The Acura Integra is hard to classify. It wears a luxury nameplate and has done well in quality surveys. But powered by normally aspirated four-cylinder engines, and starting at just over $20,000, it also qualifies as an affordable car with a noteworthy reliability record.
I'd add one other attribute: zippy.
The uplevel Integra cars -- the GS-R coupe and sedan and limited-production Type R coupe -- are small, lightweight models with special enhancements that get the most out of their 1.8-liter engines. Just make sure you don't mind hearing the engine revving a lot.
Both Integra models are available only with a five-speed manual transmission, and it was needed in the test GS-R sedan to get maximum use of the 1.8-liter engine.
2000 Acura Integra Sedan GS-R
BASE PRICE: $20,100 for LS sedan with manual transmission, $21,500 for GS sedan with manual transmission, $22,500 GS-R sedan with manual transmission.
AS TESTED: $22,980.
TYPE: Front-engine, front-wheel drive, five-passenger, subcompact sedan.
ENGINE: 1.8-liter, double overhead cam, inline four cylinder.
MILEAGE: 25 mpg (city), 31 mpg (highway).
TOP SPEED: NA.
LENGTH: 178.1 inches.
WHEELBASE: 103.1 inches.
CURB WT.: 2,764 pounds.
BUILT AT: Suzuka, Japan.
DESTINATION CHARGE: $480
I downshifted on highway entrance ramps, for example, to really kick up the revs and get the power I wanted to pull ahead of traffic. You might expect a tepid response from such a small engine, but the GS-R didn't disappoint. I snagged the spot in traffic that I was sprinting for without a problem.
I also found I drove on city avenues with the confidence of knowing I'd be ready to cut over to the next lane when necessary.
It's all sporty and comfortable in the GS-R, since the car's five-speed manual uses a short-throw gearshifter that, like everything in the Integra, is in easy reach.
Yet, this front-wheel drive, four-door GS-R with 170-horsepower four is rated at a commendable 25 mpg in the city and 31 mpg on the highway. Premium fuel is recommended, though.
Torque in the GS-R is 128 foot-pounds at 6,200 rpm -- enough to squeal the tires if you start up aggressively.
The GS-R and Type R use parent company Honda's Variable Valve Timing and Lift Electronic Control (VTEC) technology to get around the usual compromise of strong horsepower vs. good low-end torque.
VTEC manages to provide both by varying which camshaft lobes and corresponding rocker arms are controlling air going in the engine under different driving demands. The system also uses a dual-stage intake manifold.
The result is a 1.8-liter four-cylinder whose output rivals that of some larger four-cylinders and turbocharged engines.
For example, the Infiniti G20 sedan with 2-liter four-cylinder has 145 horsepower and 136 foot-pounds of torque. The Audi A4 with turbocharged, 1.8-liter four has maximum horsepower of 150 and top torque of 155 foot-pounds.
As for noise, I made the ride by quieter shifting into fifth and staying there in city traffic. But even in fifth on the highway, the test Integra produced some four-cylinder buzzing. Redline, by the way, isn't until 8,000 rpm.
There was some road noise from the tires, but wind noise wasn't noticeable over the engine and tire sound.
The Integra has an independent double wishbone suspension, front and rear, with coil springs and stabilizer bars. In the GS-R, the front suspension includes a shock tower bar for added rigidity and handling control.
Only 15-inch tires are available for all Integra models, however, and an electronic traction control system isn't offered. The higher-priced, exclusive Type R gets a torque-sensitive, helical limited slip differential as standard equipment.
The tester handled with ease in city traffic, helped by a small, 35.4-inch turning circle. It compares with a 36.4-inch circle in the A4 and a 37.4-inch circle in the G20.
In curves, the GS-R was fun. It also handled a slalom with aplomb.
But I noticed the front end dipped downward quickly in panic braking. Fully 64 percent of the Integra GS-R's weight is up front.
The antilock brake system conveyed a lot of pulsing and bucking through the brake pedal.
Thin yet sturdy pillars around the windows and the low front cowl help provide maximum visibility.
The driver seat comes standard with manual, wind-up knobs that adjust height and tilt. Too bad the front passenger doesn't get the same.
The bucket seats are comfortable, even on long drives. Acura puts three kinds of foam padding in the seats, and leather is standard in all but the base Integra LS models.
The front head restraints sat well behind my head if the seat-back was partway up, but if I reclined the front seats, the head restraints didn't seem to be positioned as close to my head as they should.
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