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 the results 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 Honda Ballade Sports CR-X) and its erstwhile successors, the del Sol and CR-Z.
THE RISE OF HONDA
The growth of Honda as an automaker 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 commercial failure of the bigger Honda 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 most U.S. automakers — and some Japanese ones — had insisted was technologically impossible. Toyota, which had been among those, actually licensed the technology from Honda for use in Toyota’s own products, a remarkable coup for one of Japan’s smaller automakers. There was also strong interest from Ford and even General Motors.
Since Civics with the CVCC engine 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 Ford and Mercury offerings, 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 we assume is 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 (known as the EA Civic by its chassis code, although Honda’s Japanese advertising would modestly christen this generation the “Wonder Civic”), set to 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, lighter block; and the latest 12-valve, crossflow 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 (135 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 safe 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 also 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 a small sports coupe of 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 (and, for adults, probably very 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 Ballade Sports 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.
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 racing, 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 Honda 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 Honda 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 Honda Civic CRX, generally styled without a 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 Honda 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 contemporary 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 it was hardly a tiny car. In fact, the first Honda 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 against Japanese cars, the main point of contention was where exactly the Honda fit into the automotive scheme of things. 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 Honda 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).
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.
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 (although engines mated with the automatic transmission 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, generally 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 Mazda 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 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 described not as a reinvention of the old CRX, but rather 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.
The roots of this cult following are not difficult to discern — the Honda CRX was a car of definite but specific appeal. By that, we don’t mean that the CRX didn’t have virtues: It had sprightly performance, particularly with the injected engines, and it was nimble, fuel efficient, and reasonably commodious, with a decent repair record. However, the same could be said of the contemporary three-door Civic hatchbacks, which were also substantially more practical. The CRX’s promise as a cheap urban commuter car was also somewhat compromised by a fairly demanding maintenance schedule (failing to keep the oil and filter regularly changed, the valve clearances properly adjusted, and the timing belt periodically replaced could have expensive consequences) and, for many buyers, high insurance rates.
Ultimately, the Honda CRX was the fulfillment of the promise of the early Civic hatchback, a car for anyone who had ever been entertained by an old Civic CVCC and wondered what it could do with a firmer suspension and a bit more power. The old CRX epitomized the spirit that used to define Honda as an automotive brand: It was clever, well-built, economical, and more fun than you would expect from looking at it, with occasional flashes of genuine inspiration. If you had never tried or resolutely disliked the breed, the CRX wasn’t likely to convince you; it was a Honda for people who loved Hondas. Add to that the fact that Honda has yet to create a direct replacement, and it’s little surprise that the old CRX has a loyal fan following.
In the interests of full disclosure, while your author has never owned a CRX, he has owned both a Honda Accord and Honda Prelude of the same approximate vintage. (He hasn’t owned a Miata either, but does own a Mazda3 and years ago was compensated by a Mazda marketing agency for participating in a couple of owner focus groups related to that model.) Also, the author previously did some temp work for a locally headquartered electric car company, although that employment relationship ended approximately a year before this article was written and that company had no involvement with or connection to this article.
NOTES ON SOURCES
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The online dictionary Jisho (jisho.org) was also a big help in deciphering Japanese-language information.
Some historical exchange rate data for the dollar and European currencies came from Lawrence H. Officer, “Exchange Rates Between the United States Dollar and Forty-one Currencies” (2011, MeasuringWorth, https://www.measuringworth.org/exchangeglobal/, used with permission). Exchange rate values cited in the text represent the approximate dollar equivalent of prices in non-U.S. currencies, not contemporary U.S. suggested retail prices, which are cited separately. Please note that all equivalencies cited herein are approximate and provided solely for the reader’s general reference — this is an automotive history, not a treatise on currency trading or the value of money, and nothing in this article should be taken as financial advice of any kind!
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- Cheap and Cheerful: The European Ford Capri
- Five by Five: The Renault 5 and the Mid-Engine Renault 5 Turbo
- Tiny and Triumphant: The Original Morris / Austin Mini
- Party Downsize: The Ford Fiesta Mk1 and Mk2
- Rabbit Rocket: The Volkswagen Golf GTI and Rabbit GTI
- RX-Rated: Mazda’s Early Rotary Cars, Part 1
- RX-Rated: Mazda’s Early Rotary Cars, Part 2
- Thunder and Lightning, Part 1: The Toyota Corolla Levin and Sprinter Trueno
- Thunder and Lightning, Part 2: The AE86 Toyota Corolla Levin/Sprinter Trueno
- Upwardly Mobile: The Lexus LS400 and the Birth of the Japanese Luxury Brands