Road Impressions: Honda Aerodeck

Too sensible?

For a company whose average customer is around 55 years old, Honda has an extraordinarily progressive model range. Its smallest mainstream car, the Civic, does nor even include anything as dull as a straightforward saloon amongst its CRX, hatch and Shuttle variants. Further, up the range, things become more conventional, but even the mid-sized Accord has a stylish front-drive sports-estate model called the Aerodeck, coming in at £11,850.

Appealing presumably to the family either with young children or whose kids have grown, Aerodeck's sloping bonnet and wedge/waistline disguise surprisingly roomy accommodation for four adults plus a middling amount of luggage, while of course the rear seats fold down individually to fit more freight in. Headroom in the rear is quite healthy, thanks to the "long-roof" principle which gives the car its almost-estate-car lines, And while the boot is not quite in the station-wagon class, large objects can be fitted in through the deep tailgate which includes a glass panel opening into the roof.

Two engines are offered, both 2-litre three-valve belt-driven sohc units: a plain Ex with a 106 bhp carburettor engine, and the one we drove, the Exi with Honda's own fuel-injection system pushing out 122 bhp at 5500 rpm.

Like all the smaller Honda engines, this one revs effortlessly and smoothly (with that high-pitched whirr so reminiscent of being aboard a big Japanese motorcycle), making the performance easy to use even though the torque peak is rather high on the clock at 5000 rpm. Two intake valves feed through the cross-flow head to a single exhaust valve, a design which Honda claims approaches the four-valve layout in efficiency, but with better low-speed torque.

Inherently smooth though this engine is, the Aerodeck also boasts a two-level insulation system to counteract vibrations: a rubber-mounted subframe contains the engine, which in turn is held by hydraulic mounts which use fluid enclosed in rubber to absorb low-frequency oscillations. Although the Aerodeck is conventional in having a transverse engine, the engineers have struck off on their own by eschewing the usual MacPherson struts (because of the friction in the damper) and adopting a double-wishbone suspension layout (or at least a distant cousin to it) both front and rear, which means much less intrusion within the shell.

Honda's approach is to use widely-separated upper and lower links and to crank some of the links heavily inside the wheel. There are several gains: the front pivot points are closely in line with the tyre contact centres, almost eliminating torque-steer; unit height is very low, allowing a raked bonnet, and the system is very compact, freeing extra space in the boot and under the bonnet. Progressiverate coil springs are used at the back to reduce sag under load. Four-wheel vented discs take capable care of stopping the Aerodeck, and a four-channel ABS system is standard.

Inside the smooth two-door body with its retractable headlamps, the driver and passenger sit very low in fashionably-styled sports seats behind a pleasingly simple dash with conventional round instruments.

Like all small Hondas, the Aerodeck has an amazingly light gearchange which clicks through the ratios like an electric switch, which makes quick driving busy but fun. It certainly needs to be kept revving to squeeze the most out of it, but it responds happily to energetic use without tugging the wheel back and forward, and has an elastic ability to potter at low revs in third and fourth without complaint.

Speed-sensitive power-steering comes with the EXi, and is generally pleasant, but at a standstill it becomes so excessively light that a good heave of the wheel will turn it under its own inertia for a moment. At normal speeds, however, the little Honda is very agile and adhesive on its 185/70 HR13 rubber, with sharp responses and a lot of zing. It rides well, and keeps most noises at bay with no less than three door-seals.

A tilt-adjustable steering wheel is fitted, and the EXi has an electric sunroof and mirrors, plus a brilliant device attached to the driver's seat-belt. Like many three-door cars, the Aerodeck has very long doors, which means that the belts are a long way behind the front seats. Honda's clever contrivance is an arm which pivots forwards from the floor when the door is shut, offering the belt to the driver, and tucking it out of the way when the door is opened. It is a simple mechanical system operated by cable, and in its way is a more ingenious and elegant solution than the complex power-driven arm with timing mechanism fitted to the Mercedes 450 SEC coupe.

Despite its wide capabilities and supersmooth engine, the Aerodeck comes across as being a little bland; perhaps it is just too sensible — unlike the barely-practical but delightful CRX — but what an unfair criticism to level at a car which is quick, well-mannered and useful. GC