The $50,000 question: Acura Integra Type R or Alfa Romeo 4C?
So much for that movie magic. We were on Terminal Island, part of the Ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles and the place where the final minutes of The Fast and the Furious were filmed. In that scene, a street racer and his undercover-cop nemesis engage in a quarter-mile race that finishes with both cars barely beating a speeding train across an intersection. This being the real world, however, our situation was different. To start with, the train had beaten us to the intersection, rather than the other way around, and it was in the process of slowing to a dead halt. Until this train resumed its motion, we weren’t going anywhere. “This road is not fast,” I said, “and it’s making me furious.”
Two cars—unrelated except that they are both from foreign lands, have four-cylinder engines, and roll on round wheels—waited for Walmart’s freshly imported stock to get moving on up the line. The Flamenco Black 2000 Acura Integra Type R, driven by owner Sterling Sackey, is a front-wheel-drive, five-seat Japanese hatchback designed, and mostly sold, in the past century. Meanwhile, people have cottage cheese in their refrigerators that is older than Bob Russell’s 2015 Alfa Romeo 4C Launch Edition. Yet these two cars currently command the same money—about $50,000—on the secondary market.
This is a stark but fascinating choice. You can be the umpteenth Porsche 911 driver at your local car show, or you can have a carbon-fiber, mid-engine quasi-exotic. Or you can have a limited-production street ninja that distills the essence of Honda’s seven-decade crusade to produce miniaturized perfection. Which will it be?
As you’d expect, the Acura all but disappears when parked next to that little red coupe from Alfa Romeo. Designed under the supervision of Lorenzo Ramaciotti, the man who also signed off on the Ferrari Enzo and Maserati’s current GranTurismo, the 4C has some of that bulbous but sleek look that distinguished the old Ferrari F430 and 599 Fiorano, rendered in slightly busy fashion at approximately 7/8ths scale. It’s certainly a shock to the average American, for whom the Alfa Romeo brand is still closely associated with the boattail 1966 1600 Spider driven by Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate. The company traded on that association in the lean years of the 1980s, going so far as to build and sell a low-cost variant of the Spider badged simply “Graduate.”
The 4C, like the Spider, is an Italian-built two-seat sports car powered by a twin-cam inline-four, but that is where the similarities come to an abrupt halt. The Spider traded on its looks and nostalgic appeal, particularly toward the end of its 28-year production run. This new Alfa, by contrast, is intended to be a technological cymbal crash, as modern as any of today’s renaissance exotics.
The core of the 4C is a carbon-fiber monocoque chassis weighing only 143 pounds, with aluminum subframes bolted to it front and rear. A 1742-cc, 237-horsepower turbocharged four-cylinder engine sits behind the occupants and drives the rear wheels through a six-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission. Unashamedly raucous, the fast-revving inline-four howls under acceleration and then delivers a sharp crackle and pop with each one of the transmission’s seamless shifts. It sounds exotic from a distance, and you can usually hear the Alfa long before you see it.
That’s doubly true when Bob Russell is behind the wheel. It’s the first new car he has ever owned, after a career spent maintaining high-value vehicle collections for other people. “She’s an Alfa Romeo, the first real Alfa sold in the U.S. in 20 years or better. I had to do it.” In the years since taking delivery, he and his wife have driven it all around California and beyond in search of twisty-road adventure. More than 36,000 miles of hard use have blasted their Alfa’s nose into a peppermint mix of red paint and white primer. “I don’t baby the car,” Bob says with a shrug.
Sackey’s Acura, by contrast, is nearly flawless, even at close inspection, which is what makes this, a car that often sells in the teens and 20s with higher mileage and a lot more flogging, possibly a $50,000 car. It’s not even the most collectible variant. That would be the 1997 introductory car, painted the Championship White associated with racing Hondas in general and the Type R models in particular. The first batch of 500 didn’t even have air conditioning or a radio, although subsequent limited runs in 1999, 2000, and 2001 had those refinements.
“There were about 3800 Type Rs imported during those four years,” Sackey notes, “but I’d say that maybe 10 percent of them are in unmolested condition.” The Integra was famous for being easy to steal, and the Type R was a particular target—not because it was desirable, although it was. Rather, it was because the 195-hp, 8500-rpm engine could be bolted directly into the lighter and smaller Civic from the same model years. If the B-series Honda engine is the small-block Chevy of the new street-racer generation, the B18C5 is its 1970 LT1. Nearly perfect from the factory, the B-series is capable of massive power gains with the right modifications.
A quick half-lap of Terminal Island in the Alfa’s passenger seat next to Russell shows that this particular 4C hasn’t lost a step since leaving Modena, where Maserati assembles the car for its corporate sibling. Thanks to an aftermarket chip, it’s probably a little faster than it was when new. Yet raw pace has never been the 4C’s problem. Alfa Romeo added a few hundred pounds’ worth of safety equipment and crash reinforcement for stateside sale, but at less than 2500 pounds fully fueled, this is still an extremely light and responsive sports car, not much slower in a straight line than a turn-of-the-century V-8 Ferrari.
Drivers who fit into the little Alfa—and that’s not everybody—will find plenty to appreciate, from the polished-aluminum switchgear to a steering rack that goes about its business without any power assistance. On the move, the 4C forces you to involve yourself in the experience. This is not an automobile in which you eat a fastfood lunch, partly because there’s no place to put the bag. Nor can you idly chat on a cellphone, because expansion joints require a two-fisted correction.
There’s one thing that might end up separating the Alfa from an assured place in the classic-car panoply: that dual-clutch automatic. This one has the latest software updates, thanks to Russell’s persistence and skill in getting the most out of his local dealer, but it’s still deeply ambivalent about its work. Left to shift for itself, it seems to be on a mission to choose the wrong gear at all times. Switched into “manual” mode, it can display a truculent attitude toward the driver’s commands. A paddle-shifted manumatic is now de rigueur everywhere from Formula 1 to your Hyundai showroom, and given enough time, you would certainly get used to it. Still, a good conventional transmission with a single foot-operated clutch would make the 4C just about the perfect pocket-size Italian exotic.
I know where Alfa Romeo could get one, or at least where it (and everyone else) could look for inspiration. The Acura Integra Type R has a legendary five-speed stick tucked into the parsimonious space between its front seats. “I think it’s the best shift feel in a Japanese car, maybe the best shift feel period,” Sackey says. He should know, at least regarding the first part of his assertion. His Southern California company, SW2 Japan Sports, scours the country for the best factory-original, unmodified, low-mileage Japanese sports cars money can buy.
I pop open the Acura’s flimsy driver’s door and settle into the supportive but comfortable seat. Almost immediately, I’m nostalgic for the contrasting-color stitching and careful detailing found all over the 4C’s cockpit. The Integra’s interior is no less black than its exterior, without a single bit of shiny trim or contrasting color on the hard-plastic dashboard to lighten the mood. My seating position is perhaps three inches lower than what you’d get in a modern compact car, yet the 47-inch-tall Alfa makes the Acura feel like a Honda CR-V by contrast.
Although Acura was always meant to be an upscale brand, at least in theory, there’s nothing luxurious or interesting about the Integra’s cockpit. In Japan, this was but a Civic with a sleeker and heavier body shell, sold in Honda’s home-market Verno dealerships that typically handled offbeat fare like the Prelude. There’s plenty of headroom available, but two large-size adults sitting in the front seats will rub elbows. The center console is tucked under the dashboard in an attempt to create space. The switchgear is familiar from the Civic and other entry-level Honda products of the era, but in 1997, the Type R sold for more than $24,000.
There’s a payoff for the Acura’s prosaic accommodations. It weighs merely 100 more pounds than the carbon-fiber Alfa, despite having a big glass hatchback and a reasonably useful pair of rear seats. Honda made it light the old-fashioned way, by using the thinnest panels and the least material possible. Every body panel, including the rear quarter-panels, will flex under the pressure of a motivated index finger.
A unibody this ethereal is a poor platform on which to build a sporting proposition, so Honda took extraordinary measures with the Type R. It is famous for being seam-welded instead of spot-welded. Seam welding, a process typically reserved for race cars, joins the different stampings of a unibody car together with long, continuous welds. This makes the shell much stiffer than that of a standard production car in which the stampings are welded in discrete “spots” with room for flex and corrosion in between. It makes a difference. Factory seam welding is rare (although if you purchase a late-model Aston Martin or Lotus, you will get an adhesive-bonded chassis that accomplishes much the same goal).
I’m expecting great things from this Integra, and from the first fast corner it fails to disappoint me. At a time when most sports cars were already styling on 17- or even 18-inch wheels, Honda stuck with 15s for the Type R, mounted to extra-stout five-bolt hubs. Thus, the lead-booted sense of running-gear inertia that affects most modern sports cars, including the Alfa, does not affect this little hatchback. Authenticity without flash is one thing that makes the Type R so cool.
Like the 4C, the Acura has a control-arm front suspension and an eerie sense of connection with the road. You get the sense that you could distinguish individual bits of gravel beneath the front tires, and sure enough, when I hook a hard right from Cannery onto Tuna (yes, those are the real street names), I can feel a flicker of feedback as the left front wheel rolls over a few pebbles on corner entry.
On the way out of “Tuna Corner,” I pin the throttle and let the Integra wind up to that famous 8500-rpm fuel cutoff. Surprisingly, there’s a lot of flywheel weight to overcome, but when the VTEC variable timing kicks in after the “6” mark on the tach, there is a strong and steady pull to the redline. Even so, I can see why many of the Type R’s original owners spent serious money on engine tuning and modifications. The Alfa can run away from it without so much as a downshift, and the approximately three-second gap in quarter-mile elapsed time between the two cars contains everything from a 5.0-liter ’87 Mustang to the current Honda Odyssey minivan.
But it doesn’t take more than 10 minutes behind the wheel to be convinced of the Acura’s status as a modern classic of the first rank. The control efforts are perfectly matched, the handling is beyond criticism, and the powertrain has a nervous precision. You wouldn’t tire of driving the Type R, even in daily use, although you’d never feel much affection for the way it looks or for the minimum-effort execution of the interior.
At the end of our day, both of our owners are effusive in their praise of the other car. “If I were a collector,” Russell, the Alfa owner, notes, “the Acura would most definitely be a keeper.” Meanwhile, Sackey, the Integra man, is completely taken with the 4C’s exotic looks and construction. “Seeing that carbon chassis when you open the door is worth the price alone.”
Which leads us to the $50,000 question: Which car offers the most satisfaction for the money? Buyers thinking about long-term appreciation might want to consider the Acura. The conservative choice, it’s a blue-chip member of an exclusive group of Japanese cars that will likely continue to gain value for years. The Alfa is a riskier bet. The collectors of tomorrow might not give it any more respect than they’ve accorded the Milano and the 164—or they might consider it the spiritual successor to the mid-engined Dino—a cheap Ferrari without a Ferrari badge. It’s a roll of the dice, and much of that roll depends on how posterity regards that fussy dual-clutch transmission.
If you’re thinking about the here and now, though, the 4C and the Type R are compelling propositions, albeit for different reasons. The Alfa is a cornucopia of engineering achievement, unfettered ambition, and sensuous styling that stumbles a bit in the execution. It’s also an Italian wildcat for a younger turbo generation that glories in flame-spitting Group B rally monsters more than the classic front-engine GTs of an earlier age. The Acura, meanwhile, demonstrates what can happen when you apply a Formula 1 team’s worth of engineering effort to a prosaic platform. It is a hero car to an even younger generation reared on front-drive hot hatchbacks and a street language laced with arcane product codes and Japanese hot-rodding slang. Yet both cars will attack a back road with infectious enthusiasm—and they’ll both draw a crowd at any Cars and Coffee event you’d care to attend.
When that Terminal Island train finally started moving about 20 minutes later, our little caravan was ready to uncork some nervous energy. From my perch in the photography van, I could see and hear both cars ripping away from us—the Alfa with its sonorous song and the clipped brutality of its instant shifts, the Acura wailing toward that improbable redline, its nose rising and falling in the short throw from second to third. I couldn’t help smiling at the thread of unbridled enthusiasm that connects these cars—across continents, across decades, and across cultures. In today’s drab crossover-centric automotive environment, the 4C and the Type R are heretical by their very nature, sisters in a subtle witchcraft. When you have that, who needs movie magic?