Some carmakers have flagships that they always throw their whole weight behind. The Porsche 911, Chevy Corvette, and Mercedes S-Class come to mind. Honda has that too, but instead of a single model, it has a moniker: Type R. It may mostly compete on the budget end of car market, but Honda is an engineering powerhouse with massive, two- and four-wheel motorsport-dominating, HondaJet-releasing pride. It could make a supercar, and it has. Twice. They were both fantastic, even if we only understood just how good they were with time.
But Honda doesn’t limit itself to showing that flair in supercars alone. Type R is Honda’s gateway into throwing that weight toward the more pedestrian end of the market. A Type R is a reason to sit up and pay attention because, more often than not, it’s Honda bringing its A-game to a humble sport compact. And it all started with the DC2, the 1996 Honda Integra Type R.
[Editor's Note: JDM Week at The Drive is brought to you by Duncan Imports, one of America's largest importers and resellers of Japanese domestic market vehicles. Big thanks to owner Gary Duncan for opening up his private collection and allowing us to take a few for a spin. If your interest is piqued, you can see the company's full inventory here.]
The original Integra Type R’s renown is so great that it’s often held in the same regard as Japan’s more powerful forbidden fruit, like the Nissan Skyline GT-R. But reverence is a double-edged sword, and unrealistic expectations can turn even a terrific car into a letdown. The Integra Type R’s fame could be its own worst enemy, and besides: the Integra has always been just a fancy Civic. How good could the original Type R really be?
All doubt evaporates the instant you shift from first at the towering 8,400-rpm redline, and drop into second right on the 6,000-rpm threshold of VTEC. Everything about the Integra Type R is designed this holistically; every change Honda made amplifies all the others in a way that makes the Type R far exceed the sum of its parts. It’s a driving experience with no modern analog and one that somehow ranks among the very best cars I have ever driven. It’s proof that you can have rear-wheel drive, all the power in the world, and enough tech to confuse Star Trek’s Borg and still fall short if you can’t tie together the fundamentals.
The Honda Integra Type R does this perfectly, and it sets a high bar that even many of the best performance cars today still fall far short of.
|1996 Honda Integra Type R Specs
|1.8-liter naturally aspirated inline-four | five-speed manual transaxle with a helical limited-slip differential | front-wheel drive
|197 @ 8,000 rpm
|131 lb-ft @ 7,500 rpm
|The original front-wheel-drive Type R makes driving thrilling like almost no car made before it—or since.
Introduced in 1995 in Japan, the Honda Integra Type R built on what was already an excellent compact car chassis, with double-wishbone front suspension, semi-trailing arm rear, and a responsive 1.8-liter four-cylinder. Technically, it’s just an upmarket Civic, but that’s no diss: this is a serious platform that can go head-to-head with sports cars of its era on a track. I know this from experience; I’ve raced a class-winning Integra, and even that was more car than most people can drive to its limits on track. The Type R, meanwhile, is on a whole ‘nother level—maybe two.
While some performance models amount to factory bolt-ons and an ECU tune, the Type R is different down to the chassis. Honda gave Type Rs extra seam welds and chassis bracing to improve rigidity while shedding weight with alloy wheels, a thinner windshield, less insulation, and deleting equipment like air conditioning and the sound system. To capitalize on cutting 93 pounds, Honda retuned its suspension and fitted bigger brakes to compensate for its hand-built 1.8-liter B18C four-cylinder.
Honda hand-polished its head ports, increased its compression ratio, and fine-tuned its intake and exhaust to make what was then the most power-dense naturally aspirated engine ever in a road car. The result is a broad torque curve and an 8,400-rpm redline, where the second cam profile doesn’t come on until around 6,000. Its 197 horsepower and 131 lb-ft don’t sound like much, but they were enough to justify including a helical limited-slip differential in its five-speed manual transaxle. It too has been tailored specifically for the Type R, with close ratios to keep you in the power band, and a short final drive.
Now, the Integra Type R for all its renown wasn’t a Japan exclusive. Left-hand-drive models were sold in the United States with a different front end, leather seats, and marginally less power. (We also got the lesser GS-R, which is still coveted today.) But the vast majority of DC2s were sold in Japan, where this right-hand-drive example came from.
One of the most common tells that you’re looking at a Type R clone is a four-lug hub. The car I drove has them, but they were standard on all early DC2s; five-lug hubs didn’t arrive ‘til 1998. You’d be hard-pressed to fake the Type R’s body-hugging Recaro bucket seats, exclusive shift knob, small-diameter steering wheel, and spritz of carbon fiber trim. That also goes for the Type R-embroidered floor mats, decals, and DC2 serial plate under the hood. Besides, you’d be able to tell the real thing just from how Type Rs drive.
From the second you sink into the seat over its tall bolstering and roll out onto the road, everything about the Type R feels tight. Everything from the way the Recaros cup you to the small steering wheel, which hastens the steering rack and adds weight to its feedback. The clutch bites like a gator, and the chassis feels stiffer than a regular Integra, though not in the harsh way modified cars often do. It’s more refined than that, though not on the front of sound deadening: there’s a good deal of road noise.
Honda’s manual transmissions with their short, slick throws are always a joy to operate, and you operate the Type R’s a lot because man, these gears are short and close. The Type R is already spinning more than 2,500 rpm in fifth by 45 mph, and it exceeds 3,000 by 55. A highway cruiser—no, a daily of any kind—this isn’t, and not just because of gearing or noise. Its back seat is too small for adults and hard to access through its coupe doors, while no cupholders are to be found. Its low chin scraped too, on what I wouldn’t even consider much of a dip. You’d have to be out of your mind to use the Integra Type R as a commuter—unless your route follows first-rate back roads, which is where the Type R shows what it’s really made of.
Scoff at 1.8 liters and 131 lb-ft all you want, but stiff engine mounts and short gearing amplify what torque there is for a lively response at low to mid revs. Mid of course goes a lot further than in most cars, to about 6,000 rpm, which is where (pardon the cliché) VTEC kicks in, yo.
You know the drill: you’re already turning enough rpm that many cars are ready to grab the next gear when the engine note changes character entirely, and the revs rise even quicker than before. Aaaaall the way up to 8,400 rpm, each rotation vibrating your entire body through the stiffened chassis and bucket seat before you slip the shifter into second—resetting the tach to 6,000, where the adrenaline jolt begins again. So it goes from second to third, and I would imagine fourth and fifth. A multi-gear pull in a DC2 is what I imagine railing multiple consecutive lines of cocaine to be like; I can’t count how many times this engine made me say, “Holy shit!”
It wasn’t just the engine that made me swear, either. That extra chassis rigidity shows up most conspicuously in the rear of the Type R, which doesn’t roll like a regular Integra. It’s stable, trustworthy, even ignorable, freeing you to focus on the business end of the Type R: the front axle. The steering is neither burdensome nor too light, and its response and feedback accentuate the sense of speed the Type R carries through each corner—no matter how tamely or wild you drive.
Front-end traction was so great that I never got to put its LSD to the test, and the brakes did their silent, honorable job without getting too long in the pedal like many Hondas can. Every last detail of the Type R is designed to keep your attention on the front end: the steering, the engine, the transmission, and you; the maestro of this Super Eurobeat album on wheels. It banishes fear of over- or understeering and makes you ask yourself, "How fast can I take that?" of each corner.
The Integra Type R heightens your sense of speed in a way that you don’t need a deathwish and a disregard for the redline to deeply enjoy it. Even if you don’t venture into the upper reaches of the tach more than once a week, the audible and tactile feedback still make it one of the most exciting cars I’ve ever driven. It’s still deceptively quick, though: Best Motoring found its track pace wasn’t far off the fastest Japanese cars of the era. I’d wager it’s a more exciting drive than an R33 Skyline GT-R or Mk4 Supra, too.
What To Know Before Owning
Many cars of the 1990s are getting tough to find parts for, but Hondas have so much interchangeability that you’ll be able to fix ‘em as long as we have gas to fuel ‘em. Mods are technically an option, but nothing about the driving experience needs fixing, and it’d be worth more kept stock anyway.
What’s more likely to be an ownership issue is condition—not so much mileage, but age, and the fact that you’re buying a used Type R. Odds are, every owner has driven their car as hard as you hope to. But again, '90s Hondas will be fixable for our lifetimes, and what's more likely to claim your Type R is theft. Hondas of this era are infamously easy to steal, on par with Kias and Hyundais as of late, so it’d be worth investing in an ignition interlock, GPS tracker, steering wheel club, and bolt cutter-resistant locks for your trailer.
Between its unsuitability as a daily, risk of theft, and value, a Honda Integra Type R is best owned by someone with a garage who takes it out for great local roads or the occasional track day. It may be a FWD Honda with less than 200 hp, but it’s absolutely worthy of the best tarmac on the planet.
The Honda Integra Type R truly deserves the reverence it’s held in by Honda fanboys and weeaboos; I never wanted my drive to end. Even decades later, measured against the many greats that have followed it, the Integra Type R more than holds up. If anything, the way modern cars dull your sense of speed rather than accentuate it only highlights how close to the apex of the automotive experience Honda got—all with a front-drive compact wearing stickers and a goofy wing.
Got a tip or question for the author? You can reach them here: firstname.lastname@example.org