Small is beautiful

Caling all exhibitionists!"

"Action stations - action stations!"

Our two uniformed secret agents slide down the pole, leap into the sleek green machine and press the button to operate the automatic sliding roof all in the blink of an eye. Unfortunately, by the time the roof has bleeped and whirred into position, it is too late to save the world.

Is this fantasy sprinkled with reality, or vice-versa? Either way, the Japanese, it seems, feel the need to outstrip the 'unoutstrippable', and Honda's latest CRX VTi takes the biscuit.

Dominating press reports at the time of the car's launch was the electrically operated, retractable roof. Not only is the boot lid automatically raised and lowered during the stowing sequence, but the whole process requires no less than seven electric motors. It takes time too, but if you're punishingly efficient at operating the relevant buttons with sharp reactions, you can get the time down to perhaps a minute or so. Even that is enough time to draw in a small gallery to accentuate your increasing embarrassment.

Honda has tried to establish a new niche with this third generation CRX. It has deliberately set out to produce a frontengined, two-seater sports car which provides open-air motoring without compromising driving comfort, safety or security.

Therefore, Honda says, the car has no direct rivals as such. The Japanese giant is confident that its little runabout combines the best of all these worlds, and will thus appeal to a correspondingly wider market.

The emphasis is definitely on modernism. There are no concessions to old faddists. Honda started with a clean sheet of paper when the time came to evolve a new CRX, a fresh concept in the sports car world.

The styling is typical of the clutter-free designs that Japanese manufacturers have finally (and thankfully) adopted. But that's not to say that it necessarily looks right. The CRX used to be a pretty little coupe, but our test VTi in Samba green metallic (fluorescent lime, to you and me) brought to mind a giant tree frog and encouraged very mixed responses. Generally, women tended to praise it (partner wanted one straight away!) whilst men weren't so sure. Whatever, the CRX now looks like it should be the natural successor to Fiat's X1/9 (more so than the original Toyota MR2), yet it is no mid-engined sportster. To the chagrin of those seeking perfect balance, the 1600 cc twin-cam nestles at the front.

It may be cynical view to suggest that Honda has been a little deceitful with the marketing of the CRX, but will the average customer give a damn where the engine is placed? To its credit, the CRX has always been a fine (if mildly flawed) driving machine with a technically sophisticated heart, and its unlike Honda to take a retrograde step. The core, of course, is the electronically fuel-injected, 1.6-litre, 16-valve VTEC (Variable Valve Timing & Lift Electronic Control System) engine, one of the sweetest in the business since its inception. At low revs, the valves are profiled to assist strong low to mid-range torque, but between 5000-5500 rpm the outboard valves are opened sooner and for longer, unleashing significantly more power. This is clearly audible, and the closer you get to the staggering 8000 rpm limit, the more pleasant the sound.

Always smooth and flexible, this incredible little 158bhp unit is the nearest thing you'll find to a full-blown racing engine in a small production car. Needless to say, it conforms to EEC regulations, including the use of a three-way catalytic converter which necessitates the use of 95 octane unleaded fuel. As before, the engine is transversely mounted and linked to a close-ratio five-speed gearbox which, claims Honda, makes optimum use of the VTEC's extraordinary power band.

In order to allow the car's outlandish roof mechanism to function while, at the same time, retaining sharp handling redolent of the previous generation CRX, all traces of scuttle shake have been eradicated with a chassis of immense torsional rigidity. Add to this firm rack and pinion steering with 3.1 turns lock to lock, four powerful disc brakes (vented fronts) with standard ABS, double wishbone suspension all round with Honda's progressive valve dampers, and you have, on paper at least, an uncompromising sports package.

Whether you describe the CRX as a real sports car depends on how hairy your chest is.

On first acquaintance, it's easy to be convinced of its sporting manners: the car sits low on the road, and the curvaceous seats are shallow (but not supportive enough). There's plenty of leg room, too, and a comfortable, sensible driving position is easily obtained thanks to logical siting of all the key controls and an adjustable steering column. In typical Japanese fashion, the latter are light to the touch and simple to use. In a CRX, town driving is a doddle. From within, you could just as easily be ambling down to the supermarket in an older base model Civic, though the added smoothness and improved ease of operation offers a few clues that this is a new generation Honda.

On urban roads, the car is simply vicefree. Hazards such as pot-holes (Borough of Hackney, please note) are absorbed without your teeth falling out, such is the suspension's compliance, and, despite the beefy B-pillars, visibility is fine for parking (which is further helped, of course, by the compact dimensions).

Only masochists and, given the right tools for the job, poseurs get their kicks from dawdling around cities in hot, thick traffic soup, and while the CRX may be quite at home here, the awesome VTEC cries out to be unleashed on freer terrain.

From a driver's point of view, truly great small cars have been few and far between. The Mini Cooper, Alfasud, Lancia Fulvia and Peugeot 205 GTi spring to mind as reasons to grin broadly enough to make a Cheshire Cat look like Chris Eubank entering the ring.

The CRX deserves a place in such company.

Although it is clinically modern in conception, the roots of its purpose are more traditional. For a fwd chassis, it is devoid of clumsy understeer, even though, by nature, that is what it will do if pushed too hard. The elfin chassis is supremely balanced, with razor-sharp turn-in, and it is possible to make it flick its tail — even with the power hard on. Placing it accurately on the road is child's play, and there's just enough body roll to remind you that this isn't some sterile, corners-on-rails creation. The skinny 195/60 tyres carry a similar message.

The CRX isn't the sort of limpet which only lets go when you're travelling at light aircraft speeds, but it sticks adequately to allow you to exploit the chassis' outrageous agility to the full. A CRX given full rein on labyrinthine B-roads can be compared only to the Mad Mouse at Blackpool Pleasure Beach. The short, precise throw of the gear lever and the positive brake pedal, which is nicely placed to permit heel-and-toeing, mean that the CRX can always be driven at speed with utmost confidence. As with anything vaguely desirable, there is always some kind of drawback.

In this case, its the gearbox, even if it's only a minor, personal gripe. Though the ratios are close, the rev range is so great that it is still quite easy to find yourself in an inappropriate gear for a particular bend. That's not to say that the engine lacks torque or flexibility, but it would certainly benefit from a six-speed 'box of the type that are becoming increasingly commonplace in sports saloons and coupes. Besides, part of the pleasure of driving the CRX comes from zipping up and down the gears with that 16-valve symphony ringing in your ears.

While its agility is a major asset, it is not at the expense of straightline performance, despite the weight of all the gimmicky paraphernalia required to actuate the hood. At the top end, this is a genuine 130 mph cruiser, although its standing start acceleration is, unsurprisingly, modest by class standards: 0-60 mph takes around 8s. Its performance is altogether brighter in the mid-range, where the VTEC belies its mere 1.6 capacity. The smaller cubic capacity pays off on the service station forecourt, however; Honda reckons that it should easily be capable of 30-plus mpg hauling around town, and nearer 40 on motorways. With a near 10-gallon tank, the CRX has a decent range between stops. . . as we discovered, even though our determination to make full use of its prodigious capabilities lowered the consumption during our tenure to 28 mpg.

Great care has been taken to ensure that motorway cruising with the roof down doesn't become a traumatic experience. Intense aerodynamic studies led to careful sculpting of rear-view mirrors and window edges to counter turbulence and noise. If your hair moves, it won't exactly be flapping over your face and you don't need to shout yourself hoarse to communicate with your passenger. For a car with one so obvious technical novelty, the cabin is comparatively plain and devoid of frills. The instruments are large and clear, the fuss-free facia is devoid of shelves and ridges and the stereo system is tucked away beneath a security flap. In direct contrast to the over-elaborate roof, the other controls are utterly straightforward.

Storage space isn't brilliant, being limited to lockable bins behind the minimalist seats.

The cockpit which, with roof in place, is as secure as any hard top, is marked by its refreshing purity of design, something others would do well to follow. Despite being predominantly black in tone, it is nowhere near as sombre as something like a Golf.

Verdict

Honda has attempted to endow the CRX with a multi-faceted appeal: it is youthful, modern, different and inclined towards environmental friendliness (Honda will tell you that 80% of the CRX is designed to be recyclable). Equally, it might appeal to the older motorist looking to rediscover the MG magnetism of their lost youth, now that they've no longer got to lug the kids around. If you are still a family man, and affluent with it (though the two don't usually go hand-in-hand), it might appeal as a second car, a fun thing to be used at weekends when time permits.

Dubious though some critics have been about its appearance, and over the top as the roof may be, the CRX VTi is quite simply as good as any other small, sporty car. It is also faster, barely more expensive and, arguably, has a higher 'grin factor' than the more vulnerable (to thieves) Mazda MX-5. Looked at in those terms, it just has to be worth consideration. R R B