LOS ANGELES, California—What does it mean to be “rad?” To the folks who run the Radwood car meets, “Anything built/sold between January 1, 1980 and December 31, 1999 is automatically rad.” What about stuff that lies just outside that definition, say, a 2001 Acura Integra Type R? That’s rad, too, since its styling is visually unchanged from its pre-1999 counterparts. As it turns out, Acura had just such a Type R on hand for me to drive to Radwood’s retro-themed event in L.A. late last year.
I grew up a Volkswagen buff, so this was a chance for a Japanese company to win over the heart of a German car enthusiast with what some would argue is its best model ever. The formula for what makes the Integra Type R special is simple: a high-revving naturally aspirated inline-four is mated to a close-ratio five-speed manual transmission and sends power through the front wheels. The car is lightweight and its handling and technology was inspired by Honda and Acura’s racing experience.
My loaner came from Honda’s museum and had less than 4,400 miles on the odometer when I was handed the keys at the Japanese manufacturer’s U.S. headquarters in Torrance. The Phoenix Yellow paint was immaculate, as were the 15-inch wheels. I absolutely didn’t want to screw this thing up.
For this child of the 1990s, who has spent the bulk of his professional life in the era of widespread turbocharging, the Type R’s ultra-high redline took some getting used to. The many new cars packing turbos tend make their power low in the powerband with the meatiest punch coming around the 2,000-rpm mark. I spent my initial hours gingerly exploring the Integra’s power delivery—I drove it home and parked it in my garage more carefully than anything I’ve driven before—before starting to open it up a little more the next morning. It was then that I discovered what the hype is all about.
The epiphany came when VTEC—the variable valve timing and lift system that switches between two cam profiles—engaged for the first time. (No, I won’t say it, yo.) I pulled out of the tunnel that joins the 10 with Pacific Coast Highway in Santa Monica, eased into the throttle in third gear, and sent the tach needle climbing toward redline. As the cam profiles changed, the engine note shifted from pleasant growl to an outright wail that could rip open the sky. It was so awesome that I actually let out a primal scream of my own.
I wound my way up to the coast and noticed drivers of regular Integras, turn-of-the-century-era Civics, and other Honda products lose their minds when they saw the Type R pull up next to them at a lights. I found a canyon road and went to work, revving out the 1.8-liter as much as I dared while tackling the twisty stretches of Malibu pavement.
The tight corners allowed me to quickly dial into the front-wheel drive coupe’s handling. The steering wheel is big and there’s a little play around center, but the power-assisted rack gives incredible feedback during brisk driving, delivering the every crack, bump, and nuance of the road directly to my fingertips. Compared to the electrically boosted steering systems in almost all current cars, this was a revelation. The limited-slip differential also really helps keep things tidy when squirting out of a corner.
Like many people born in the ’90s—especially on the West Coast—I grew up in a Japanese car, so the Integra Type R’s interior was a blast from my own childhood, down to the smell of the cloth seats. Acura’s museum car was so pristine that all of the knobs and controls had their original tightness. I tuned the original radio for my favorite station, and when the Foo Fighters’ “Everlong” started playing, the transformation to early-2000s boy racer was complete. This car was the perfect time capsule for steeping myself in the end of the Rad Era.
No one questioned the Integra Type R’s radness when it was parked on the Petersen Automotive Museum’s roof for the Radwood L.A. show. As part of Acura’s display at the event, the Type R was parked alongside an original design model covered in the same Phoenix Yellow paint. I parked alongside other Acura cars from the Honda museum, including a concept that would eventually become the not-rad Acura RL. The coupe was a hit, and once the hood was open, a whole swarm of onlookers gathered to get a peek at the race-inspired powerplant.
I never quite understood the Integra Type R’s status as an icon until I spent time behind the wheel. Given that one with less than 2,000 miles sold for more than $60,000 at Barrett-Jackson’s Las Vegas Auction last year, the collector market is starting to acknowledge the significance of this front-wheel-drive performance coupe, and it helps that people who lusted after them are now making real money. After my weekend with a pristine example, I can say with authority that this Acura is truly, definitely rad.