1992 Fun Four-Cylinder Two-Door Showdown

From the April 1992 issue of Car and Driver.

Let’s review the depressing facts. A Lamborghini Diablo costs $260,890. A Porsche 911 Turbo starts at $108,843. An Acura NSX, the “affordable” supercar, goes for $66,960. Even that most familiar of sporting machines, the Chevrolet Corvette, runs a jittery $34,604. So how the hell are you ever going to afford a set of great-driving wheels?

Gathered for this review are eight cars guaranteed to kick-start your adrenals and set your synapses afire. Yet under the hood of every one is an economical four-cylinder engine.

Don’t groan: these days, a four-cylinder definitely does not induce yawning fits. Speed? Five of these sportsters can reach 130 mph or more. Quickness? How about a group average zero-o-60-mph time of 7.4 seconds. Grip? All but one entry can circle the skidpad at 0.80 g or more.

And the good news continues. The base prices of these bantam roosters range from $15,187 to $20,230—not exactly peanuts, but well into the I-can-probably-swing-that-if-I-cut-out-lunch range.

Now for a rundown of the players—eight of the most tempting mid-priced four-bangers on the market. Volkswagen’s Corrado replaced the Famed Scirocco in 1989, and it was our only supercharged entry. Toyota’s current curvilinear Celica GT-S appeared in the 1990 model year. The Nissan 240SX SE, the only rear-driver of the bunch, received a 15-hp increase in 1991. Isuzu’s feisty Impulse RS, released in 1991, brings a turbocharger and full-time all-wheel drive to the party. Honda has completely redesigned its Prelude Si for 1992; the car earned a spot on this year’s 10Best list. Ford’s popular Probe GT, treated to a face lift in 1990, continues unchanged into ’92. The Eagle Talon TSi AWD, also a 10Best winner, offers new flush headlamps instead of last year’s pop-ups.

David DewhurstCar and Driver

Finally, there’s a new Acura Integra model for 1992: the GS-R, featuring a 1.7-liter four with variable valve timing that produces 160 horsepower and gives it the highest specific output found in any naturally aspirated piston engine sold in the United States.

Ranking eight such qualified machines required a platoon of editors and an arsenal of analyses. We began in Rosamond, California, home of Edwards Air Force Base, where we put the cars through a full battery of instrumented tests and a series of hot laps on the short Streets of Willow circuit at Willow Springs racetrack. Then it was off on a three-day odyssey that took us across the high desert, over the serpen­tine Tehachapi mountains, through tiny Cholame (and the final intersection in the Life of James Dean), northwest to Paso Robles, and finally down Highway 101 back to Los Angeles.

The voting was frightfully close, but our favorites were clear. Here’s how our eight fired-up fours fared:

Eighth Place: Isuzu Impulse RS

David DewhurstCar and Driver

Behold the mighty mite of the pack. With a 160-hp turbocharged and intercooled sixteen-valve 1.6-liter engine, full-­time all-wheel drive, and a Lotus-tuned suspension packed into its stubby 96.5-inch wheelbase, the Impulse RS offers both sophisticated hardware and impressive punch.

The test-track results speak well of this car. A run to 60 mph took just 7.0 seconds; top speed was 130 mph. And the little Impulse turned in the third-best lap time around the Streets of Willow circuit.

HIGHS: Power, four-wheel drive, low price.
Thrashy engine, quirky looks, high-strung handling.

Yet the Impulse stumbled in subjective areas so critical to the enjoyment of an automobile. A few comments from the logbook: “The engine does a superb job of changing a gallon of gas into a carful of noise,” and “This car rattles, shakes, and generally feels crude.” Indeed, the sound­-level chart revealed that the Impulse RS was the loudest car in the group at idle and the second-loudest during 70-mph cruise. Worse, the sound is buzzy and irritating.

The RS also drew criticism for its choppy ride, its twitchy transient handling (it posted the poorest slalom time), and its hit-and-miss styling. Several logbook entries described the RS as “odd-looking.” And though it boasts an EPA highway fuel-economy rating of 28 mpg, we saw a trip average of just 18 mpg.

Still, at a base price of $15,998 the RS is one of the most affordable of our players. And with its power, all-wheel drive, fine seats, and standard driver-side airbag, it’s a decent value. By honing the car’s rough edges, Isuzu could go a long way toward improving the RS’s overall rating.

THE VERDICT: Potent and technology-laden, but needs finishing school.

1992 Isuzu Impulse RS
160-hp turbo inline-4, 5-speed manual, 2840 lb
Base/as-tested price: $15,998/$16,748
60 mph: 7.0 sec
100 mph: 20.0 sec
1/4 mile: 15.6 sec @ 88 mph
Braking, 70­0 mph: 184 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.83 g
C/D observed fuel economy: 18 mpg

Seventh Place: Toyota Celica GT-S

David DewhurstCar and Driver

The Celica GT-S finished here for two reasons: it’s expensive and it’s slow. Separately, each of those qualities gave us pause. Together in one car, they spelled seventh place.

Propelled by a sixteen-valve 2.2-liter four that makes just 130 horsepower, the Celica was the least powerful of the cars. And one of the heaviest. Not surprisingly, the GT-S recorded the group’s slowest 60-mph time: 9.1 seconds. It also posted the slowest lap time at Willow Springs.

HIGHS: Unflappable chassis, luxurious cabin, fine fit and finish.
lmpotent engine, dizzying sticker.

Yet things improve dramatically outside the engine room. The GT-S handles beautifully—there’s 0.84 g of grip available, and the suspension is viceless. “Chassis is soft but composed,” wrote one tester. “The combination of grip, balance, and suspension tuning make this one of the most comfortable cars to run hard,” wrote another.

The GT-S also drew raves for its finely crafted interior and its solid construction. From the logbook: “Great ergonomics and comfortable, grippy seats,” and “Details beautifully handled—feels like an expensive piece. Unfortunately, I gather, it is.”

It is. Base price (including a standard driver-side airbag) is $17,623, and the tab can climb quickly from there. Our highly optioned test car—including anti-lock brakes and a compact-disc player—checked in at a jaw-dropping $23,033.

As admirable as it is, the Celica GT-S simply doesn’t offer enough bang for bucks like those.

THE VERDICT: A polished cruiser for the affluent comfort-seeker.

1992 Toyota Celica GT-S
130-hp turbo inline-4, 5-speed manual, 2960 lb
Base/as-tested price: $17,623/$23,033
60 mph: 9.1 sec
100 mph: 32.6 sec
1/4 mile: 16.9 sec @ 81 mph
Braking, 70­0 mph: 174 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.84 g
C/D observed fuel economy: 21 mpg

Fifth Place (tie): Volkswagen Corrado G60

David DewhurstCar and Driver

“Better than the sum of its parts,” is how one tester rightly described the Corrado.

This is not a car whose hardware impresses on its own—no singing engine or silky shifter or striking cockpit here. Yet the Corrado is handsome, quick, and sure­footed, with its own unique flavor.

HIGHS: Stability, roominess, velvety steering.
Droning engine, rubbery shifter, lofty price.

The VW’s 1.8-liter engine uses an intercooler and a belt-driven supercharger to churn out 158 horsepower at 5600 rpm and 166 pound-feet of torque at 4000. The sprint to 60 mph takes 7.5 seconds and, as you’d expect of an autobahn-bred machine, top speed is a solid 130 mph.

The logbook reveals praise for that performance, but there are caveats. “The engine’s tone does not exactly conjure images of F1 engines,” wrote one staffer. “Sounds tinny,” wrote another. Also criticized was the shifter: “It has a strange dead feel to it at times,” and “Very balky three-­two downshifts.” The Corrado’s motorized passive belts didn’t win any admirers, either.

Yet after an extended turn at the wheel, editor after editor came away with an overall appreciation of the VW. “Quite calm and controlled at high speed,” noted one. “Well planted on the road and securely balanced,” wrote another. “It’s very difficult to make this car do anything wrong,” said a third. Also commended was the Corrado’s upright driving position, its buttery smooth steering, and its roomy interior (with a very usable rear seat).

David DewhurstCar and Driver

The Corrado lacks the polish of the top finishers, and our $22,085 model seemed weak on value. But its German personality is strong, and that may be enough to convince the faithful.

THE VERDICT: Low on polish but full of poise and German gusto.

1992 Volkswagen Corrado G60
158-hp supercharged inline-4, 5-speed manual, 2640 lb
Base/as-tested price: $20,230/$22,085
60 mph: 7.5 sec
100 mph: 22.2 sec
1/4 mile: 15.9 sec @ 87 mph
Braking, 70­0 mph: 182 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.81 g
C/D observed fuel economy: 20 mpg

Fifth Place (tie): Ford Probe GT

David DewhurstCar and Driver

We devised our street-start acceleration test—from a rolling 5-mph start to the finish at 60 mph—for cars like the Probe GT. Some of the other cars, launched from a standstill with a screeching high-rpm clutch drop, can beat the Probe off the line, but none can touch the GT in a rolling sprint.

HIGHS: Straight-line thrust, low base price.
Torque steer, crude engine sounds, Teflon seats.

Which goes a long way toward explaining what we like about this car. The GT’s turbocharged and intercooled 2.2-liter four makes the world’s strongest 145 horse­power, and there’s a heady 203 pound-feet of torque at just 3000 rpm. This translates into effortless speed from corner to corner—and big grins for whoever is behind the wheel. “The turbo power does wonders for fun,” exclaimed one tester. “Engine pulls harder from the mid-range than any other powerplant here,” wrote another.

The engine may even be a little too lusty: for every enthusiastic remark about the Probe’s power, there was criticism of its monumental torque steer, the bane of potent front-drivers. “Under power, the car never settles down—it constantly darts and weaves,” noted one editor. Nor did the engine score well in refinement: “It sounds like a wheat thresher hard at work on a fall harvest,” was one of several similar complaints.

The Probe’s handling was deemed either “skittish” or “exciting,” depending on the particular editor’s predilection for oversteer. And the GT’s three-position, cockpit-adjustable shock absorbers drew mixed reactions. “Normal shock setting seems more than sufficient for most driving,” wrote one tester. “Sport setting necessary for any speed,” countered another. There was near-universal agreement, though, that the Probe’s steering was far too light. And that the flat leather seats were Teflonville in hard corners.

At a base price of $15,187, the Probe GT is the kindest on the wallet. That fact alone may entice buyers who don’t mind its wild hair.

THE VERDICT: A sleek filly that’s spirited but untamed.

1992 Ford Probe GT
145-hp turbo inline-4, 5-speed manual, 2960 lb
Base/as-tested price: $15,187/$20,440
60 mph: 7.2 sec
100 mph: 20.7 sec
1/4 mile: 15.6 sec @ 89 mph
Braking, 70­0 mph: 176 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.80 g
C/D observed fuel economy: 19 mpg

Fourth Place: Nissan 240SX SE

David DewhurstCar and Driver

Earlier, we mentioned that the Nissan 240SX received a 15-hp increase in 1991—to 155 at 5600 rpm.

It needs more.

Here is a superb chassis in need of a great engine. Look at the 240’s test results. Most skidpad grip. Second quickest time through the slalom (the 240 has Nissan’s Super HICAS four-wheel-­steering system). Best brakes, period.

HIGHS: Faultless chassis, attractive interior, powerful brakes.
Buzzy, underpowered engine.

Most of our subjective impressions were equally positive. From the logbook: “Driving position is excellent,” and “Interior is very nicely done,” and “Control placement and feel are great.” From our race-circuit driver: “Chassis very poised—a great car on the track.”

But then there’s the engine. “Vibration at 3500 rpm is tragic,” wrote one tester. “Engine not bad at cruise, but there’s sure not a lot of oomph when you stand on it,” wrote another. And this: “Engine buzzes are pure bad old days.”

Frankly, the engine’s coarseness was not unexpected. It’s a big four-cylinder—at 2.4 liters, the largest engine in this test. And big fours typically need balance shafts to minimize that vibration. The 240 doesn’t have them.

David DewhurstCar and Driver

You’ll note that even with its disappointing powerplant and its $20,050 as-tested price, the 240 scored a solid 8 of 10 in the value voting. Imagine what we’d think of this car if there were a spectacular engine under its hood.

THE VERDICT: A great car in need of a great engine.

1992 Nissan 240SX SE
155-hp inline-4, 5-speed manual, 2940 lb
Base/as-tested price: $17,185/$20,050
60 mph: 7.9 sec
100 mph: 24.8 sec
1/4 mile: 16.2 sec @ 84 mph
Braking, 70­0 mph: 164 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.85 g
C/D observed fuel economy: 20 mpg

Third Place: Acura Integra GS-R

David DewhurstCar and Driver

While the 240’s engine received nothing but raspberries, the Integra’s amazing new powerplant drew only raves.

In 1989, reviewing the soon-to-be­-released 1990 Integra, we lamented Honda’s decision to offer its potent, variable-valve-timing (VTEC) engine option only in Japan.

HIGHS: Stout power, sophisticated cockpit and deportment.
Low grip, soft suspension, modest low-rpm torque.

But now it’s here. It’s a naturally aspirated sixteen-valve 1.7-liter four. It produces 160 horsepower—think about that—at 7600 rpm. It has an 8000-rpm redline. It sounds like a third of Ayrton Senna’s McLaren-Honda V-12.

The logbook overflowed with kudos: “The best sporty-car powerplant this side of an Acura NSX,” and “The engine is simply wonderful,” and “This powerplant lives to rev.” It delivers, too: the GS-R raced from zero to 60 mph in just 6.8 seconds and reached a top speed of 136 mph.

This is, admittedly, a peaky powerplant. The engine breathes in and does its McLaren-Honda impersonation only when the VTEC system engages—at about 5600 rpm. Below 5600, it’s noticeably less responsive, as the logbook indicated: “You really have to work this car if you want to extract its maximum potential,” and “Below the top of the rev range, the engine is a bit underwhelming.” Still, the engine received a 9 in the voting.

David DewhurstCar and Driver

Also on the plus side is the GS-R’s superb five-speed shifter (no automatic is offered with the VTEC engine), its hand­some and well-sorted cockpit, and its obvious attention to detail.

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). But, in typical Honda fashion, it does nearly everything well at a reasonable, under-$20,000 price.

And it packs one of the most exciting engines of the year.

THE VERDICT: A genteel sportster that shines above 5600 rpm.

1992 Acura Integra GS-R
160-hp inline-4, 5-speed manual, 2680 lb
Base/as-tested price: $18,300/$19,300 (est.)
60 mph: 6.8 sec
100 mph: 19.9 sec
1/4 mile: 15.4 sec @ 90 mph
Braking, 70­0 mph: 184 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.79 g
C/D observed fuel economy: 23 mpg

Second Place: Honda Prelude Si

David DewhurstCar and Driver

How much do we love this car? A look at the voting chart reveals that the Prelude won or tied for first in every category but brakes, utility, and value. And it missed top honors by just one point.

Despite its mediocre value rating, the Honda Prelude’s $19,540 entry fee buys a lot of car. The new 2.3- liter engine is a masterpiece—smooth, powerful (160 hp), and eager to rev. “This thing sounds so great, I’d drive just to listen,” gushed one editor. “Engine is marvelous—a little extra oomph is always available,” wrote another.

HIGHS: Uncommonly good engine, handling, and civility.
Retro dash, controversial styling.

Also spectacular is the Prelude’s chassis. From the logbook: “Poise over bumps and yumps is about perfect,” and “Suspension balances ride and handling admirably,” and “Near-perfect balance—I find myself having to concentrate less to keep an accurate line through turns.” No wonder, then, that the Honda scored a perfect 10 in the fun-to-drive category.

There was also praise for the Prelude’s stubby shifter, its standard driver-side airbag, and its styling—which, though controversial, grew on most of us as the trip progressed. And although we don’t particularly like what Honda has done to the Prelude’s instrument panel—stretching it across the dash in American luxury-car fashion—after our drive we had to admit that it worked just fine.

David DewhurstCar and Driver

Also worth noting: the Prelude delivered 22 mpg during our test drive—just 1 mpg behind the fuel-sipping Integra.

The Prelude may not be the flat-out fastest two-plus-two on the market, but there is not a sweeter-driving, more refined car in this class.

THE VERDICT: A near-flawless jewel.

1992 Honda Prelude Si
160-hp inline-4, 5-speed manual, 2820 lb
Base/as-tested price: $19,540/$19,540
60 mph: 7.2 sec
100 mph: 21.1 sec
1/4 mile: 15.6 sec @ 89 mph
Braking, 70­0 mph: 180 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.80 g
C/D observed fuel economy: 22 mpg

First Place: Eagle Talon TSi AWD

David DewhurstCar and Driver

It’s hard to argue with a success story like this one. Look at the test results: quickest car in the group (zero to 60 mph in just 6.5 seconds), highest top speed (137 mph), best time in the slalom, quickest lap on the racetrack. Look at the hardware: a 195-hp turbocharged and intercooled 2.0-liter engine plus full-time all-wheel drive. Now look at the base price: just $17,758.

HIGHS: Class-leading performance, fetching design, exceptional value.
No air bag.

But the Talon is more than just great numbers. “Very secure at speed,” was an oft-repeated comment. “Engine has plenty of power and torque—willing to pull strongly from virtually anywhere in the rev range,” wrote another editor. “Nice balance. Responds well to whatever input you give it,” noted yet another staffer.

David DewhurstCar and Driver

Indeed, this car does almost everything well. Though the engine is not sonically stirring, it revs smoothly—thanks to twin balance shafts—and suffers from virtually no turbo lag. The all-wheel-drive system puts the power down without a bobble. The suspension is composed when pushed hard, yet it delivers a comfortable ride. The cockpit is orderly and agreeably detailed. The exterior shape is sleek and handsome. About all we could wish for, now that ABS is available, is an airbag.

More than any car in this review, the Eagle proves the potential of four­-cylinder-powered automobiles. Bursting with performance, refinement, versatility, and value, the Talon TSi AWD is destined to be remembered as one of the finest enthusiast cars of its time.

THE VERDICT: Joe Enthusiast’s dream machine.

1992 Eagle Talon TSi AWD
195-hp turbo inline-4, 5-speed manual, 3180 lb
Base/as-tested price: $17,758/$20,972
60 mph: 6.5 sec
100 mph: 19.9 sec
1/4 mile: 15.1 sec @ 90 mph
Braking, 70­0 mph: 184 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.81 g
C/D observed fuel economy: 17 mpg

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Fredrick R. Siegel

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