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A Case For Non-VTECs - Automotive A.D.D

The world according to e. john thawley iii

John E. Thawley, III
Jul 18, 2007
0708htup_01_z+honda_b20_engine+tag Photo 1/1   |   A Case For Non-VTECs - Automotive A.D.D

I was reluctant, but finally caved and decided to give VTEC a try.

I 'm a non-VTEC guy. (Or just stuck in limp mode -AH) Some people just can't get their head around it. Call me a heretic. I don't care. The contrarian in me likes to be different. I love an underdog. And I'm notoriously cheap. Running a non-VTEC, B-series engine appeals to me on all of these levels. It's not that I think there's anything bad about VTEC. I just think the non-VTEC is a more honest engine. I like the simple valve gear. The lower, less-rambunctious redline. The ample bottom-end torque. And I like how cheap they are.

2019 Honda Civic
$21,450 Base Model (MSRP) MPG Fuel Economy

I've heard all the arguments. Well-intended friends recite specs about rod ratios and cylinder head air flow as if I've never heard them before. VTEC this, Type-R that. Blah, blah, blah. To hell with them. It's my car, and I don't want VTEC. Seriously, I don't. It has taken me a while to temper this resolve, however.

My first twin-cam was a B18a. A nicely crunched Integra LS had given up life and donated its best, most vital organs so my trusty hatch might enjoy a richer, more fulfilling existence. From day one, the LS drivetrain transformed the Civic into the car that Honda "should have built." It had gobs of low-end torque. It was reasonably quiet and stealthy. And its fuel consumption was barely more than the D-series engine it replaced. Life was bitchin'. I was happy.

Yet, lack of self-confidence and constant peer pressure to go VTEC began to cast doubts in my mind. Friends and knowledgeable engine guys would say, "Man, if you like it now, wait 'til you get a VTEC head on there." Or, "My brother's girlfriend's buddy put a B16 head on his LS and it practically broke the sound barrier..." You know how it is.

I was reluctant, but finally caved and decided to give VTEC a try. An early B16 head, manifold and distributor found their way onto the car. A couple of wires added to the harness. The Hondata was retuned for VTEC. All the I's were dotted and the T's were crossed.

Instantly, something was lost. Sure, it picked up power. But it was all further up the powerband. The old off-idle "mess with Mustangs at the stoplight" power was gone. Before, I would just look innocent and nonchalant about stoplight drags. Pretending to be just another Civic driver, commuting to work and blowing off Bimmers and 'Stangs as if all EF hatchbacks were like that. But VTEC pulled the mask off my disguise. It forced me to keep the car in each gear for 1500-1800 rpm longer to find the power. Drivers next to me knew I was trying. I felt like any other dork at a green light trying to stir up trouble and shouting "LOOK AT ME!" while doing so. It just wasn't me. But the deed was done and converting back to the stock head seemed like it would cast doubts about my sanity. I'd just have to get used to it.

When the car was eventually taken off the road and converted to a dedicated track car, things were little better. The VTEC's narrow powerband was a poor match for the LS gearbox. Its wide gearing and tall final drive were in their element with the torquey LS. But after the VTEC conversion, nothing seemed right. Raising my shift point (and redline) to keep it in VTEC helped. But knowing the LS engine's bottom end was never designed for that kind of RPM abuse, I was living on borrowed time.

The day it happened I was chasing down Tom Paule in his SE-R Cup car. I steadily raised the shift point to keep the motor in its sweet spot. Finally, in the closing laps, I could feel the engine getting tight and losing power. Half a lap later, I smelled the smell: the putrid, burnt oil stench that comes from a toasted main bearing. I slowed it down, drove it back to the pits and put it on the trailer. It was done.

Many have said that if the LS/VTEC had been properly built for track duty, it would have gone the distance. Probably. But few have argued that it could be done for less than I paid for my next engine. Another (used) non-VTEC, a B20B fresh from Japan, for $550. Now, after more than a full season of racing with the B20, my affection for the non-VTEC engine is at an all-time high. I don't have to rev it into the stratosphere to find power. It doesn't fall on its face with LS gearing. And when it breaks, I'll buy another.

Having driven both VTEC and non-VTEC versions of the same engine, in the same car on the street and on the track, I'd say I've had a pretty direct comparison between the two engine combos under various conditions. My verdict is this: for a street car, auto-cross or a rally car I would prefer the non-VTEC motors. Yes they are less powerful than their VTEC-headed brethren. But the VTEC combo generally produces significantly less torque below 5500 rpm and has a far narrower usable powerband. Abundant low- to mid-range power is the non-VTEC's forte. On the race track with a close-ratio gearbox, a good driver can make use of the top-end power where the VTEC head is in its element. Take this from a mediocre driver, that's not as easy as it sounds. With a stock LS gearbox it would be toss up on the track. And a no-brainer for the street, non-VTEC all the way.

I know this is blasphemy. Honda never intended the base-model twin-cams to be thought of as performance engines. The B16A, GSR and Type-Rs are better, stronger engines. They were built for faster, more expensive cars. But can anyone really tell me that I'd be getting more bang for the buck or having more fun if I ran VTEC? As long as I'm running a B-series, I'll be a non-VTEC guy. That's just the way it is. - Thawley

By John E. Thawley, III
0 Articles

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