EXPERT REVIEW

Detroit Newspapers's view

Have you ever seen one of those classified car ads that ends with the words “serious inquiries only?”

That tag line tells you two things: The car or truck for sale is something special, and so is its price.

Well, “serious inquiries only” certainly applies to the limited edition Acura Integra Type R.

In the shrinking world of small sport coupes, it really is something special, both in price and performance.

Extraordinary, in fact: 195 horsepower from a 1.8-liter engine, towing 2,600 pounds of stiffened chassis and performance-tuned suspension that’s guaranteed to smoke anything in its class.

Then there’s the price. OK, we don’t actually know what the price will be, because Honda won’t commit itself on that issue until the car rolls into Acura showrooms later this summer.

But the numbers floated during a California press preview were “between $23,000 and $25,000,” so let’s split the difference and say $24,420, which includes Acura’s standard $420 destination charge.

That’s a couple grand north of the Integra GS-R, and over $4,000 more than a Camaro Z28 coupe.

And it doesn’t include some of the goodies you’d expect for this kind of money. No sunroof, for example. No cruise control. No vanity mirrors. Air-conditioning will be a dealer-installed option costing about $800. You can’t get an automatic transmission even if you want one.

On the other hand, if you want an automatic transmission, this car isn’t for you.

It’s designed for enthusiasts who put high-tech performance ahead of everything else. This is, essentially, a street-legal race car that makes far fewer compromises than other cars that might be considered as competition.

The truth is, though, this car doesn’t have any direct competition. It’s unique.

Although Honda has addressed every inch of the Integra R with max performance in mind — chassis stiffening, firmer suspension (particularly at the rear), bigger brakes, lower transmission gearing, limited slip differential, lower ride height, lower curb weight — the element that truly sets it apart is its engine.

Honda has no peer when it comes to extracting big horsepower from small displacement engines, and the Integra R is yet another proof.

Make that a dramatic proof.

By the numbers

With 195 horsepower — 25 hp more than the Integra GS-R — the Type R produces more horsepower per liter than any non-turbocharged, mass production engine offered in North America: 108.3 hp/liter, to be precise. The Type R’s output makes the new Honda Prelude (195 hp from 2.2 liters, in a heavier car) look relatively tame.

Some other contrasts: Ferrari’s 355 V8 clocks in at 107.3 hp/liter, while the turbocharged 2.0-liter four in the Mitsubishi Eclipse and Eagle Talon makes 105.0 hp/liter.

For the Type R, Honda starts with the same aluminum block and twin-cam 16-valve head as the GS-R. Then it gets fancy, with high compress ion pistons, lightweight valves, double valve springs, high-lift cams with increased duration, a larger throttle body, oversize intake runners, hand-polished intake and exhaust ports, a strengthened crankshaft and low-restriction exhaust.

(Forgive the technospeak, but that’s what this car is all about.)

The finished product is a potent but peaky screamer, with a torque curve that looks like a missile launch and higher piston speeds than a Formula One engine.

Maximum torque — all 130 foot-pounds — comes on at 7,300 r.p.m. Maximum horsepower is achieved at 8,000 r.p.m., just 500 r.p.m. short of the rev limiter.

Blend all that power with an ultra-precise, close-ratio, five-speed manual transmission, raceworthy bucket seats and the various chassis enhancements and you have a front-drive sport coupe of exceptional balance that will run circles around anything remotely comparable on a racetrack.

In fact, my first chance to drive the Type R. was at Thunde ill Park Raceway, in northern California.

It was completely at home in this environment — quick, agile, eager and willing to forgive small get-acquainted errors — and I left the track with the unshakable conviction that this spicy pocket rocket was the best-handling front-drive sport coupe I’d ever driven.

But beneath that conviction lurked the suspicion that the Type R might not be as much fun to live with on an everyday basis.

The engine delivers its best stuff at very high r.p.m., and getting the car to really strut its stuff means driving it almost as if you’re mad at it.

Similarly, suspension tuning aimed at keeping the car level in hard cornering isn’t the best recipe for comfort on bumpy pavement. However, a week of local barnstorming has tempered those suspicions.

Although the Type R engine doesn’t really start churning up serious power until the tachometer needle has twirled round to 5,600 r.p.m., it produces respectable hustle at lower speeds, so you’re not cruising around town sounding like Michael Andretti waiting for the green flag to drop.

Even so, engine noise is a constant in this car — more than in most, including the other members of the Integra family.

To my ears, it’s not noise at all, and I doubt I’d ever tire of it. Think of it as a power concerto for four cylinders, the lovely sounds of internal combustion in the key of high tech. Played fortissimo, the volume swells to a smooth but robust tenor snarl and the car surges forward with a will.

The Type R engine won’t flatten you against the seat back like a Chevy V8, but it will hustle the car to 60 m.p.h. in 6.6 seconds — about the same as a Mustang GT, and a half-second quicker than the Integra GS-R.

And 60 m.p.h. is only the beginning. If you keep your foot to the floor and row upward through the gears, the Type R won’t run out of steam until the speedometer needle touches 143 m.p.h.

As for ride quality, the Type R is distinctly stiffer than the more civilized GS-R, as you’d expect.

Nevertheless, I expected every pavement irregularity thicker than a sheet of typing paper to jolt the car, and that wasn’t the case.

There’s enough give in the springs and shock absorber damping to take the edge off all but the sharpest bumps and potholes.

Ultra-firm, yes. Punishing, no.

No-nonsense looks

Honda has shown considerable restraint with the Type R cosmetic treatment. It comes only in white, and it’s devoid of bright trim. Aside from the seven-spoke aluminum alloy wheels, small Type R emblems and high rear wing, it looks pretty much like an Integra GS-R coupe.

The wing, incidentally, is functional, combining with a slightly deeper front spoiler and lower ride height to reduce lift by as much as 30 percent at high speeds. However, it also bisects the driver’s rearview mirror vision, and obscures trailing traffic. So function or no function, it detracts from the fun of driving this car, a serious demerit since driving fun is this car’s prime reason for being.

In fact, you might wonder why Honda would bother with this rather pricey low-volume hot rod. The standard Acura Integras are solid sellers, and the GS-R versions are strong performers in their own right.

I think it’s this: After fighting a disappointing battle with Toyota’s Lexus division in the luxury car marketplace, Acura is reshaping its image to reflect a performance priority.

Along with the much more expensive NSX, the Integra Type R is designed to make a statement: a portent of even more performance yet to come.

But whatever its big-picture mission may be, this is a car that’s sure to get the old adrenaline flowing, and its engine is a minor masterpiece.

Yes, it’s a tad stiff and a trifle spartan for a car in this price range. Its defiant exhaust note may not be music to everyone’s ears.

But if you thrive on the joys of driving a cart at responds like a precision instrument, you better check this one out.

Serious inquiries only.

RATING: None for pre-production vehicles

VEHICLE TYPE: Front-engine, front-drive compact sport coupe

KEY COMPETITORS:

BMW 328is, Eagle Talon TSi, Ford Probe GT, Honda Prelude, Mitsubishi Eclipse GS, Volkswagen GTI VR6

BASE PRICE: $24,420 (est.)

PRICE AS TESTED: $25,220 (est.)

STANDARD EQUIPMENT: antilock brakes; dual air bags; AM/FM/CD audio; power windows, mirrors & locks; rear defrost

SPECIFICATIONS:
(manufacturer’s data)

Engine 195 hp 1.8-liter 4-cyl.

EPA fuel econ. 25 city/31 hwy.

Curb weight 2,600 pounds

Wheelbase 101.2 inches

Length 172.4 inches

Width 66.7 inches

Height 51.9 inches

Where assembled: Japan

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