Are All Hondas VTEC?

If you’re a fan of performance cars at all, especially those coming out of Japan, then you’ve heard of Honda’s all-mighty VTEC. This is Honda’s main claim to fame. It’s the ace in the hole for their naturally aspirated four (and six) cylinder engines – although VTEC has also continued on turbocharged Honda engines like the current Type R Civic. VTEC can boost performance, increase efficiency and decrease emissions. Over the years Honda have used it to great effect for all three of these goals. But are all Hondas VTEC? In this article you’ll find out the answer to that very question.

VTEC has also become part of Internet meme culture, spawning plenty of ‘VTEC Just Kicked In Yo’ memes over the years:

But… What is VTEC, exactly? How does it achieve better performance? And do all Hondas have VTEC? In this edition of Car Facts we are going to answer those questions and more.

Nearly every new Honda has some form of VTEC or another, but it wasn’t always like this. A little over 30 years ago, not a single Honda car had it. Originally reserved for performance models, Honda slowly implemented it into its entire range. Let’s dive into a bit of how VTEC works to learn more about what it does, which Hondas have it and why.

Cam As You Are, As You Were, As I Want You To Be

One of the biggest factors that determines an engine’s personality is its cam profile. And when I say personality, I don’t just mean how it drives. Does it stink? Is it loud and obnoxious? Does it have a lot of “thirst”? Is it lazy, or horrible to live with? The cam determines a lot of this, as well as its overall performance.

Today, we’re talking about performance… Moving on.

Picture this. You’ve got this amazingly powerful engine that revs all the way out to 9,000 RPM. It’s a blast to drive wide open, blipping the throttle and winding it up to the redline. But the light up ahead just turned red, and you have to stop. At idle the engine now stumbles and shakes, barely wanting to get moving when the light’s finally green again.

On the flip side, maybe you’ve got a smooth idling engine. It’s got some torque down low and decent midrange power. When you really get to open it up though, it falls on its face long before redline. Not exactly a joy to drive.

The two example engines I’ve described here are a little exaggerated, but this is to illustrate a point. Both suffer from the same problem: they are restricted to one cam profile. Physics dictates how air moves in and out of an engine at different RPMs, and what works great at low revs is usually not what works best for high revs. While the cam isn’t the only factor here, it does play a major role. Which brings me to…

VTEC Just Kicked In, Yo!

“Variable Valve Timing and Lift Electronic Control” is what VTEC officially stands for. Think “VTEC” sounds cooler? Me too, and apparently, so did Honda. VTEC in a nutshell is a method of changing the cam profile (and by extension, an engine’s personality) while driving. This is how it bridges the gap between high RPM and low RPM worlds, so you can have the best of both.

The cams control the valves, and VTEC is all about manipulating the valve timing, valve lift, or both to best suit the driving conditions. Valve lift simply refers to how far the valve opens during the intake or exhaust stroke of an engine’s cylinder. More lift can make a pretty noticeable difference when it comes to high versus low RPMs. Up high it works wonders, but down low it can cause the air to lose velocity. Similarly, the duration (how long the valve is left open) will have an effect, depending on engine speed.

The ability to change the lift is what’s really special about VTEC. Honda were the first, and for many years the only, manufacturer to do this.

It’s surprisingly simple, too. In VTEC engines that change lift, each cylinder has three cam lobes for intake and three for exhaust. Two of these are the humdrum “normal” cam lobes that operate things at low RPM. While they’re in control, the middle lobe happily bounces along on a spring, not doing much else besides taking up space. Once the engine reaches “high RPM”, oil pressure locks a few pins and the middle lobe takes over. Now, this high lift lobe is running the whole show. It operates both valves that the other two lobes were managing before. The duration is also changed with this lobe, all in the name of high RPM power delivery. The result is a noticeable shove in the back as all the acceleration you felt like you were losing suddenly comes back, and with a vengeance.

Since its inception, VTEC has been a staple on Honda’s best performance engines. The hallowed Type R engines from the 90’s are prime examples. The engines in the Type R Civic and Integra were true modern marvels at the time, the “Ferraris” of four cylinders. Both revved to about 9,000 RPM and made around 110 horsepower-per-liter. That kind of power output in a street friendly NA car would be impossible without VTEC.

To put this into perspective, a twin turbo 300ZX only makes 100 horsepower-per-liter. And that’s with two turbos! Corvettes from the same era made a paltry 52, and a Ferrari 348 made (I hope you’re sitting down) only 94…

Then there’s the NSX-R V6. VTEC is a little different on Honda V6’s, as most of them only operate on the intake side (but some newer models use the exhaust as well). All the same, VTEC plays a heavy role in this engine as well. Combined with the naturally higher torque of a V6, and the care put into the NSX-R’s hand-balanced and blueprinted internals, this engine is practically built for a race car.

How To Tell If Your Honda Has VTEC

VTEC was originally introduced in the late 1980s (first on the Integra XS with the B16A engine – not the Acura/Honda NSX as many think). In the early days, it was more of a premium option reserved for high performance cars like the NSX or top spec variants of existing cars like the Civic or Integra. Less expensive models could have non-VTEC engines.

Over time, VTEC came to be included more widely across the Honda range (although on economy-focused and/or entry level models, VTEC was deployed differently to strike more of a balance between performance and economy, versus the more aggressive performance focus on “legendary” VTEC cars like the Integra and Civic Type R … don’t make the mistake of thinking that VTEC on a Honda Fit is as potent as that on an S2000).

These days, I believe that all Honda models come with VTEC of some sorts.

By now I bet you’re asking, “Wow, does my Honda have VTEC? How can I tell?” There are a few reliable methods to find out whether or not you’ve got it.

Perhaps the easiest way is taking a look at the top of your valve cover or engine cover, where Honda has been known to proudly emblazon the VTEC name. This may not always be accurate, however. You never know if someone’s swapped valve covers, and some Hondas that have VTEC don’t advertise it so obviously. Performance models like the Integra Type R or Prelude Type S are more overt in advertising the presence of VTEC, whereas more mundane cars (that used milder “iterations” of VTEC to achieve a great balance between usable everyday performance and economy) were more discreet.

Surefire ways to know can be a bit more involved. You can pull the valve cover and look at your cams, but that’s an awful lot of work. It’s much easier to poke around and see if you can find the VTEC actuator. These are generally going to be found somewhere on the cylinder head. If you have an older model that uses a distributor, the VTEC actuator will be nearby. Newer engines, such as the K series, have this actuator on the backside of the head. J series V6’s have the actuator way down by the oil filter, so break out the knee pads.

When all else fails, you can take a look at your VIN number. The eighth digit represents the engine your car came from the factory with. Pop your VIN into any decoder (this one works well) and it will tell you specifically what engine you have. From there, you can look up your engine and find out if it’s equipped with VTEC. This takes a bit of extra time/effort, but is a surefire way of telling if your Honda has VTEC without having to spend too much time prodding around under the bonnet.

Recap – Do All Hondas Have VTEC?

Since its inception VTEC has been capturing the hearts of motoring enthusiasts around the world. In 1989 the Integra XSi was the first to have it and the rest, as they say, is history. You will have a hard time finding non-VTEC hondas from the past 20 years, but they do exist. The further back you go, the more likely you are to find non-VTEC models. For example, if you go back and look at previous generations of the Honda Civic, you can see that in the 1990s there were plenty of fifth generation Civics you could buy that didn’t have VTEC at all.

Over the years there have been more developments, different versions of VTEC, and they all have good uses. Not all utilize the high RPM cam lobe, the one responsible for the so-called “VTEC kick”, but all have the same general goal. They aim to maximize output, efficiency and drivability. Honda managed to find a way to get crazy power from a small package, and still achieve great fuel economy. In a world where electric motors threaten to take over, what more could you really ask for?

If you’re interested in learning more about some of Honda’s most legendary VTEC-equipped cars, then you might want to check out our growing list of buyer’s guides:


  • Sam

    Sam focuses mainly on researching and writing the growing database of Car Facts articles on Garage Dreams, as well as creating interesting list content. He is particularly enthusiastic about JDM cars, although has also owned numerous European vehicles in the past. Currently drives a 3rd generation Suzuki Swift Sport, and a Volkswagen Touareg (mainly kept for taking his border collie out to the hills to go walking)

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