days of MG-TCs, perhaps, but was soon obsolete. The high-speed Ferrari coupes raced in the Mexican Road Race of the early 1950s were definitely "sports cars", and sports-racing at that. Coupes have advantages over open cars in terms of aerodynamics and driver comfort. There were plenty of closed sports cars even in the "good old days". Some, like the Alfa Romeo Giuletta and Giulia coupes, even had vestigial rear seats suitable for small children or luggage. So there is plenty of precedent for a small but reasonably roomy coupe to be considered a true sports car. Is an Acura Integra a true sports car? While the LS level is more "sporty" than "sports," (but still plenty sporty) there is little doubt about the GS- R and no doubt whatsoever about the limited-production, coupe-only Type R.

The Integra Type R is a real sports car, and factory performance special, in the fine tradition of the Alfa Romeo Veloce coupes, Ferrari berlinettas, and lightweight Jaguar E-Type. It has all of the sensory inputs of sports cars of the 1950s and 1960s in a thoroughly modern chassis. It is one of the best-handling cars currently in production, regardless of price, and quite possibly the best handling front-wheel drive car ever.

It's not that the Type R is all that different from other Integras, especially the GS-R. Think of it as a GS-R on steroids, or a cross between a GS-R and a Reynard-Honda CART championship racer. It is a true limited-production factory special, with 750 available in the U. S. for the 1998 model year. That's a small number, but a major increase over the 500 offered (and quickly sold out) for 1997. Differences from the standard GS-R are seemingly small, but in reality quite significant. It would be prohibitively expensive for a third-party tuner to upgrade an Integra GS-R to complete Type R specification.

The Type R's chassis modifications can be easily done. Given the Integra's status as one of the top reasonably-priced sports cars, in the tradition of such past machines as the BMW 2002 and Datsun 510, there is a very healthy aftermarket in performance and appearance parts. The Type R's lowered, stiffer suspension and front strut-tower stress bar can be easily emulated, and plenty of spoiler wings, fender flares, and pseudo-ground effects appearance packages are available. The larger exhaust pipe is practically de rigueur for Asian car hot- rodders everywhere. Even the extra chassis bracing is possible. After that, though, things quickly get complex and expensive.

The Type R has a special torque-sensitive limited-slip differential, larger brake rotors and high-performance calipers, a refined antilock braking system, and a different, closer-ratio 5-speed gearbox than other Integras. Most, if not all, of these items may be had through the aftermarket, but the cost will be far more than the premium paid for the Type R over a standard GS-R, even allowing dealer markup. But the heart of the Type R is its engine, and money put towards building a GS-R engine to Type R level would be put to better use buying an NSX.

The Type R's 1.8-liter engine makes 195 horsepower at 8000 rpm. That is a higher specific output (power for engine size) than any other mass-produced, normally-aspirated, street-legal engine available. It is rivaled only by the half-million dollar Ferrari F50. The Type R's specific output would have made its powerplant a first-rate pure racing engine not too long ago, yet it is legal in all 50 states, idles happily in traffic, and, when driven with a light foot on the throttle (which, admittedly misses the point of the car entirely), returns excellent gas mileage. Even driven hard and taking advantage of the top portion of the rev range, 15-20 mpg is easily obtained.

Yes...top portion of the rev range, indeed. Internal modifications to the engine are geared towards maximum power by maximum revs. The VTEC (Variable valve Timing and lift Electronic Control) system, pioneered in the Honda Formula One engines of the late 1980s and introduced to the street in the Acura NSX, ensures decent low-end and midrange power as well as an insane top-end rush. The Type R's extra performance comes from standard tuning tricks: low-friction bearings, lightweight pistons and connecting rods, more radical high-rev cam timing, lightweight valves, stronger valve springs, and hand-polished intake and exhaust ports. Standard high- performance tuning fare, to be sure, but ask your local tuner what that treatment would cost. Sit down before you hear the answer.

Unique to its VTEC system, the Type R changes the camshaft lobes used at 5700 rpm instead of the 4400 for the GS-R. The rev limiter stops the fun at a nominal 8500 rpm. Perhaps, but 9000 is usually more like it. Think about that for a minute. 9000 rpm is no big deal for a race engine. Formula One engines go to 18,000 these days, and CART champ car motors to 14,000 or more. Most high- performance motorcycles redline between 11,000 and 14,000. But the Type R engine is a street-legal and smog-legal 1.8-liter car engine, and designed to last. It is a technological tour de force, and it is what the Type R buyer is paying for.

Does it make a difference? Oh, yes...the gearhead bragging rights you get with the Type R are equal to those of any exotic car. It is truly Formula One technology for the street, and at a very reasonable price, all things considered. And the performance is well worth the premium price. Zero-to-60 numbers are good but not in supercar territory, but the Type R is no drag racer. Leave that to the flint-axe V8 brigade. The Type R is about finesse and balance, not brute force. It feels little different from a well-set-up GS-R until 6500 rpm or so. Then it screams. Between 6500 and 9000 rpm, the sound is not unlike that of one of the Honda CART engines. Call it the Zanardi Zone, after CART champion Alex Zanardi, who drives a Honda-powered Reynard. This little gem makes some of the most wonderful mechanical music ever.

In the everyday world, the Type R is no more difficult than any other Honda product. It idles happily in traffic, has a light clutch and steering, and no bad habits. Low-rpm power is perfectly satisfactory. The suspension is stiffer than that of other Integras, and a 500-mile day on rough highways wouldn't be the most comfortable journey possible, but the Type R is a car that a committed enthusiast could use as a daily driver. And it is definitely an enthusiast's car. Dawdling in traffic misses the point; screaming in the Zanardi Zone brings joy.

For a nice but "milder" ride check out the Acura Integra LS Sedan

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