Driving the Legends: Honda Integra Type R

Despite being too young to experience a Honda Integra Type R when they were new, I thought I had a pretty good idea of what to expect when, several years later, the chance arose to try one.

I had, after all, grown up on a diet of Top Gear and Evo magazine, so had spent an unhealthy amount of time watching and reading about how the Honda’s exotic double wishbone suspension and limited-slip differential helped to make it unbelievably good to drive. I knew it would be light, raw and immersive, with a bark from its hand-built 1.8-litre engine as it switched into the VTEC zone. And I knew about the stripped-back interior with its wonderful Recaro seats and short-shift, titanium-topped gear lever.

What I hadn’t expected from this front-wheel-drive car was to be facing backwards within 100 metres of setting off, frantically counter steering to correct the trajectory of a vehicle that was now well and truly out of control. Thankfully I was on a test track with little to hit, but crumpled bodywork or not this was still a crushing disappointment. What the hell had just happened?

The answer, my teenage self would have been relieved to hear, was nothing to do with the car, and not entirely the fault of its driver. Rather, it was the result of the actions of its well-meaning but cash-strapped owner who, having found the front tyres were struggling for traction, had rotated them with the rears until he could afford another set of Honda’s preferred Bridgestone rubber. Thus the worn fronts went on to the rear axle, while the more heavily treaded rears moved to the front.

The first time he accelerated with any vigour he probably thought it’d been a clever move on account of the added bite from the front axle. But there was a major downside in that the car’s already mobile rear end was now almost impossible to either control or predict.

I’m not sure whether it was some friendly advice, a not-so-friendly trip up a grass verge, or the arrival of pay day that served as the catalyst for new tyres to be sourced, but the important thing is that they were. However, the car was sold pretty soon after, making that short, unrepresentative and ultimately disappointing spin my only experience of the legendary Integra Type R. Until now.

Unexpectedly, this next encounter with a Type R takes place just outside Barcelona, where Honda UK has decided to put selected members of its impressive heritage collection to good use. One such car is a Championship White DC2 Integra, 58,000 miles on the clock, and benefitting from having Honda UK’s technicians and parts store behind it. The result is as good an example of this modern classic as you’ll find – right down to the barely worn tyres.

First thing to note is that this still isn’t a conventionally pretty coupe. But, as the saying goes, if you know, you know. So you tap the thinner windscreen in appreciation, marvel at alloys that are a mere 15 inches in diameter, and enjoy every moment of sinking into those wonderful seats. The interior might be basic, but the immediate driving environment is fabulous, right down to the thickness of the steering wheel rim.

The Integra still shifts too, not because it’s particularly powerful, but because it weighs so little. The official kerb weight is 1,125kg, and so 187bhp actually goes a fairly long way. Getting from 0-62mph, for example, takes a reasonable 6.7 seconds, and thanks to the dual character of the VTEC system, and the way the snappy five-speed gearshift encourages you to keep the car in its sweet spot, it is thrilling to drive even in a straight line.

Admittedly, 131lb ft of torque isn’t much, especially when it’s not delivered until 7,300rpm (the rev counter itself goes all the way to 10,000rpm!), but having to work for the performance makes it all that more satisfying when it arrives.

However, it’s the car’s handling that is the real focus of this drive. First to check it’s less wayward than my previous time in a Type R, and if so, to finally experience the magic I’d read about all those years ago.

It takes one medium speed roundabout to find out. First it’s the steering chattering away in your hands, power assisted but with beautiful weight and sublime feedback. Then it’s the way the car rolls gently on to its outside wheels as you change direction so that you can feel the tyres dig into the road surface. Next comes the front differential locking up as you get on the power, tugging the car tighter into the corner even as your speed increases. And last but certainly not least it’s the weight transfer as you modulate the throttle to tweak the rear end into play, simultaneously releasing some steering lock and reapplying the power to drag the car out of the turn. Wow.

This pattern is repeated corner after corner on some increasingly exciting roads, allowing the Type R to deliver more in the way of balance, communication and delicacy than any modern car this side of a Caterham 7 – and all comfortably within the speed limit.

It is this, along with their general usability, that serves as the true genius of these modern classics, isn’t it? This idea of having just the right balance between grip and go that you can feel the car working even at sensible speeds, and engines that deliver real character. That’s not to say they are slow either; a hard-driven Integra can cover ground at an extremely rapid pace and would make a great track day companion. But equally, outright speed and unimaginable levels of grip don’t form the core of its appeal in the same way they would with a modern hot hatch.

Which is how, on a series of winding Spanish country roads, the Integra delivered a truly spellbinding driving experience, more than living up to the expectations set by those old road tests. This was one of those drives that not only makes you grin from ear to ear, but provokes serious thoughts of finding your very own Type R so that you may have the same thrills on tap. Provided, that is, you can afford a decent set of tyres.
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