There was a time, not long ago, when enthusiasts had strict definitions of what makes a sports car. Rear-wheel drive was required. Manual transmission, of course. Light weight. Removable top. Good handling. Heritage from a blue-blood manufacturer and car-building nation.
A few of these were negotiable – toplessness became unfashionable as automakers worried about increasingly-strict U.S.-market safety regulations – but front-wheel drive was seen as heretical among “pure” enthusiasts.
The CRX is a unique breed and there’s a lot to love.Photo by Chris Tonn
There were certainly a few others before – the original Mini and the first-gen Volkswagen Golf GTI come to mind – but when Honda applied their brand of engineering to the hot-selling Civic to create this 1985 Honda Civic CRX Si, it became a sensation among those willing to look at driving enjoyment just a bit differently.
Honda has been pulling pristine cars out of their museum lately, letting journalists get a taste of their early hits during a lull in product cycles. This 1985 CRX Si has under ten thousand miles on the odometer and looks nearly showroom fresh. Nearly, you’ll note – there are a couple of flaws, including slightly saggy vinyl on the door cards, a missing vent deflector on the upper dash, and a bit of bubbling on the plastic front fender.
Sadly, I added a flaw of my own during my day’s drive in the Detroit area – an eighteen-wheeler tossed half a tire at the wee Honda’s windscreen as I journeyed west on Interstate 96. Quick survival calculus weighed avoidance of the retread against the results of impacting either the center Jersey barrier to my left or the full-sized SUV to my right in a priceless 35-year-old subcompact without airbags. I’m pretty sure the scratch on the hood will buff out.
This engine yields just 91 horsepower.Photo by Chris Tonn
I’ve driven a fair number of classic cars over the years – both recently, and back in the day when they were just used cars. I’ve found few that can stand up to modern traffic demands as well as the CRX Si. Ninety-one horsepower sounds minimal; consider, however, the light curb weight of 1864 pounds. I had no problems getting up to extra-legal speeds on the interstate. The short (86.6 inches) wheelbase might lead you to think that high-speed stability will be compromised – no nervousness was noticeable while I diced for position at eighty-plus.
Note the red badge on the tail of the CRX – Si. No, this isn’t Honda trying to emulate Chevrolet by inadvertently adding a Spanish-language meaning to a model. Here, it stands for Sport Injected. Remember when fuel injection was so novel it warranted a special badge? Indeed, this was one of the first Honda subcompacts to use fuel injection rather than the funky three-barrel carburetor that had brought the brand into prominence in the emissions-choked Seventies. PGM-FI, Honda calls it – Programmed Fuel Injection, meaning a rudimentary computer meters the fuel into the 1488cc four. Power comes on beautifully from just off idle up to well over 6000 – no stumbling, no surges like one might expect from Eighties-era electronics.
The five-speed manual has a remarkably long lever that quite neatly rests within an inch or so of my right knee, perched as I am with legs splayed around the non-adjustable steering wheel so I can recline the seatback enough to fit my head against the headliner without denting the thin sheet metal. This is one disadvantage to the Si trim compared to lesser first-generation trims of the CRX – the standard sunroof pares headroom for this driver, six-four and long of torso, to barely manageable heights. I make it work – but when I started shopping Craigslist for a bargain CRX of my own, I found myself carefully considering the sunroof-free HF and DX trim models that had been modified for extra power.
Driving an old car will help you appreciate how advanced new cars are.Photo by Chris Tonn
That long handle on the shifter does not mean long, vague shift throws. Notching into the next cog is simple and direct. Clutch action is light and progressive. The brakes, lightly boosted but built well before anti-lock brakes were dreamed of for budget commuters, are firm and communicative, whoa-ing the featherweight Honda with ease. The CRX Si is genuinely easy to drive, and quickly.
The air conditioning is one letdown – it was cool, but not as cold as a modern, oversized system. Further, switching the compressor on while sitting still seemed to drop the engine idle speed down a bit – causing a bit of roughness while I sat at stoplights. I opened the manually-cranked windows and the standard electric sunroof with ease for the majority of my driving on a hot, humid August afternoon – scattered rain encouraged me to persevere with the air con at times.
I was initially disappointed with the factory radio reception as I headed west from the Motor City – I quickly lost connection with the local classic-rock station as I approached the northwestern suburb of Novi. I drove on in radio silence until I emerged near the town of Hell to realize that I hadn’t raised the manual radio antenna atop the driver’s A-pillar. The strains of Bon Jovi quickly filled the tiny cabin, augmented by the dealer-installed graphic equalizer. I still wish I’d thought to grab some cassettes out of the basement to slide into the dividers below.
The interior has held up rather well, with the exception of a few spots.Photo by Chris Tonn
In some ways, driving enthusiasts have it great these days. Many mainstream manufacturers offer a car straight from the showroom that can best limited-production supercars from the 80s or 90s down a drag strip or around a road course. Many of these cars, you’ll note, have but two pedals.
Honda has signaled that they’ll stop offering manual transmissions except in a few performance models. Enthusiasts – the same ones who once told us that a real sports car has two doors, was front-engined, rear-drive, and was made in Germany, U.S.A., or the U.K. – have displayed their lament, as one would expect.
Despite its small size, the interior of the 1985 Honda Civic CRX Si is spacious.Photo by Chris Tonn
While I love rowing my own gears – especially in a vintage hot hatch such as this 1985 Honda CRX Si – the picture of a sports car has changed over the years to become more inclusive. No longer must a manual transmission define performance. No longer must the ability to manipulate a manual transmission be a shibboleth for driving enthusiasm. Drive what you like. Me? Like I said, I’m looking for an old Honda of my own. But if what fits you, your roads, and your needs best has two pedals – don’t let some old fart give you the “save the manuals” line.