Take 5 – Honda VTEC Racing

Words by Adrian Muscat Azzopardi & Photography by Raj Hunjan

I have been a Honda fan since 1998, when my dad surprised the family by driving down the road to our house in a brand spanking new UKDM Championship White DC2 Honda Integra Type R. He was not a petrolhead, never raced a car in his life, and to date I doubt the car has been driven within the VTEC range more than a handful of times (which is when I ‘stole’ the car for a drive). He still owns the car and drives it as his daily. Since that day I have been hooked on the Integra and vowed I would own one someday. That day has arrived and although I am a fan of DC2’s, over the years I have become a massive fan of the Honda K20 engine so I decided to go for the DC5 which in my view is a fantastic combination of chassis, engine and handling.

What further made the case for the DC5 is its usability and practicality. There are no tracks in Malta, where I live but my intention was to track the car in stock classes in Italy, and the DC5 allows me to do this with ample space for my family to join me. With a baby who is less than a year old and another one on the way, I probably should be browsing the ‘dull car’ classifieds and not figuring out how to fit two car seats in the back of a boy racer – but that’s a story for another day. It ended up being my daily for the past two months and I just can’t get myself to let go of it! I’ve also competed twice in Sicily with the car this year and have another trip booked within a fortnight.

Sicily Time Attack-3614The DC5 Integra Type R with the K20 engine is quite ‘limited’ when it comes to options. It was only built for the Japanese domestic market in relatively limited numbers and colours. The car was also built for the Australian domestic market and launched under the Acura RSX brand in the US and Canada but only the JDM version got the magical K20A engine, lightweight chassis, close ratio transmission, limited slip, Recaro seats, Brembo calipers and MOMO steering wheel as standard. My car is Arctic Blue with matching blue Recaro seats on the inside.

I knew it was the Integra I wanted but due to the limited numbers available for sale at any given point I had decided that I would also settle for an EP3 Honda Civic Type R which would tick most of the boxes, in particular reliability, trackability and the ability to take my whole family with me on track weekends although with far more limited space. If I’m perfectly honest with myself though I don’t think I’d have taken the plunge had I not found an Integra.

I have always been quite lucky when it comes to buying cars and the Integra was no exception. I had seen a couple of Civics but somehow they hadn’t got my mojo ticking. There’s something about the apparent lack of torque below 6,000 rpm on the K20 in the Civics (K20 A2) that make them quite numb until you enter the magical VTEC zone. The lack of limited slip also inevitably means more understeer due to inner wheel spin. I’m also such a fan of the Integra shape that something always kept me from closing the deal on the Civics. A DC5 suddenly came up for sale on the local classified’s and it was situated in the sister Island of Gozo which is the reason why most people wouldn’t have gone to see it. I called my parents (both die hard Integra fans) and asked them to join me for a ‘drive to Gozo’. We got to Gozo and the met the seller who was a lovely guy with very little knowledge of Hondas as he buys and sells cars as a side hobby and had taken the Integra in part exchange. I took the car for a spin and I knew that it would be coming home with me. Overall condition was very good, price was right and just needed to be negotiated slightly and the things which needed changing (suspension mostly) were not costly. Within an hour the deal was done.

Sicily Time Attack-3702The car looks and feels like a boy racer special, especially in the Arctic Blue colour which my car sports. The DC5 is a step ahead from the DC2 by way of interior and you do get a dashboard and controls which look much better than most Japanese car interiors, even by todays standards. Getting into the car is never entirely ‘elegant’ due to the high supportive sides of the Recaros but once seated inside you feel cosseted by the immensely supportive seats. The steering doesn’t have reach adjustability but somehow feels just right. Your hands just fall on the close ratio shifter and you immediately feel at one with the car. My car had a twin loop Mugen exhaust installed by the previous owner so it does ‘make more noise’ than a stock car but I’ve never been a die hard fan of the way Honda engines sound unless they’ve been treated to throttle bodies! I also have a nice red start engine button but I honestly have no clue whether this was installed by some previous owner or whether it comes as standard.

Sicily Time Attack-3714The nice thing about the car is that it feels entirely ‘normal’ to drive around on a daily basis especially below 6,000 rpm. It is by no stretch of the imagination exotic and it is once the car is pushed beyond the magical 6,000 rpm mark that the wolf shrugs off its fleece and engine and chassis come into their own. More on that later.

Performing at pace on winding roads is precisely what this car was built to do. As with most small capacity high revving engines, your first learning curve is getting the foot work right to keep the car ‘in the revs’. Once you get the hang of this, the car performs like few other front wheel drive cars. The DC2 has commonly been touted as the best front wheel drive handler ever and the DC5 is really an evolution of the earlier gem. It is less ‘raw’ but arguably more composed and the steering delivers the type feed-back which is increasingly absent from modern day cars.

I think the word confidence inspiring best describes this car especially for fans of front wheel drive cars. There seems to be this stigma among self declared ‘purists’ against front wheel drive cars and many people claim that a true sports car needs to be rear wheel drive but in my view this is so far from the truth. Front wheel drive especially coupled with a limited slip differential is actually immense fun to drive especially in road conditions where traction varies. The Integra has no traction control yet being front wheel drive you never wonder what the rear end might do. Stay ‘on the throttle’ and within the revs and you never have anything to worry about. The car is wonderfully predictable and I have never had a scare on road or on track. The steering communicates wonderfully and the Brembo brakes provide phenomenal fade-free stopping power.

The best feature of the exterior is the legendary Integra rear wing coupled with the electric blue colour. My car had had the wing changed by one of its previous owners to an adjustable Mugen wing which must have cost a fortune to change but the first thing I did as soon as I bought the car was to source an original wing from Ireland to revert the car to its stock look. The best feature of the interior has to be the beautiful blue Alcantara Recaro seats.

I tend to change cars quite frequently but this car ticks so many boxes I’ll have a hard time finding a replacement. As stated before my main criteria are reliability, the fact that the car must be trackable as well as the possibility to take the family with me on track days often driving a good 400km to and from the track. I find it hard to think of another car within the budget that fits the bill so perfectly. It also does remain exciting especially due to the fact that the engine is so addictive. I still own other sports cars but none of the engines gives the ‘race-car’ for the road feeling which the K20 gives me while also doubling as a docile every-day runner when driven below the revs.

Sicily Time Attack-3648I’ve been to neighbouring Sicily twice in the car in the past six months. Both were road trips which included a time-attack participation, very memorable and exciting! The first trip was on another level due to the fact that I placed second from twenty two cars in the two wheel drive stock class, being beaten only by a Lotus Elise. This was way beyond my expectations. During the second trip I was accompanied by the editor of a very special car publication called MotorStars! The trip combined the search for a classic Fiat 500 to buy as part of a new business venture as well as the participation in the time-attack championship where I placed third. The car performed like clock-work except for a problem with the second gear which I was finding difficulty selecting. It transpires I need to replace the gear as it is most probably ‘worn’ and I shall be dealing with this next week.

Other Honda drivers flash the lights when I drive by and that always results in a smile on my face. The Mugen twin-loop exhaust, although not excessively over the top also inevitably attracts attention as you drive by but it is not the type of car in which you constantly feel as though you’re being looked at.

It seems that not much needs to be done to keep a DC5 in top shape. Regular oil changes and routine servicing have seen tracked and supercharged engines often lasting above 350,000 miles without the need for a re-build. I shall be changing the timing chain at the same time as second gear as I am not sure when it was last changed and the car has done around 80,000 miles.

I have carried out very little work as such but the work I did literally transformed the car. When I bought the car it had mis-matched and mostly worn out suspension front and rear and during the first few days of driving I had a momentary scare. The car just went wide at the front with what seemed like very violent and unpredictable understeer. I immediately sourced a second hand set of original suspension and changed all shocks and springs and had a professional wheel alignment carried out. At the same time I bought a set of new road legal Dunlop semi-slicks to replace the Chinese tyres the car was wearing when I bought it. When I took the car for a spin after these changes the car was completely transformed. It stuck to the road and handled like a dream. I also installed Ferodo DS3500 brakes and braided lines and replaced the brake fluid with high temperature fluid. Finally I changed pretty much all the fluids including gearbox oil, engine oil and coolant as I wanted to start afresh, mostly due to the intended track use. Any Honda enthusiast will know that Eightspeed, Tegiwa and JapPerformanceParts will satisfy most tuning and after market requirements.

Sicily Time Attack-3716Dealer prices today hover around the £8-10,000 mark for quality DC5’s and I think the value of these cars can only go up for a number of reasons. Emissions regulations have led to all car companies switching to forced induction in recent years and Honda has also succumbed to this with the new Civic Type R. While having absolutely nothing against forced induction cars, by way of market values, being the ‘last of a generation’ always helps to push prices up. This, coupled with the legendary status of the K20 engine, the magical chassis setup on the DC5, and the fact that the car was produced in relatively limited numbers and only for the Japanese market can only result in prices going up over the next five years. The DC5 would be a difficult car to replace. If money were no object it would make way for a 997 Porsche GT3 which is my dream car as it can also be driven to and from the track and also has a legendary engine, just like the DC5.