Payne: The legendary Acura Integra is back but faces stiff competition

Posted by Talbot Payne on August 25, 2022

Yuba, Michigan — Nostalgia is a powerful thing. I want to see Michael Jordan go one-on-one with Steph Curry. I want to see Pete Sampras vs. Novak Djokovic on Wimbledon’s Centre Court. I want Mario Andretti vs. Josef Newgarden.

I want to drive the Acura Integra vs. the Cadillac CT4.

Wait, what? I can? After a long walk in the woods, Honda’s luxury brand has returned to its sporty roots and brought back its famed entry-level hellion for the compact luxury segment. But a lot has happened since 1989 when Integra debuted. Like my sports legends of yore, could Integra ever live up to the expectations? What the heck, let’s give it a shot.

For the first time since 2006, the Acura Integra is back in the U.S. market. The hot hatch has 200 horsepower and front-wheel drive.

On adaptive cruise control talking with my wife via the Android Auto app (both alien, sci-fi technology to an ’89 Integra) heading north on U.S. 31 outside Yuba (just north of Acme somewhere in northern Michigan) a twisty country road loomed. I hung up the phone and hit the brakes hard — negating ACC — then downshifted the manual from 6th to 5th to 3rd.

BRAP! BRAP! BRAP! Each downshift was perfectly executed thanks to electronic rev matching (more tech alien to the ’89 generation). I rotated Integra beautifully, then smoothly put down power courtesy of the limited slip differential (no, they never heard of that in ’89 either). Handling, power, tech. The Integra is reborn, yes?

“No, it’s just not the same,” mused my friend Sean, who owned an ’89 Integra.

She remembers her Integra romance like it was yesterday. She loved the stylish pop-up headlights, airy greenhouse and raw, lightweight, 2,400-pound chassis that was easy to toss around.

The 2023 Integra is based on the Honda Civic (just like the original) but 1989 was a different Integra/Civic era. Sean’s Integra had an eager 1.6-liter fuel-injected mill that was followed by an 8,000-rpm VTEC engine in 1992 that won customer raves. I have an evolution of that engine in my manual 2006 Civic Si, and it’s a blast to row at 6,000 rpm — the variable cam screaming for more power all the way to redline. Packaged in the sexier Integra, it must have felt like a little bit of Honda’s Formula One racer DNA had been injected under the hood.

By contrast, the new 2023 Civic Si boasts a turbocharged 1.5-liter engine that has better low-end torque compared to its ancestor — but lacks its personality. The new Integra gets the Civic Si engine standard (not the Civic’s base 152-horse mill) putting out the same 200 horses as the Civic mated to a manual transmission. Just like the original Integra, but …

The 2023 Acura Integra is available with a six-speed manual (shown) or continuously variable transmission.

Sean immediately came to terms with the shifter (one of the best in the business this side of a Porsche Cayman) and its sporty rev-matching, but she missed the original Integra’s playfulness.

The new Integra is 700 pounds heavier, after all, and accessorized to the gunwales with sound-deadening materials, digital gauges, wireless smartphone apps, and standard four-doors compared to her ol’ Integra coupe.

It also conforms to the 21st century stylebook, which means a shallow greenhouse — the better to show off the big 18-inch satin wheels and sculpted side-and-rocker panel stampings. This new Integra has a gym-toned bod compared to the boxy builds of the ’80s and ’90s.

The lovely profile of the 2023 Acura Integra with satin, 18-inch wheels and coupe-like roofline.

No matter. To Sean, the Integra had lost its original, carefree character. Nostalgia is a powerful thing. Thus the risk of bringing back a legend.

I know the feeling, having recently driven my first love — the 1984 Volkswagen Rabbit (aka Golf) GTI. Like the Integra of its day, my ol’ GTI was light, airy, technically unsophisticated, yet alive with a bratty exhaust note.

How far we have come in 40 years. And that’s a key marketing challenge for the 2023 Integra.

Today, we have entry-level luxury hellions unheard of in the ’90s. There’s the aforementioned whip-quick Cadillac CT4. And Mercedes CLA. And BMW 2-series. And Audi A4.

The 2023 Acura Integra offers a leather interior with red seats and Alcantara inserts.

That’s a tough competitive brand set, and Acura competes with value, value, value. Load my sporty A-Spec-trimmed tester with all the goodies — head-up display, red-leather-Alcantara seats, 18-inch wheels — and it clocks in at $37,395, a whopping $7,200 grand south of a comparable Cadillac CT4 Sport at $44.6K.

Sure, the Caddy has rear-wheel drive, but the Integra has a stick. Nice.

But look in the rear-view mirror and the vehicles stalking my Integra are mainstream makes like the $35,390 Mazda3 Turbo and $39,385 VW Golf GTI — cars that are superior to Integra in performance, on par in tech.

Maybe it was always thus. A look back at enthusiast magazine Car and Driver’s 1992 archives finds Integra taking on seven other pocket rockets like the Eagle Talon TSi and VW Corrado in a comparison review.

“The Integra GS-R is not a hard-edged, seriously sporting car — its suspension is tailored for a forgiving ride, and the chassis delivers just 0.79 g of grip (both of which contributed to the car’s seventh-place showing around the racetrack),” wrote Car and Driver back then. “But, in typical Honda fashion, it does nearly everything well at a reasonable … price.”

Sounds like our Integra all right. It came in third overall.

I would rate it the same for the 2023 model. Get the hot-looking Integra because it wears better duds than a Civic Si, but it’s no hotter looking than the sculpted GTI or gorgeous Mazda3 hatches I’ve recently driven. Crucially, under the skin, Integra brings the same dynamics as the Civic Si: same 1.5-liter turbo-4, same electronics, same screens.

The Golf GTI and Mazda 3 bring similar value, only better. The Mazda3 boasts an interior on par with a Mercedes, for goodness sake. The Mazda3 also brings standard all-wheel drive (which will woo all-season Michiganians) and a blistering 250 horsepower and 310 pound-feet of torque that will out-drag the Integra to 60 mph by a half-second.

Enter Golf GTI, which goes to the top of the class with a sweet manual, 241 horses from a growly 2.0-liter turbo-4, and moves to match the athletic Integra. Want more? There’s the ridiculous, 310-horse, all-wheel-drive Golf R at $45K.

On a round-trip to north Michigan, the 2023 Acura Integra got over 32 mpg - besting the EPA average of 30.

Which begs the question: Will we get more from Integra?

I’m betting yes — both to compete against the Golf R, as well as up-trim luxury cyborgs like the Audi RS3 and BMW M2 and Mercedes CLA AMG 45. We’ll see what else Acura has in its toybox.

In the meantime, the base Integra is finally back. It may not be at the top of its class, but it’s a welcome dose of nostalgia for the Acura club.

2023 Acura Integra

Vehicle type: Front-engine, front-wheel-drive, five-passenger sports sedan

Price: $33,895, including $1,095 destination fee ($37,395 as tested)

Powerplant: 1.5-liter turbo-4 cylinder

Power: 200 horsepower, 192 pound-feet of torque

Transmission: 6-speed manual or continuously-variable automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, 7.0 seconds (Car and Driver). Top speed, 135 mph

Weight: 3,062 pounds

Fuel economy: EPA, 26 mpg city/36 highway/30 combined

Report card

Highs: Fun-to-drive hatchback; Acura value compared to other premium brands

Lows: Engine lacks Acura thrills; lacks value compared to other mainstream hot hatches

Overall: 3 stars

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at or Twitter @HenryEPayne.

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