With the Acura Integra returning soon to the brand’s lineup, we wanted to spend some time with the original, but this rewind review wasn’t what we expected. In fact, it was rather anti-climactic—not because the Integra isn’t good to drive, but rather quite the opposite. The problem is the 1986 Acura Integra doesn’t feel like a classic car. It feels more like, well, a well-used Honda.
So, yes, with the 2023 Acura Integra looming, it’s important to realize why the original version belies its classic-car status to grasp the nameplate’s true importance. The 1986 Integra literally marked the beginning of an era, one that is only just now ending. The reason the first-gen car feels like an ordinary one today is that it set a pattern for ordinary cars to follow for the next three decades.
A Definitive End to the Malaise Era
Cast your mind back to 1985: An actor was president, young girls dressed like Madonna, and General Motors still sold two-ton rear-drivers with pushrod V-8s. If you were a performance-car buff—one who refused to be seen driving one o’ them furrin’ jobs—you likely choose between the 180-hp Chevrolet Monte Carlo SS, the 210-hp Fox-body Ford Mustang GT, or the 215-hp Chevrolet Camaro IROC-Z, all drawing power from a 5.0-liter V-8 (with the Monte and the Mustang still fed by four-barrel carburetors).
This was the year MotorTrend first drove the 1986 Acura Integra, the first of two cars from Honda’s new Acura brand, on a day-long cruise through Japan’s northern island of Hokkaido. We still didn’t have a clear idea of what the Acura division would be, let alone the impact the Japanese overall would have on the American luxury car market; that wouldn’t become apparent until Toyota launched the Lexus brand for 1990. Still, we knew when we looked at the new Integra, we were seeing the future. “Honda has once again come up with a car we really wanted, before we knew we wanted it,” we wrote in our November 1985 issue.
Inside the 1986 Acura Integra: Like, Totally Tubular!
The Integra’s interior—largely a clone of the Honda Civic’s, on which the Integra was loosely based—was a high point, especially compared to the slab-dash domestics of the era. Today in late 2021, sitting ourselves behind the Acura’s steering wheel (which does not contain an airbag, but looks like it could), we feel as if we are bodily spanning the years between 1986 and now.
Can we really call the 1986 Integra’s interior dated? It has a distinctly ’80s look, and yet in many ways it feels completely modern. The classic analog gauge panel will never go out of style, and but for the totally tubular diagonal-pattern upholstery, the thickly bolstered front seats could have come out of a brand-new car. They are certainly nothing like the flat bench seats found in American cars of the era.
Little details convey the Integra’s age, however. The A/C buttons click into place with a distinctly mechanical feel. The gearshift has an R where the 6 should be. There are no cupholders and no CD player; both, for cars at least, were still some years in the future. There is, however, an auto-reversing cassette deck plus a seven-band graphic equalizer with level lights that pulse with the music. Rad!
The Engine of Tomorrow, Today
Back in the ’80s, the Integra’s 16-valve 1.6-liter engine really turned our heads. It’s easy to chuckle at the oversized DOHC PROGRAMMED FUEL INJECTION decal on the Integra’s flanks, but in 1986 this was exotic stuff. Detroit’s four-cylinder engines were awful eight-valve lumps that were only just beginning to be tamed with throttle-body fuel injection, a cheap single-injector assembly bolted into the same spot as a carburetor. Even Honda, already known for the best four-bangers in the biz, still offered only single-cam 12-valve engines, all with carburetors (with fuel injection as a new-for-1986 option).
Of course, MotorTrend was no stranger to two-cam multi-valve heads; we tested plenty of European supercars, but to see such exotica on a reasonably priced car was a novelty. Same for multi-port fuel injection, which in 1986 was only just making its first appearance on Chevrolet’s Corvette and IROC-Z. To see such hardware put together with Japanese precision and refinement, though, was something new, even for us.
“The Integra’s four-valve-per-cylinder 1.6-liter engine proved much more than anticipated,” we wrote, “with a blend of flat-torque-curve power-on-demand, quick throttle response, and effective NVH (noise, vibration and harshness) damping unsurpassed in engines of its kind on the market today.”
In the muscle-car ’60s—not too distant in 1985’s rearview mirror—1-horsepower per cubic inch was the Holy Grail. The Integra drew a righteous 113 horsepower from a mere 97 cubic inches, this at a time when GM’s 231-cid (3.8-liter) V-6 only delivered 110. We clocked the then-new 1986 Acura Integra to 60 in 8.9 seconds, just 1.8 seconds behind a 1985 Ford Mustang GT.
The Engine of Yesterday, Today
Today we’re driving this classic Integra amid fast-moving Los Angeles traffic, and it’s a struggle. We’re trying to keep up with KJ Jones from MT‘s Truck and Off-Road Group in his Banks-enhanced Chevy Colorado, and we need every last bit of the Integra’s 99 lb-ft of torque. This example has 168,000 miles on the clock and feels appropriate for her age. But Jones knows where we’re going and we don’t, so museum piece or not, we’ve no choice but to flirt with the Integra’s near-7,000-rpm redline. At least that’s our excuse because we like pushing the Integra—and the Integra likes being pushed.
With any luck, you are too young and/or fortunate to have driven a four-cylinder car in the early ’80s. Trust us, they weren’t great, with low and feeble torque peaks concentrated at low or mid revs. Few Americans had experienced anything like the Integra’s engine, it’s thin low-end torque gradually building and building before surging at 4,000 rpm into a crescendo of power delivered all the way to its exotically-high 6,700-rpm redline—and all the while accompanied by a wonderful sonorous snarl. Today’s drivers might say, “So what? That’s how every engine drives!” Sure, today they do—and we have the Integra’s influence to thank for it.
The Correct Tire Transforms the 1986 Acura Integra
Believe it or not, in our original 1986 test report we complained about the Acura Integra’s handling, fixing blame on its Michelin MXV tires which put low limits on the Integra’s grip for both turning and braking. (Back in those days we had to modulate brake lock-up in panic stops; there was no ABS to do it for us.) “It was as if the chassis dynamics were tuned to a much more high-performance set of tires,” we wrote, “only to be replaced at the last minute.” We surmised that better rubber would make the Integra a handling gem.
Thirty-five years later, our supposition is confirmed. Our classic Integra’s 14-inch aluminum wheels are fitted with a modern set of Falken Azenis RT660s, and the car is masterful. Out on one of our favorite curvy roads, it simply refuses to relinquish its grip on the pavement. The suspension—struts and torsion bars up front, twist-beam in the back—keeps body motions under control, and despite a complete lack of electronic stability control, the Integra never does anything sudden or scary. The steering reminds us why people miss hydraulic assist; it feels alive and chatty with feedback. The effort to turn the tiller is light, and yet the power assist is dialed back enough that you almost forget it’s there at all. If a brand-new car drove like this 35-year-old Acura, we’d have nothing to complain about.
Lost in Time
And that, right there, is the conundrum we face in writing about this classic 1986 Acura Integra in modern times. Not long ago we drove another classic Honda, the foundational first-generation Accord, and there was no mistaking it was a disco-era relic. The timeline is a mind-bender: Only eight years separate that Accord from this Integra. Meanwhile, the time gap between the Integra and modern cars is more than four times as long. And yet it feels like 35 years separate the original Accord and this original Integra, which surely can’t be more than a decade older than modern day cars, tape deck and gnarly upholstery notwithstanding.
We understand why. In the wake of the Acura Integra’s introduction, the 16-valve, dual-overhead-camshaft, multi-port-injected engine would become the industry standard, reigning right up until the recent adaptation of turbochargers, direct injection, and electrification. Detroit would give up its ribbon-style speedometers and one-finger-light power steering to better emulate the Integra. Thanks to Acura, upscale cars would soon be judged not by their size but by their performance, agility, and build quality.
Indeed, Honda, Toyota, and the other Japanese automakers fundamentally changed what American automobile buyers wanted, and the 1986 Acura Integra was the car that pointed the way. And so, we can forgive this three-and-a-half-decade-old classic for feeling ordinary. After all, it defined what ordinary would become.
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