Compact Cult Classic: The 1984-1991 Honda CRX

Honda described the Ballade Sports CR-X as a new type of fun, economical, sporty commuter car for younger buyers. All that was true, but in the Japanese market, Honda already had a youth-oriented commuter car in the form of the Honda City, launched in 1981 and later sold in some export markets as the Honda Jazz. Since September 1982, there had also been a sporty City Turbo, which was actually a bit quicker than the CR-X 1.5i, mostly by virtue of being some 240 lb (110 kg) lighter. Admittedly, the City was sold through Honda stores (and later the new Honda Clio channel), not the Verno channel, so the two cars were not sold side by side, but creating a Verno version (or making the City Turbo a Verno exclusive) would not have been a difficult exercise had that been the goal.

1987 Honda CRX Si alloy wheel © 2011 Aaron Severson

The EA CR-X/CRX was available with alloy wheels of at least four different styles, some in the 5Jx13 size and some, like this one, in the larger 5Jx14 size, depending on model and market. Particularly in Japan, Honda dealers also offered an assortment of additional styles, which makes deciding what is and is not authentic something of a chore. (author photo)

The CR-X also wasn’t a substitute for a warm hatch version of the Civic. When the Civic and Ballade debuted in September, both could be ordered with the same engines, suspensions, and brakes as the CR-X. A Civic 25i three-door with the injected EW engine had 10 PS (7.4 kW) less than the CR-X 1.5i and was 33 lb (15 kg) heavier, but performance was similar, as were the prices.

Our strong suspicion is that what Honda’s designers and engineers really wanted in the CR-X was a sports car — not a hot hatch (which Honda already had), not a sporty four-seater coupe (ditto), but a real two-seat sports car. Honda had participated for some years in Formula 1 and Formula 2 and some of its senior executives had come out of that program (including future Honda president Nobuhiko Kawamoto, then the head of the R&D subsidiary, who had almost resigned when Honda dropped out of F1), but the company hadn’t offered an actual sports car since the demise of the last S800 roadster years earlier.

1987 Honda S800 roadster front 3q © 2011 Aaron Severson

Honda’s last sports car was the S800, a diminutive RWD roadster (although there was also a coupe version). It was only 131.3 inches (3,335 mm) long on a 78.7-inch (2,000mm) wheelbase and weighed less than 1,600 lb (710 kg). The S800 was powered by a water-cooled DOHC four producing a respectable 70 PS JIS (52 kW) from only 791 cc (48 cu. in.), giving a top speed of about 100 mph (160 km/h). (author photo)

Honda’s S-series cars were not an encouraging precedent, having sold poorly and been expensive to build, and the prospects for traditional sports cars were little better during the era in which the “Wonder Civic” was conceived. Most of the traditional English and Italian roadsters had either expired or become pale shadows of their former selves while big GTs like Nissan’s Fairlady Z (Datsun 280ZX) had become flashy but basically toothless lounge lizards. Lower oil prices and more sophisticated engine controls would shortly bring about a renaissance, but at the time, the future of performance cars seemed grim. In that climate, we assume that a sports car that could be pitched as an economical commuter vehicle seemed like a much safer bet. (Regular readers will recall that Pontiac used a similar tactic to push the Fiero through a reluctant GM bureaucracy.)

Interestingly, early sketches of the CR-X were notably more rakish than the finished product, whose final design appears to have been dictated by the need to share as many of the Civic/Ballade structural hardpoints as possible. Again, it appears the designers wanted a sports car, but accepted the compromises of the Civic platform as a way to get the project into production.

Nonetheless, Honda engineers and designers still harbored ambitions of developing a serious sports car. Less than six months after the launch of the CR-X, the company began formal development of the car that eventually became the mid-engine NSX.

1987 Honda CRX Spyder convertible rear 3q © 2011 Aaron Severson

Honda never offered a convertible CR-X (rumors that Austin Rover’s 1984 MG Metro concept car were CRX-based were incorrect, although the Metro-based show car did look sufficiently Honda-like that some journalists assumed it was). Nonetheless, a number of independent companies did offer ragtop CRX conversions like this one. We don’t know the provenance of this particular car, but it might be one of the ones built by R. Straman Co. in Southern California, the prototype of which was profiled in Road & Track in July 1984. This car is based on a LHD 1987 CRX Si, although it’s been fitted with the JDM-only digital instrument panel. (author photo)

HONDA CIVIC CRX FOR EXPORT

Surprisingly, Honda did not originally envision offering the CR-X in the U.S. market. That was a reasonable assumption; most Japanese automakers had various home-market niche products not sold elsewhere, and with the voluntary import limits (discussed in our article on the Lexus LS400), it didn’t make sense to federalize models that weren’t likely to sell in useful numbers. Honda’s American organization had opted not to import the City, but responded with unexpected enthusiasm to the CR-X. The U.S. would become the latter’s biggest market.

In the U.S. and most export markets, the little coupe was identified not as a Ballade, but rather as the Civic CRX, generally without the hyphen. The export CRX debuted along with the other new Civics in the fall of 1983 as 1984 models.

1984 Honda CRX front © 2010 Aaron Severson

Aside from its badges and left-hand drive, this 1984 U.S.-market Honda CRX looks much like the JDM Ballade Sports CR-X. However, North American cars lacked the flip-up “eyebrows” that covered the upper portions of the headlights on early JDM Ballades. At the time, U.S. law still required sealed beam headlights, although recent regulatory changes had allowed the use of smaller rectangular units. (author photo)

Like the JDM CR-X, the North American EA CRX offered a choice of 1,342 cc (82 cu. in.) and 1,488 cc (91 cu. in.) fours, but with some substantial differences. The federalized 1.3 had a simpler eight-valve cylinder head, limiting output to 60 hp SAE (45 kW) and 73 lb-ft (99 N-m) of torque, but allowing the base CRX to succeed the previous year’s Civic FE as Honda’s fuel efficiency star. The 1.5 had the 12-valve head, but American buyers were initially denied fuel injection. The carbureted version of the engine had an output of 76 hp SAE (57 kW) and 84 lb-ft (114 N-m) of torque. (It’s worth noting that the very similar carbureted 1.5 offered on JDM Civics and Ballades claimed 90 PS JIS (66 kW) and 93 lb-ft (126 N-m) of torque; the JDM engine’s net output was probably about the same as the U.S. engine’s.)

Like other federalized 1984 Civics, the CRX used a variation of the Ballade’s recessed headlight treatment, albeit without the Ballade’s peculiar retractable “eyebrows.” Also omitted for U.S. cars, even as options, were the rear jump seat, digital instruments, roof ventilation system, 14-inch wheels, and sunroof, although the two latter items would become available later.

1984 Honda CRX rear 3q © 2010 Aaron Severson

Honda claimed the CRX’s tailgate spoiler reduced drag and cut rear lift at higher speeds. The EA CRX was quite aerodynamic for its time with a claimed drag coefficient of 0.33. By comparison, the EA Civic hatchback’s Cd was 0.35 and the Ballade sedan’s was 0.39. (author photo)

The European CRX used the front clip of the Japanese-market Civic, which had flush halogen headlights (still not legal in the U.S. at that point) instead of the semi-retractable units. The sole engine was the injected 1.5, which omitted the Japanese engine’s catalytic converter and exhaust gas recirculation system. In that form, output was 100 PS DIN (74 kW) and 96 lb-ft (130 N-m). European cars had the folding rear seat and sunroof, but automatic transmission was not available, nor were 14-inch wheels.

CRITICAL RESPONSE

Although the federalized cars generally had weaker performance than their Japanese or European counterparts, U.S. critics were consistently impressed with the Honda CRX. It was cheap, starting at $6,150 for the 1.3, $6,599 for the 1.5, and offered a combination of sporty handling, excellent fuel economy, and respectable performance that was otherwise hard to come by in the States. Even with the carbureted engine, the CRX 1.5 was capable of 0-60 mph (0-97 km/h) in around 10 seconds and a top speed of perhaps 105 mph (169 km/h), which was in the same league as a Volkswagen Rabbit GTI costing over $1,700 more. The Honda’s ride was on the choppy side, but many testers preferred that to the soggy suspension settings of other American-market subcompacts. The CRX’s handling was highly praised, as were ergonomics and build quality.

1987 Honda CRX Si dashboard © 2011 Aaron Severson

Like most Hondas of this vintage, the first-generation Honda CRX’s interior was dominated by shiny gray plastic that didn’t feel especially upmarket, but everything was well assembled and there was very little to criticize about the ergonomics. There were also some useful minor touches like the hinged storage tray atop the dash and remote latches for both the rear hatch and the fuel filler. The 1986 and 1987 cars, like this CRX Si, had upgraded and arguably more tasteful interior fabrics, although the overall ambiance was little changed. (author photo)

Contemporary American reviewers were also astounded by the CRX’s packaging efficiency, although it was not exceptional when viewed on a global scale. The U.S.-market CRX was fairly roomy for two (thanks in part to the omission of the folding rear seat, which allowed more front seat travel) and had plenty of cargo space, but was hardly a tiny car. In fact, the first CRX was 5.1 inches (130 mm) longer and 4.7 inches (120 mm) wider than the first U.S.-market Civic and about the same size as many contemporary European B-segment cars, most of which had functional rear seats.

European critics were less taken with the CRX. Aside from an ingrained prejudice toward Japanese cars, the main point of contention was where exactly the Honda fit into the automotive schema. Considered as a modern MGB GT, the CRX was impressive, boasting a slick gearbox, a smooth and eager engine, and reasonable practicality. Weighed against European hot hatches like the new Peugeot 205GTi, the CRX didn’t look as good. Straight-line performance was near the top of the class, but testers couldn’t replicate Honda’s claimed 118 mph (190 km/h) top speed and complained of a harsh ride, a lack of grip from the 175/70HR13 tires, and excessive road noise (a complaint also levied against the EA Civic hatchback).

1984 Honda CRX rear © 2010 Aaron Severson

The convenience of the CRX’s rear hatchback was hampered somewhat by a high liftover height. Rear visibility was also not a strong point, for obvious reasons. Note also this car’s Civic badge — the CRX was technically part of the Civic line in the U.S. (author photo)

In hindsight, Honda might have been better off deleting the European CRX’s rear seat, which invited comparison with hot hatches offering a better ride, sharper handling, sometimes richer interior trim, and more interior space, all for the same or less money. As it was, the CRX was only ever a niche item in Europe and the U.K.

THE DOHC CR-X SI

A third model joined the JDM lineup in late 1984: the Ballade Sports CR-X Si. The Si was powered by the new 1,590 cc (97 cu. in.) ZC engine, which had a 75mm (2.95-inch) bore, a 90mm (3.54-inch stroke), a new non-CVCC DOHC cylinder head with four valves per cylinder, and a four-into-two exhaust system. The CR-X Si and the similar Civic Si had PGM-FI, giving 135 PS JIS (99 kW) and 112 lb-ft (152 N-m) of torque. Probably not coincidentally, those figures gave Honda a slight edge over Toyota’s 1,597 cc (98 cu. in.) 4A-GEU engine (used in some sporty versions of the Corolla/Sprinter, Celica, Carina, and MR2), which was rated at 130 PS JIS (96 kW) and 110 lb-ft (149 N-m) of torque.

1985 Honda Ballade Sports CR-X Si front3q © 2013 Ypy31 (PD)

The Ballade Sports CR-X Si (and European CRX 1.6i-16) were distinguished from other CR-X grades by a small bulge in the hood above the cam pulleys, unnecessary on cars with SOHC engines. The DOHC car also had an oil cooler and vented front discs with semi-metallic pads. Unlike the export cars, the JDM EA CR-X Si was also available with automatic transmission. (Photo: “Honda-BalladeSportsCR-X” © 2013 Ypy31; dedicated to the public domain by the photographer under a Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication, resized 2013 by Aaron Severson)

Although the heavier engine and extra equipment added about 130 lb (60 kg) compared to the CR-X 1.5i, the added power made the CR-X Si a much stronger performer. Honda claimed the new model was capable of 0-62 mph (0-100 km/h) in 8 seconds and a top speed of 126 mph (203 km/h). The engine was not especially muscular at lower engine speeds, although it was more flexible than the 5,000 rpm torque peak suggested and noticeably smoother than its Toyota rival. The suspension was retuned to match the new engine and a countershaft with an additional universal joint was fitted to the transaxle, allowing almost equal-length halfshafts to reduce torque steer, a trick Ford had previously applied to 1.6-liter Fiestas. The initial price for the CR-X Si was ¥1,503,000 (about $6,300), roughly ¥200,000 (about $850) more than a CR-X 1.5i.

1985 Honda Ballade Sports CR-X Si rear 3q © 2013 Ypy31 (PD)

A rear lip spoiler was standard on the DOHC CR-X Si and CRX 1.6i-16, as were the “DOHC” call-outs, but while alloy wheels were available, this car’s peculiar wheels are not stock. (Photo: “Honda-BalladeSportsCR-Xrear” © 2013 Ypy31; dedicated to the public domain by the photographer under a Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication, resized 2013 by Aaron Severson)

To the undoubted frustration of American fans, the ZC engine was never offered on the U.S. CRX, although a few JDM cars were federalized privately. The issue was not whether the DOHC engine could pass U.S. emissions standards, which it could with only minor adjustments; in early 1986, it became the standard engine for the new U.S.-market Acura Integra, the American version of the latest Honda Quint (now called Quint Integra in Japan). However, we assume Honda’s American organization was understandably keen to keep some distance between the Civic-based Integra — which was being positioned as an upscale companion to the new Legend — and the cheaper Civic and CRX. (For those keeping score, when the U.S.-market Integra debuted in the spring of 1986, the DOHC engine was rated at 113 hp SAE (84 kW) and 99 lb-ft (134 N-m) of torque, increased to 118 hp (88 kW) and 103 lb-ft (140 N-m) for the 1988 model year.)

As partial compensation, Honda added a North American CRX Si midway through the 1985 model year, powered not by the ZC engine, but by a federalized version of the 1,488 cc (91 cu. in.) SOHC engine, here making 91 hp SAE (68 kW). Performance was similar to that of the JDM CR-X 1.5i: 0-60 mph (0-97 km/h) in a bit under 9 seconds and a top speed of around 115 mph (185 km/h). The CRX Si also included both the sunroof, for which American buyers had been clamoring, and alloy wheels, albeit initially the same 13-inch items used on the original European CRX. The carbureted 1.5 remained available as the midrange engine, but the 1.3 was replaced by the new carbureted 1.5-liter CRX HF (the suffix meaning “high fuel economy”) with 65 hp SAE (48 kW).

PGM-FI engine in a 1987 Honda CRX Si © 2011 Aaron Severson

The U.S.-spec CRX Si, introduced in mid-1985, was rated at 91 hp SAE (68 kW) and 93 lb-ft (126 N-m) of torque, which is probably close to the net output of the Japanese 1.5i engine. Like all Honda engines of this vintage, the CRX’s engines use belt-driven cams and the timing belt (cambelt) must be changed at regular intervals — Honda specialists generally recommend 60,000 miles (96,000 km) — to avoid expensive trouble. These are interference engines, which allows a more compact cylinder head, but means a good chance of valves colliding with pistons if the belt breaks. (author photo)

48 Comments

Add a Comment
  1. Great article about a model I’ve always found compelling. And look at the list of sources – the depth of research is what really sets this site apart.

  2. I think it can be argued that Honda replaced the CRX/Del Sol with the Insight MK I. While it never had any sporting aspirations, it did fill the same basic role as the CRX HF in that it was a small, light, extremely fuel-efficient 2 seat commuter car. To this day it still holds the title of the most fuel-efficient gasoline powered car ever sold in the US market. While it was a flawed vehicle (due to battery life issues), it was still a better effort than the CR-Z at filling the sporty commuter car role. As far as the CR-Z goes, I don’t see how it is an improvement over the same product had it just been fitted with the drivetrain from the Fit/Jazz. It would have been lighter, within 2-4MPG of the hybrid system and far cheaper to produce and buy.

    1. There is certainly a case to be made for the Mk1 Insight as the next-generation CRX, although in that case more than CRX HF than the Si or VTEC editions. You could have fun with an Insight, but it was not a sporty car in any quantitative way other than having only two seats. The original Insight was also more of a sui generis piece like the NSX; the Mk1 Insight had a bespoke (and very expensive) chassis and engine where the CRX, even the del Sol, was a Civic derivative.

      The CR-Z is, to my eyes, a neat-looking car that tries to do two quite different things at once and ends up not being great at either of them. You have a point about the powertrain; the CR-Z is more fuel efficient than the Fit on the EPA cycle, but not dramatically so (the difference between a five-speed Fit 1.5 and a CR-Z six-speed is about 17%) and if you subtracted the added weight of the IMA system and battery (something between 110 and 150 lb, if it’s comparable to the Jazz Hybrid) it would probably be a wash. On the other hand, that would itself leave people searching for the point, since you could always just buy a Fit/Jazz, add your own suspension tweaks (which at this point Honda dealers might even sell you — I haven’t looked recently), and come out ahead in just about everything but looks.

      Of course, if Honda had really wanted to cheer up the faithful, they could pull the hybrid gear and battery pack from the CR-Z and install the K20 engine. They wouldn’t win any fuel economy prizes that way, but they could probably have matched the old CRX Si (27 mpg combined on the post-2008 cycle, compared to 24 mpg for the last of the previous generation 2-liter Civic Si) and there would be a lot less moaning about the old car being better.

      I think the bottom line is that Honda appears to be really stung by the fact that Toyota has made the Prius practically synonymous with hybrid cars while a lot of Honda hybrids have gone nowhere commercially. Honda keeps looking for a space in that niche they can call their own (the sporty hybrid, the cheaper hybrid) and so far they haven’t found it.

      1. “You could always just buy a Fit” pretty well sums up my thoughts on most new cars under $50k. I might add “and a motorcycle”.

      2. “Of course, if Honda had really wanted to cheer up the faithful, they could pull the hybrid gear and battery pack from the CR-Z and install the K20 engine.”

        Sweet Jesus man, it is cruel and unusual to even discuss something so easily do-able and yet so thoroughly un-fulfilled; especially considering the audience is made up of almost nothing but gear-heads. Somehow, the notion feels even more tantalizingly realistic when hearing you say it. Alas, the possibility exists only in the world of engine swaps for now and, I fear, the indefinite future :(

        There seem to be a lot of these common-sense type solutions kicking around that plenty of automakers have been picking up as of late. I mean, good god, just look at Ford, Hyundai, or even Toyota with the bold-move FRS/BRZ platform and even a looming collaboration with BMW. If you can’t beat ’em, coerce ’em into helping you build something that doesn’t suck. At least they’re doing <b>something</b> to inject some vitality into the brand.

        Honda, on the other hand, seems to be sitting on their hands. The Acura brand is a great example. It has made money for them in the past, but now it withers on the vine with more than one of their models falling seriously short of sales projections in recent years. The cars have good tech, Honda’s SH-AWD drivetrain is among the best in the business. Yet somehow the final package they’ve been putting together has been falling short. The RLX is, objectively, a perfectly decent sedan in its price range, but <b>nobody</b> has bought the thing.

        It seems to come back to Honda’s corporate culture. They just don’t do U-turns. They’ve been incredibly dedicated to the parrot-face family-resemblance front grille. Nobody likes it. Nobody <i>ever</i> liked it, but that doesn’t matter to them. This is what they planned and they’re doing it, period. Over at Toyota, Akio Toyoda has been wreaking havoc, changing all manner of product plans. So far, his efforts appear to have yielded entirely positive results. They’ve gained hugely renewed consumer interest in the brand and yet none of their “core customers” are abandoning their 2014 Camry buying plans just because Akio has pushed to build a few interesting cars. All is well for them. Sadly, it seems such is not the case over at Honda.

        I deeply want to continue being a Honda fan. Some of my greatest automotive experiences have occurred in or around one of their cars. However, hardly anything in their 2014 lineup sparks my interest. I’d <i>love</i> to be driving a Honda, but I recently scooped of a ’10 Hyundai Genesis Coupe fresh off a trade-in instead. Powerful V6 engine, 6 speed manual, RWD, and all for way less than $20K even though the thing still had 30K miles of warranty left on it.

        And the thing that really irritates me is how much better my car would be if it were a Honda. Honda could *easily* build a car just like the Genesis Coupe. Only if Honda made it, its engine would be more powerful, more fuel efficient, and more refined. Its interior would be made up of much higher quality materials to make a more quiet and comfortable cabin. The gearshift would be a nearly-orgasmic joy to operate rather than merely adequate. It wouldn’t have such an absurdly small amount of front bump travel. Its handling would be snappy, agile, and precise. Its ride quality would be supple with perfect damping. Its steering would feel tingly and wonderful and perfectly weighted.

        Alas, it would have been $6K-8K more expensive and-OMG I WOULD NOT HAVE CARED! <i>AT! ALL!</i> I would <i>so</i> prefer to own a Honda-built version of my Genesis Coupe.

        Honda! Hooondaaa! Please! Please just build *one* proper enthusiast’s car?! With no hybridized whatever? Just wheels and a meaty engine and some seats and perfectly ergonomic controls and every other exquisite, driver-focused quality that we all *know* you can build into a car.

        Aaron Severson has penned an ode, yet another lovingly detailed history of an incredible strain of automobile. It is truly baffling to read it to its end and then consider what Honda’s product tree looks like right now. What a shame.

        1. It should be said that however much the recent Civic and Accord models have been lambasted by the enthusiast press, both have been selling quite well in the U.S., so they seem to be going over okay with consumers.

          As for the hybrids, the last time I checked, the Prius was by a healthy margin the bestselling car in Japan by a substantial margin and it and the Aqua (the car sold here as the Prius C) account for a substantial portion of ALL cars sold in Japan right now. By contrast, Honda has had a lot of difficulty carving out a piece of that market; Toyota has really branded itself as the hybrid company at this point, which has left Honda trying to maneuver around them.

          Also, Honda today is in a very different position than it was when the original CRX was developed. Back then, Honda was just barely edging out Mazda for fourth place in Japan during a period when the Japanese economy was really starting to boom and the auto industry (after some sluggish years in the mid-seventies) was taking off. Those are the kind of conditions that seem to inspired companies to produce their best products — periods in which there’s obviously money to be made (and thus more incentive to take expensive chances), but where the company isn’t so far out in front that they second-guess themselves to death try to hang onto their established market share.

          Today, Honda is I think still No. 2 in the Japanese industry, having displaced Nissan, and one of the top-selling automotive brands in the U.S., but the Japanese economy has been rocky for some time — the earthquake certainly didn’t help — and the auto industry in general is in a weird and uneasy place for everyone but the high-end German brands. Those are the sort of conditions that discourage companies from taking chances; there’s a lot to lose and not necessarily a lot to gain.

  3. When I first heard of it, I was really hoping that the Scion iQ was going to pick up where the CRX left off…tiny, nimble, quirky, efficient, and unapologetic about styling. Sadly, it appears to have been a flop in the U.S. at least.

    So what is the CRX’s closest successor? The MINI products are a little too form-over-function, the MX-5 is too expensive, we (U.S.) got the wrong Smart, the MR2 Spyder was apparently not as fun as it looks, etc.

    I’m calling out the Mazda2…and the Fit, of course.

    1. Well, neither the Fit or Mazda2 is really the same sort of car. The Fit/Jazz is in size and purpose basically a cleverer, modernized version of the EA Civic Shuttle/Wagon five-door. (The Fit is about 3.5 inches shorter, but 2 inches wider and about an inch and a half taller.) The 2/Demio is a supermini like the Fiesta that shares its platform. Neither the Fit nor the 2 is particularly sporty — which is not to say they’re bad to drive because they’re not, but being fun to drive is really not their primary mission.

      Of the various smaller hot hatches, I would say the closest direct comparison is probably the Suzuki Swift Sport three-door, not sold here. If you want to be technical, it’s closer to the EA Civic Si than the CRX, but the Swift Sport is about as close to a “back to basics” small sporty car as you’ll find these days.

  4. I’d like to know why Honda was able to make money offering such a wide range of Civic variations back in the ’80’s. Heck, they even offered 3 versions of the CRX (CRX, CRXhf and CRXsi). Plus the Civic hatch, the 4-door Civic and the Civic Wagon.

    Now it’s 2-door, 4-door or hit the highway.

    Same with most of all the other car companies.

    Back in the ’60’s you could get a full-size Chevy in 4-door sedan, 4-door hardtop, 2-door sedan, 2-door hardtop, station wagon and convertible. Most if not all in Caprice, Impala, Biscayne and 210 variants.

    Maybe the car companies would sell some more cars if they gave us some choice.

    1. Well, Honda does offer a Civic hatchback and a wagon/MPV (the Stream), just not in the U.S. Conversely, the Civic three-box sedan and two-door coupe aren’t sold in Europe. In both cases, the reason is that in the past three generations or so, interest in hatchbacks and small wagons in the U.S. has been minimal, while European buyers have a similar feeling about notchback sedans and coupes.

  5. Great article (you keep spoiling us, Aaron!). I owned a ’77 Civic CVCC and an ’85 CRX and the CRX was such a quantum leap over the Civic. Maybe that’s not a fair comparison given eight years of progress separating them, but the ’77 was such a piece of crap I swore I’d never own another Honda, so when I broke that rule and bought the CRX it was so good it more than evened the score. I figured I’d quit while I was ahead and have yet to buy another Honda (as if I could even afford a new(er) one…

  6. I had a 90 Si with a b16 and IHE, brake upgrades.
    at 50 years old I had a fast! fun, and reliable car that I drove every day.
    God, the fun I had with that car…

    1. Purchased a new 1987 CRX-Si in July of ’87, last of the original generation. Loved the way it drove. Installed a Jackson Racing suspension kit on the car and it handled like it was on rails.

      The first and second generation CRX cars were some of the best handling of all time. Light weight, great handling and excellent power to weight ratio for their day made these car instant classics.

  7. Great article! Well written and probably the only one so far which captures the fact the CR-X Ballade Sports started its existence in 1983… Although the first month of production was May 1983 (not late 1983 as written). Chassis numbers started as AF1
    The 1.6l DOHC CR-X did come out in 1984 but again as a Ballade Sports with the chassis number AS100 whilst the Si model on 1986 had the chassis number AS110.

    1. To the author: I own a 1983 cr-x ballade sports which was early build number 29 and also a 1.6 1984
      Ballade sports with the chassis AS100. I also have a parts book which shows the models if you’d like that for reference. Thanks.

    2. By introduction, I’m referring to the public announcement rather than the start of production, which for obvious reasons would have been somewhat earlier. Honda announced the new model on 23 June 1983 and according to their press release, the car went on sale through Honda Verno stores on the first day of July.

      I didn’t mean to imply that the JDM Si was not still a Ballade Sports CR-X, which it was (as can be seen by the identification on the back of the black car), and have amended the text a bit to make that clearer. The main issue was that it can get tricky to describe cars sold in distinct versions under different names without making the text very cumbersome…

  8. <cite>The factory estimated a top speed of 124 mph (200 km/h) for the 1.5i, which was wildly optimistic</cite>

    I have an ’84 1.5 I purchased new from a dealer in AZ. The best I ever got out of it was 105. 124 is is wildly optimistic.

    1. The factory figure was for the more powerful Japanese-market injected engine. The car you had was the less-powerful carbureted U.S. 1.5; I don’t know if Honda ever released estimated figures for that version, although your 105 mph result is quite consistent with the independent U.S. tests.

      Either way, 124 mph was optimistic. The JDM 1.5i had probably just about the same net output as the later U.S. CRX Si (i.e., about 92 hp SAE net), which didn’t get close to that speed without aftermarket help. Even the European injected cars, which were almost certainly more powerful than the JDM version (no catalytic converter or EGR), couldn’t manage 120 mph in independent tests, much less 124.

  9. The photo of the S800 brought a tear! I owned an S600 Coupe (essentially the same car as the S800) and drove it for 18 years in and around Vancouver. With its 9500 RPM red line, what a hoot that car was! Still have the original (and incredibly detailed) shop manual for the S600, as well as one for the S800.

  10. THANKS for writing such a thorough and interesting history of the CRX! I truly enjoyed it!

    My sister’s first car (in ’88) was a very gently-used ’85 CRX (1.5) with only 34k miles on it. It was red with an after-market pop-up sunroof and oh-so-80s rear-window louvers that rattled constantly. Questionable accessories aside, it was still a blast to drive. Just a few weeks later, her best friend got a dark blue ’85 model, but with the dreadful 3-speed automatic.

    In 1990, shortly before I turned 16, my sister graduated high school and my dad bought her an ’86 Nissan 300ZX from a friend. Even though I always loved her ’85 CRX, I wasn’t thrilled to get my big sister’s hand-me-downs. But if I didn’t take the CRX, it was very likely that I’d be getting my mom’s ’77 Cutlass Supreme….so I took the CRX! =)

    Four months later, I lost control in a curve and put it into the guard rail at 70mph+. I walked away with just a few bumps and bruises, but the CRX wasn’t so lucky. I replaced it with a white ’86 CRX Si and kept it for almost two years, until I graduated high school in 01/1993.

    I went thru a series of Integras, Accords, a Prelude and even a Legend over the years. In 1999, when my daily driver was a ’94 Legend GS, I ran across a deal on a black ’90 CRX Si that I couldn’t pass up. It was pretty tired with just over 200k miles on the clock, but it was still fun for to play with for a couple of years until the head gasket blew.

    For the record, I hated the del Sol, but the current CR-Z could have some potential! Screw the hybrid crap, borrow the powertrain from the Civic Si and I’ll be first in line to buy one!

    1. I suspect the CR-Z won’t be around much longer. I saw news the other day that the Insight on which it’s based has ceased production and since CR-Z sales have never been great, I have to assume there isn’t a strong business case for continuing the CR-Z much longer. If it had become a cult favorite, keeping it might make sense as a goodwill-building gesture, but the people who might have made the CR-Z that kind of success have largely turned up their noses at it.

  11. Excellent article. I owned an 87 CRX DX for a few years and still own a 1997 Del Sol VTEC (bought new, but sadly the rust belt is about to claim another victim), but noticed you claimed the suspension didn’t change between the second generation CRX and the Del Sol. The Del Sol inherited the same suspension used in the same generation Civics (which is why most of the parts I’ve been buying lately are Civic parts), which is a true double wishbone up front and a trailing arm multilink arrangement in the rear. It is a funny looking double wishbone, I’ll grant you, with the two wishbones connected by an extended hub (Honda calls it a knuckle). There are some exploded parts diagrams of the suspension on OEM parts sites if you want to verify my statement (assuming Majestic Honda hasn’t yanked the Del Sol from their online parts catalog). I’ve been toying with the idea of replacing the Sol with a CRZ but for some reason the insurance rates for one in my neck of the woods are outrageous – I can insure a Pontiac Solstice GXP for less. Now if only I could afford the GXP… and the maintenance…

    1. I wasn’t trying to imply that suspensions were identical or interchangeable, but that they were substantially similar in layout. However, you’re quite right about the lower wishbone change — I’d missed that when I was looking at the itty-bitty diagrams in the del Sol press kit. One could argue (as I imagine Honda engineers would have) that a wishbone formed by two links is still functionally a wishbone; it sort of comes down to how picky you want to be. In any case, I’ve amended the text on that and to better describe the extended steering knuckles, which are shared by both generations.

      1. Agreed, though I think they’d need to be really picky indeed to argue that a lower control arm that consists of two pieces bolted together and attached to a single ball joint at the bottom of the knuckle isn’t a wishbone. It could have just as easily been a solid piece (indeed, some aftermarket arms did just that) with two horizontal pivot mounts on the car side connecting to a ball joint on the knuckle side. I don’t fault you for scratching your head at the diagrams, I just stared at one now and had to puzzle through what was what, and I’ve held the arms in my hands before. The steering tie rods almost look like they should be a load bearing piece. And I’m sorry, I didnt mean to infer that they would be interchangeable either, just that the design had changed between 88-91 and 92-95. Thanks again for the informative article. Oh, and if you haven’t read “The Honda Myth” before I can’t recommend it more highly… It’s a really compelling story about Honda’s history.

        1. My dilemma with the diagrams was that I originally looked only at the del Sol press kit, which has only one very small image of the front suspension — and that from an angle where the lower wishbone is completely hidden behind the knuckle. I went back and looked up the press kit for the Civic line, which had a more complete set of illustrations from several angles. (I assume since the del Sol followed on the heels of the other Civics, Honda didn’t see the need to belabor the point.)

          It’s sort of interesting that they went back to a solid lower wishbone. A lot of times automakers go the other direction, principally because creating a “wishbone” of several links gives you more flexibility in tailoring bushing compliance in different directions. I suppose it might have been a cost-saving thing, since by that point the Japanese economy was a mess and Honda was fighting to hold the line on export prices. It might also have just been an about-face in terms of philosophy for any number of reasons — I really don’t know.

          I have read the Masaaki Sato book, which was fascinating. There was a lot of stuff about Honda’s early history I really hadn’t known and it gave me a new perspective on some things, like the proposed auto industry consolidation that prompted Honda (and Mazda) to get into the passenger car business in the first place.

  12. Hi, i own a 1984 Honda city cabriolet and am desperately sourcing for the front shock absorbers and rear tail lights. Appreciate any assistance i can get.
    Thank you.
    Kannan nair
    MALAYSIA

    1. I’m afraid I can’t offer any advice on parts or repairs and I really don’t know where you could find spares for something like the City. Sorry!

  13. I remember when the CRX first debuted here in North America. I was 10 yrs old at the time, and I thought it was the ugliest thing Honda had produced. I thought the Civic was better looking than the CRX. As time went on, I saw it as more of a cute little runabout for a single person to commute to and from work, or a couple who only needs one car. I like it more than the more recent Honda CRZ.

  14. Hi, excellent article as always. From a European perspective I would like to add that the CRX (certainly the first generation) is conceptually and stylistically similar to the Alfa Romeo Sprint, based on the Alfasud. Certainly the second generation Sprint is very similar to the first generation CRX. At the time, the CRX was considered something of a spiritual successor to the Sprint, much like the MX5 is considered a spiritual successor to many British roadsters. The main difference being, of course, that in the Japanese reinterpretations of these concepts, you actually stood a pretty good chance of completing your journey without ending up by the wayside with a smoking car.

    There are famous stories about the Alfasud and its (even by Italian standards) terrible reliability: its factory was an attempt at economically developing southern Italy (the Mezzogiorno), but the workers were accustomed to agricultural labour instead of industrial labour and often went on strike while the unpainted bodyworks of new cars rusted outside – before they even made it to the showroom… These bodies were then gingerly used to build new cars whenever the strike was (momentarily) resolved.

    1. I would grant that the ‘sud Sprint is the sort of car Honda’s R&D people would probably have examined and would likely have appreciated from a dynamic perspective, although I don’t see a stylistic resemblance beyond a certain stubbiness and the cropped Kamm tail, which of course is an aerodynamic feature that predated both cars. (Kamm-effect tails are very common on small cars because it’s challenging to achieve even a quasi-teardrop shape that still has room for human occupants.) The Sprint to my eyes looks more like the Mk1 Scirocco — as I recall, Giugiaro did both — and I don’t see much of either in the Honda except insofar as the Scirocco, the Sprint, and the CRX were all coupes based on cut-down C-segment family cars. In that line, there’s also the Peugeot 104 coupe, which I mentioned in a separate article. Again, I assume Honda R&D was cognizant of all of these, but there’s no one precedent that screams of being an obvious conceptual inspiration.

      As I study more about the Japanese auto industry, I become increasingly frustrated with the Western assumption that everything Japanese is a copy or knockoff, superior or not, of some European or American original. There are of course cases where that was true, but the U.S. industry did its share of borrowing, particularly stylistically, and yet for all the bad things European or British critics have said about Detroit (gaudy, vulgar, uncultured — choose your epithet), one seldom hears similar accusations made of American cars, even the ones that have been consciously and sometimes clumsily patterned after Japanese or German models. Nissan did of course build Austins under license once, but then so did BMW. In any case, if one wants to point out that the Datsun 240Z looks like the adolescent result of a late-night liaison between a SII E-type and a Ferrari 275GTB/4, or that the first Lexus LS400 bore a more than passing resemblance to a W126 S-Class, I won’t argue, but the notion that all Japanese cars are somehow categorically a reinterpretation of some European concept is awfully reductive.

      The Alfasud is a fascinating car and an interesting story of its own that to tell properly would require a more nuanced grasp of Italian labor issues in the ’60s and ’70s than I presently can claim. The ‘sud was a political response to the enormous northerly migration that had been taking place in Italy since the late ’50s, which in U.S. terms was loosely comparable to the combined population of Kentucky, South Carolina, and West Virginia showing up in the greater New York area within the space of about a decade, looking for work, housing, and schools. As with many other politically driven efforts to establish industrial sites in economically depressed areas, the Alfasud project underestimated the considerable logistical and organizational problems of building a factory far from a nation’s existing industrial base and infrastructure. There’s probably a good book to be written about the whole affair, although it would be a worthy thesis project for some graduate student in labor history, industrial relations, or business administration.

      1. Excellent points, and I certainly didn’t mean to imply that the CRX was a knockoff. In fact, I was at a car spotting age when it came out and recall the general consensus being that people were happy that at least <em>somebody</em> cared enough about the concept to develop such a car, as Europe’s car industry – and certainly anything owned by Fiat – fell into a lethargy concerning specialty cars, instead betting the house on hot hatches. With quite some success, it must be said. The CRX made sure that, together with the VW GTI’s, Honda usurped much of the classy, affordable and sporty image that Alfa once owned – at least in Europe. That was the point I tried to convey: both the CRX a and the MX5 are continuations of concepts that European manufacturers no longer cared about, often markedly improved. That doesn’t make them knockoffs but rather like chapters in a continuing story that many people (including me) are very grateful for, since it provides much extra color to an automotive world that tends toward beige.

        To continue on your assessment of the Japanese car industry, I haven’t your depth of knowledge, but I always believed that Honda found its distinctive style in the early eighties – the generation before the CRX, in fact my dad owned a 2nd gen Civic and I have fond memories of it, if not of the interior space it provided. A style that has waxed and waned through the years (I’m sure you’re aware that European Civics of recent vintage are considerably more “daring” than those for other continents, with decidedly mixed results). Other Japanese marquee were not far behind, if at all. Of course, we didn’t get the Datsun 510 in Europe, so the CRX a was probably one of the first Japanese cars to get an emotional reaction in our neck of the woods.

        1. Functionally, I think what happened to the European specialty car market was that cars like the Golf GTI demonstrated that automakers could snare most if not all of the same buyers and create a comparable fan base with a much more modest tooling investment. The eternal struggle with specialty cars is that even if you have a bone-stock chassis and running gear, the body costs as much to tool as a family car’s, the resulting product sells in smaller numbers, and it can easily price itself out of the market if the price is too high. That’s why you ended up with cars like the Mk3 Capri and late MGB, which sold well enough to keep them alive with an occasional de minimis warming-over, but not well enough to bother redesigning or creating from scratch. The hot hatch is a much less risky bet because unless you’re doing something REALLY extreme (e.g., the ’90s Escort Cosworth), the tooling costs are modest.

          The Japanese eventually ran into a similar problem a decade or so later, after the bubble burst, which was compounded by the weak dollar driving up exchange rates and prices for U.S. exports. In the ’80s, the home market was healthy enough to absorb a variety of interesting indulgences not sold elsewhere (including a surprising fad for four-door hardtops, which will be covered in an upcoming story), but the Japanese market sagged in the ’90s and never really perked up in any sustained way. (Looking at JDM new car sales by model now is rather sobering.) So, the only really unique models the home market can support by itself are not sporty specialty cars, but minicars, which are sustained by a series of regulatory loopholes that don’t exist in the U.S. or E.U.

          I think the Japanese automakers in Europe are suffering from an unfortunate catch-22: to capture European buyers’ respect, the Japanese really need products that are more specifically tailored to European tastes, but existing and past efforts in that direction have had very mixed results, as you say, and such dubious prospects don’t exactly encourage companies to make a big additional investment!

          I know the 510 Bluebird was sold in some European markets, if not the U.K. I say this because not long ago I was looking through some old Norwegian brochures for it! Export strategies are sometimes a little mystifying.

          1. The 510 Bluebird was sold in the UK as the Datsun 1400 or 1600, depending on engine displacement. Of course, we got only the 1600 engine in the States.

          2. Thanks! I knew some later Bluebirds were sold in the U.K. (even retaining the Bluebird name, in some cases), but I wasn’t positive about the 510 generation.

  15. “The initial price for the CR-X Si was ¥1,503,000 (about $6,300), roughly £200,000 (about $850) more than a CR-X 1.5i.”

    Boy, the Pound really took a beating in the ’80s, didn’t it? ;)

    1. Oops! Yes, that would be some pretty serious markup. Luckily, it was just a typo and easily fixed.

  16. This article is freaking deep. Excellent work!! Definitely gonna keep on browsing through this site.

  17. I’m a bit late to the party but I have a 84 with a weber carborated 1.3 anyways my question is regarding the aftermarket digital dashboard. I was wondering where one might go about finding one.

    1. I’m afraid I can’t help with parts or modifications — I haven’t the foggiest. I suppose it might be possible to mail-order the pieces for the JDM digital dash, but I really don’t know how available something like that might be at this late date.

    2. i have a 85 and one 87 (soch 101hp/dohc 130bhp) but pretty much everything on these cars are hard or impossible to come by so take care of that old girl ;D

      1. I can imagine. I once had a third-generation Prelude that at that time was approaching the end of its factory parts availability window. (It wasn’t past it, but it was getting there.) Even then, parts took quite a while to arrive and were always sourced from one specific warehouse, which I once joked to my mechanic must have been located somewhere deep in the Andes, accessible only by burro.

        I don’t think that’s a problem specific to these cars or to Honda, but rather endemic to moderately priced economy and family cars that are typically driven to death and discarded rather than preserved.

  18. Hi. In the article, you wrote that the claimed drag coefficient for del Sol SiR/VTi was 0.40. Can you tell me, what is the source of this information? I was browsing, trying to find del Sol’s drag coefficient and depending on site, it was said that it is either: 0.35, 0.35-37 or 0.42, so there are some significant differences between these values. I’m currently looking into del Sol’s aerodynamics, and it would be very interesting for me to have a reliable reference value of drag coefficient for a stock del Sol.

    1. The 0.40 Cd figure came out of the specifications in a CAR Giant Test in July 1992. The Japanese press kit’s otherwise comprehensive specifications don’t quote a Cd — curious, since they did for both the two previous generations — nor do any of the brochures I’ve checked. U.S. brochures brag about the aerodynamics, but also decline to state a figure. Judging by what the manufacturer data DOES say, it appears the priorities were minimizing lift and top-off turbulence rather than reducing drag.

      It’s entirely possible that the 0.40 Cd figure is an average value, since with a car like the del Sol, the aerodynamics would naturally differ depending on whether the roof panel is on or off; the average of 0.37 and 0.42 would be 0.395, which one might round up to 0.40. Looking at the car, 0.37 for the wide-tired SiR/VTi/VTEC with the roof in place and 0.42 with it off sounds reasonable, with the 0.35 perhaps applying to a buttoned-up base car with narrower tires. I’m afraid I don’t have anything more authoritative than that, though!

      1. Thanks a lot for the reply and your efforts to find out the answer, I really appreciate it!

        1. No problem. I was curious about it myself — the press info for the first generation included not only Cd, but CdA figures; the second generation had Cd and not CdA; the del Sol listed neither. It’s hard not to assume that the reason the figures were omitted was that they didn’t look terribly impressive.

          1. I think that these figures look OK when you compare them with similar type of cars (open roof). However, in comparison with the 2nd generation CRX, they do look pretty bad, and I agree that they wouldn’t be a good selling point.

            On the other hand, second generation supposed to have a better Cd and CdA than the first one, so there was no reason to conceal CdA there. Maybe, at some point they also changed their policy about the data that could be released to the press.

          2. Frontal area isn’t all that common in official specifications, admittedly, and including a single figure for models with different combinations of features that would affect the total raises some questions about how it’s calculated. (Ditto Cd, but that’s another can of worms.) I doubt it was a policy decision so much as whoever on the product team was responsible for putting together information to hand off to the communications office either not having those figures handy or not including them for whatever reason. Honda had fairly recently gotten some flack, at least from the American press, for the CB Accord being less aerodynamic than the CA in the interests of a more upscale, conservative look, so it’s possible some senior engineers were touchy about that — I really don’t know.

            As far as the CRX goes, my strong suspicion is that the 2nd-generation car’s CdA was either unchanged or a bit worse than before. The Cd was lower, but with the increased width (by 50mm, not insignificant), the frontal area was certainly greater, and I don’t think the Cd was enough lower to compensate. Looking at European tests of the first- and second-generation 1.6i-16, with the twin-cam ZC engine, there’s no improvement at all in 0-100 mph acceleration or top speed, which doesn’t suggest a net aerodynamic improvement considering that the gearing and power were about the same. (With the ZC, the second-generation uncatalyzed cars had a bit more power, but I wouldn’t expect 5 PS to make a noticeable difference at speeds over 120 mph.)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Click here to read our comment policy. You must be at least 18 to comment. PLEASE DON'T POST COPYRIGHTED CONTENT YOU AREN'T AUTHORIZED TO USE!
Except as otherwise noted, all text and images are copyright © Aaron Severson dba Ate Up With Motor. (Terms of Use – Reprint/Reuse Policy) Trademarks referenced herein are the property of their respective owners and are used here for informational/nominative purposes.