This is a 1995 Acura Integra GS-R. It is the most-'90s car made, with the lone exception of a pink script-on-neon-green '90s Chevy Berretta Indy 500 pace car. I had a choice between this, a Volvo wagon, and an E30 convertible and I ended up picking this one because I was raised on 1990's Car and Driver and I like John Phillips.
[Full disclosure: Honda wanted me to drive this so badly, they financed it to the friend of my dad's friend back in 1995 because 3.5-year-olds couldn't drive. But I'm pretty sure I could.]
In the '80s, Honda tried to make its way into the driveways of cocaine-and-Wayfarer enthusiasts (read: yuppies) with the Legend. They realized that nobody wanted a car with the same badge as the Accord that they lost their virginity in on prom night, so they created Acura to go with it. To keep the Legend company, Honda shipped over the funky Integra hatchback with pop-up headlights and dusted off the homoerotic subtext. There was also some mid-engined sports car that shows up two years later that some Brazilian helped design, but it wasn't important.
The Integra sobered up in early-'90s, ditching the Dale Gribble flip-ups for Hank Hill oblongs. This worked reasonably well and the Integra remained the logical step-up from the Civic until Honda found the leftover cocaine and hatched the 1994 Integra with the quad-bug eyes and mass-produced the NSX-derived VTEC system.
And the magazines loved it. It wasn't the fastest nor was it the cheapest, but it was a slice of driving nirvana at 1/10th NSX money and it handily dusted cars like VW Corrado or the Eagle Talon. No wonder why Car and Driver named it to the 10 Best from 1994 through 1997.
It looks like a cornered spider. Like Benedict Cumberbatch it isn't classically sexy, but there's a particular je neis sai quois that draws you in. You turn away in disgust but it stares back, mouth open, because it knows you'll look back and talk dirty about it with strangers online later.
Japanese buyers in 1993 apparently hated the "cornered spider" look so they got the Civic-esque front starting in 1995. Americans enjoyed it, so Honda kept it on ours until 2001. In the meantime, American enthusiasts installed Japanese fronts and the Japanese are now starting to install American fronts. Life is weird like that.
Belt-line is crotch-high for most people. You feel weirdly vulnerable when you go toe-to-toe with modern cars, but the upshot is that you feel like a fighter pilot with that nice, low stance. Honda kept it classy with frameless windows that worked in 1995 (as did oversized flannel shirts), but it was under the assumption that the weather-stripping held up as well, which it didn't. So it leaks air and water. My flannel shirt doesn't. Advantage: shirt.
Airbags started trickling down from luxury cars in the '90s and begat the era of buyers demanding more from compact cars: First ABS then A/C, then extra sound deadening until the '92 Civic CX with manual everything snowballed into the '14 Civic EX-L with leather and power packages. There's a joke to be made about progress here, but I'm not sure if I want super-sized fries with that.
Honda's "for the engineers by engineers" ethos reverberates through the interior. Everything is where you need, when you need, and nothing you don't. If it's not a button, it's a slider: A/C is a button push away, your fingers slide the temp gauge, and the hazards are front and center on the center stack.
A gauge cluster not unlike the NSX's tells you what you need know: temperature, fuel levels, distance driven, speeds, and your 9000 RPM redline. It doesn't give driving directions, whether or not you're in VTEC, or even if your low-beam headlights are on. It's simple and pleasantly so.
1980's and 1990's era Japanese cars always had great upholstery patterns. Charcoal-pencil stripes? Comic book rain cross-hatches? Warp-speed streaks? Black Recaros splattered with rainbow confetti? Deeply bolstered whorehouse red vinyl? The GS-R's jizz splashes on blue moquette seem tame in comparison. Japan is awesome this way.
It pulls hard. Unless you're in fifth gear, then you feel the lack of torque, most evidently felt when merging onto highway onramps. Hey, is that semi getting bigger? Yes, yes it is.
So you drop it into fourth and you floor it past the number "4" and into the number "5". The butterflies open up and now it's really scooting, VTEC kicks in, and it makes that deep throated rumble that sounds like WRRRRRRRRHHHHHHH. The revs climb lazily up the scale and, when it hits seven grand, you shift.
Oh, so that's why people like these cars.
Full disclosure: The previous owner swapped in cross-drilled and slotted rotors for better performance so mine isn't representative of most normal cars. Still, the pedal feel is amazing with minimal travel. These brakes bite hard and play nicely with the ABS. It nose-dives under hard braking, as expected from a front-biased car, but not excessively so.
I took it canyon running and they held up nicely even when I had to panic brake while…driving spiritedly because the Nissan Sentra in front encountered a cyclist's invisible force field. It's perfect for tackling the I80-to-99 South interchange - a four-car pile-up waiting to happen - and I've managed to avoid some nasty scrapes even with a bad master cylinder.
Do you hate your spine? This is the car for you. The bushings are probably shot and it's running struts not remotely resembling OEM. Yes, the car handles great but speed bumps suck. And so do construction sites. The car shakes and creaks at any speed and angle. Hit bumps hard enough and you'll start wondering what new trim piece will shake loose and fall off.
It's like getting rabbit punched up the spine and through your teeth. Get lids with your coffee.
Temper your expectations. This was an age before plentiful AWD cars equipped with turbo motors, LSDs for you, me, and Bob down the street, six-speed manual gearboxes, sphincter-crushing skidpad figures, and seven-minute Nurburgring times. It was, according to the typical internet enthusiast, the greatest time in the world because every car was lightweight with a pure, free-revving engine and fun handling. But the BRZ and FR-S suck because 0-60, Mustang GT, and internet penis.
It's wearing Yokohama house brand tires that offer up pretty fun handling without the sphincter-puckering wet handling you get with high performance summer tires. The previous owner swapped in "replacement" struts and the GS-R blade wheels that happen to be the lightest non-Type-R wheel.
Honda people will go on for hours about the superiority of their double-independent wishbone suspension over whatever you have. Oh, your BMW has MacPherson struts? That's cool. I have double wishbone suspension, just like a race car! What do you mean the E30 M3 dominated Group A racing?
It's a fun suspension - not a fast suspension. You won't pull 0.90G stock and it body rolls like a fat kid doing jumping jacks, but you will be grinning the entire time. There's a stretch of road near me, California Rd. 128 that feeds into the 121 before ending in Napa. On an average day you've got cyclists, full-sized pickups, and summer tourists so you won't be doing 90 mph or the Akina gutter drift, nor should you. That's when you forget how annoyingly short the gearing is, how the engine screams inappropriately like a toddler at a nice restaurant. No, you open that sunroof, roll down that window, and you power through that 45 mph corner in 2nd, carry the momentum, and take it all the way up to 8. A Mercedes Benz 300E glides in comfort. This car pulls you in headfirst and demands you throttle it to within an inch of its life as if you are Fister Roboto and it's a pyromaniac working at ISIS.
Oh, so that's why people like these cars…
You know what they say about Honda transmissions? Yeah, it's true. Short, direct throws with a nice amount of weight in the knob. Age has really taken its toll on the shifter: second doesn't always want to engage nor does reverse.
The linkage and the weighted knob feel so good that you want to shift all the time and you're going to have to because it has short gears to compensate for the absent torque On most city streets it's 1-2-3 to 25, 4 if you're in a 35 zone - it works out to something like 220 ft. per gear. If you don't shift, it'll get progressively louder and louder until everybody's shooting uncomfortable glances at you. It's not helped by the insanely narrow gates, so it's very easy to go fumble into 3rd while launching. As if driving a loud and low Japanese car with a stupid grin wasn't embarrassing enough…
Do you run? Leg press, my bro? If you answered in the affirmative, congrats! You have the leg strength to operate the clutch. The original owner wanted that sporting experience on Bay Area freeways so he swapped in what I'm guessing is a triple plate clutch and a stiff rear engine mount so it sounds like the car is shitting its drivetrain when you launch below 1500 rpm. While this setup can handle aggressive launches, the tradeoff is a heavy pedal that requires extremely smooth inputs for anything reasonably drivable.
If this car were any more '90s, it would come with a CLINTON/GORE '96 bumper sticker.
You get standard A/C (optional on the RS!), ABS, dual cup holders (+1 if you flip the center console lid up), dual airbags, and an AM/FM cassette stereo with optional six-disc CD changer in the trunk for your Built to Spill CD. You also get the usual Honda clock that's one minute behind.
There's also a Totoro finger puppet hanging off the mirror. You won't find that on a Ferrari 360.
I gave the car one point for having a kill switch and my inner engineer took away that point because it was poorly wired. You learn something or two about wiring after getting burned, inhaling solder, and mildly electrocuted all within two weeks.
Yes, that is a cassette head unit with Dolby noise reduction. So pop in that Nevermind cassette you bootlegged off your ex-girlfriend's brother who works at Sam Goody, recline the manual seats back, and make out with your '90s girlfriend in her waist-high jeans, feeling her nipples through your oversized flannel shirt as you wonder if you should take that IT job at some startup called Amazon.
Most of the components are Alpine or Alpine-derived, so it's pretty good by '90s-era standards. It won't replicate a concert hall experience, but it's adequate for listening to the usual top-40 hits.
It's quintessentially '90s like the IBM ThinkPad, and remained steadfastly so until the bitter end. It kept the four eyed front end. It never offered power seats. No four wheel steering or turbo engine mated to AWD drivetrain. The philosophy held firm and why not? It's not like anybody offered anything like it.
It came in one and only flavor at $24,000 new - that translates to $31,000 in today's dollars – and it's even less if you choose to steal one (please don't). Yes, a Fiesta ST and a Focus ST can and will run 60 mph circles around it. But there was nothing like it back then – combining NSX technology with Honda practicality in a body you could sell to your significant other before it was stolen, stripped, and then burned to the ground by Stockton's finest tweakers.
The dirty secret is that Honda sold the sedan as a last grab at youthful indiscretion for a maturing Gen X. You don't buy this car for the interior. You don't buy it for the badge. No, you buy one because you'll end up with two kids, a nagging wife, and a dead-end job that barely pays your 20 year adjustable rate mortgage before your 38th birthday. So have fun. Bring your family or make one on the way, as the commercial goes. Take it to 8500 rpm with the sunroof open.
It's brash, it's funky, and it's aging. But it's undeniably fun and isn't that what we all really want?
If you can't swing an NSX, drive this instead.
Will it baby? The commercials said it would. Ask me in a few years. It should, but you shouldn't because this offers as much crash protection as an empty soda can.
Engine: 1.8L I-4
Power: 180 HP @ 8500 RPM
Transmission: 5-speed manual.
0-60: ~7 seconds.
Top Speed: 140 and change if you're brave
Curb Weight: 2765 lbs.
Seating: 5 people
MPG: 21 City /28 Highway on the old EPA system, 25+ in real life.
MSRP: $24,000 in 1995, $31,000 in 2014.