COAL: 1994 Acura Integra GS-R – Picking Up Speed

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My 1994 Acura Integra GS-R. As usual, all pictures are of the actual car.

While I was largely satisfied with my 1991 Acura Integra, something happened the very next model year that would begin to change that: The Integra GS-R. By dropping in a high revving VTEC engine under the hood, Honda turned their already good car into a great one by employing a time-honored solution: more power.

I immediately knew what my next car was going to be: As soon as the third-generation Integra came out I was going to get one in GS-R form. So in mid 1993, with the lease on my 1991 Integra expiring, I went to put a deposit on a brand new 94 GS-R. The only problem was that the GS-R was a delayed introduction, meaning that there would be a 2-3 month time period after I turned in my ’91 and before my ’94 arrived when I would have no car. Luckily, the dealer was helpful and had a steady stream of loaners I could drive until my ordered car came in.

Even more interesting was that I was buying the car essentially on faith. The dealer had a regular (non GS-R) ’94 Integra that I test drove which gave me a general idea of what the car was like, but obviously I couldn’t drive an actual ’94 GS-R since there were none at that time. That’s OK – such was my blind faith in Honda, and my faith would not be disappointed.

The GS-R came fully equipped, and offered only one transmission (5-speed manual), so literally the only choice I had to make was was color. Four colors were available as I recall: Red, Black, White, and the Blue-Green pictured above that I ended up getting. My previous Integra was red, so I wanted something different. By dint of coincidence, a former schoolmate had a black Integra, so I didn’t want to copy him. White was totally out: Too appliance-like and generic, it is a color I still dislike to this day. This left the blue-green.

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When I finally got the call in mid-November that the car had arrived, I rushed to the dealership to pick it up. They informed me that mine was the second 1994 GS-R to be sold in the entire Cleveland area. I remember the day well – an early slushy snow had fallen, but I didn’t care – I was tossing the car around to see what it would do.

My immediate impression was how solid the car felt. I never realized how loose and jiggly the 1991 Integra was in comparison. There were the usual intra-generational increases in stiffness and rigidity that were common back then, no doubt aided by the switch from frameless door windows to fully framed window glass in this generation. There was also a shock tower brace that was not present in lesser Integras. Whatever the reason, the GS-R felt like a single piece.

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But perhaps most impressive was the centerpiece – the 1.8 DOHC VTEC engine. Let’s start with the specs: The data below comparing the VTEC and non-VTEC versions of this engine should tell you all you need to know about the character of this engine.

Engine Type 1.8-liter, 16 valve DOHC inline 4 (RS, LS)
1.8-liter, 16 valve DOHC, inline 4 with VTEC (GS-R)
Horsepower, SAE Net 142 hp @ 6300 rpm (RS, LS)
170 hp @ 7600 rpm (GS-R)
Torque, SAE Net 127 lb ft @ 5200 rpm (RS, LS)
128 lb ft @ 6200 rpm (GS-R)
Redline 6800 rpm (RS, LS)
8000 rpm (GS-R)

It may seem hard to believe in this era of 200+hp Civic Si’s and 300+hp Focus RS’s, but 170 in a compact hatch was a big deal in 1994. But also note where this power peak came: At 7600 RPM, higher than the redline of most cars, and a mere 400 RPM south of the 8000 RPM redline. Let me repeat that – 8000 RPM redline. That is getting into motorcycle territory.

Driving this car requires a complete mental recalibration, especially if you shift by ear instead of using the tachometer. You shift much higher than you normally would. Around town driving typically involves upshifting at 3 or 4000, right before the VTEC kicks in, for maximum economy and comfort.

About that VTEC kick – this engine has two personalities more akin to a turbocharged engine. Below 4000, it is quite frankly a dog. While capable of sub six second 0-60 times, you had to mercilessly abuse the clutch (which in fairness mine never complained about). If you got caught off-clutch at low RPMs, you either had to downshift, or, if you were already in first gear, wait it out until the revs built up. While most engines run out of steam at 5000 or 6000 RPM, things are just getting cooking in the GS-R. 7000 RPM goes by fast, well on the way to the rev limiter at 8100, which I regularly hit, since there is no noticeable power drop-off at redline, due to the high power peak.

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The five-speed was also a delight. The throw on the shifter was reduced to about half what it was on the previous generation, meaning that gear changes required little more than a flick of the wrist. The longer throws on the 1991 Integra felt positively truck like in comparison.

Was everything perfect? No – I never warmed to the front end styling. The four dinky round headlights seemed to be overwhelmed in a sea of plastic, giving the front end a bulky appearance. Worse, because they were recessed, the headlights captured snow and blocked the headlights in winter (a flaw addressed later in the production run by making the headlight covers flush with the front fascia).

1994 GS-R in winter

1994 GS-R in winter

More concerning were the less-than-positive signs of creeping modernity. Dual airbags raised the dashboard, which raised the cowl, which in turn raised the beltline all the way round. While the 1991 Integra was airy and bright inside, the 94 had reduced sightlines (especially out the rear), presaging the claustrophobic gun slit window look now currently in vogue. Worst of all, the “picture window” front windshield from the previous generation Integra was long gone.

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Never did like the front end

The rear spoiler (with its then exotic LED third brake light) seemed to block the rear view more than the spoiler on the 91 did. The OEM Michelin MXV4 tires introduced me to the oxymoronic concept of all-season performance tires, which necessitated the purchase of a set of Blizzaks for winter use. And the sound system (like most factory stereos in the day) was garbage.

But these were minor issues in an otherwise great machine, and the pluses of the second generation greatly outweighed the minuses. As you can gather by now, I turn over cars fairly quickly, and usually don’t look back. This was a genuinely fun car to drive, and one that I kind of wish that I had held on to.

So where did I go from here? Well interestingly enough, Acura and I both kind of grew up. The third-generation Integra would be the last one to carry the Integra name. Acura tried to push things upmarket a bit with the RSX, and I was starting to grow out of my boy racer phase. Well, almost – but first, an excursion in two wheels. Find out more next week!