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Remembering Honda’s Legendary B16, the Engine That Brought VTEC to the World

Although more than three decades have passed since its launch, the B16 is still one of the greatest engines ever built. It pioneered VTEC (Variable Valve Timing & Lift Electronic Control) and revolutionized the industry, becoming a favorite among the tuning community for its brilliant design and ability to produce an insane amount of power.
Honda B16B 14 photos
Honda Integra XSiHonda CR-X SiRHonda CR-X SiRHonda Civic SiRHonda Civic SiRHonda Civic Ferio SiRHonda Civic Type RHonda Civic Type RHonda B16AHonda B16AHonda B16A2Honda B163Honda B16B
This renowned engine was introduced to the general public in an era when Honda was by far the most successful manufacturer in Formula One. Some of the technologies and manufacturing processes pioneered on their racing machines found their way on mass-produced powerplants such as the B16.

The year was 1989, and the country where it debuted was, of course, Japan. The first Honda that used a B16 (first gen B16A) was the Honda Integra XSi, a fully equipped version of the standard model that came with features such as climate control or ABS.

With minor modifications, this engine was also used on the CR-X SiR and the Civic SiR JDM performance models, which also launched in 1989, albeit at a later date.

The B16 was soon available in Europe on 1.6i-VT-badged Civic and CR-X models while future variations ended up under the hoods of many Hondas worldwide in the following years. The most powerful of them was the B16B used on the first Civic Type R launched in August 1997.

So, what makes this engine so special? Well, let’s start with the displacement and power output. The first generation B16A was a naturally aspirated 1.6-liter unit capable of delivering 160 hp.

A closer look at those figures will reveal that the unit achieved exactly 100 hp per liter. That’s the golden ratio of powerplants, one that many engineers spent decades to achieve.

The major reason why such a small four-cylinder could achieve this ratio without forced induction was the use of variable valve timing and lift electronic control technology, or simply put VTEC.

This innovation revolutionized engine development and eliminated an age-old design limitation. In theory, high revving, high power units could not be efficient and smooth-running in the lower rpm range or at idle if they employed an aggressive camshaft profile.

On the other hand, if a more restrained profile were used, the engine would run smoothly at idle and in the lower range but would struggle to rev high and produce impressive power figures.

Thus, manufacturers were forced to compromise with their camshaft profile design, which limited the efficiency and power potential of their powerplants.

Honda's VTEC changed all that by allowing the engine to use multiple camshaft profiles and hydraulically select between them. The result is ample power delivery throughout the rpm range, increased fuel economy at lower rpms, and smooth idling.

There’s much to say about this amazing technology that fundamentally revolutionized engine development, but I will save that for a separate article. What I want to point out is that VTEC and thus the B16 were made possible by a team of talented and dedicated engineers led by Ikuo Kajitani.

Along with the VTEC, the all-aluminum construction was another feature that set the engine apart from most of the four cylinders of the era.

All B16 variations have an oversquare design with an 81 mm bore and a 77.4 mm stroke (3.19x3.05 inches). Inside the lightweight open deck block, engineers placed a forged steel crankshaft and, depending on the version, slightly different pistons and connecting rods. For example, on the B16B, the conrods are longer and lighter, whereas the piston heads featured a higher dome. These upgrades enable an impressive 10.8:1 compression ratio, a bigger rev limit, and a power output increase of about 25 hp.

Moving on to the cylinder head, the first thing that catches the eye is the 33-mm (1.3-inch) diameter of the intake valves. That is impressive if we consider that some of the most efficient four-cylinders of the period fell short by about 3 mm (0.1 inches).

As for the two camshafts, they are made from a revolutionary high-carbon, high-chrome cast steel alloy. Even more impressive, the B16A’s "wild" intake cam has a lift of 10.7 mm (0.42 inches), and on the B16B, it increases to a mind-boggling 11.5 mm (0.45 inches). To cope with this huge lift, the valvetrains of these engines are fitted with double valve springs.

The closest four-cylinder of the era in terms of lift was BMW’s S14 at the heart of the E30 M3, which had 10 mm (0.39 inches).

These innovations enabled Honda’s legendary engine to withstand a lot of punishment, leading to bombproof reliability and exhilarating performance. For these reasons, it quickly became one of the most popular powerplants in the tuning community.

It can be turbocharged, supercharged, and there are even 11,000-rpm naturally aspirated builds out there. The B16 has been taken well above 1,500 hp, which is insane considering this is an inline-four designed in the late eighties.

In conclusion, Honda’s first VTEC unit deserves its place among the best engines ever built as it revolutionized the industry and proved that small, lightweight four-cylinders could deliver mind-blowing performance.


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