Recipe for a cult hit, Honda-style: Take one competent C-segment hatchback, lop a few inches out of the wheelbase, tidy up the suspension tuning and aerodynamics, and repackage as a pint-size sports coupe. In this installment of Ate Up With Motor, we examine the history of the 1984–1991 Honda CRX (née Ballade Sports CR-X) and its erstwhile successors, the del Sol and CR-Z.
THE RISE OF HONDA
The growth of the Honda Motor Company was remarkable by any standard. Established in 1948, Honda first branched out into passenger cars in 1962 and by 1969 was building more than 200,000 cars a year. The company suffered a serious downturn in 1970–71 due to much-publicized allegations of defects in the popular air-cooled Honda N360 kei-car and the failure of the bigger 1300, but Honda recovered quickly thanks to the launch of the new water-cooled Life and Civic in 1971 and 1972. By the end of the decade, Honda had tripled its 1969 production volume, achieving fourth place in the Japanese industry behind Toyota, Nissan, and Mitsubishi.
What really put Honda on the map in the seventies was the CVCC (compound vortex controlled combustion) engine, launched in late 1973. With its unique stratified charge head, the CVCC engine enabled the Civic was able to meet 1975 U.S. emissions standards and qualify for Japan’s low-emissions purchase tax credit without the use of add-on catalytic converters or thermal reactors, something U.S. automakers — and some Japanese ones — had insisted was technically impossible. Toyota, which had been among those, actually licensed the technology from Honda for use in Toyota’s own products, a remarkable reversal of the usual order of things. There was also strong interest from Ford and even General Motors.
Since CVCC-engined Civics were also surprisingly fun to drive and returned fine fuel economy, American buyers stung by the recent OPEC embargo snapped them up, as did customers in Japan. The larger Honda Accord, introduced in 1976, met a similarly warm reception, selling more than 1.5 million units through 1981.
VERNO AND BALLADE
The Accord marked the first step in Honda’s expansion and automotive diversification, but not the last. The next followed in 1978 with the launch of the Honda Prelude sports coupe and establishment of the Honda Verno sales channel.
One of the factors that had kept Toyota and Nissan on top in the Japanese domestic market (JDM) was that these automakers each had a strong sales network with multiple sales channels. Each channel’s dealers offered distinct — though not necessarily different — products, many of them essentially very mildly restyled versions of one another with slightly different model and option selections. (For our American readers, the most direct parallel would probably be latter-day Fords and Mercurys, although in most cases the Japanese models are not sold as different makes.) By contrast, while Honda had no shortage of dealers, many of its franchises were very small, lacking even service facilities, much less the large, well-lit showrooms of Toyota’s Corolla Stores.
Honda’s new Verno stores were intended to change that. The new dealerships, some of which were owned directly by Honda’s sales organization (something less legally problematic in Japan than it would be in the U.S.), were better-furnished and better-equipped than many of Honda’s existing stores and offered a distinct lineup. Honda intended Verno as a youth-oriented sales channel loosely analogous to Toyota’s later U.S. Scion brand.
The first Honda Verno product was the Prelude, introduced in November 1978, followed in early 1980 by the five-door Quint, ancestor of the later Honda/Acura Integra. These were joined later that year by the Honda Ballade, a restyled version of the new Civic four-door sedan, and in 1981 by the Accord-based Honda Vigor.
To our knowledge, the Verno sub-brand did not extend beyond Japan, but Honda did offer some of these models for export. The Prelude went to America and Europe while the Quint was sold in Europe as the Honda Quintet. The Ballade as such was not initially exported to the U.S. or Common Europe, but in late 1979, Honda licensed the design to the British automaker formerly known as British Leyland, which subsequently marketed the compact sedan as the Triumph Acclaim. (BL also marketed the Quint in Australia as the Rover Quintet.)
BALLADE SPORTS CR-X
Toward the end of June 1983, Honda Verno stores unveiled another new model: a sporty hatchback coupe called the Ballade Sports CR-X.
While the name suggested a kinship with the Ballade sedan, the CR-X was actually a preview of the next-generation Ballade and Civic (EA Civic by its chassis code, although Honda’s Japanese advertising would modestly christen this generation the “Wonder Civic”), which would debut that September. The “CR-X” name also foreshadowed the new Ballade line, which would be offered in CR-U, CR-B, CR-L, CR-M, and CR-i trim levels.
Structurally, the CR-X was an EA Civic/Ballade with the wheelbase shortened to 86.6 inches (2,200 mm) — coincidentally, the same wheelbase as the original 1972 Civic — and a new close-coupled coupe body. The CR-X was 5.3 inches (135 mm) shorter and 2 inches (50 mm) lower than the EA Civic three-door hatchback and 3.7 inches (95 mm) lower and a whopping 19.1 inches (485 mm) shorter than the second-generation Ballade sedan, although overall width and track dimensions were the same. The CR-X wasn’t as much lighter than the Civic three-door as one might assume, but the lower roofline and truncated Kamm tail did make for better aerodynamics. The CR-X had almost 25% less total drag area than the Ballade sedan.
The Ballade Sports CR-X’s relationship to the Civic/Ballade continued beneath the metal-and-plastic skin. For the “Wonder Civic,” Honda had opted to trade the previous Civic’s fully independent MacPherson strut rear suspension for a more compact beam axle located by trailing arms and a Panhard rod. The axle was not a torsion beam in the Volkswagen mold; in fact, a “sway bearing” on the right side of the axle tube prevented the axle from acting as an anti-roll bar, although some models added a separate anti-roll bar inside the axle tube. The new “SPORTEC” front suspension retained MacPherson struts and an anti-roll bar, but the old Civic’s coil springs were replaced by longitudinal torsion bars, again chosen primarily for space efficiency. Brakes were front discs and rear drums.
In Japan, the CR-X was offered with a choice of two all-aluminum SOHC fours. Although similar in displacement to the engines of the outgoing Civic/Ballade line, the new fours were extensively redesigned, with conjoined cylinder bores, a shorter and lighter block, and the latest 12-valve, cross-flow edition of Honda’s CVCC cylinder head with two intake, one auxiliary intake, and one exhaust valve per cylinder. The CR-X 1.3 used the carbureted 1,342 cc (82 cu. in.) EV engine, making 80 PS JIS (59 kW) and 82 lb-ft (111 N-m) of torque on 10.0:1 compression. The CR-X 1.5i had the EW version with a lower, 8.7:1 compression ratio; a longer stroke giving a displacement of 1,488 cc (91 cu. in.); and Honda’s PGM-FI electronic fuel injection, yielding 110 PS JIS (81 kW) and 100 lb-ft (136 N-m) of torque. (We should note here that the above output figures are JIS gross numbers, not net ratings. The European 1.5i engine, which had fewer emissions controls than the JDM version, was rated at 100 PS DIN (74 kW), so it’s reasonable to assume that the Japanese engine’s net output was somewhat lower than that.)
Both engines were linked to a five-speed gearbox, but the 1.5i could be ordered with a three-speed Hondamatic with lockup torque converter and overdrive top gear. The 1.5i also included a stiffer suspension and vented front brakes. With the five-speed, Honda claimed the CR-X 1.3 could go from 0-62 mph (0-100 km/h) in a bit under 12 seconds, the 1.5i in less than 9 seconds, respectable performance for the time. The factory estimated a top speed of 124 mph (200 km/h) for the 1.5i, which was wildly optimistic — probably by as much as 10%.
Although it would be sold in some markets as a two-seater, the CR-X’s Japanese specifications claimed four-seat capacity thanks to a tiny rear seat on which one or two people could theoretically crouch for short, uncomfortable journeys. Honda frankly described this as a “one-mile” seat and we can only assume it was a concession to some marketing demand or regulatory loophole. The seat could be folded down for additional cargo space.
In Japan, the CR-X was offered with a number of novel options, including an electric sunroof that slid back over the outside of the roof rather than into it and a peculiar roof ventilation system. The latter, standard on 1.5i models, could best be described as a cross between the cowl ventilators offered on prewar American cars and the popup ventilation hatches found on some conversion vans. It consisted of a retractable roof-mounted scoop that channeled outside air into a pair of adjustable interior outlets located above the windshield. Japanese buyers could also order a trendy digital instrument panel, a trip computer, and 14-inch alloy wheels.
The CR-X’s substantial commonality with other Civic/Ballade models kept prices very reasonable. In Tokyo, the Ballade Sports CR-X 1.3 started at ¥993,000 (around $4,200), which would split the difference between the 1.3-liter Ballade CR-B and CR-L sedans. The CR-X 1.5i started at ¥1,270,000 (about $5,400), a little cheaper than a comparable Ballade CR-i. That wasn’t dirt cheap, but it was certainly affordable and a good deal cheaper than the larger Honda Prelude, whose base prices ranged from ¥1,360,000 to ¥1,718,000 (roughly $5,700 to $7,200).
DECIPHERING THE HONDA COUPE
All that describes what the CR-X was; understanding why it was is a little more complicated.