Honda's development of VTEC engine technology and its impact on performance

Understanding how Honda’s VTEC system unlocks performance

In the early 90s Honda management challenged their engineering department to create a new type of engine with the goal of 100 horsepower per litre or 160hp for a 1.6 litre engine. The development process that followed saw Honda meet and surpass that goal while developing technology that is still at the heart of their success today.

In 1984 Honda launched their new concept engine programme aimed at developing the next generation of engines for the mainstream market. The program saw the launch of a variety of four valve per cylinder engines that met the required criteria. These four-valve engines were high-revving and offered high output but with the disadvantage of less than satisfactory low-end performance due to their relatively small displacement. 

Honda’s engineers recognised that the solution to this problem was to create a mechanism that could alter the timing and lift of the valves so that low-end torque wouldn't be sacrificed for high-end power or vice versa and this led to the development of Variable Valve Timing and Lift Electronic Control, or VTEC.

After an extensive research and development process Honda’s new Integra was launched in 1989 with a VTEC engine under the bonnet. The VTEC technology was the world’s first valve mechanism capable of simultaneously altering valve timing and lift on the intake and exhaust sides. VTEC engines boasted impressive output and high-revving energy as well as excellent low-end performance.

The DOHC/VTEC engine was subsequently adapted for use in the NSX, Accord and Civic. The final vehicle to use the original DOHC VTEC configuration was the Honda S2000 sports car, with its 2.0-litre DOHC four-cylinder engine producing almost 180kW and featuring a 9 000rpm redline.

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A redeveloped system dubbed i-VTEC made its appearance in the early 2000s as a more intelligent version of VTEC that incorporated tighter computer integration of the valvetrain mechanism by using a combination of variable cam lift and duration of VTEC along with Variable Timing Control.

Originally designed as an alternative to turbochargers, VTEC is now being used in conjunction with turbochargers and this combination has proven to present unique opportunities for generating power and improving fuel efficiency.

VTEC has evolved over the past 30 years to provide multiple benefits, including increasing horsepower and torque and improving fuel efficiency and in doing so the technology has remained a key component of Honda’s innovative offering that appeals to both regular motorists and enthusiasts alike.

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The original DOHC version of VTEC helped establish Honda as a performance icon in the 1990s, due in part to the dynamic nature of the cars to which it was first fitted. At low rpm the engines were docile and quiet but when VTEC kicked in as the high-lift switchover occurred, the engine note was audibly different, along with an increase in power that was immediately noticeable.

Honda’s revolutionary technology and engines played a fundamental role in the explosion of the global tuning scene as they raised the benchmark of what compact cars with small capacity engines were capable of and forced other manufacturers to play catchup. VTEC cemented Honda’s reputation as an engineering company that is able to come up with smart solutions for changing automotive requirements.

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