24 May 2016

Driving down memory lane in the world’s cleanest Acura Integra

It’s hard to think of an Acura Integra—or any Acura, really—as a classic car. Has it really been 30 years since this hatchback rolled off the line in Suzuka? Perhaps the Integra transcends time because of its nameplate’s longevity, which hung around (in Japan, anyway) until its 20th birthday. It was one of two vehicles that launched Acura as a mainstream luxury brand in the United States, complementing the Legend sedan.

On the occasion of the Integra’s third decade, Acura lent us a first-year Integra that lives a pampered life in Honda’s North American museum in Torrance, Cali. “Museum” is a funny word to Honda, a company that’s only sold motor vehicles since the early 1960s. Almost every vehicle housed at the museum is a running example, and a statement of living automotive history. That doesn’t mean that they’re all low-mileage cars, however. Each model represents the period in which it was originally sold, and maintained to like-new condition.

It’s rare occasion that media have the opportunity to peruse the Honda collection; rarer still when we have the opportunity to drive the vehicles that inspired the modern vehicles that succeeded them, as well as changed scores of collectors lives’ around the world. To fully experience this Integra as if it were still 1986, away went the smartphones, live traffic updates and anything that couldn’t have happened back then, either. (The only variable beyond our control was a gas station that accepted a credit card at the pump.)

With almost a full day to explore southern California with the Integra, we promised to treat the Integra as if it were our own car, and set off from Torrance toward Los Angeles.

First, the basics. This Quartz silver, three-door Integra has over 100,000 miles on the analog odometer, but it looks and feels new in almost every dimension cosmetic. For our visit, Acura had the Integra (RS, 5-speed manual, cloth seats) looked over by a mechanic to get it up to freeway-capable condition, but almost all of the parts—save for new tires, and several other items—are unchanged. Even if you are totally unfamiliar with the original Integra, you should be able to impress local barflies with the knowledge that the Civic derivative came as a three-door and five-door hatchback, as well as a four-door sedan, and was fitted with standard disc brakes.

How do you evaluate a classic Acura with a lifetime’s worth of miles already on the clock? By forgiving its faults and celebrating its triumphs. Using that logic, it was hardly relevant whether the air conditioning worked, or if the cruise control lost any speed while cruising on the 405. What mattered was trying to capture the feeling of the ‘80s in a relatively short amount of time.

The startup procedure was as normal and uneventful as it gets, if a little noisy: a brilliant reminder that cars built today, from economy cars to luxury cruisers, are more refined than ever. No matter. The seatbelt fastened with a satisfying mechanical click. You squirm around a bit in the fuzzy, Eighties cloth, in order to get comfortable, and then begin to notice the wide expanse of dashboard that feels all too snug. The first tug at the steering wheel revealed a little less power assist than has become customary. Pushing in the clutch pedal and testing the shifter was simple. In the Eighties, you didn’t need to know much about a car to get it started and on the way.

In fact, getting the Integra to work was such a non-event that we nearly forgot to check the gas gauge to see how much juice was in this museum piece. (The answer? Not a lot.) A few drops of fuel later, we were ready to tackle Hollywood.

Like this well-preserved Integra, constantly facelifted Southern California is a suitable analog. Tinseltown is looking better than ever, making it an appropriate backdrop for this examination. To get from Torrance to Hollywood, we jumped on the 405 just after the conclusion of the morning rush. I prepared to stay in the rightmost lane. A previous adventure along the same artery in a classic car was a wheel-clutching, white-knuckle affair, but the Integra immediately proved it could hold its own. The shifter’s light action made it a joy to change gears. Snick, snick, snick. When you can literally feel the mechanical action, there’s nothing you can do to prevent a smile from stretching across your face. The brakes were strong. The one mechanical failing of this Integra was a missing turn signal stalk, which meant a lot of hand gesturing.

The first order of business was to grab a bite, and there isn’t a more symbolic institution in the Hollywood area than Canter’s Deli. One of few remaining, traditional delicatessens in Los Angeles in particular, and the United States at large, Canter’s has offered almost the same fare for decades, unchanged. A deli sandwich and a crunchy pickle complement any afternoon wonderfully, just as an ’86 Integra improves Canter’s aging, period-correct orange exterior. The valet attendant paid us no attention. Only in L.A. is it expected to see an Integra in such amazing condition.

The majority of challenging roads in Hollywood earn that reputation because of their congestion, not their curves. After lunch, we headed to the hills. The best local spots to exercise a sports car are in the tightly winding Hollywood Hills. I began the ascent in low gears to let the Integra’s 113 horsepower speak for itself, and it was immediately clear that the Acura hadn’t lost any pulling power over the years. A curb weight of under 2400 lbs. will do that, sure, but the Integra felt even lighter on its feet than the numbers suggested. We experienced bit of understeer coming in strong to a banked canyon, which was mitigated by the Integra’s unusually taut stance, despite it possessing tall, thin tires.

For some comparison, Honda provided a 2016 Accord Sport with a 6-speed manual transmission to test before and after the Integra. The clearest sign that Honda nailed the driving experience the first time, and has then continued to repeat it, is that the Accord feels related—and relatable—to the Integra.

By the time the afternoon was over, bellies full and still not quite ready to push through traffic to return the Integra to Torrance, we hadn’t tired of the Integra one bit. Handing the key back to Honda was bittersweet, knowing that we might not again get behind the wheel of an Integra as well preserved as this one. We had spent a day doing exactly what a typical ’86 Integra owner might: commuting, parking, and actually having a little fun on the road.

Everything that we did in 2016, its original owner could have done 30 years earlier. That’s a pretty neat feeling. It’s just difficult to picture.

Honda provided the test vehicle from its North American museum collection.

1986 Acura Integra
1.6-liter inline four-cylinder engine, 113 horsepower, 99 lb.-ft,
5-speed manual transmission or 4-speed automatic transmission, front-wheel drive
23 city / 28 highway (manual, mpg)
Base price: $10,593 (Integra LS 3-door, MSRP when new)

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