EXPERT REVIEW

Los Angeles Times's view

The 1993 Toyota Supra Turbo was parked alongside the tennis court: a crimson menace on burnished alloys with lines hunched impatiently close to the ground.

An acquaintance admired the look. With Japan turning out terrific cars like this, he suggested, why would anybody spend big money on a Porsche?

Same court, same friend. But one Saturday later and the cardinal coupe had been replaced by a 1994 Acura Integra GS-R.

The curbside critic repeated his praise. In price, styling and performance, he said, this car will have everybody playing catch-up.

Unfortunately, he thought he was still looking at last week’s Supra Turbo.

There was forgivable error in this mental merger because both coupes were red, both wore five-spoke cast aluminum wheels, and both are typically Japanese sporty with sloping snouts and ducktail butts.

Still, such blurring doesn’t reflect well on Integra’s styling.

And although Acura has dared with this third generation of Integra, the risking has been minimal and the car still looks very much like everybody else’s yesteryear.

Headlights have been broken out of the standard cluster beneath a single lens and transplanted as a duet of spotlights on each corner. But they appear lonely, are swallowed by the surrounds of hood and fenders and offer a look that’s more golf cart than sport coupe.

The rear end has been chopped and made a little more businesslike. But then everybody from Saturn through Nissan Altima to Plymouth Colt has done that.

Wheelbase is longer, wheels are pushed farther into their corners and the silhouette is lower and racier. But so are profiles of Ford’s Probe, Toyota’s Celica, Mitsubishi’s Eclipse and others competing with Integra in performance and price. And they were setting those lines a year ago.

So see the Integra as any mainstay of computer dating: Stylish without being distinctive, pleasant without stirring any juices.

Yet what will prevent this car from slipping into a cash rebate mode before its time is the Formula One beginnings of the engine, transmission and chassis.

Valve setups and the manifold design are direct proof that the Honda/Acura magic, which produced 230 m.p.h. firepower on back straights from Monaco to Montreal, will work just as well on the Foothill Freeway.

Simply put, a longer, dual-stage intake manifold–one for low, the other for high r.p.m operation–improves the engine’s breathing, which broadens the power band. Then there’s VTEC (Variable Valve Timing and Lift Electronic Control) automatically adjusting valve timing and the amount and duration of valve lift. The payoff is beefier low-speed torque and increased power at the top end of an engine that spins easily and rapidly to 8,000 r.p.m.

More simply put, thanks to this mechanical alchemy, the Integra’s relatively small 1.8-liter, four-cylinder engine puts out an outrageous 170 horsepower.

Comparisons: Saturn’s 1.9-liter engine produces only 124 horsepower. The Ford Probe squeezes only 115 horsepower from 2.0 liters. Best of the current bunch are the Toyota Celica, with a 2.2-liter engine, and the 2.0-liter Mitsubishi Eclipse. Both peak out at 135 horsepower.

There’s a separate piston cooling system and an aluminum radiator for quicker dissipation of engine heat. A Cray supercomputer was used to simulate highway pounding for a stiffer body. Double wishbone suspension, flex-resistant brake calipers, a close-ratio gearbox for quicker grid starts–all were developed to merciless maximums set by world-class auto racing.

Add Acura’s legendary reliability, durability and apparent ambition to retire every J.D. Power award, and you have transportation that will betray few owners and their quests for the optimum car. Provided, of course, that owner has no problem with John Doe styling.

*

The Integra is a two-car, three-trim series. TheIn egra Sports Coupe arrived this month and a Sports Sedan version will be along in September.

RS and LS models, with manual transmission, have a base price of $14,670 and $17,210 respectively. They are equipped with a 1.8-liter, 16-valve engine good for 142 horsepower.

The sportier GS-R coupe–soon to be available as a sedan, which should ease the frustrations of sportier families–starts at $19,440 and is equipped with the 170-horsepower engine and the miracle of VTEC.

Integra interiors are everything we have come to expect from Acura, formed in 1986 to flatten the idea that Japanese car companies couldn’t build anything more luxurious than satin-lined tea caddies.

Controls represent an ergonomic Hall of Fame with hands, feet and fingers moving only minimal distances to bring the car alive and set it in motion. The headliner will ruffle no haircuts, the dashboard will not nibble into knees. And anyone uncomfortable on the soft but supportive chairs of an Acura should look to the design of their own backs and buttocks.

There are air bags for driver and passenger. Also plenty of space for elbows, arms and feet to flap around the pedals. Analog instruments are large, with white numbers on black dials and their readouts unmistakable.

Yet, as with the outside, these are unexciting insides. Back seats in the coupe are an apology. Fabrics are just fabric, and plastics clearly plastic. One day away from the car, absolutely nothing will be remembered.

Performance, of course, is exactly what one would expect from all that race-car plumbing. Acceleration is a zoom with 0-60 m.p.h. times better than anything in its class. Handling is flat, obedient and will take a driver to the ragged side of the scary stuff without once threatening to bite back.

The engine is a hornet’s nest, buzzier and busier than anything within earshot. But that must be expected from an over-industrious engine winding up to 8,000 r.p.m. faster than a sewing machine.

The Integra is small enough to enough to dart and lunge and be enormous fun to drive. Shifting is a click and a snip, and traffic clots will be welcomed as an opportunity for gearbox gymnastics.

But the Integra isn’t quite what it could be. It doesn’t snarl like other sport coupes. It won’t bring you home damp after romping and wrestling with driver skills.

We are left with a very capable vehicle that is dull to look at, quite satisfying to drive, but disappointing in its off-the-peg interior.

Gentle persons, start your priorities.

1994 Acura Integra GS-R

The Good Race-track technology for commuters. Handling and performance leader in class. High value, quality construction.

The Bad Stale styling, outside and inside. Short on sizzle everywhere.

The Ugly Forlorn headlights.

Cost Base: $19,440. As tested, $19,894 (Includ es driver and passenger air bags, anti-lock brakes, tilt steering, air conditioning, power windows, remote trunk/fuel-filler door releases, delivery and preparation charges.)

Engine 2.0 liter, 16-valve, inline four developing 170 horsepower.

Type Front-engine, front-drive, 2+2 sport coupe.

Performance 0-60 m.p.h., as tested, with 5-speed manual, 7 seconds. Top speed, estimated, 139 m.p.h. Fuel consumption, EPA city and highway, 25 and 31 m.p.g.

Curb Weight 2,670 pounds.

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