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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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).