Our view: 1997 Acura Integra

Those of us who qualify for admission to maximum security facilities for the automotively insane now have a new reason to froth at the mouth: the Acura Integra Type R.

Available only in “Championship White” and fitted with a distinctive high-mount rear spoiler, the Type R is a low-volume, high-performance version of the subcompact Integra coupe. This 195-horsepower rocket roller skate is so performance-oriented, in fact, that the factory doesn’t build it with air conditioning or a sunroof, in order to save 150 pounds — and thus allow it to accelerate a little faster.

If you work for Acura PR, you refer to the Type R as the “NSX Jr.,” suggesting that this small, $23,100 sport coupe is distantly related to Acura’s wonderful, $89,000 sports car.

But if you work for a newspaper, and know that an Integra is a glorified Honda Civic, you might refer to it as the hottest Honda Civic in captivity.

The just-released Type R might also be the most exclusive Civic in captivity. Since the Type R got into production a bit later than expected, only 300 will be built for the 1997 model year, according to Acura spokesman Mike Spencer. Indeed, the entire 1998 production will only be between 500 and 700.

In order to create the Type R, Honda engineers essentially started with what had been the hottest Integra, the GS-R coupe, and took it to another level.

The designers started by squeezing even more power from the teeny-weeny GS-R engine. The four-cylinder GS-R power plant is hardly a slouch. It generates a remarkable 170 horsepower from a measly 1.8 liters through the good offices of twin cams, 16 valves and variable valve timing. The Type R variant, however, manages to extract another 25 horses from that little aluminum Cuisinart, raising the ante to 195. That amount of output figures out to more than 108 horsepower per liter. No other normally aspirated engine in the U.S marketplace develops that many horses per liter.

The bump from 170 to 195 is achieved through a series of tweaks. The intake and exhaust systems have been enlarged to permit freer breathing, the engine air intake has been moved from under the hood to the left fender well to furnish it with cooler, denser air, and the valve ports have been hand-polished to usher in the fuel/air charge more effortlessly.

“There are only two guys at the factory who can do that hand-polishing,” Spencer reports. “Hopefully, both of them won’t call in sick on the same day.”

The net result of all this slaving over a hot polishing wheel is a stratospheric red line of 8,400 r.p.m.s, and a car that will go from rest to 60 m.p.h. in an exciting 6.6 seconds, and top out at 143.

At 143, the Type R no doubt generates a cooling breeze, and doesn’t require an air conditioner. But you can’t go 143 in Center City Philadelphia, as I noticed in last week’s humid, 90-degree weather.

Spencer suggested that the lack of air is something a “serious enthusiast” will put up with to obtain thi s kind of performance. But, he said, if you are a wimpy serious enthusiast like I am, you can get air installed at the dealership.

The Type R’s high-revving engine is a joy to play with, and quite an evident presence because this car was deprived of some of the sound insulation used in the GS-R in order to shave weight. The engine noise is a bit loud and a bit harsh — particularly when you get up around 80 miles an hour in third gear — but it is exciting noise.

Cornering is another delightful heart-rate-raiser in the Type R, thanks to some key modifications aimed at improving handling. Ride height was lowered, the GS-R’s already agile suspension was firmed up significantly, and the all-weather “touring tires” on the GS-R were replaced with very serious, very sticky all-out performance tires. The result is one of the best-handling front-drivers I’ve ever danced with on a windy road.

(Acura was embarrassed several years ago when NSX owners complained that the soft, gripp tread compound used on the car’s high-performance tires wore out quickly. So, there is a disclaimer amidst the Type R window sticker information that reads: “The tires on this vehicle will wear more rapidly than normal passenger-car tires. Tire life may be less than 15,000 miles, depending on how you drive.”)

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