By Andrew Stoy
Honda Motor Company didn’t make it to the Show via frequent screw-ups. But the industrial powerhouse that brought us overhead-cam lawnmowers has laid a few eggs: Witness the failed efforts to convince the world that 4-wheel steering is a good thing, the transaxle issues with earlier Odyssey vans, and the 1993 restyling of the Prelude. But at the top of the list, at least for American driving enthusiasts, Honda’s biggest failure was the repositioning of the Honda CRX as the Del Sol for 1992. But since some of our readers may have still had the training wheels on their bikes when the CRX bowed out, a trip to the beginning is in order.
The year was 1984. A consumer so inclined could still purchase a Chevrolet Chevette with a diesel engine—fortunately, few were so inclined. Spunky Honda was doing brisk business with their small Civic runabout, Accord sedan and Prelude sports coupe, and decided the time was right for CRX, an economy-minded 2-seater based on the Civic. While definitely miserly, enthusiasts soon discovered that the new CRX was also immensely entertaining to drive, beautifully balanced, and cheap. Honda also addressed criticism about meager power output by releasing a CRX with fuel injection known as the Si. There was much rejoicing.
For the 1988 model year, the CRX was restyled inside and out, presenting a more aggressive outward appearance and a more driver-friendly cockpit. The driving fun remained, and was enhanced through slightly more powerful engines, a tuned multilink suspension setup, and a touch of Prelude emphasis here and there in seats and instrumentation. Then, in 1992, Honda altered their successful recipe and replaced the CRX with an ostensibly jaunty little Nissan Pulsar wannabe called Del Sol. Some of us have yet to forgive them.
Few cars this side of the Toyota MR2 can offer cheap, fuel-thrifty thrills the way a CRX can. And, while it can’t offer the exotic mid-engine layout, the CRX is arguably a more comfortable, usable vehicle than Mister Two ever was. The front-engine/front-drive design is easy to access and maintain, and provides traction in inclement weather. Since parts for the CRX are generally the same as those found on the million or so Civics produced at the time, replacement bits are available and reasonably priced.
Most of all, though, the CRX is impeccably balanced and tuned…or at least it was when it was new. A strut-suspended front-driver has no business putting the type of grin on your face that a CRX is capable of evoking. Gearbox throws are a little long but precise. Understeer is present but controllable, and the manual steering gear reminds one of a sensation that’s difficult to come by these days: Pure, unadulterated feedback.
And you want reliability? We got your reliability right here, kids. The CRX is one tough cookie, and with proper maintenance should be capable of well over 200,000 miles. The only reason they’re not more common north of the Mason-Dixon line is that they turned to powder faster than a fifty in John Delorean’s wallet. If you find a rust-free example that’s been well maintained, it would be difficult to recommend a beater with a better durability track record.
While it may seem to be obvious advice, you don’t want to hit anything in a CRX, nor do you want anything hitting you. Already soda-can sized, the CRX is also a pre-airbag, pre ABS machine that historically hasn’t fared well on crash tests. Defensive driving is a must unless you like the taste of urethane. Of course, on the plus side, the two-passenger layout means you won’t be tempted to strap a child seat into the car.
One glance at the torque curve on a CRX, even a VTEC model, will immediately convince any enthusiast on the fence that a 5-speed transmission is the only acceptable method of swapping cogs. Honda has always subscribed more to the F1 school of engine design rather than the ‘no substitute for cubic inches’ mentality, and the CRX shines best when the entire rev range is utilized. If you absolutely have to have an automatic, you’ll be happier looking elsewhere.
Remember how we mentioned reliability? We stand by our claims, but Hondas have a few points that need to be considered. First is the timing belt. All Honda 4-cylinder engines are of the type known as “interference” designs. That means that if the timing belt breaks while the engine is running, the valves and pistons will marry in an elaborate metal-on-metal ceremony that will have disastrous consequences on your wallet. Belt changes are mandatory every 60,000 miles or so, and they generally run several hundred dollars; you decide whether to gamble with your engine or not. Also, the complex feedback carburetor used on non-injected CRX models is the type of device that works perfectly for years without a lick of maintenance, but when it starts to fail it’s never right again. The fuel injection system, on the other hand, is known to last nearly forever.
In a Nutshell
The world needs another CRX. An inexpensive, economical, reliable, efficient runabout that’s far more fun than it should be and looks good to boot. Like its big brother, the CRX set the standard for its class during its heyday. If you can find an example that runs, drives, and is oxidationally stable, grab it, put some Pixies in the cassette deck, and remind yourself that the 80s weren’t all bad.