Forgive me for insisting on writing about cars I have either driven or owned – I think it’s some kind of automotive catharsis. You may have noticed a taste for what could be described as the slightly offbeat, leftfield, or maybe just unloved. So, humour me as I bore you with the Honda Integra.
Being precise for a moment, Wiki informs that the version to which I am referring is the AV Series which was built between 1985 and 1989. It was known in other territories as the Quint Integra and also, in Australia, was sold as a Rover 416 (all these years I have thought myself to be a bit of a BL/ ARG/ Rover Group/ MGR officianado and I never knew that until now).
As mentioned by others in previous pieces, it was in the company of cars like the Toyota Corolla Liftback and Mazda 323F (the latter I really like in its BG and (especially) BH generations). One of my first recollections of this car – or at least the 1.5L version of it – is that Car gave it such a hammering in a first review article that Honda temporarily ‘black-balled’ Car, refusing to advertise in it for a period. Perhaps it’s a pity I only recalled this after I’d bought one a few years later…
The Honda replaced a much loved if very cranky, not to say rattly, Visa GTi. I was introduced to it by a mate at work who knew a family friend, recently widowed, who had no use for the super-low mileage car sat in her garage. I recall going to see it on a Sunday afternoon and, in spite of the fact that it would not work due to a flat battery, the car was absolutely mint and being offered at a very good price. Given that I was engaged and fairly soon to be married, it seemed like a sensible thing to do – move on from the characterful but troublesome Visa GTi and buy a Honda, with their legendary reliability – albeit one with a CRX-engine in it.
So it was that I set off from work one evening with two mates in tow to buy the car from her house in Marlow. Of course, I’d not driven it and, given that I was used to the Visa which was legendary in its own way for having a more benign but similarly well tied down and entertaining chassis as the 205 GTi, the ride home was a bit of a shock to the system.
The engine was a peach, fabulously refined, revvy and powerful, possessed of a superb sound-track. The gear-change was similarly sweet, even if the gear stick itself was as bit limp aesthetically. However, the Integra was proof that a great engine does not a good car make. This was due to a chassis which was terrible, the worst of any car I have owned and driven. How Honda managed to produce a car which pitched and wallowed as well as thumped and banged over poor surfaces, I have no idea.
The steering was long-winded and remote feeling – going down a twisty country lane induced car-sickness to me as the driver, let alone my poor wife to be who has a tendency towards that affliction. Overall, in spite of the entertainment to be had from extending the engine through the gears, I spent the whole drive home that night fighting the inner sense of … ‘oh my word, what have I done?’. About a month after I bought it the clutch failed, completely, which I suspect must have had something to do with being laid up for many months without use prior to purchase. So much, I thought, for that legendary reliability …
Fortunately, every day use served to bring out more appealing aspects of the Integra. It was roomy and comfortable inside, if very blue everywhere. It was a handsome car (I thought), albeit the flat white paint did little to help as I could not help but think ‘fridge’ every time I approached it. The larger wheels (with alloy-like plastic wheel covers) and chunkier rear spoiler helped to give a better stance from the side and rear three quarter views.
And there was always the talking point of the pop-up headlamps; very Lotus Esprit, I wanted to think. Equipment was unevenly specified – no alloys, no electric windows (even a Triumph Acclaim CD could boast those as standard) and no central locking, although it had a decent four-speaker radio-cassette player and a manual sunroof.
I have an old Performance Car magazine from March 1987 which a friend gave me some years ago featuring the Integra EX16 and a full Road Test of the Visa GTi too (small world, eh?). It summarised as follows “The Integra EX16 is the obvious choice for the family driver who wants a bit more space than the average hot-hatch offers, but does not want to lose the performance.”
More worryingly, it adds later “And most family cars are driven by more than one person, so you want something that can be trusted not to swop ends when the less experienced driver is only panicked into action by it suddenly letting go of the road”. I wonder if Performance Car also suffered the wrath of Honda’s PR and Advertising departments post the publishing of this article. To be honest, I never felt the car was that twitchy, but then I decided early on that, in spite of the smooth potency of the engine, it wasn’t that sort of car.
It will always have a place in my emotions as we drove off on honeymoon in that Honda, a honeymoon which took us around the Loire valley and back up through Paris. Cruising around on French roads suited the Integra as well as any – in 1993, they were already of a far better standard than those in the UK – as they placed the emphasis on the quiet flexibility of that advanced 1.6L 16v DOHC engine, and less on the discombobulating ride.
Overall, then, not a great car, but not without merit either. It was replaced by a new FIAT Cinquecento Sporting, a very different barrel of haddock, which, although a far simpler and cheaper car, had a surfeit of a quality which the Honda really lacked: personality.