The 2023 Acura Integra Is What the Integra Always Was
The Integra Type R takes up a lot of space in your imagination. But that’s only part of the story.
“The Type R represents one of the best performance values on the market today and serves as further affirmation of Honda/Acura's engineering prowess.” That’s how Motor Trend summarized the Acura Integra Type R when it launched stateside in 1999. In the decades since, high-performance front-wheel-drive cars have come and gone, but arguably none have matched the Type R’s prowess—or its mythology. It’s a legend that Acura itself has played up with the release of the new 2023 Acura Integra as well, right down to the third-generation callback nameplate embossing on the front and rear bumpers.
Hell, at the Long Beach Grand Prix this year, when it was time for a five-generation Integra parade lap to celebrate the release of the newest model, Acura itself chose the Type R in signature Phoenix Yellow to represent the third generation of the car.
And so of course with the newest, fifth-generation Integra, with an identical drivetrain to the Civic Si and no Goliath-ending hot hatch specs on the table, there has been a chorus of disappointment from social media (and indeed, even a hefty portion of our commenters). “It’s a Civic Si,” import devotees proclaim; “there is nothing special about the new Integra.” It indeed shares most of its running gear with the newest eleventh-generation Civic Si. It does not boast more power than the H-badged version, and this turbocharged engine doesn’t hit the same stratospheric VTEC-charged redline as its naturally aspirated predecessors.
But to reduce our perception of the entire five-generation line of the Integra to solely the limited-production Type R does the lineup a disservice, I believe; if you examine more than just the pinnacle of the Integra, the newest five-door hatch lives up to the nameplate’s ideals.
The Problem With The Type R As Benchmark
It’s worth understanding just why the Type R made such an impact first, however, because a glance at the specs doesn’t quite fully cut it. Yes, it puts out 195 HP and 130 pounds-feet of torque from its 1.8-liter naturally-aspirated four-cylinder, but the Civic Si would accomplish similar numbers by 2006, and it’s not quite an untouchable icon, so what made the Type R so special?
To fully understand it, I drove one, and it rapidly makes its case for its legendary status. On that Long Beach parade lap, and within two laps and no faster than 80 mph, I discovered it truly is the indisputable template for front-wheel-drive performance thanks to features that won’t show in a neat spec box. It boasts some of the best and most direct steering this side of a Formula 1 car, with no hints of understeer despite its drive layout, a five-speed-manual transmission so sublime that God himself couldn’t improve on it, and an absolutely intoxicating VTEC cam-shift that hits right around 5,700 RPM that changes the engine’s profile from “competent four-banger” to “one of the most responsive inline-fours ever built.” It may not be the most powerful JDM car of its time, but the package works together better than most of its competitors could have dreamed of in its time (and, truthfully, for decades after).
I previously owned a third-generation Integra (albeit a base model) and for the entire time I owned it, I chased creating my own Type R clone, simply because I knew it was the benchmark for affordable Honda performance.
The biggest difference between my random, base-trim LS Integra project and an actual Type R, however, wasn’t performance. It’s actually relatively straightforward to add performance bits to a base model Integra and turn it into a Type R equivalent; what’s hard is doing so and actually keeping it a luxury car. As a result, I turned my poor woman’s LS and made it uncomfortable, overly stiff, and unenjoyable to drive around town, something that the actual Type R actually wasn’t. I was imagining a track car, instead of a nice car that was deadly quick. And that is the true foundation of the Integra nameplate.
Rewinding To The True Beginning
This is a 1986 Acura Integra, which was one of the two models the brand launched with in America, the other being the midsized Legend sedan and coupe. (Here’s a fun exercise: Imagine launching a “luxury brand” with such cars today.)
At a time when the Japanese automakers were trying to beat tough import tariffs and move upmarket to prove they could take on the world’s best, Acura was the first Japanese luxury brand to reach American shores. The Integra was crucial to not just Acura’s initial success here but also to getting American consumers to accept the idea of a Japanese luxury car. In the years leading up to the launch of the Integra, despite the plush comforts of early Accords or the sporting prowess of Preludes, an entire luxury marque based out of Japan seemed unthinkable. It mirrors the more recent rise and dominance of Korean luxury marques (now sometimes rated more highly than the European cars they originally benchmarked) but decades earlier, and the uphill battle was similar. Acura had to fight it first, three years before Lexus and Infiniti would similarly popularize Japanese luxury in the States. Acura’s ultimate mic drop would come a little later with the launch of the original NSX, but none of that would’ve happened without the success of the Legend and Integra.
I recently had the pleasure of driving this Integra, and while it’s a bonafide sports hatch to the core, with a twin-cam four-cylinder putting out 113 HP mated to a superb five-speed manual, that wasn’t what stood out to me after I’d parked it and walked away. What I remembered was how nice it was; it truly felt closer to an E30 interior than a contemporary Civic’s.
Yes, it handled phenomenally, with a bit more power than an equivalent Civic Si of the era (which got the same block but had one fewer camshaft in the head), but it also was free of high-RPM vibration. It wasn’t noisy until I was approaching the outer reaches of the tachometer. The OEM stereo boasted an integrated physical equalizer with preset modes for different genres of music—a high-tech, premium feature in its day. Despite the oh-so-grippy Falken Azenis gluing the Integra to the road at each corner, road noise was kept minimal.
The whole car clearly has a resemblance to the first Civic Si ever sold stateside in ‘85, with its shared gauge cluster and similar seating position, but it’s packaged more neatly with its grown-up liftback profile, and even a blindfolded passenger could tell it was a bit more mature thanks to its refined NVH. Its handling and performance prowess was a given because of the car it was based on, but the Integra could actually offer buyers those abilities combined with an actual, luxurious package. Sound familiar?
Clearly, the strategy worked. While the Type R made more of an impact on me as a kid watching Fast and Furious, this initial attempt is just as important to there being an Acura today as Ja Rule’s tuned Type R was. It’s also worth noting that from a business standpoint, the non-R Integras sold massively well for Acura. As one rep told Road & Track at the new car’s launch: “We sold a million of those... We sold, what, 4000 Type Rs?”
The Type R Is Not An Integra. It’s A Type R.
And with this in mind, the newest fifth-generation Integra makes vastly more sense. Yes, the A-Spec has more handling goodies than its Civic counterpart, with adaptive dampers and slightly more chassis rigidity, but it also has 16 speakers and vastly less aggressive bolstering of its heated suede/leather-wrapped seats.
It feels more adult than the Honda; Acura benchmarked, among others, the BMW 228i, and it feels like a solid competitor to the German sedan. It does this for roughly 20 percent more MSRP than the Civic Si (for its top A-Spec manual trim), just like it did the first time around. Even its five-door presentation isn’t a major departure in mentality; every previous version of the Integra (minus the fourth-gen car, sold stateside as the RSX) offered a four-door hatch version.
The fifth-generation Integra is a return to the form of the original Integra ethos, rather than a continuation of the Type R’s pursuit of extreme FWD performance. The Type R is better understood as its own anomaly, a badge that overrides all else; the Integra Type R of the ‘90s is vastly more similar to the Civic Type R that Honda sells today than it was to any other Integra that Acura ever offered.
The Integra itself, though, is a concoction meant to offer the same sport bonafides as Honda’s sporty Civics, but with more comfort and poise. Through that lens, the fifth generation fits in perfectly, and is what made it as a long-time Integra enthusiast so, so enjoyable.