Curbside Classic: 1988 Acura Integra LS – A Hot Hatch For The Civic Minded

(first posted 10/12/2012)    The 1980s ushered in a seismic shift in the U.S. automobile market.  The trend that had for generations carried Detroit ever higher–longer, lower and more powerful–no longer attracted the young demographic as it once did.  Performance was still popular, but now an increasing number of emerging new car buyers preferred it in something small, nimble and of high quality. And right there–as though it had staffed its planning committees with recent Hogwarts School graduates–was Honda, with products sure to draw those new buyers into Honda showrooms all across the country.

In the U.S. in the 1980s, Honda could do no wrong. Throughout that decade the company went from strength to strength, as Honda sales marched steadily upward (and increasingly spoiled Honda dealers made more money)  year after year. Even so, Honda planners could sense a ceiling on the U.S. market–and believed that a new car line was needed to smash through it and take the company to the next level.

Honda was an upstart, a maverick of a company.  While Toyota and Nissan had been building cars even before the Second World War, Honda was originally a parts supplier that had expanded into motorcycles; in fact, their first attempts at passenger cars seemed to have more in common with motorcycles than the typical sedans of the day. The first Honda car exported to the United States was the teeny Honda 360, which most Americans–even those who’d gotten used to VW Beetles–tended to view as a sub-car. (Ditto the more powerful  Honda 600, CC here.) Even the 1973 Civic, Honda’s first “real” car, was a curiosity that appealed mainly to college students.

Nevertheless, Honda kept improving the Civic and, in 1976, took the next step up with the Accord (CC here). Even as continuous refinement produced evolutionary and incremental growth in both cars’ size and features, people still thought of Hondas as well-built (and increasingly expensive) starter cars. As Honda owners grew older and wealthier, their natural move up the automotive food chain would be to larger and more expensive cars, like BMW and Audi.

In 1986, Honda did what no established car builder had done in the U.S. since the Edsel: Launch a completely new brand.  Sixty new dealers were the points of introduction to Acura, and their first task was to teach America to not pronounce the name accenting the middle syllable.   The new brand’s slogan was “Precision Crafted Performance”; it might as well have been “Sell lots of cars and make lots of money”, because that is precisely what Acura did with its two new models, the executive-class Legend, and the smaller, entry-level Integra.

In 1985, the Integra was introduced in its home market as the Honda Quint Integra.  Although the Japanese lineup included a four-door sedan, only three- and five-door hatchback Integras were introduced in the U.S., in March 1986.  The hot hatch segment, led by the Volkswagen GTI, was then  popular in the U.S. and elsewhere.  But rather than copy the GTI’s lusty, torque-y grunt and Teutonic personality, the Integra took a different and more Japanese direction.  Honda took the basic Civic platform and then went to work on it.  While the Integra’s unique torsion bar front suspension was essentially the CRX’s, its longer wheelbase removed the choppiness.

The 1.6-liter engine was a honey.  Smaller than the VW’s 1.8, the Integra’s mill was a 16-valve DOHC design that did its work higher up the tach.  Its fairly meager 99 ft/lbs of torque arrived at 5,500 rpm (compared with 3,000 for the VW), and it made its 113 horsepower at a lofty 6,250 rpm.  Actually, there were two different versions of this engine: the 1986-87 version,  known as the browntop (from the color of the valve cover); and the blacktop version, used in 1989-90 cars, which was good for another five horsepower and four foot-pounds of torque. Both engines were vintage Honda – smooth and sweet, all the way up to the nosebleed-inducing redline, and producing a 0-60 time of about 8 seconds.  Subjectively, the GTI might have felt quicker, but an Integra would beat it to 60 by nearly a full second.

When these cars came out, I had a girlfriend who’d been driving her late grandfather’s whaleback ’78 Cutlass.  Gad, but I hated that car.  It was that awful, washed-out yellow with GM’s trademarked diarrhea-brown interior.  She was thinking about buying a new car and asked me to go with her to check out an Integra.  I was driving an ’85 GTI at the time, and thus quite conversant in hot hatch.  We test- drove a gold-color, five-door automatic.  Her unwillingness to consider a five-speed for such a sweet car was undoubtedly the first crack in a doomed relationship.  But enough of my troubles.  I recall that while the structure was not quite as tight as my VW’s, the car was quite nimble.  The power train did nothing to dissuade me from believing that automatic transmissions were invented for lazy American torquemaker engines of the 1950s, and that whomever hooked one up to a high-revving, four-cylinder engine was a moron.  Still, when you could get the automatic to hold onto a gear for a bit, the 16-valve engine could put a big smile on my face.

The car was quite a success in the U.S., and was named one of C&D’s 10 Best for both 1987 and 1988.  U.S. sales during the car’s four-year run totaled 220,000 units, reaching a high of 77,000 in 1989, the final year of the first series.  Who bought all these cars?  Although Integras became favorites of the street racer crowd, many buyers were not whom you might think.  My stepmother traded in a Ford Tempo on one of these, a black three-door automatic.  She was no racer girl, but in the late 1980s there was something about the vibe of an Acura that told the world you not only had your wits about you but some style as well.  Did Acura’s early success lead to the introduction of Lexus and Infiniti a few years later?  It certainly didn’t hurt.

With so many of these Integras running around every part of the country, where did they all go?  I cannot speak for other regions, but here in the Midwestern U.S., about a third of them ended up at the hands of Fast and Furious wannabes who gave them funky paint jobs and fart mufflers, while the rest dissolved into flaky residue on well-traveled thoroughfares.   When I found this particular car in the parking lot of a shopping center, it dawned on me that I could not remember the last one I’d seen, let alone one in this  condition.  It took a little doing, but I identified it as one of the later cars by the subtle changes to the front end.  Black stains around the exhaust– the harbinger of some significant repairs–make me fear for its longevity, though.  I hope that this car’s owner has bonded with this Integra and its many charms, and keeps it singing for years to come.

Being first is not always the best thing.  With the 1989 appearance of Lexus and Infiniti on American shores, it began to look as though Honda’s luxury brand hadn’t aimed high enough. Suddenly, the slightly upmarket cars in Acura showrooms did not seem quite so special.  Their new competition had maintained a high-tech aura while also adding some serious luxury to it.  The result was that while Acura customers traded in Hondas and Oldsmobiles, Lexus customers traded in Cadillacs and Mercedes.  Unable to fight its way out of a crowded middle market, the Acura brand has seen its efforts ebb and flow over the years.

Then again, perhaps the “Lexus concept” has colored our perception of what an upper-level Japanese brand should be, which would be a shame: When taken on its own terms, the original Acura Integra was a compelling and endearing car.  If you liked that hard-to-describe quality that made a Honda a Honda during the 1980s, then the original Integra might well have been that true Honda essence, distilled into its purest form.