(first posted 5/27/2015) Due to the marvels of technology, some modern cars can attain over 40 miles per gallon. Yet, in the 1980s and early 1990s, some cars achieved that distinction as well, without hybrid power or any other cutting-edge technology. This car, a 1990 Honda CRX HF, was one such example – a car made for the sole purpose of achieving high fuel mileage. However, it was made at a time when gas was cheap, when the economy was good, and when people were growing tired of the small cars they had been driving since the last energy crisis. It was the right car at the wrong time.
Despite poor market timing and unspectacular sales, Honda kept the HF in its lineup through most of the CRX’s production run. But the HF was hard to pin down: it wasn’t quite an econobox and wasn’t quite a sports car; instead it was a niche vehicle aimed at buyers who valued fuel efficiency above all else. 25 years later, it still stands out as an excellent example of efficiency personified.
Honda’s CRX 2-seater was introduced with the 3rd generation Civic in 1984. Part of a mini-surge in 2-seater cars that year – the Toyota MR2 and Pontiac Fiero were also introduced then – the CRX was unique among its competition in that it was a relatively practical car. The front-engine/front-wheel drive format left plenty of interior room, enhanced by a high hatchback design. The storage area behind the seats could contain over 20 cu. ft. of cargo (if filled to the roof), and the passenger compartment displayed a sense of roominess that belied the car’s small size. Even a tall, long-legged driver could comfortably drive a CRX, due to a generous amount of seat travel.
While in its inaugural year, Honda offered just one CRX variant to US consumers, 1985 brought two others: the high-performance Si model, as well as the fuel-sipping HF (standing for High Fuel efficiency). The HF was a purpose-driven car – for its seven years in production, it had one aim: to be Honda’s fuel mileage champ. It accomplished this goal by following one strategy: simplicity. There was nothing unnecessary on the CRX HF. Features that were standard on other CRX’s, such as a rear wiper, passenger-side mirror, or tilt steering wheel were not included in the HF package (the one exception is that the later-model HF wears the Si’s front spoiler – a nod to increased aerodynamics that compensated for the added weight.)
Weight and complexity cause inefficiency, and keeping weight down on the already diminutive CRX was a major goal in creating the HF. The lack of fluff added up to a very low curb weight: just 1,713 for the original model, and 1,967 lbs, for this slightly larger 1990 model. To put that in perspective, this 1990 HF weighs nearly 30% less than Honda’s current smallest car, the Fit.
Honda, of course, built its reputation in North America during the energy crises of the 1970s and 80s, when it offered small, efficient, well-built cars that capitalized on consumer frustration with inefficient and often unreliable products offered by many domestic manufacturers. This was embodied by Honda’s long-lived marketing slogan of “We Make It Simple.” The CRX HF can be viewed as the last manifestation of this “Make It Simple” philosophy, and perhaps one of the last direct links to the early Civics, and the way of thinking that went along with them.
Low curb weight helped the HF to achieve remarkable economy ratings, but the other ingredient to its efficiency was the car’s drivetrain. The HF’s engine was the same 1.5-liter 4-cylinder engine as in other Civics, but with an 8-valve cylinder head. Other drivetrain differences with standard CRXs/Civics included revised gear ratios for the 5-speed manual transmission, and a very low 2.95 final drive ratio. Despite these efficiency-minded enhancements, the HF still had excellent drivability helped by an engine that generated peak torque at a low 2,000 rpm.
So, what kind of fuel economy did the CRX HF attain? Using current EPA mileage standards, the 1990 HF is rated at 40 mpg city /47 mpg highway. Advertised mileage at the time was higher because the EPA changed its mileage calculations in 1988 to produce a more real-world estimate, and the result was that most cars’ mileage ratings dropped. Furthermore, the EPA gave a mileage bonus to cars with an Upshift indicator light, which the HF had – assuming that all drivers would shift exactly when the light told them to. At the time of its production, Honda estimated various mileage ratings for the HF (the 1989 models were rated at 50/56, while the nearly identical 1990s were rated at 49/52) – but regardless of which figures are used, the HF delivered astounding mileage for its day.
The CRX HF wasn’t alone in the 40+ MPG club. In 1990, the Suzuki Swift and Geo Metro were both rated at greater than 45 mpg highway – and other cars such as the Ford Festiva, Daihatsu Charade and Subaru Justy were close behind. However, the CRX differed from those cars because it was exceptionally well built, befitting Honda’s then-reputation for quality. It was also more expensive, with a base price of $9,145. That meant the HF cost 34% more than the Geo Metro XFi’s $5,995 price, and even a base Civic hatchback could be bought for considerably less. This put the CRX HF in a class by itself – people who bought one could have afforded other types of cars with more power and/or equipment. But with the HF, fuel economy was the featured attraction, not simply a byproduct of a small, cheaply-built car.
The problem for the HF was that, by the time it was introduced, the market for economical cars was shrinking. The HF’s first year of 1985 was at the tail end of the early-80s energy crisis, and nearly two decades followed of relatively low fuel costs. It was probably the worst time ever for a super-mileage car.
If the market for super-mileage cars was shrinking, why did Honda persist in offering the HF for 7 model years? For one, the HF helped with EPA CAFE rules. But also, energy crises tend to happen when automakers are least prepared for them. Honda executives may have thought that if another crisis hit, they would have the ideal car already in production. Another aspect of the HF’s longevity is that having a notable mileage champ in the lineup reflected positively on the entire Honda line, and imbued all Hondas with a marketable sense of efficiency and engineering prowess – similar to the effect that a flagship car might have on the rest of its line. But in the HF’s case, the ‘flagship’ was one of the cheaper cars in the showroom, not the costliest. Honda must have thought that having the HF in its lineup provided benefits beyond just the relatively small number of actual cars that were sold.
When the CRX shifted to the 4th generation Civic platform in 1988, the HF was kept in the lineup, once again alongside the standard and Si models. For 1988, the CRX was redesigned, got slightly larger (4” increase in wheelbase and length), and gained some power (up 5-hp to 63-hp from its now-fuel injected engine). The most distinguishing new design aspect was the smoked glass rear panel, which enabled drivers to have some visibility in what ordinarily would have been a blind spot due to the high Kammback tail.
As was typical for Hondas of this period, models had a four-year life span, and received minor (usually cosmetic) upgrades at the halfway point. For the fourth generation CRX/Civic, the minor upgrades occurred for 1990, with the changes including slightly revised bumper and light designs, a new instrument cluster, as well as door-mounted seatbelts. The seatbelts ostensibly satisfied US ‘passive restraint’ requirements (which required either an airbag or automatically-buckling seatbelts), and were billed as being automatic because they could be left buckled when the door was opened. To make the point, red labels near the buckles said “for emergency use only” – however virtually everyone used these as regular seatbelts and buckled/unbuckled at their pleasure.
This featured car is finished in Polar white with a blue interior (HFs only came in white or red in 1990), and has obviously been well-driven. The major deviation from stock appearance are the wheels, which have been painted black – other than that, the car appears to be in original condition, with only minor rust around the wheel wells. Per Honda tradition, CRXs had no factory-installed options, so all HFs are essentially identical. Even air conditioning was available only as a dealer-installed accessory throughout the CRX line.
Honda sold on average an estimated 13,000 HF’s per year, or about 25% of total CRX production, though that number trailed off to an estimated 5,000 or so by the last two years. Clearly, the HF was a niche car, and its following did not appear to grow over its production life. When the 5th generation Civic debuted in 1992, the CRX itself was dropped in favor of the less successful del Sol, which had no HF equivalent. Honda did keep the HF’s philosophy alive for a while longer, transferring the mileage champ title to the Civic VX hatchback. Later on, even the 6th generation Civic had a mileage champ, the HX coupe. But none of those could quite equal the CRX HF’s purity in its goal of mileage attainment.
The CRX HF was a unique car, but it’s impossible to think about the HF and not try to compare it to modern fuel-efficient cars. While we will not delve into a strict comparison in this article, any casual observer would notice that the modern crop of hybrids and others that pursue high mileage are bigger, costlier and use many more raw materials than did the CRX. Both government regulations (added safety requirements lead to greater weight) and market preferences (ever increasing luxury) are responsible for the growing girth of nearly all modern cars. Still, if judged by the now-prevalent metric of a “carbon footprint,” it is hard to imagine that any car would have a smaller per-mile footprint than this 25-year-old, well-used Honda.
In many ways, the trend towards bigger and more expensive products reflects as much on the state of the environmental movement as it does on the car market. In the 25 years since this CRX was built, environmentalism has moved from a “reduce, reuse, recycle” mantra to one that appears to more embrace conspicuous consumption. And this trend is reflected in the car market. Appearing to be Green is now prestigious. But when this CRX was made, environmental efficiency was a slightly out of the mainstream concept that had relatively few adherents. Although the CRX HF and its design philosophy quietly faded away as cars got bigger and more complex, this car is a testament that high efficiency is not hard to attain. All a carmaker needs to do is to Make It Simple.