Road Test : Honda CRX 1.6i -16

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Two Seats and a Dickey — the Suburban Sportscar

Not many manufacturers can boast that they have introduced a new type of vehicle, but Honda have perhaps come closest to this end in the last few years with the little CRX. It would be difficult to describe this little fun-car without using the uninspiring phrase “small sports coupé”, but that fails to convey the cheeky appeal of this short two-seater hatchback.

So what is it? Town car, economy car, sports car? It is fairly small and easily pushed through thick traffic, so it is ideal in town: it is propelled by one of Honda’s respected small engines, fuel injected for efficiency: yet that engine is a twin-cam four-valve unit of 125 bhp, more than most of the high-perforrnance hatchbacks can boast. On the debit side, it is virtually a two seater (two small behinds can just about fit on the foldaway perch in the rear) which is perhaps what gives it a sporting slant: after all, sportscars are meant to be impractical, aren’t they?

In fact, the CRX follows the styling lead of the first Suzuki to reach these shores in the mid-seventies, the tiny SC100GX — or as it was known in the USA, the Whiz-Kid. This tiny suburban go-cart had an air-cooled 1-litre derivative of one of the company’s motorcycle engines in its tail, with two seats and a luggage shelf comprising the rest of that accommodation. Its racy fastback styling was a brave attempt at proving that an economy car need not be a boring car, but although it certainly drew attention to the company, it equally certainly failed to become the standard second family runabout.

But while the Suzuki looked sporty it had absolutely no pretensions to performance; while Honda’s baby may not be the instigator of the concept, it has made itself a much more acceptable alternative by incorporating a “grown up” engine, and a third door to the surprisingly roomy luggage compartment. Whether the lack of two rear seats turns it into a sportscar is arguable, but it is tempting to compare it with the MG Midget — both diminutive and stylish in their time, and both using components from much more sensible family cars. Of course, the Midget had no roof, whereas the CRX makes do with an electric sunroof, but then the MG was the product of an era when a convertible was a normal option even for family cars, and an essential for a sportscar. Now that rag-tops are reappearing we might hope for a convertible CRX — it would not carry as many suitcases, but it might just convince the public that it really was a sportscar after all.

Since its introduction in 1983, there have been calls for more power for the CRX; usually an indication that the basic recipe is correct. Honda has responded by installing the twin-cam 16-valve engine from the Prelude 2.0i, but reduced to 1600cc. The quest for reduced weight extends to an alloy block, specially light valves, and hollow camshafts, while the unit’s inner needs are catered to by Honda’s PGM-Fl, a sequential injection system. Other changes to identify the new model, (which struggles under the title “CRX 1.6-16” making it sound more like a chemical formula than a car) are essentially trim and appearance: a more pronounced front spoiler, lower panels in body colour instead of grey, the subtlest of bonnet blisters, dual exhaust pipes, and new alloy wheels with 185/60 HR 14 tyres.

A rear wash/wipe is now standard, and the sporty seats have a new velour covering with a CRX logo fashionably emblazoned on the uprights, while a map-pocket has been added to the doors. There are no changes to the dash, a relatively simple affair which groups almost all the controls within the main binnacle; only the switch for the heated rear window has escaped and is hiding down by the radio, where it can be a little difficult to find. A perfect view of the simple instruments is possible by altering the height of the wheel, a large and comfortable one with, thank goodness, a central horn-push, there are only four dials, two large for revs and speed, and two small for water temperatures and fuel. Lights and indicators are controlled by a rotatable stalk on the right, with wipers on the left, and all heating/ventilation controls are in one neat panel by the driver’s left hand. The now common press buttons for airflow are easy to operate but hard to distinguish by touch at night. On the corresponding right-hand panel are the fog-lamp and sunroof rocker switches. The roof mechanism is a lovely piece of lateral thinking: the roof is too short to hide the sliding panel when open, so Honda’s engineers have simply allowed it to hang over the rear window by a few inches. It is simple, it looks neat, rather like an extra spoiler, and is altogether more satisfactory than Porsche’s answer to the same problem on the 924-944, which is to provide an electric tilt unit which can be removed manually.

Apart from the smarter seats: there is little in the way of luxury inside the CRX: plain black plastic fascia (but thank heaven it is black and not one of those sickly shades the Japanese often employ), a digital clock which as usual is unreadable in sunlight, and a very respectable radio/cassette is about the extent of it, but everything is in the right place and the driving position is good. Well-spaced pedals including a left foot rest help, and the skinny gear lever is light and positive, although the syncromesh is not strong and can easily be beaten when snatching second.

Surprisingly, there is no fight from the steering under hard acceleration, which probably relates to the engine’s mediocre torque: like most four-valve designs it needs to rev to produce the goods, which means that the power builds smoothly in each gear rather than grabbing at the tarmac when the clutch is released. But it does like to be revved, producing the sort of exhaust raspberry once reserved for Italian machinery, and the tach needle always seems to be darting up to the 7000 rpm redline in the middle gears. Fifth gear is a high overdrive, making for quietness and economy, but with that light and quick shift it is no effort to take fourth to pass a car, or third to dispose of a truck. Steering response is not fast, a function of gearing rather than of suspension geometry, but it is predictable, even crisp, and while the little Honda is essentially an understeerer, it needs only an extra twitch on the wheel and a firm right foot to whisk it through roundabouts and S-bends at impressive speeds.

With so little weight over the rear wheels, the ride quality could have presented a problem but the CRX’s rigid beam with trailing links and coil springs not only keeps the wheels parallel, but also seems to cope well with rough roads, and does not interfere with the loadspace too much. The front wheels are located by a strut, but the bulky coilspring is replaced by a torsion bar connected to the lower link, thus saving space in the small engine-bay, and overall the ride is quite creditable — a little crashy over poorly plugged road works, but no worse than most small sportscars, and certainly not irritating.

It is good fun to drive, though perhaps lacking the accuracy of the Toyota MR2 (£2,000 dearer) or the poise of the Peugeot 205GTi (£900 cheaper), with plenty of braking available through the ventilated front discs which do most of the work; drums suffice at the back. It also carries a good deal of freight with the seat down: the large rear window lifts up complete with half the tail panel, making a big hole in such a small car, and the wheel-arches are remarkably unobtrusive. The rear accommodation, though, is a modern dickey-seat, a thinly padded hollow with a pivoting back-rest folding down to cover it.  Intending rear passengers would be much better off with it folded, sitting on the carpet; but nevertheless it is a useful extra which will either take a child or two, or stop the groceries from sliding around.

It is good to know that even such a large manufacturer as Honda feels there is a place for a car like this which is never going to be a major seller, and their execution of the product deserves much praise— a smooth and willing engine, good handling, and that sleek and stylish profile, even if the sharp shovel spoiler seems at variance with the smooth flanks of the vehicle. The neat tail spoiler, on the other hand, is the perfect finishing touch even if it does obliterate most of the rear view.

What does it compare with? The Toyota and Peugeot mentioned above, of course, plus, on power output at least, supermini turbos like Renault 5 and Fiat Una, though the Honda is not a sprinter like these. Perhaps Reliant’s SS1 might steal some of Honda’s custom by virtue of its rag-top but it is more expensive and nothing like as pretty. Undoubtedly the CRX is the better car for its new engine, and it is still good value — as long as you can get by with a dickey-seat. — G.C.

***

Motor Sport  Test Results  — Honda CRX 1.6i – 16

Manufacturer: Honda Motor Co. UK offices: Power Road, Chiswick, London

Model: CRX 1.61-16 Type: 2-seater sports coupé

Engine: Dohc, four cylinder, 16 valves, 1590cc (75 x 90 mm). Electronic fuel injection. 125 bhp, 103 lb-ft torque.

Transmission: Front wheel drive, five gears, single plate clutch.

Suspension: Front: Torsion bar strut, antiroll bar. Rear: Rigid axle, trailing links, coil springs.

Brakes: Front: Ventilated discs. Rear: Drum. Servo assistance.

Wheels and tyres: Light alloy rims. SJ x 14. 185/60 HR 14 tyres.

Performance: 0-60 mph 7.8 sec. 122 mph maximum.

Price: £8,630

Summary: Cheeky, attractive looks and good performance appeal; a fun alternative to mainstream motoring, and good value if two’s company and three’s a crowd.