Curbside Classic: 1990 Honda Accord Inspire (CB5) AX-i – Big Accord Or Lacking Vigor?

Hondas remain a largely unknown quantity for me, sorry to say. They were not overly popular in continental Europe, where I spent my formative years – particularly the big ones. Once in a while, you might see a Prelude, but generally, folks who bought Hondas in Europe in the ‘80s and ‘90s were looking at Civics or CR-Xs. Accords were rare and Legends aptly-named. So finding this exquisitely well-preserved early Inspire was, for yours truly, the occasion for a long overdue bit of education.

I don’t think these ever made it to Europe – maybe they were sold in some markets outside the then-EEC, like Scandinavian countries, but I have no memory of ever seeing this “Accord Inspire” script. Nor do many of you, I trust, as the version of this car that made it to North American shores was rather different. It was slightly bigger and based on the car that actually started it all, the Honda Vigor.

In the beginning was the Honda Accord. It did very well in both Japan and the US, but whereas the Stateside version carried on solo for the second generation, the Japanese one was given a “sporty” badge-engineered sibling called the Vigor for the Honda Verno dealer network. Born in 1981, the 1st gen Vigor was aimed squarely at the Toyota Mark II/ Chaser/Cresta trio, the Nissan Laurel and Leopard or the Mazda Capella.

By the end of 1989, the third generation Vigor was ready to be launched, but this time, it wore a different body on a stretched Accord platform. Crucially though, the new Vigor was to be a “hardtop” saloon (a pillared hardtop, if you’ll pardon the oxymoron) and as a new Accord Inspire for the other Honda distribution networks to be able to carry the new car. After all, the economy was booming then and deluxe “hardtops” were selling like hotcakes.

The Vigor / Accord Inspire twins were designated as the CB5 in Honda’s internal ID system. These early cars were all in compliance with the eternal (but ever-changing) Japanese Government Rules and Regulations on the size and displacement of motor vehicles. This meant that the width of the new Honda had better be under 170cm, that the overall length was necessarily less than 470cm and that the engine could not exceed 1999 cubic centimeters.

So far, so clear then. Honda made a large Accord-based pillared hardtop, called it Vigor and Accord Inspire, with the latter having a wider grille and larger taillights. Under the hood, a longitudinally-mounted 1996cc OHC 5-cyl. providing 155hp, mated to either a 4-speed auto or a 5-speed manual and driving the front wheels. All of this was designed so the Japanese taxman would allow the car to be given a license plate with a “5” on top – a big selling point on the JDM in those days.

The Inspire’s initial range was extremely easy to navigate, for a ‘90s Japanese market luxury saloon. Three trim levels were available: base cars were called AZ-i, the top of the crop was the AX-i, and the Goldilocks one was the AG-i. Toyota and Nissan, by comparison, had at least a dozen trim variants on their upmarket saloons. Just goes to show that Honda played it their way, not merely aping what the top dogs did.

Our feature car is a higher trim AX-i, and it must be said that the interior looks a lot more luxurious than that of its Toyota Mark II or Nissan Laurel rivals. Honda’s tie-up with Rover seems to had rubbed off on the Japanese marque, and their generous use of wood trim, at this sub-premium price point, certainly makes the cabin look more inviting than the competition.

The AX-i trim was the only one available with leather upholstery. Unsurprisingly, whoever ordered this car three decades ago decided against it. Cowhide is really not popular in this country. The alternative seems to be a suede-like material – probably a better choice on a sweltering summer day. I don’t know whether the Burgundy carpet is an original feature. If it is, that’s a bold choice and a welcome touch of colour.

Some of the more Acura-minded of you may have perked up and recognized the Inspire herein as a kin. It might have seemed like some sort of alternate-reality JDM trickery, but your eyes are both right and wrong. Yes, there was an Acura Vigor sold from 1992 to 1994 that looked a lot like this, but it’s not exactly the same car.

When Honda elected to market the Vigor/Inspire as an Acura, they figured, quite sensibly, that North American customers would not be overly concerned by the strict Japanese size limits that had presided over the birth of the CP5. So a slightly wider, longer and bigger-engined variant of the car was devised, using the 2.5 litre 5-cyl. The wheelbase and most body panels remained identical, keeping development costs down to a minimum. The “wide” variant was codenamed CC3 or CC2, the latter being a JDM-only 2-litre version.

The Acura version was entirely based on the Vigor, both in name and in aesthetics, and only that car was offered on that market. On the JDM however, Honda marketed both the narrow and wide variants of both the Vigor and the Inspire, the latter losing its “Accord” moniker in wide form, for some reason. Pretty confusing, considering how similar these cars all were. Clearly, there were too many for Honda’s own good, especially given that the economy had gone tits up just as the expensive “wide” CC2/CC3 versions were launched.

Something had to give on the JDM, and that ended up being the Vigor. The Inspire, on the other hand, did quite well. In the initial months (i.e. the “narrow” CP5 version), it even outsold the Nissan Laurel and gave Toyota a run for their money.

Was it the Vigor’s disproportionately tiny grill or the fact that they had never really sold all that well to begin with? Whatever the case, Honda decided to nix the Vigor nameplate in Japan when the CP5 and CC2/CC3 siblings were given the chop in early 1995. The new name for this segment would become Honda Saber (and Inspire) in Japan and Acura TL in North America.

For its part, the Inspire ended up being the quiet success story of this challenging era for its maker, which was confronted by the loss of its founder and an unprecedented economic downturn on its home market.

Things turned sour eventually, though. The Inspire took over the Accord’s entire portfolio in Japan and continued to put on weight and grow in stature, but never managed to equal the first generation’s success. The nameplate was retired in 2012, only to be resurrected six years later on a Chinese-made hybrid sister car of the Accord.

Big Hondas are not very popular in Japan. The marque is very big in the kei segment and sporty compacts, but folks who think “big comfy sedan” tend to head over to Toyota or Nissan – that is unless they have the means to go for a Benz or a Jag. The original Inspire was apparently the one time Honda had some sort of competitive edge in that arena on the JDM. America and some Asian countries (notably China) do have a fondness for big Hondas, but not everyone is convinced, even thirty years after this CP5 made its attempt at the big time. Maybe they should have called it the Aspire.


Related posts:


Curbside Classic: 1992 – 1994 Acura Vigor – The Closest Thing To A Real Four Door Hardtop, by PN

Curbside Classic: 1994 Acura Vigor GS – North America’s Only Choice For A 5-Cylinder, 4-Door “Pillared Hardtop”, by Brendan Saur

CC Outtake: 1993 Acura Vigor GS – Living Up To Its Name, by Brendan Saur