Gareth Butterfield’s trip down Memory Lane in the Honda Integra Type-R was one of his most memorable reviews of the year
THE car I’ve been testing this week is something of a personal indulgence. The nice man at Honda asked me if I’d like to try one of the cars in his heritage fleet. And I pretty much bit his hand off.
Honda, as with many manufacturers, keeps a collection of some of its favourite cars locked away in a warehouse, cossetted as if they were children, and every once in a while they let them out for people to play with them and reminisce.
The list of cars Honda sent me to choose from read like a Greatest Hits album, but I decided to settle a score and borrow a car I’d always wanted to drive, but had never been given a chance to – the Honda Integra Type R.
I know it’s a bit of a cliche, but this car is something of an automotive legend. Its boldest claim is that many motoring journalists have declared it the “best-handling front-wheel drive car ever”.
The actual car I picked, a 1998 “DC2” in gleaming white, was also, in my book, one of the greatest examples of Honda’s iconic VTEC technology. More on that later.
The guy who delivered the car to me arrived with a big smile on his face. Usually these drivers look fairly miserable as they’ve just been sat in traffic for four hours, but I’ve a feeling it was as much a treat for him to drive it as it was for me to snatch the keys from him. It’s going to be a fun week.
I FINALLY have time to spend getting to know the Integra Type-R today, rather than just parking it up and doing some work, occasionally glancing at it out of my window. The shape of the DC2 is very recognisable – a classic coupe swoop abruptly curtailed by that big rear wing. And the four little headlights are significant as they denote this is an official UK version – plenty were shipped over from Japan independently as production of the UK models were very limited, but the Japanese imports have straight headlights instead of the pretty circular ones.
Enough of the geekery for a bit though. Sitting in the Integra is exciting. Its big, bright-red bucket seats are incredibly comfortable and its interior is very basic, but perfectly set up for driving. Its steering wheel, for example, is absolutely spot on. The right size, the right thickness, and in exactly the right place. The pedals are also in just the right spot and well-spaced and the titanium gearnob is attached to one of the slickest gearboxes you’ve ever shifted through. It’s so driver-focused, this car. And it’s an absolute joy to be behind the wheel of one at last.
To be honest, despite the ostentatious rear wing and the “look at me” white paintjob, it doesn’t feel that quick. Through the gears it feels only as quick as your average shopping car – but there’s a reason for that. It’s power is locked away behind Honda’s V-TEC system. But it’s raining today and I’m still getting my head around how precious this car is to Honda, so I resist the urge to explore its potential. For now.
Suffice to say that the Integra is surprisingly nice to drive around town. It’s noisy in a raucous, untamed, sporty sort of way, but it doesn’t have the rock-hard suspension you might expect from such a driver-focused car. Its 15″ wheels are small by today’s standards, which helps, as does its relatively large-profile tyres. The boot is spacious, adults can just about fit in the back and everything works, despite the car’s age. It’s all rather civilised. Which is actually a little disappointing if I’m honest. I was expecting it to feel a bit more “mad.”
OK, we need to talk about VTEC. The wife’s at work today and I’ve committed a bit of my afternoon to getting better acquainted with the ‘Teg. I know I need to find some open road because the VTEC system responds to high revs.
Without getting too geeky about it, when the revs reach a certain point, some witchcraft happens under the bonnet, something technical to do with cams takes place and more power is made available. So you’ve basically got a mundane but frugal 1.8-litre run-about for every day use, but if you give it a bit of a spanking, all 187 of its horsepowers are unleashed.
On the road, all this silly science stuff goes out of the window. From a driver’s perspective, you’ll be experiencing a completely different car past about 5,000rpm. Suddenly, in pretty much any gear, you can feel a change in the engine and there’s a surge as the cams lift and the VTEC kicks in. Keep it in that rev band, bearing in mind it redlines at 8,900rpm, and you’re driving an absolute animal. You’re also very soon driving far too fast for UK roads, which is something I definitely didn’t do.
THIS VTEC thing is addictive. I went to pick the wife up today and, after pulling on to the first stretch of straight road after her office, I decided to show her what it feels like in second gear. “You’re such a child”, she said. I could tell she was impressed though.
The other thing I love about the Integra is its completely carefree focus on being a driver’s car. It’s very light, because all the usual sound-deadening and muffling has been done away with – and this means you can feel, hear and sense every move the car makes through its contact points. Yes, this means it’s a bit loud, but it’s such a wonderful, visceral sensation you rarely get in modern cars.
You also feel so connected as a driver. That’s something I’ve missed over the last couple of decades, too. Everything is connected by bits of metal, rather than bits of wire, so you feel everything the car is trying to tell you. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to describe a modern car as “responsive” again, having had a look back at just how communicative a properly sorted car used to be.
I’VE got a bit of time this evening to take the Integra out for another run in the countryside. But it’s a cold day and one of my least favourite things about it is bugging me again. It may sound like a minor niggle, but the titanium gear nob is a horrible thing to use when it’s chilly. It makes the otherwise pleasant experience of changing gear a bit of a shock to the system. I’m also getting a bit tired of the low gearing. It’s great for getting into the VTEC, but not so good on a jaunt up a dual carriageway.
All that, however, is completely forgotten about when you reach your favourite stretch of B-road. What’s so startling about the Integra is its front-end grip. That, coupled with such a fine chassis balance, means you can hurl it into corners at speeds you wouldn’t dream about in a modern hot hatch.
It clings on so well you can trail-brake into a bend to throw the weight forward and trust the harmonious relationship between the differential, the tyres, the steering and the chassis, to tug you tightly to the apex.
Truth be told, you can’t explore any of this car’s true capabilities on the road – you really need to be on a track. But that’s the joy of the Integra, you can feel so much of this magic at 40mph on a British back road. That’s why it’s justifiably been crowned the king of the front-wheel drive sports cars.
I’VE got to give the Integra back tomorrow so I take it out for one last drive. I genuinely thought I’d be bored of it by now. To be brutally honest, I’m not usually the sort to go for such hard-edged sports cars. They’re fun in the right occasion, but living with them tends to wear me down. But as raucous and sharp as the Integra Type-R is, and as basic as its interior feels after a couple of decades of technological progress has left it behind, it still makes me smile every time I get in it.
But it also makes me sad. Driving it the other day I realised that I was sitting in the last of a breed. The end of an era. Hardly any car that has followed the Integra Type-R, with the possible exception of the series one Lotus Elise, has been quite so focused on driver enjoyment.
Sure, there’s all sorts of gadgets nowadays to make you feel like you’re a race-car driver, but the Integra doesn’t need any of that. It feels thrilling to drive because it is thrilling to drive. Modern cars with our current safety and emission demands will never be this raw, this simple, this straight-forward and this much fun.
It’s a car that celebrates, embraces and rewards the simple art of driving. It is, in every sense of the word, a driver’s car. One of the last true driver’s cars, you might say. And one of the very best, I’d say.