How Honda unlocked the power of small engines with VTEC


In 1989, Honda introduced a powerplant that was, effectively, two engines in one. It combined low-rpm drivability with high-rpm power. Its four-cylinder B16A produced 160 horsepower from just 1.6 liters—100 horsepower per liter—an unheard-of power density for automotive engines. By comparison, the Corvette’s V-8 made 245 horsepower from 5.7 liters, and even BMW’s high-strung four-cylinder M3 engine—192 horsepower from 2.3 liters—didn’t match the Honda. Unlike nearly all high-performance engines, Honda’s B16A provided excellent fuel economy, low emissions, easy starting, a smooth idle, and ample low-rpm torque. How did Honda do it? VTEC, an acronym for Variable Valve Timing and Lift Electronic Control. This system operates the valves to maximize fluid flow into and out of the engine over an uncommonly wide rpm range.

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://www.hagerty.com/articles-videos/articles/2018/12/12/honda-vtec-unlocked-small-engine-power


After retirement and needing a project [and not being a car guy] I got to know Hagerty after starting restoration project on 1997 Corvette. The family cars have been all brands…whatever consumer reporting favored at the time. After reading this article about Honda’s road to VTEC, our 2005 Honda Pilot is even better appreciated.


The author made a statement that the system maximizes fluid flow, but I believe he meant airflow?


I really don’t believe this is Honda’s innovation. As I remember it, Mr. Gasket once offered a variable timing kit for the Oldsmobile V8. I doubt it was very practical as a retrofit but the idea was already out there in 1989 and Honda was able to design an engine around the idea. Does anybody remember this kit?


@geok86 - Scientifically, air is a fluid, so the VTEC system maximizes fluid flow into each cylinder. You are right though, it read a bit confusing. We will get a correction in to make it a little smoother to read. Thanks for the note!


…and eventually GM got 260 HP from a 2 liter I4, but they DID use a turbo :wink:


@gwoods - Which engine was it that achieved 260 horse from 2L? Just curious as I am not very familiar with the GM I4s.


2007 & up Solstice GXP. The original Solstice engine was a 185HP 2.4L and then for '07 they did it in a 2.0L w/turbocharger at 260HP. Same block, etc. Don’t know what else the 2.0 260 may have ended up in, I think the maybe the Cobalt?



Mercedes 300SLR 1954 3.0Liter 300HP without a turbo.


Except 3L isn’t 2L :wink:
Edit; Could’ve sworn the HP numbers I was commenting on weren’t 3.0Liter 300HP without a turbo. Did you edit your post or did I get something confused? Regardless, didn’t mean to be snarky to you, 100 per litre was/is a great number no matter how many litre it is, especially NA in 1954. Impressive.


Of course it’s WHERE you make that power that really is what the article (and VVTEC) is all about. Otherwise I’d mention MAZDA had an engine that made 146 hp NA out of 1.3 liters in 1989 (> 100 hp @ liter). And it didn’t need any valves or cams at all. :wink:
But it didn’t make as much low rpm power, nor was it as clean or efficient as VVTEC.


Not familiar with that engine (Wankel?) that’s an impressive number. I’m assuming from the lack of low end grunt it’s a high RPM engine.


Yep. An EFI rotary (13b). Later itenerations (13bT) made almost 190 hp and 13bREW 255 hp…still out of 1.3 liters. But it was only the latter that produced the low-end power from sequential turbos. Otherwise you’re right, they were momentum cars. And none as fuel efficient as VVTEC.


Thanks. It hardly seems a small point when we had been discussing piston engines, where displacement is apples to apples. I suppose we could measure the combustion chamber volume of a Robert Goddard small, liquid-fuel rocket also, and get some really impressive numbers, not to mention an earlier date :rofl:


You’re welcome. And no, we were discussing VVTEC until you strained for Solstice attention. But yeah, that’s a common, and tired, response from those who can’t accept reality (and SAE) because it threatens their reciprical bubble of security. :grin:


Sure, we’ll go with that. Glad you laughed at your own sarcasm, might have been a long wait otherwise.


Yeah let’s go with that. A smile (not a laugh like your’s) at tired posts keeps it light for me. Arguing with SAE about displacement would be like…like that M&M man arguing out of envy “well oh yeah! I got a mullet too!”. VVTEC was definitely a game changer for small displacement piston engines. They didn’t need turbos or felt the need to put a V8 in their cars to make them fast.
And what sarcasm?


The thing about Wankels is that the rotor shape defines three combustion chambers per housing. For some reason nobody has ever explained to me, only the housing is measured for displacement, even if the swept volume is used three times per cycle. Incidentally, “1.3 liter’” Wankels make torque like 1.3 liter engines at a rate that gives them power like an OHV 3.9 liter engine while using gasoline and oil like a 3.9 liter two-stroke engine. That’s whey they’re history. They were great in producing lots of power from very little mass, but terrible inefficient with fuel. It is a much greater loss that Honda has switched to turbos.