The primary reason for this shift in Honda’s strategy was the Mazda MX-5 Miata (Eunos Roadster in Japan), which had debuted around the same time the Mk2 CRX received its midlife update. In sharp contrast with the technological overload represented by the turbocharged, AWD Diamond Star cars and many pricier Japanese GT cars of the time, the MX-5 was a return to the simpler formula of the MGB and Triumph TR4. That recipe proved very popular even at a time when sales of most sporty coupes were collapsing.
Rather than simply imitating the Mazda, which for best results would have required a small rear-drive platform, or lopping the top off the new Civic hatchback, Honda opted to develop a new Civic-based notchback coupe with a retractable rear window and a removable roof panel à la Porsche 911 Targa. The result, dubbed Honda CR-X del Sol, debuted in Japan in February 1992.
Honda made much of the del Sol’s combination of open-air pleasure and coupe security, but the new car’s big party trick (and the main thing distinguishing it from the many T-top and lift-roof coupes of the seventies and eighties) was an optional mechanized roof mechanism dubbed “Trans-Top.” Trans-Top used a series of electric motors to automatically raise the rear deck to slightly above roof height, slide the roof panel backward into its rack in the decklid, and then lower and lock the deck into its normal position. The whole process took around 45 seconds and was impressive to watch, although it could not be done on the move and added 110 lb (50 kg) to the del Sol’s curb weight and ¥170,000 (about $1,400) to the list price. Without Trans-Top, you had to lift off the 24-pound (11-kilogram) roof panel and stow it in the trunk yourself.
Although it had unique sheet metal and a different dashboard, the del Sol was mechanically much like the contemporary Honda Civic three-door, albeit with the wheelbase shortened 7.9 inches (200 mm). Overall length was about 3 inches (75 mm) shorter. The suspension, shared with other EG Civics, was much like that of the previous generation Civic/CRX, but there was now a solid lower wishbone up front rather than the previous radius rod/lateral link combination. Base CR-X del Sol VXi models were powered by the latest fuel-injected D15B engine with variable intake valve timing and 130 PS JIS (96 kW), while the SiR had the DOHC B16A, now making 170 PS JIS (125 kW) and 116 lb-ft (157 N-m N-m) of torque (engines with automatic were limited to 155 PS/114 kW). A driver’s side airbag, ABS, electronic traction control, and a viscous-coupling limited-slip differential were optional and the SiR came with four-wheel disc brakes and bigger 195/55VR15 tires.
European cars arrived soon after, dubbed Honda CRX del Sol. In most markets, the del Sol was offered in ESi and VTi trim levels approximating the Japanese VXi and SiR, although the engines had DIN ratings of 125 PS (92 kW) and 160 PS (118 kW) respectively. Some markets, like Spain, offered only the base engine, presumably to keep the price within reason.
The U.S. model, identified as the Honda Civic del Sol rather than as a CRX, debuted in September 1992 as a 1993 model. The more powerful DOHC VTEC engine was initially absent, so American buyers had the choice of two SOHC engines: The del Sol S had the 102 hp (76 kW) 1,493 cc (91 cu. in.) engine from the Civic DX and LX while the pricier del Sol Si had the 1,590 cc (97 cu. in.) four from the Civic Si and EX, with 125 hp SAE (93 kW) and 106 lb-ft (144 N-m) of torque. A Civic del Sol VTEC model with the B16A engine debuted for 1994, making 160 hp SAE (119 kW). U.S. cars did get power steering and VTEC models got ABS for 1995, but the Trans-Top was never offered in the States, again probably for cost reasons.
Honda’s strategy of looking for unique niches rather than going head to head with entrenched rivals had served the company well in the past, but the del Sol proved to be a commercial miscalculation. Although it was a pleasant little car, it fell into an awkward middle ground. The del Sol didn’t offer the full open-air experience of the MX-5 or Ford Capri roadsters, but the compromises imposed by the removable roof undermined the Honda’s appeal as a sporting car. Even without the heavy Trans-Top, a del Sol SiR or VTi was over 300 lb (140 kg) heavier than an EF CR-X, much less aerodynamic (claimed drag coefficient was 0.40), and noticeably less rigid. With the hotter engine, the del Sol was respectably quick, capable of 0-60 mph (0-97 km/h) in the mid-7-second range and a top speed of about 130 mph (210 km/h), but the B16A cars had to be pushed hard to extract such performance, and even with their stiffer sport suspension couldn’t match the sharpness of the lighter RWD Mazda.
The del Sol survived into 1997, after the rest of the EG Civic line had gone, but sales fell short of expectations and the lift-roof coupe expired without a replacement. (The Honda S2000, a considerably more hardcore rear-drive roadster, cost over 50% more than the last del Sol and wasn’t really comparable.)
At the Tokyo auto show in October 2007, Honda unveiled a concept car called CR-Z (for “Concept Renaissance Zero”), with styling cues clearly inspired by the Mk2 CRX. In keeping with Honda’s new preoccupation with green technology, the CR-Z was not described not as a reinvention of the old CRX, but as an environmentally responsible hybrid sports car.
The production Honda CR-Z debuted in early 2010. Like the old CRX, it was a sporty three-door coupe based on a family hatchback: in this case the Mk2 Honda Insight hybrid. The CR-Z shared the Insight’s suspension (MacPherson struts in front and a rear torsion beam, borrowed in turn from the Honda Fit/Jazz) and Integrated Motor Assist (IMA) electric motor and battery pack. However, unlike the Insight, the CR-Z used Honda’s more powerful 16-valve 1,497 cc (91 cu. in.) i-VTEC engine and could be ordered with a six-speed manual gearbox rather than a continuously variable transmission, which was optional. Also included were fatter 195/55VR16 tires on alloy wheels, four-wheel disc brakes, stiffer suspension, and a sportier interior treatment. Electrically assisted steering and ABS were standard.
Combined with the 14 PS (10 kW) electric motor, the IMA drivetrain produced 124 PS JIS (91 kW) and 128 lb-ft (174 N-m) of torque, increased for 2013 to 130 PS (96 kW) and 140 lb-ft (190 N-m) on six-speed cars. While the motor provided a useful boost in low-end torque as long as the batteries were charged, the Honda CR-Z still had a rather modest engine coping with about 2,650 lb (1,200 kg) of curb weight, which made for lackluster performance. Honda claimed 0-62 mph (0-100 km/h) in around 10 seconds and a top speed of 124 mph (200 km/h), which was notably slower than the old B16A-powered CRX. Fuel economy — 34 mpg (6.9 L/100 km) on the current EPA combined cycle for the six-speed, 37 mpg (6.3 L/100 km/h) for the CVT — also fell well shy of the old CRX HF.
Critics weren’t thrilled with the CR-Z’s handling either. It was competent, but reviewers complained that it didn’t have the agility or poise of similarly priced hot hatches, due in part to the synthetic feel of the electric steering assist.
As with the del Sol, the CR-Z’s attempt to carve out a unique niche for itself seems to have fallen flat. Automotive enthusiasts — the sort who wish Honda had skipped the IMA hardware and installed one of the company’s more powerful twin-cam engines in a shortened Fit platform instead — have thus far been rather frosty toward hybrids. At the same time, the CR-Z is not efficient enough to perk the interests of green buyers, for whom sporting behavior is seldom a high priority. In Europe, the CR-Z’s generous equipment levels and 117 g/km CO2 emissions (which have a strong effect on running costs) make it a decent value, but that hasn’t been enough to overcome a lack of badge cachet and the fact that rival turbodiesel hatches can match or beat the Honda’s fuel economy while offering better chassis dynamics.
The 1984–1991 Honda CRX is rapidly becoming a cult car. A fair number of weathered and battered survivors are still in service as daily drivers, but good examples are being snapped up by collectors and tuners, who seldom hesitate to install the hotter twin-cam engines the factory did not.