In the fall of 1983, Honda dropped a bombshell. The new generation of Civics were not only all-new and highly advanced, but there were four complete unique and distinct bodies. Nobody had ever done something like this before. It was an automotive milestone. And one of those four was something utterly unique and unexpected: a two seat sports coupe; essentially a fixed-roof sports car, at a highly affordable price. It was simply the best combination of performance, handling, quality, economy and price then and perhaps ever.
Having just found this CRX survivor on the street as well as having Road and Track’s review at hand, I’ll combine the two together for a combination CC/Vintage Review. This car deserves all the accolades that both I and R&T can muster. Starting with the first words in their review: “Mind-boggling. Simply mind-boggling”.
The cover didn’t mince its words, pointing out that the CRX was faster in the slalom and skidpad than the vastly more expensive Lotus Turbo Esprit.
I’ll let R&T take you through their quite extensive write-up of the new generation of mind-boggling Civics. But the first step is to acknowledge what a breakthrough car the CRX was, as there really hadn’t been anything like it. Well, sure, there were plenty of two-seat sporty coupes based on passenger car underpinnings, like the Karmann-Ghia and such. But they tended to be more sporty in appearance than actual fact, unless one spent what it took to get into more serious sporting brands. But the CRX started at $6,000 ($15k adjusted), which made it a genuine entry-level car and as such a screaming deal.
As to the CRX’s design inspiration, here it is: the 1970 Alfa Romeo Junior Zagato, one of the most desirable variants of the classic 105/115 series Alfa Romeos. Of course it was RWD and, but it was all about being a lithe and rambunctious sports coupe with some pioneering wedge shape styling. A brilliant car to emulate, although like all 105/115 Alfas, it sat a bit too high.
This didn’t just happen randomly; the designer of the CRX owned a Junior Zagato.
Honda’s ability to execute four distinct cars, each one tailored specifically for its intended job, was perhaps their biggest breakthrough yet. The base CRX came with an economy-optimized 1.3 L that yielded the highest EPA numbers (51, old, unadjusted) of any car at the time, including diesels. Yet it was still a lively and fun car to drive.
But obviously it was the 1.5 L version that got all the attention. And this generation of Civic engines were all-new too, with a new lighter aluminum block and head. Unfortunately, fuel injection would have to wait a bit longer, as it was just too expensive. But drievability was excellent with the three-barrel Keihin carb. And of course the controls were all in the usual Honda manner, including the light and accurate shifter.
Suspension was all-new too, with struts on the front sprung by torsion bars, to allow a lower hood line, and a new twist (literally) on a twist beam rear axle, articulated to prevent it from twisting like a spring, the opposite as used by the VW Golf and so many others.
I’ve already sung my praises to the exceptionally space-efficient wagon, which soon sprouted AWD to make it even more compelling. We had a new 1984 wagon for about a year, a short-term lease, and it was a revelation. And it explains why I drive an xB today, its spiritual successor. This and the Tercel 4WD wagon were also the progenitors of the CUV. As a lover of space-efficient and tall vehicles, this was made to order for me.
We’ve also had our love fest with the hatchback here. It’s not quite as compelling to me personally, but that’s only relatively speaking, as the wagon and the CRX are the ones that speak to me most eloquently.
That leaves the four door sedan, the most conventional and least seductive of the quartet. Of course it was superb, for its intended mission, but just a bit too…normal for me. And we’ve yet to give it its own moment of fame here at CC, probably for that reason.
Which brings us back to the CRX, the most surprising member of the family. Obviously it wasn’t designed as a sports car from the ground up, and Honda had done that before with its brilliant little S500/600/800, the closest thing there ever was to a sports bike with four wheels. Honda would pick up that utterly uncompromising RWD format with the S2000 soon enough, but in the meantime, the CRX did a fantastic job as a stand-in.
Not surprisingly, given its FWD, front weight bias (62/38% with driver) and modest little tires (175/70R13), there was inevitably going to be some understeer. But it didn’t hamper the CRX’s ability to scoot through the slalom at 64 mph and provide gobs of driving pleasure. “Tossable understeer” is how R&T put it. Only the brakes were considered average, as everything else was decidedly superior.
Here’s R&T’s comprehensive stats. It’s all in the numbers, as well as in the driving pleasure.
The CRX 1.5 as tested was $6600 ($16.5k adjusted). Of course for some 40% more you could get the equally new Pontiac Fiero, with its throbbing Iron Duke four and a 3.5 quart oil pan that guaranteed its life was going to be mercifully cut short. And the CRX topped the Fiero in every metric, a second faster to 60 (10.1 to 10.9), and a full four seconds faster to 80. 50% better fuel economy, significantly faster through the slalom. The only thing the Fiero had on the CRX was a 105 mph top speed compared to 103.
Which one would you have spent your hard-earned dollars on in 1984? And keep for several years? Or decades, which in the case of the CRX would have been mostly a non-issue, as these Civics proved themselves to be reliable and long-lived, like this well-used example on the street. This is not someone’s project car; it’s just cheap wheels. And mighty fun ones at that.