As noted in my previous COAL on our ’94 Honda Civic, it took me a number of months to find employment once we moved to Maryland in 1993. Once I did find a job we tried to be a one-car family for a bit but that proved to be too much of a commuting hassle. So not long after the Civic showed up in early winter 1993 I was in the market for a car of my own. Cheap was the order of the day.
Since my job was in northern Virginia and we lived in central Maryland, I had quite a long commute. The good thing was that the DC Metro system could get me most of the way to the office as long as I got to the end of one of the train lines. With one car, my wife had to drive me to the train station in the morning, drive back to her office, and then drive back in the evening to get me. Because the train station was in the opposite direction as her office she was driving quite a bit in DC traffic. Needless to say, this didn’t make either of us happy, so we decided to invest in a second car as it was probably cheaper than couples therapy…
As the job I took didn’t pay all that well, I was looking for a car with a low monthly payment (probably the worst way to buy a car, I know). At the time, Ford was still making the Ranger pickup at a pretty attractive price point. I was pretty convinced that this truck would be the ideal solution for cheap transportation until I drove one. I took a 4-cylinder manual transmission shortbed regular cab truck out for a test drive at a local dealer and did not like the handling at all. I’d never owned or even driven a short-wheelbase pickup truck, so the alarming tendency for the unloaded rear axle to skip around dramatically over bumps did not build my confidence. I also tried the current generation Escort LX two-door hatchback (in teal, of course) with the manual transmission and a “sport” package which was mostly a spoiler and some stripes. That car was definitely not competitive with its Honda counterparts that I’d been driving so this car wasn’t for me either. On the plus side, Ford was offering a “drive new every two” promotion which, if memory serves, was a car loan with an enormous balloon payment that you could avoid by trading the car in and restarting the clock. The salesperson put the hard sell on me by telling me about how he recently survived a heart attack and really needed the sale to put him back on track. No sale.
Since I had a history with Honda I did some research on Accords, which had been redesigned since my ’91 LX. Unfortunately, in my price range the bottom of the line was the best I could do, and by the time I added the dealer-installed air conditioning and stereo (with two speakers only) we were already beyond what I wanted to spend. A little additional research turned up another option at the Acura dealer, though – the Integra hatchback was probably in my price range if I squinted a bit.
The local Acura dealer had a dark gray Integra RS that seemed to fit my needs. This was also the bottom of the line, but unlike the Accord it did come with a stereo, power windows, power mirrors, and body color bumpers/mirrors. Air conditioning was a dealer extra, but this RS already had it installed. The RS didn’t come with cruise control or power locks, both of which would have been nice but not necessary (the car was narrow enough that reaching across to unlock a door was easy).
As with the Ford dealer, the Acura dealer’s saleswoman was very eager to get me into this car, and was willing to give me the pinstripes on the car for free (they were a dealer add-on to pad the price). The lease deals on this car were pretty good, but I wanted to keep the lease payment under $250 per month. Once the finance department worked up the numbers the payment came to $268.91 per month (amazing that I can remember that after all this time). When I balked a bit the saleswoman said the difference could be made up by having fewer cups of coffee per month – she didn’t appreciate my observation that I didn’t drink coffee. I knew she drank coffee, as her cowl-neck sweater had a puddle of coffee in the collar when we were talking – no idea how she managed to get the pool of coffee there and it made the negotiations a bit awkward. After much discussion and nearing the dealer’s closing time I finally agreed to lease the car. The salesperson was so excited that she accidentally spit out her dentures on the paperwork: something that I can say has not happened to me since.
This was the third-generation Integra with the quad round headlights and low-beam projector lights and I thought it looked really good, even with the plastic wheel covers that were all my budget would allow. It didn’t take me very long to begin enjoying that car’s agile handling and reasonable acceleration with the 142 hp 4-cylinder 5-speed powertrain. The manual transmission had a pistol-grip shaped shift lever you can see in the photo above: it wasn’t like the pistol grips of mid-60s Mopars but it was nicer than the plain knob on our Civic.
The first few months of ownership didn’t see much spirited driving as that winter had several ice storms, something I’ve gotten used to here in Maryland but hadn’t really seen in Ohio. Not much fun hacking ice off your new car, to be sure. If you look closely at the picture above, you can see that the cold weather has resulted in the automatic power antenna being stuck partway up (and note that the car still has its temp tags so this was probably in the first month I owned it). That was always a pain in the winter, and when it would stick it would make some really awful crunching noises.
I had to deal with another bad winter during my time with the car – we had a major winter storm crop up in 1996 that started when I was still at work. I had to drive all the way home (roughly 20 miles on surface streets) in increasingly heavy snow. My relatively low and sporty hatchback was sharing the snow-covered streets mostly with 4wd pickups and snowplows, but I didn’t have any trouble getting back home. The streets were essentially unplowed because the snow was coming down so quickly, but I didn’t have any trouble at all on my trip…until I got to the end of my driveway. There, I got stuck thanks to the snowbank at the end of the driveway. Nobody’s perfect, I guess.
My experience with the Integra was much more positive than my experience with the Civic. The car was more fun to drive (no idea why, as the basic platform was essentially the same) and the hatchback made it pretty versatile. I was able to bring home a large overstuffed recliner in that car by putting the base of the chair up against the front seats and laying the back of the chair under the rear hatch. I did learn, however, that it was very important with the large hatchback to have one of the doors cracked open a bit when the hatch was closed. If the doors were closed the hatch would be difficult to shut because of the pressure built up when the hatch was closed. The pressure was enough that I actually dented the hatch sheetmetal with my hand when I tried to shut it.
Early in my ownership of the car I brought it back to Ohio to show my parents my “sporty” car, and my dad was jokingly scoffing that I’d bought a “base” economy car with plastic wheels. Of course, not long after that he traded in his ’92 Prelude on a ’94 Integra himself, but he got the GS-R model with sunroof, CD player, uprated VTEC engine (170 hp), and rear spoiler. His car was significantly more fun to drive than mine. That was the first time I realized that my dad took my car knowledge seriously.
I learned from my experience with the Civic and bought a front end mask (the black vinyl kind) to protect the paint. They were expensive and fairly ugly, but at least they were a pain to install. Even so, I thought it was better at the time to have those hassles rather than a forest of stone chips on the front of the car. Same with our security system – I am sure that the Curbside Classic audience will remember “The Club” anti-theft device. We dutifully put it on the steering wheel every time we parked, much to the amusement of my parents when I did that in front of their house (at a time when they still left cars unlocked in the driveway). We finally gave up on the Club when it was pointed out to me that the device was easily foiled by simply using bolt cutters to hack through the steering wheel rim making the device easy to remove.
The car was a great joy to drive but my ownership period was relatively uneventful (and not that memorable, oddly enough). We did have a minor collision in a snowstorm with it, but that was quickly repaired. I didn’t have any mechanical failures and did little more than put gas in it and visit the dealer for maintenance periodically. After a little more than three years of ownership a lot had changed. We had bought our first house and I’d gotten a different job that was much more interesting. We were looking for a car that was roomier for passengers and had a few more amenities, so we traded the Acura in on something more “mature.” Its replacement wasn’t nearly as much fun, as we will see in a couple of weeks.