Curbside Classic: 1994 Honda Civic (EF2) Shuttle 4WD – The MVP Of Proto-MPVs

Earlier this week, we had a look at two examples of a now relatively rare sub-niche, namely affordable stretched saloons. Those still exist – barely, in most markets, but they’re around. On the other hand, the tall wagon fad that hit us in the ‘80s is well and truly over – some might even say cross-over (har har) – and turned into the MPV craze. So here’s a trip down MPV-mory lane with a second-gen Honda Shuttle.

The minivan took a while to become truly mainstream, just as the station wagon before it. By the ‘50s, pretty much every carmaking country had their own domestically-designed vans and wagons – including Japan. But the melding of the two into the minivan, as launched by Chrysler and Renault in 1984, did not happen overnight, nor did it happen in a vacuum, as demonstrated by the advent of the tall wagons that eventually came to be known as MPVs.

The Nissan Prairie (top left), the Toyota Carib (top right), the Mitsubishi Chariot (bottom left) and the first-gen Honda Shuttle (bottom right), which all appeared between 1982 and late 1983, were a halfway house to true minivan-dom. It was perhaps easier to blend them into an existing part of the range: Toyota called it Sprinter Carib (or Tercel, in some markets), Honda went with Civic Shuttle; in the US, the Chariot was known as the Dodge/Plymouth Colt Vista and Nissan called theirs the Stanza Prairie. But really, these were all in a class of their own.

I’m only looking at the Japanese carmakers, but there were plenty of other proto-MPVs about in the ‘80s. It is often said that the first Multi-Purpose Vehicle was the Simca 1100-based Matra Rancho (1976-84) – not entirely coincidentally, designed by the same folks who went on to design the Renault Espace, which can be seen as the next logical step to a larger one-box design.

But the Rancho was a tad rough around the edges, with its plastic roof and late ‘60s hatchback bones. A far more cohesive proto-MPV might be the 1978 Lancia Megagamma by Italdesign – certainly, the folks at Nissan and Mitsubishi look like they took copious notes and sketches at the Lancia stand at the Turin Motor Show.

The Honda design was less derivative than the Prairie and the Chariot. Based on the Civic’s mechanicals but using its own platform, the Shuttle took the nose of the Civic but none of the rest. And just like the other Japanese tall wagons of the early ‘80s, it was a rather successful venture that seemed to fit the needs of both families and businesses, so the Shuttle was marketed as both a basic commercial van and a ludic child-ferrying wagon. The multi-purpose aspect was built in.

When time came for a new generation of Civic in 1987, the Shuttle got a pretty thorough makeover that eliminated the original vehicle’s slightly quirky rear window design in favour of something a bit tidier. The end result, along with the thick horizontal taillights and smoother front end, made for a pretty modern ensemble.

The added blandness is undeniable, but it was also a necessary ingredient to keep the Shuttle fresh for many years. Indeed, the Civic saloon would ultimately have to switch over about five years hence, but Honda were planning on keeping the Shuttle launched and unchanged for about a decade, again using its own platform. And so the second generation Shuttle lasted until 1996, by which time the Civic saloon had gone through two generations of its own.

There were far fewer engines to choose from on the Shuttle compared to their other Civic cousins. It was a choice of a 1.5 or a 1.6 4-cyl. providing 100 and 120hp respectively and mated to either a 5-speed manual or, as in our feature car’s case, a 4-speed auto, driving either just the front wheels or all four. The suspension is double wishbones and coils front and back.

After the second-gen Shuttle went on permanent hiatus in 1996, Honda replaced it with several models. In Japan, the official heir to the Shuttle’s launchpad was the Orthia, but other options could include the Stepwgn and the S-MX – not to mention the fact that the Odyssey, as it was known in Japan and North America since its 1994 debut, was named Shuttle for the European market and became two different cars on either side of the Pacific… And not to mention either the many flavors of true minivans that also started to populate the range.

It’s great to see that there are “Oldskool Hondaz” appreciation clubs around, too. One, because it’s always great to encounter meticulously preserved (if somewhat modded) classics of any stripe, but two because old Hondas are, as I’ve said before, surprisingly few and far between here, compared to the trainloads of Nissans and Toyotas that one typically finds here. All in all, a most valuable MPV.


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Curbside Classic: 1987 Honda Civic 4WD Wagon (Shuttle) – The Automotive Swiss Army Knife, by PN