VTEC, the original Honda variable valve control system, originated from REV (Revolution-modulated valve control) introduced on the CBR400 in 1983 known as HYPER VTEC. In the regular four-stroke automobile engine, the intake and exhaust valves are actuated by lobes on a camshaft. The shape of the lobes determines the timing, lift and duration of each valve. Timing refers to an angle measurement of when a valve is opened or closed with respect to the piston position (BTDC or ATDC). Lift refers to how much the valve is opened. Duration refers to how long the valve is kept open. Due to the behavior of the working fluid (air and fuel mixture) before and after combustion, which have physical limitations on their flow, as well as their interaction with the ignition spark, the optimal valve timing, lift and duration settings under low RPM engine operations are very different from those under high RPM. Optimal low RPM valve timing, lift and duration settings would result in insufficient filling of the cylinder with fuel and air at high RPM, thus greatly limiting engine power output. Conversely, optimal high RPM valve timing, lift and duration settings would result in very rough low RPM operation and difficult idling. The ideal engine would have fully variable valve timing, lift and duration, in which the valves would always open at exactly the right point, lift high enough and stay open just the right amount of time for the engine speed in use.

VTEC was initially designed to increase the power output of an engine to 100 PS/liter or more while maintaining practicality for use in mass production vehicles. Some later variations of the system were designed solely to provide improvements in fuel efficiency, or increased power output as well as improved fuel efficiency. In practice, a fully variable valve timing engine is difficult to design and implement.

The opposite approach to variable timing is to produce a camshaft which is better suited to high RPM operation. This approach means that the vehicle will run very poorly at low RPM (where most automobiles spend much of their time) and much better at high RPM. VTEC is the result of an effort to marry high RPM performance with low RPM stability.

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