The Acura Vigor Was Way Weirder than You Remember

There was nothing like the five-cylinder Vigor in 1992.

James TateWriterThe ManufacturerPhotographer

It's fair to suggest that Japanese luxury cars were in their prime in the '90s. Companies like Honda, Nissan, and Toyota still had something to prove, and they were flush with the cash to do it, thanks in part to their successes in America. They easily weathered a brief recession in the beginning of the decade and were in a position to throw some chips around as the economy started to boom in 1992. For Honda's U.S.-based luxury arm Acura, that meant a daring put: the 1992 Acura Vigor.

But let's not get ahead of ourselves—a little Acura primer is probably appropriate. You see, Acura's moves mattered back then. The brand had just made its debut in 1986, making it not only the first Japanese luxury car brand in America, but the first Japanese luxury car brand ever. Its entire portfolio consisted of two products, both of which sold faster than Milli Vanilli albums. The Integra was the breadwinner, while the Legend was good, beautiful, and reliable. By 1991, Acura had dropped the all-aluminum NSX, whose impossible combination of usability and exoticism quickly won it the nickname "the everyday supercar." When the company that couldn't put a foot wrong made a move, the other guys looked and learned.

The Vigor made a lot of sense on paper. Contrary to popular belief, it wasn't based on the Honda Accord, but on the very Integra that brought Acura the profits needed to attempt the project at all. Its inline-five engine was smoother than a four-cylinder, Honda said, but lighter and less thirsty than a V-6. The Vigor came standard with a five-speed manual transmission, with a four-speed automatic being optional. Like its successful Legend big brother, it came in either LS or GS trim, the latter being the more luxurious, adding leather seats, a sunroof, a power driver's seat, and a slightly fancier stereo. Put a pin in that successful big brother idea for when we, uh, start talking about sales later.

As odd an engine choice as the inline-five was for Honda, the logical idealism that proved its Japanese inception was transparent: The entry-level Integra would have four cylinders, the mid-level Vigor five, and the top of the line Legend six. Like the Legend, each of the Vigor's cylinders offered half a liter of displacement—nice and neat. The Vigor's G25A1 had four valves per cylinder, but its single overhead cam head kept it from being a darling of the growing tuner crowd; it managed 176 horsepower at 6,300 rpm and 170 ft-lb of torque at 3,900. Still, that didn't stop magazines from cracking off zero-to-60 times in the low-eight-second range—at least competitive if not best-in-class. The Vigor was no dud.

It was weird, though. In order to get the fifth cylinder to fit, the engine was turned longitudinally and installed at a 35-degree slant. But the platform, and arguably the company ethos, demanded that the car be front-wheel drive. So a curious transmission arrangement sent power forward, going through the very same bellhousing from whence it came. A longitudinal shaft sat beside the lower left side of the engine, transferring output to the front differential, which was nestled just under the middle cylinder. But wait, that's not all; power coming from the differential to the right front wheel required an intermediate shaft that ran through the engine crankcase to reach its destination. This design allowed the entire assembly to be positioned more rearward, giving the Vigor a 60/40 front/rear weight distribution, better than anything Acura had built yet, short of the NSX.

As did its cylinder count, the Vigor's performance positioning within the Acura lineup made sense. It was significantly more polished than the Integra, but deliberately rawer than its legendary big brother. Its dual-stage intake manifold allowed more throatiness into the cockpit, and the wood trim inside had a subtle matte finish. At the wheels, spring rates were left relatively soft, but compression and rebound damping were firm, causing reviewers to cite its "German" handling character.

You couldn't get anything like the Vigor, even if you were flipping through Audi brochures of the time, but it just didn't sell. And maybe that leads us to the problem: Unique though it may have been, the Vigor didn't look the part. It looked something like the gorgeous Legend, only not as polished. The curved rear window seemed out of place, and testers complained of the ugly grille (if they only knew). But it wasn't about any particular offense; the whole package just looked a little bland. Combine that with the fact that its biggest competition may have come from within its own house, as the bigger, better equipped, more characterful, and more luxurious Legend stickered just $4,000 to $5,000 more than the $23,000-$26,000 Vigor. Meanwhile, the Vigor was bookended on the other side by the excellent Honda Accord at just $13,500 to $19,000; maybe buyers thought the Vigor was a little too Accord to justify the price hike.

All that said, you'd be hard pressed to find a period Japanese sedan more unique under the hood even if its aesthetics don't make that readily apparent.

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