THE 1986 FACELIFT
Honda’s small coupe got a mid-life makeover for the 1986 model year. The most visible changes for both the Ballade Sports CR-X and North American CRX were the adoption of flush-mounted headlights, now legal in the States, and a new front bumper/spoiler. The structure was beefed up somewhat, which involved extensive (though not readily obvious) changes to the body shell. The exterior styling was also tidied up and the interior trim was upgraded. JDM 1.5i and Si models now had an optional four-speed automatic, although curiously this was available only on carbureted 1.5-liter U.S. cars and not at all in Europe.
In North America, the CRX Si belatedly received the bigger 185/60R-14 tires offered elsewhere. Continuing Honda’s quest for fuel economy bragging rights, the CRX HF was retuned for 58 hp SAE (43 kW) and 79 lb-ft (107 N-m) of torque and given various tweaks that yielded 54 mpg (4.4 L/100 km) on the contemporary EPA combined cycle (46 mpg on the post-2008 scale, equivalent to 5.1 L/100 km).
The European Honda CRX got most of the same upgrades as the JDM car, but was now offered only in a single trim level, comparable to the Japanese CR-X Si. Now badged CRX 1.6i-16, the European car used the DOHC ZC engine minus the catalytic converter, giving 125 PS DIN (92 kW) and 103 lb-ft (140 N-m) of torque. Since the 1.6i-16 still weighed less than 2,000 lb (900 kg), the result was 0-60 mph (0-97 km/h) in less than 8 seconds and a top speed of around 124 mph (200 km/h), not far off Honda’s claim. The CRX 1.6i-16 still couldn’t outrun the cheaper Renault 5GT Turbo, which had less power but more torque and less weight, but the Honda was one of the fastest cars in its price range. Critical opinion of the CRX’s handling was also much improved, thanks in large part to the newly standard 185/60HR14 tires.
We don’t have complete Japanese or European sales figures for these cars, but the changes made 1986 the CRX’s best sales year ever in the U.S.: more than 60,000 units, followed by almost 50,000 in 1987. The greater performance of the Si models also added to the CRX’s competition potential. The CRX made a strong showing in SCCA showroom stock and the IMSA Firestone Firehawk Endurance Championship, among others, and was a popular choice for club racing and autocross events.
HONDA CRX MK2
The second-generation Honda CR-X/CRX debuted with the rest of the fourth-generation EF Civic line in September 1987. In Japan, the coupe was no longer identified as part of the Ballade line; although still sold through Verno dealerships, it was now badged simply as CR-X. Elsewhere, the car remained “CRX.”
The EF CRX looked much like its predecessor, but was a bit bigger and 0.8 inches (20 mm) lower than before with more glass area and better aerodynamics. Curb weight was up as well, though not by much. Factory figures show a gain of about 45 lb (20 kg).
The previous CR-X’s roof ventilation system was gone, but JDM cars now offered an unusual glass roof option — essentially a fixed, oversize sunroof of tinted glass. The previous car’s sunroof remained optional.
While the styling changes of the new CRX (and Civic) were largely evolutionary, there were substantial changes under the skin. The first was a completely new suspension. Each front wheel now had an upper wishbone connected to a long, curved vertical steering knuckle extension and a lower “wishbone” formed by a lower control arm and a radius rod that allowed some fore-aft compliance. There was also the customary front anti-roll bar. In back, the beam axle gave way to trailing arms with upper and lower lateral links and small toe-control links. (Honda described the rear suspension as double wishbones, which was true in function if imprecise in detail.) Coil springs and gas shocks were fitted all around and there was a new variable-ratio steering rack. Speed-sensitive power steering was optional on JDM cars.
The previous CRX’s 1.3- and 1.5-liter engines were dropped in favor of the new 1,493 cc (91 cu. in.) D-series four, which had the same basic block and 75mm (2.95-inch) bore dimensions as the ZC twin-cam engine, but a single overhead camshaft and four valves per cylinder. A dual-carburetor version of this “Hyper 16-valve” (D15B) engine was standard on the base CR-X 1.5X, making 105 PS JIS (77 kW) and 96 lb-ft (130 N-m) of torque with manual transmission, a bit less with automatic. The CR-X Si once again used the twin-cam ZC engine, now boasting net ratings of 130 PS JIS (96 kW) and 106 lb-ft (144 N-m) of torque. Both engines could be ordered with either a five-speed gearbox or four-speed automatic. The Si also had 185/60HR14 tires, a rear anti-roll bar, and four-wheel disc brakes. Honda’s three-channel antilock braking system was added to the options list in August 1988.
U.S. cars were offered with a choice of three engines, none of them shared with the CRX sold in other markets. The midlevel CRX combined the Hyper 16-valve engine with the Dual-Point PGM-FI system from the previous federalized CRX Si, yielding 92 hp SAE (69 kW) and 89 lb-ft (121 N-m) of torque. This was the only U.S. engine available with automatic. The CRX HF combined the 1,493 cc (91 cu. in.) block with a simpler eight-valve head and a more sophisticated multipoint injection system, giving an unambitious 62 hp SAE (46 kW), but 90 lb-ft (122 N-m) of torque at only 2,000 rpm and an impressive 53 mpg (4.5 L/100 km/h) on the EPA combined cycle (44 mpg adjusted, 5.4 L/100 km). The CRX Si fitted both the multipoint injection system and the 16-valve head to a long-stroke, 1,590 cc 1,590 cc (97 cu. in.) block, yielding 105 hp SAE (78 kW) and 98 lb-ft (133 N-m) of torque. The Si included the JDM models’ wider tires and rear anti-roll bar, but not the rear disc brakes, which weren’t adopted for U.S. cars until 1990.
As with the last of the EA cars, the European EF CRX 1.6i-16 was offered only with the DOHC engine, which was rated at 130 PS DIN (96 kW) and 105 lb-ft (142 N-m) without a catalytic converter and 124 PS DIN (91 kW) and 103 lb-ft (140 N-m) with catalyst. With the timing retarded a bit, even the uncatalyzed version was now able to run on unleaded fuel, gradually becoming more common in Europe during that period. The European Honda CRX was available only with a five-speed gearbox and had rear drum brakes like U.S. cars’ until 1989.
The early EF CRX was a bit faster but little quicker than its predecessor, since the gains in power were not accompanied by commensurate increases in torque. The little coupe was still very nimble, and its moves were more polished than before, although the greater stability provided by the longer wheelbase and wider track eroded a bit of the EA CRX’s agility. European critics complained that the chassis still lacked the finesse of the better French hot hatches and that the ride, though improved, was still not particularly good. Also, while Honda had taken pains to reduce noise, vibration, and harshness, including adding “dimples” to the floorpan to prevent it from acting as a sounding board, road noise remained annoyingly high.
Nonetheless, the CRX remained great fun to drive and its continued string of IMSA and SCCA victories demonstrated that the little Honda’s capabilities were not just subjective. For a time, Honda also sponsored a one-make racing series, the CRX Challenge.
VTEC: THE B16A CRX
The EF CRX/CR-X got a mid-cycle revamp in the fall of 1989, including a stronger and slightly heavier body, new bumpers, and a revised dashboard. The big news, however, was the availability of a new variable valve timing system that Honda called VTEC (for Variable valve Timing and lift Electronic Control).
Today, variable valve timing is commonplace, but it was big news when Honda first announced it for the Integra in April 1989. Derived from Honda’s F1 racing experience, the VTEC system used an extra set of lobes on each cam that were hydraulically locked into place at a preset engine speed. In effect, this allowed Honda to combine the effects of a relatively mild cam (moderate duration and valve lift) for low-speed driveability with a hotter, long-duration/high-lift profile for the sort of high-end power normally associated with peaky racing or motorcycle engines.
At 1,595 cc (97 cu. in.), the new engine, dubbed B16A, had only slightly greater displacement than the existing ZC engine, but a higher 10.2:1 compression ratio, a wider 81.0mm (3.19-inch) bore, and a significantly shorter 77.4mm (3.05-inch) stroke. In Japan, the B16A claimed 160 PS JIS (118 kW) at a screaming 7,600 rpm, allowing Honda to proudly proclaim the twin-cam four the world’s first normally aspirated production automobile engine to make 100 (metric) horsepower per liter. Torque output was 112 lb-ft (152 N-m) of torque at a similarly lofty 7,000 rpm.
Five months later, Honda installed this engine in the CR-X. In addition to the VTEC engine, the new CR-X SiR grade featured bigger front brakes, 195/60VR14 tires, a rear spoiler, and a leather-trimmed interior. The CR-X SiR could also be ordered with torque-sensitive power steering, antilock brakes, and a viscous coupling differential derived from Honda’s AWD Civic models. At ¥1,547,000 (around $11,000) to start, the CR-X SiR was ¥217,000 (approximately $1,500) more than the still-available CR-X Si, although some of the latter’s formerly standard equipment had moved to the options list to bring the price down. A fully loaded CR-X SiR ran to around ¥2 million (about $14,000).
The VTEC engine also became available on the European CRX 1.6i-VT for 1990, supplementing the still-available 1.6i-16. The new CRX 1.6i-VT now had a standard catalytic converter (as did the 1.6i-16) and was rated at 150 PS DIN (110 kW) and 106 lb-ft (144 N-m) of torque. Honda claimed a top speed of 138 mph (222 km/h) and 0-60 mph (0-97 km/h) in around 7 seconds, although independent tests suggest that both figures were again highly optimistic. The CRX 1.6i-VT didn’t offer the JDM car’s limited-slip differential or ABS.
Once again, U.S. buyers also had to do without. The federalized Honda CRX got the same body changes as cars in other markets while U.S. CRX Si models belated got four-wheel disc brakes and a slight power boost to 108 hp SAE (81 kW) and 100 lb-ft (136 N-m) of torque, but the VTEC engine was nowhere in sight. The American CRX also lacked many of the convenience options available on the CR-X in Japan, including power steering, power windows, and automatic climate control, although manually controlled air conditioning was a dealer-installed option.
Offering the features available on the Japanese-market CR-X SiR would have gone a long way toward addressing ongoing criticisms of the EF CRX, which included some penchant for early brake lockup, steering that was both heavy and slow (demanding 4.2 turns lock to lock), and a power-to-weight ratio that was slipping toward the back of the class. However, Honda was already obviously struggling to keep list prices competitive in the face of ever-more unfavorable exchange rates. The strength of the yen relative to the dollar had pushed the list price of a CRX Si from about $9,400 in 1987 to around $11,400 in 1991. Adding the B16A engine, power steering, ABS, and a limited-slip differential would have put the CRX’s price perilously close to that of cars like the Mitsubishi Eclipse GSX and its Diamond Star (Eagle Talon/Plymouth Laser) siblings, which offered all-wheel drive and far more horsepower, or Honda’s own Prelude and Integra. (The U.S. Integra didn’t get VTEC until early 1992.)
Production of the EF CRX/CR-X continued into early 1991, but a new version did not appear with the rest of the new EG Civic later that year as Honda prepared to move the little sports coupe in an entirely new direction.